Is this just another bandwagon?
We have been developing life skills in language classes for years. It’s not something new and certainly it’s worth thinking about and integrating more methodically into our teaching and helping our students understand and consciously develop.
Employers have been telling us for years that candidates for jobs with great exam results but limited ‘soft’ skills are not prepared for the world of work as it is today. They need staff with a set of problem-solving skills, communication skills and the ability to work well in teams. I am aware of many schools in the UK which now focus on such skills, particularly in disadvantaged areas, as honing these skills gives students a leg-up into top Universities and good jobs.
There are many descriptions of life skills / competencies. Cambridge University Press has compressed them into six main areas – Creative Thinking, Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Learning to Learn and Social Responsibilities.
Cambridge Life Competencies Booklets available to download – Cambridge.org/clcf - to find out more information from Cambridge University Press on how these are categorised and excellent classroom ideas.
Albert Einstein said ‘Creativity is intelligence having fun’. Allowing students to be more creative in lessons certainly can be motivating and enjoyable. For too long education has been obsessed with ‘the right answer’, rather than celebrating multiple possible answers.
For example, rather than asking a YL class what food goes on a pizza, expecting to hear the usual ‘cheese and tomato’ answer, I ask students “What’s your favourite pizza?’ and enjoy the variety of answers. Once children realise that I praise and celebrate all contributions, they start getting creative. I have had ‘spider and fly’ pizza and alien pizzas with pencils, rulers and paper as key ingredients. ‘Ha ha, that’s silly’ you may say. Not silly at all, the freedom to be creative allows students to use more of the language they know. Think about what is off-beat and weird allows them to play with language and use more of it.
Consider exams, in particular the speaking and writing papers. The more creative the answers, the better the likely results. I always encourage students to say something interesting, which doesn’t have to be true. It is hard for many students, who have been conditioned to give a ‘correct’ answer. For example, if the examiner asks, ‘what job would you like to have in the future?’, why not say astronaut or lion-tamer and play with these ideas?
Despite educators waving around Bloom’s Taxonomy of thinking skills (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, + creativity) for many years, so much learning is still stuck at the first 2 levels of knowledge and comprehension e.g. learning grammar rules and then displaying that knowledge through doing countless exercises.
If we consider something as basic as doing a reading comprehension, we can see that multiple thinking skills are required to do it well. Students need to:
• Activate schemata – students make connections with what they already know about the topic in terms of facts, ideas as well as vocabulary and grammar.
• Identify purpose of a text, understand which are the main ideas
• Evaluate and compare different ideas
• Make predictions and check these while reading
• Guess meaning of new words
• Check comprehension etc.
We have been helping them develop these skills forever, but it would be better if we could isolate them for students and allow them to understand how these work in not just their English language learning but across disciplines.
There’s a lot more to communication that just asking and answering questions. We are much more focused on oracy today, which includes five aspects of communication.
Physical – body language, facial expressions, pace, voice projection
Linguistic – register, choice of words, rhetorical devices, humour
Cognitive – content, structure, reasoning, clarifying
Social – turn-taking, listening & responding
Emotional – confidence, liveliness, audience awareness
So, it’s a good idea to include activities like drama, role plays, debates and presentations in our lessons, to allow students to practise them all.
For example, there is always a unit on houses/furniture in our course books. I ask my students (any age/level) to work in pairs. One is an estate agent, the other a famous person (they choose). The estate agent must show their client around a property, highlighting all its special features to try to sell it to the celebrity. They get up off their seats and start the tour. This is not just a fantastic way to review and consolidate the language in the unit, they use the language meaningfully and can practise all five aspects of oracy.
See voice21.org for more on the oracy framework
This a key life skill that was traditionally frowned upon in education. Working together was seen as ‘cheating’, rather than a great opportunity for students to support each other, verbalise their thinking processes and have opportunities to use English. (See Vygotsky on the Zone of Proximal development and the importance of other people in one’s learning).
But it’s not just a matter of telling students to work in pairs or groups, we need to help them develop the various skills that are included under the umbrella term: collaboration. Have you tried doing projects work with your students? Are there upsets, disagreements and confusion about who does what?
What students need a focus on the following sub-skills
• Take responsibility for role in task
• Listen and respond constructively
• Share tasks fairly in group
• Appreciate others’ contributions
• Work towards a resolution together
These need to be introduced, discussed and agreed on.
Learning to Learn
We have so much to learn from neuroscience to best understand the workings of the learning brain and I recommend checking out Stanislas Dehaene on YouTube. He says:
‘We learn intuitively, without paying attention to how we learn. No one has ever explained to us the rules by which our brain memorises and understands… It is truly a pity, because the scientific knowledge is extensive.’
Stanislas Dehaene, How we Learn, Penguin, 2020
We cannot just assume that students will automatically develop effective learning to learn strategies. We have to present them, allow students to try them out, relect on them and discuss them with us.
For example, we need to raise awareness of and develop practices of
• Metacognition – so learners can become aware of how they learn and develop the learning strategies that suit them best e.g. self-reflection through asking questions such as: what did I learn / how did I learn that?
• Using autonomous support tools e.g. online dictionaries, online platforms, apps etc.
• Record keeping / note taking / visual organisers
Now, this one may surprise you, but it does link with collaboration and developing a sense of identity as an individual and a citizen of the planet, as well as already having direct links with what we do every day in our classrooms. It covers:
• Taking responsibility for own learning
• Role in group / class
• Exploring our own culture as well as others
• Global issues – becoming a global citizen (e.g. a focus on the environment)
All of these are important, but like the other life competencies we need to scaffold its development through
• Awareness raising & understanding
• Making links between the life competencies, the English language classroom and life in general
• Setting personal goals
An example task
Imagine (it won’t be hard) you are doing a unit in your course book on food.
• Ask students to work in pairs and choose a country or city they would like to visit
• Research about food in that place
• Decide what food they would like to try
• Either: Design a poster to persuade their classmates to visit this place and try this food
Or create a short TV commercial marketing a culinary trip to this place
Can you see which life skills will be practiced here?
All of them!
And what language skills? What vocabulary?
Are there tasks like this in your course books? Do you support your learners to do them successfully?
As I have said, developing life skills is not something revolutionary or new, but we have, as teachers, to unpick all the skills that are involved in these competencies and support our students to develop them.