Learning in the 21st Century

Remember the final days of 1999? While half the world was getting ready to have the biggest party since … well … the final days of 1899, the other half was in a panic. The Millennium Bug was going to corrupt every computer network on the planet, and an apocalyptic chaos was about to take place. Fortunately, the bug never arrived and the apocalypse will have to wait for another day.

For education, however, the twenty-first century apocalypse has been claimed again and again. Professor Stephen Heppell says this era will see the death of education and the dawn of learning. Sugata Mitra concludes from his Hole in the Wall experiment (see here) that teachers aren’t necessary for learning. In language education, Korean robots (see here) are already used as teachers – a school director’s dream, as robots never complain about long hours, poor salaries and lousy coffee.

While none of the above developments have gone mainstream yet, surely it isn’t all hot air? What, then, has really changed so far in twenty-first century education and what does this mean for language classes? In truth, it’s less an apocalypse than a number of shifts. Let’s look at five general trends.

1 Data-driven teaching versus teacher intuition

Learning has always been difficult to measure. In fact, we can only measure performance. As a result, teachers have traditionally needed to guess how much and how deeply their students are learning, and to rely on test results. There are now tools on the market which provide data to analyze how and what people learn best (see here). These are allowing teachers to end the guesswork.

What does this mean for language classes?

A teacher can now see at a glance whether 10% or 80% of her students completed the homework on the Present Perfect tense and what the common mistakes were. This feeds back into ongoing lesson planning and allows more principled decisions about what to re-teach, what to review, and what to leave alone.

2 Customization versus one-size fits all

The big publishers are all doing it: providing major clients with their own customized versions of coursebooks, whether print or digital. Like good chefs, they chop up bits, add new ingredients, and divide the pie into different sizes according to the users’ needs. With the flexibility that online publishing allows, the next logical step is to adapt material for particular classes, and then for individual students. And it’s already happening.


What does this mean for language classes?

Learning – especially online learning – will be adapted to the individual’s needs more than ever before. If, say, Jun or Juanita is struggling with her business writing in English, the course will automatically direct her to a suite of extra practice activities. Homework will be negotiated as students choose modes of learning and reviewing that suit them.


3 Collaboration versus competition

The traditional end-of-year class involves students doing an exam, arms cradled around their paperwork, desks far enough apart to prevent copying. The new model involves sharing and collaborating. This is what students do on facebook and youtube and Instagram. And this is the way learning is going. MOOCS (massive open online courses) are all about building online student communities through the use of video, peer review, and collaborative group work.

What does this mean for language classes?

Students will collaborate on real world projects involving multiple media. They will focus on problem-solving, looking at issues such as the environment, sustainability, globalization, and human rights. Task-based and experiential learning will prosper, and language will emerge just as it did in the 1970’s when James Herbolich famously got his students to make box kites and write instructions in English. Teachers will increasingly use ‘gamesercises’ (Augusto Boal’s term), whether virtual or face-to-face, that require teamwork and group discussion.


4 Creativity versus rule-following

The focus has shifted from students as passive receptors of knowledge to actors, in both senses of the word, and creators. Skills that required long apprenticeships are now available to anyone with a phone and a few apps. Kids on the street are now photographers, film-makers, interviewers, editors, and designers. This is great news for educators as it means enhanced learning opportunities and an increase in student autonomy.

What does this mean for language classes?

The tasks teachers set will involve a different list of verbs: create, design, develop, tell, make instead of put, underline, match, tick, answer. While following the rules of the target language will be as vital as ever, the concept of efficacy, or effectiveness, in communication will be given more weight than before.

Planning new home

5 Cross-cultural skills versus target culture aspiration

For many EFL students, the target language is a doorway to a career rather than a country, and the target culture is that of a multinational company rather than a nation. These students know they will need to collaborate with colleagues of various nationalities through the medium of English. This task will involve understanding different accents, working with people of different levels of linguistic competence, and finding common ground when faced with cultural diversity.

What does this mean for language classes?

The idea that you learn American or British or Australian English will become largely irrelevant. Pronunciation teaching will have intelligibility as its goal rather than learning to speak with one particular accent. Functional areas familiar to Business English such as negotiating and dealing with misunderstandings will become more prominent in General English courses.


Technological change is fast. Educational change is slow. Educators are typically a couple of decades behind in adapting and modernizing their classroom practices to match changes in society. E-learning, however, links technology and education, and is constantly evolving. MOOCS, m-learning, the flipped classroom – new ideas are emerging all the time, and the drivers of educational technology tend to move rapidly. While teachers, administrators, and educational leaders are justified in pausing before they adopt every new development, they at least need to be aware of how innovation affects the ways students perceive and interact with the world. Even if there’s no apocalypse to deal with, the winds of change are constantly blowing, and educators need to sway with the breeze.

4 Comments on “Learning in the 21st Century”

  1. Reblogged this on So, You Think You Can Teach ESL? and commented:
    It’s important to remember how learning English has changed over the years.

  2. Toll gemachte Seite, das Layout gefaellt mir echt gut! War sicher ‘n haufen Aufwand.

  3. As it was already mentioned, online nursing degrees have definite forms of their existence, suggesting willing
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  4. J’аi guère fini dde lire toutefois je repasse ce

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