Divination, or preparing our students for… who knows?

Paola Sagastuy

Paola Sagastuy studied Linguistics at the University of Barcelona and a Masters in Cognitive Science and Language. She has been a language teacher for almost 20 years and has worked in secondary schools in Mexico, Spain and the UK, as well as at the University of Girona in Spain. She currently works at an independent secondary school in the UK, where she heads the Faculty of Languages and is a member of the Digital Steering Committee.

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When I ask my Sixth Form students what they want to study at university or what they want to be later in life, I am often in for a surprise. Their answers often include degrees or professions that I had not heard of and could not have imagined even ten years ago. At this point I would like to make it clear that I am not old (obviously!), but that the world has been and is changing at a breakneck pace and it is hard to keep up with it.

This is why, now more than ever before, it is essential to look ahead and to teach and train young people to be independent, to learn how to learn, and to love this process and this journey because this is what will enable and empower them to face whatever life throws at them in the future. Educating the youth of today requires placing emphasis not only on learning and acquiring a solid core of knowledge, but also, and possibly more importantly, on developing skills that will allow them to thrive in the world. These so-called 21st century skills are Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical thinking: the Four Cs.
But how do we take these concepts and bring them to life in the classroom? There is no secret recipe, but using tech certainly facilitates our efforts. Here are some strategies and activities I have used and have been successful. Feel free to adopt, adapt, and add to them.

In my school, we have started using Microsoft Teams. This has enabled us to maintain a constant and open dialogue amongst staff, but also between teachers and students, and amongst students themselves. I encourage my classes to ask questions in the team space and to attempt to answer them. Often a single student cannot answer the question raised, but by putting in his or her two cents, this triggers someone else to add to the discussion, and very soon, everyone has benefited from everyone else’s input. This yields a far richer experience than if the first student had simply emailed me a question and I had provided guidance or an answer. Teams is not the only software out there that allows these types of group discussion. Showbie, Socrative, Class Dojo or Canvas all offer similar capabilities for collaboration.

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In addition to the collaborative benefits of some of the software options mentioned above, there are clear communication benefits, in the ease with which messages can be passed on and shared in real time. But I want to talk about a different aspect of communication.

I am a teacher of languages (mostly), so you can imagine how important communication has always been to me. I believe language learners should take risks and attempt to use the language they are learning, even if they make mistakes. But I don’t need to tell you how daunting that prospect can be, especially for a teenager in front of a whole class of teenagers. So here is where tech comes in. I have used voice recognition software to help students practise their pronunciation. They need to read out a short extract, focusing on pronouncing all words correctly in Spanish. If their pronunciation is clear, Siri, Cortana, or Google Assistant will transcribe accurately. But if they muddle the sounds, the output will be wrong. And I don’t need to tell them. They realize it themselves and work independently on improving their productions. So when they do speak out in class and try to communicate with me, other students, or even Spanish people, they are much more effective and feel more secure.

We all have our strengths, but creativity is not one of mine. Fortunately for my students, my limitations in this area do not need to be their limitations too. Using the students’ devices has allowed me to let my students unleash their creativity. I will often set up a task that has two possible formats: one, a given task that enables my students to use the language we have been studying (for example); and another in which the use of the language is necessary, but the actual outcome is completely up to the individuals or groups undertaking the task. For instance, with my Year 7 Spanish class we were studying physical descriptions. I asked them to find a photograph online of someone they admired and gave them a choice between writing a description of the person in the photograph or creating a “Wanted” poster. Those who chose the second option produced brilliant posters and really went to town on the descriptions, taking risks they may not have done if they had simply written a description. We voted on the best posters and put them on display in the classroom. So in addition to meeting our academic aims, I was able to update my display boards with little effort from myself. And the kids were very proud of their work. The next time I gave them a choice, even more students chose the creative task. Win-win!

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Critical thinking
In my classroom I have a big sign showing the five Bs: Brain, Board, Book, Buddy, Boss. The use of technology in the classroom has expanded the meaning of Board and Book, and therefore allowed me to push my students to higher order thinking from the very first lesson. I aim to give them the tools so that they can make their own connections and tackle increasingly challenging tasks. And if they ask or say that they don’t know how to do the task set, I always guide them back to the resources I have made available to them that provide enough scaffolding for them to stretch themselves and learn new concepts. For example, I will give my GCSE Spanish students an “open book” grammar test. “Open book” means that they can use their textbooks (online), plus Quizlet (online vocabulary learning tool), plus grammar reference pages… anything, except for automatic translators. But the tasks in the test are about putting concepts in practice, so even with all those tools, they have to think in order to figure out what rule to apply, how it should be used, and finally provide an answer. The first time we do it, everyone thinks it will be super easy… they soon learn that thinking is much more difficult than memorizing, but the benefits are spectacular. After one of these tests, if I give them an exam-style writing task, they always improve their scores.

Focusing on developing these skills is crucial. We don’t know what the future has in store for our students. But if they know how to think critically, collaborate with each other by using good communication strategies, and have some creativity to draw from, we will have equipped them with strong, useful tools to tackle the challenges they will face, even those we cannot yet foresee.

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