Creative And Critical Thinking In Language Classrooms Without Borders

In the first in a series of blog posts about 21st Century skills, (to accompany our teacher training videos on the same subject), author and English language teacher Charles Vilina provides some great tips on why 21st Century skills are important, and how to incorporate them into your classroom teaching.

When I was a small boy in the 1960s, drawings of the 21st Century always showed the same visions. People of the future would wear shiny space clothing, travel on moving sidewalks and in flying cars, and talk on portable phones.

Isn’t it interesting that many of these visions have come true? We now have personal computers and smartphones that let us share information instantly around the world. Modern air travel can take us anywhere on the planet. And while I don’t wear space clothes, I do use those moving sidewalks in airports! I think we can all agree that the 21st Century is a very exciting time in human history.

So when I talk to teachers about new developments in English education, and go on to mention the term 21st Century skills, why do so many begin to look uncomfortable?

Let’s start by looking at these skills a bit more carefully. 21st Century skills can actually be listed as a group of words that begin with the letter “C”.

Communication          Creativity          Critical Thinking          Collaboration

To state it simply, these are the four skills that your students will need to be successful in the 21st Century.

21st Century skills are being taught in primary classrooms in many countries. Many international schools are also committed to teaching these skills. However, I would argue that your English language classroom is actually the PERFECT place to build these 21st Century skills. Here’s why:

In essence, the English language classroom exists to prepare students to communicate across cultures, across borders, across perspectives. As the world evolves toward greater interconnectedness, it is our students to whom we entrust the responsibility of building a better global society. Yes, basic language skills are essential. However, equally essential is an individual’s ability to think outside the box, find future solutions to future problems, collaborate and reach a consensus across cultural and national borders.

So let’s get to some specifics. How easy is it to teach 21st Century Skills in your classroom? Well, chances are good that you’ve already started. The English language classroom has been evolving for decades, and continues to do so.

As a general guide, however, here are five “essential strategies” I would recommend that you develop in your classroom to encourage 21st Century thinking and learning. They may involve a change in perspective about how your students learn best, so feel free to take small but steady steps toward these goals. Practical information on how to implement these strategies will follow in future blogs.

1. Let Your Students Lead The Learning

Learning takes place best in environments where students feel empowered to learn. Effective teachers are more like moderators, offering inspiration and guiding students to discover for themselves. Give students the opportunity to be self-learners, which guarantees lifelong learning. This brings us directly to the second point.

2. Create an Inquiry-Based Classroom Environment

If students are to lead the way to learning, they need to be able to ask questions – and then find the means to answer them. Students (and teachers) need to “wonder out loud” as they encounter new information. A KWL chart (What do you Know? What do you Want to know? What have you Learned?) can guide students toward true self-motivated learning.

3. Encourage Collaboration

We are greater than the sum of our parts.”  Herein is the heart of collaboration. A healthy, active classroom is a sharing classroom. Students are social beings, and even more so in a language class. Find every opportunity to allow students to form pairs and small groups. Not only does this encourage the development of speaking and listening skills, but it also teaches students how to effectively achieve goals together.

4. Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Learning is more than memorizing and remembering. Critical thinking skills take students well beyond simple comprehension of information. Students use these skills to solve problems in new situations, make inferences and generalizations, combine information in new patterns, and make judgments based on evidence and criteria. Introduce activities in your lessons that build critical thinking skills along with language skills.

5. Encourage Creativity

Encourage your students to be creative throughout each lesson. Creative activities allow students to express what they’ve learned in a new way. This synthesizing and personalizing of knowledge consolidates learning, and creates an experience that remains with students long after the class is over.

By keeping these strategies in mind as you plan each lesson, you will be encouraging the development of 21st Century skills. Of course, your students may also need time to adjust to this new way of learning. However, they will soon begin to feel empowered to think more critically, to ask questions and seek answers, and to express themselves creatively. Most importantly, their communication skills will become much stronger as a result, which always remains our main objective!

Keep an eye out for more in-depth blogs in the 21st Century skills series. In the meantime, I wish all of you the greatest of adventures in this wonderful vocation that is English education!

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Categories: Professional Development, Skills, Young Learners | Tags: 21st Century skills, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, Critical thinking, Education, Inquiry-based learning, KWL chart, Oxford Discover, Questions, Read and Discover, Read and Imagine, Show and Tell, What are 21st Century skills | Permalink.

Improv enthusiasts rave about its educational value. Not only does it hone communication and public speaking skills, it also stimulates fast thinking and engagement with ideas. On a deeper level, improv chips away at mental barriers that block creative thinking — that internal editor who crosses out every word before it appears on a page — and rewards spontaneous, intuitive responses, Criess says. Because improv depends on the group providing categorical support for every answer, participants also grow in confidence and feel more connected to others.

“It’s one of the few opportunities they have to truly create something, and have a voice that isn’t prescribed for them,” Criess says about students engaged in an improv exercise. And the form’s imperative to be fully “in the zone,” as Kulhan puts it, is a rebellion against the interruptions and distractions of our modern, high-tech lives.

Improv is especially beneficial for atypical kids, no matter their stripe. It helps children with learning and physical disabilities develop a sense of play, and enables the socially awkward intellectual to socialize more easily, Kulhan explains. Run-of-the-mill introverts, who might be reluctant to raise their hands or audition for the play, also gain from the experience, Criess says. When they know they’ll be supported no matter their answer, introspective kids thrive. “Introverts give improv its richness,” she says, adding that many improv instructors identify themselves as introverts.

And improv is liberating for those in fields like science, where emotional detachment is critical for success. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University offers a graduate course on improv to help emerging scientists convey their ideas without resorting to textbook speak or one-sided lectures. “Improv helps the scientist re-engage with their own passions in their work, get out of their head and connected to the needs of the listener, be able to respond more freely, spontaneously and flexibly,” says Valeri Lantz-Gefroh, the improvisation coordinator at Stony Brook.

A Student’s Perspective

Lilly Hartman, now a junior at Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts, took her first improv class in eighth grade, and remembers thinking it seemed cool but kind of nerve-wracking. Her first few times on stage she felt anxious about what her peers would think of her, worrying that she might do something foolish or embarrassing. But the more times Hartman did it, the less self-conscious she became, and the quicker she began to trust her own ideas and to think on her feet. “It’s about deciding to go with the flow and acting on what’s around you, and making decisions based on that,” she says. “And then feeling good about those decisions,” she adds.

Unlike the classroom, where the learning environment is often tense and competitive, an improv setting builds enthusiasm among the participants, Hartman explained. “When you’re performing, it’s not competitive,” she says, and the trust that the performers build with one another is rewarding in itself. Acknowledging that math and English classes teach important skills, Hartman says that her improv work has been more personally transformative. “Improv helps you change on the inside,” she says. Without it, “I would be a more scared and quiet person,” she says. In fact, she adds, “I wouldn’t be the same person.”

Improvisation Exercises

Improv works cumulatively, so that a group ordinarily starts with a simple task and moves on to more challenging assignments once they’ve loosened up and begun to trust one another. Kulhan offers these two simple introductory examples:

One-Word Story: In this exercise, a group of individuals tells a cohesive story one word at a time. It starts when one person says a single word, and unfolds when someone else in the group offers up another word. Groups can do this in circles, so the participants know when it’s their turn to talk, or at the will of the teacher, adding a randomness to the exercise. The improvising continues until the group has created a story. “It takes a lot of focus, concentration, adaptability, flexibility, attentive listening, etc., just to create a single sentence … let alone a whole story,” Kulhan says.

Conducted Story: This is more advanced than the one-word story. Here, participants form a line with the teacher up front, who behaves like the conductor of a line orchestra. When the conductor points to a student, that person talks for as long as the conductor remains pointing — perhaps just a couple of words, or maybe a few sentences. But as soon as the conductor turns to another student, the first talker must stop immediately and allow the second speaker to take over the narrative. The conductor moves haphazardly, forward and back through the line, lending even more unexpected twists to the story.

Variations of improv are also useful in helping revitalize a sleepy or distracted class or to introduce more proactive kinds of learning:

Shakeout Exercise: Together, the teacher and class stand at their desks and count backward from eight to one — then seven to one, and six to one, etc. — saying the number out loud as if it’s the most important word they’ve ever heard. While counting, they also shake their right hands in keeping with the number. Then they do the same series of countdowns while moving their left hand, then their right leg, and finally their left leg. “It’s superpowerful,” says Criess, “and doing it together can teach kids and adults it’s OK to look foolish in front of each other.”

Living Wax Museum/Historical Talk Show: Students pick an important historical figure to research, and later “become” that person, improvising answers to questions posed by fellow classmates, visiting parents or the talk-show “host”.

An Aid for Teachers and Schools

Inviting kids of all types to engage together in improv exercises reinforces the values that most schools seek, Criess says. With its emphasis on support and acceptance of all ideas, improv’s “yes, and” code penetrates social tribes and teaches kids to see the positive in their peers, creating a healthier climate at school. “It helps kids be positive community members,” she says.

Training in improv may help teachers be more effective as well. Criess began learning improv while working in a preschool for children on the autism spectrum, and found herself applying the lessons from theater to the class. “What I was doing there with adults is exactly what these kids needed,” she says. Improv class helped her work with the kids on their level rather than according to a preconceived idea about what they needed to know.

It also reminds teachers that listening and responding to students, and adapting to their needs, is more educational than obeying a rigid teaching plan, Kulhan explains. “It's communication based on observation, collaboration, and not teaching with blinders on,” he says. Teachers might also find that kids are energized and more attentive after engaging in simple improv exercises that induce everyone to look ridiculous together.

But does “yes, and” diminish one’s ability to think critically? Are there limits to all the right answers? “Improv says yes to the idea of ideas,” Criess says. Not every original thought will turn into the next invention, but offshoots of that first idea may lead to better ones, she explains. “Let’s agree to have ideas,” she says. “And set up a culture where risks are encouraged, and greeted positively and with respect.”

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