21st Century Skills

March 10, 2012

Workshop Review: Vicki Hollett

By Anne Hodgson, James Topping, Khushi Pasquale

Sponsored by Pearson (thank you!)



In the traditional classroom, the 3 R’s have now given way to the 4C’s – Communication, Collaboration, Critical thinking and Creativity. Vicki presented these as 21st century skills needed to handle the challenges of our complex and competitive world. She asked us: Do we actually need to teach the 4Cs to our students? This may be a rhetorical question, but it’s clearly worth discussing our role as facilitators of learning in a context that has changed dramatically since many of us began teaching. Our students need to learn how to communicate effectively in English. But do we English teachers really have the necessary skills to teach them how to collaborate and think critically? And how creative are we, or how good at facilitating creativity?

Vicky presented results research on speech acts, conversational analysis and intercultural studies demonstrating ways successful communicators develop rapport, mitigate conflict and avoid misunderstandings. She also featured the functional language our students need but in a context of giving them language to learn from rather than language to learn (Widdowson). Vicki cited research showing that colleagues looking for help prefer to approach someone they consider incompetent and nice rather than someone they perceive as competent and a jerk. It’s important for companies to encourage “nice” behavior in order to assure better competencies and cooperation. So, along with effective and appropriate communication, it’s also important that our students are likeable.

 Vicki talked about politeness and the different ways this is done in different cultures world-wide. She talked about the different constructions that native English speakers use to be polite in different contexts and how we deal with gifts, favours or praise, for example. She spoke about rituals we have, such as the Japanese cultural norm of gift exchanges (the giver expressing how humble the gift is, the receiver insisting that they couldn’t accept it, and so on and so forth before the gift is finally accepted). Another example was the giving and receiving of complements, how this is done in different contexts and the significance of this (Americans showing gratitude, the British playing down the praise). She also spoke about social norms, such as Boss’ day in the US and the wording of greeting cards.

She spoke about the importance of applying this in the classroom and making our students aware of the different ways to be likeable in different cultural contexts. She talked about including exercises on how to ‘do’ phatic (such as small-talk), training students on how to deal with praise (gratitude vs. playing it down), receive gifts, accepting/declining invitations (thank for invitation, apologise for not being able to accept, give reason, indicate willingness to accept future invitations etc).

Vicki also spoke about wh-imperatives (“would you mind…”, “could you…”) and how/when these are used by native speakers to avoid friction. Whimperatives are often used by native speakers when speaking to people who are neither ‘intimates’ nor ‘strangers’ but rather people who fall in between on the spectrum. This is significant for the language classroom because it means trainers must encourage students to be aware of how context plays a role as opposed to the usual formal vs. informal distinction (questions could be “what is the context?”, “is it a big or a small request?”).

Another significant part of Vicki’s talk was about agreeing, disagreeing, supporting ideas and criticising. In reality, native speakers do this by using phrases like “Yes, but…”, “Yes, and…”, and “Yeah… well….”, as well as by asking challenging questions or apologising before stating contrary views. The phrases that we typically teach (i.e. “I agree”) are actually marked and are usually used by native speakers to emphasise their agreement/disagreement. We practiced “yes, but..” and found that this had the effect of stopping ideas. Then practiced “yes, and …” filling the room with acknowledgements, creative ideas, and excitement.

Vicki also spoke about the importance of pragmatics in politeness and talked about how we often avoid challenging face/putting someone in a difficult situation by masking our intent through euphemisms and ambiguity (e.g. “Those biscuits look nice!” = “I want one of those biscuits”. “Yes, they’re lovely, I bought them for my grandchildren. They love them!” = “No, you can’t have one”. “Oh, I didn’t realise you had grandkids! How old are they?” = “Let’s pretend that never happened.”) We can apply this in the classroom by encouraging students to analyse these exchanges and become more competent in recognizing and using these face-saving techniques.

The presentation ended with team work organized around a product marketing task. Repeatedly we were asked to adjust to changing demands from management. This exercised not only our creativity but our creative flexibility. Could we embrace the task? Work under time pressure? Respond to contradictory instructions? And come up with a winning brand name?

Although examples were taken from Pearson’s “Lifestyle” series, this was by no means a book promotion. Rather, it was a chance for us to examine our own competency in the 4Cs and get ready to challenge our students with 21st Century realities.