That’s So Last Century

Ah, 21st Century Skills. One of those lovely instances in which teachers are required to prove how they are effectively preparing students for life after school, having had virtually no training in how to apply the new standards to their instructional area.

This is a visual representation of how many directions 21st century skills can take us–there’s no wrong answer!

Well, never fear, because these standards are not as scary or out-of-reach for the World Languages Classroom as one might think. In fact, keeping them in mind and staying alert for opportunities to discuss them actually increases the amount of intercultural competence practice our students get. (For more information on IC, check out this blog post.)

21st Century Skills aren’t out of left field; they are important skills that are easy to overlook in a traditional public school education. There’s nothing wrong with including them in a curriculum–in fact, I believe them to be helpful–but they can be daunting for a teacher who’s just trying to survive.

(If that’s you, I see you. It’s okay if you’re not ready to deal with this right now. You can read and let it marinate and come back to it when the world is a little less of a dumpster fire.)

Some 21st century skills are easier than others: critical thinking is a no-brainer. However, the financial and career readiness goals can feel completely non-applicable to our curricula. But there’s hope! We can make a ton of progress with these standards in language classrooms by considering them as opportunities for comparison. We probably don’t have plans to teach our students about Social Security or Roth IRAs in the target language. (If you do, kudos. Can you come and explain them to me a little bit?) That said, the nature of our curriculum is encouraging our learners to engage with the target culture and compare it with their own frame of reference–and in order to compare, they need to have an understanding of what they’re comparing with.

This is how a conversation about les gilets jaunes turned into a mini-lesson about gas prices and economics in my AP French class a few years ago. This is how the same article prompted an analysis of the viability of unions in another class. Any analysis of current events is bound to bring up economic considerations, and in order for students to understand the importance of the event, it’s helpful for them to be able to articulate whether it could happen in their culture. Enter the Career Awareness and Planning category of the 21st Century Skills Standards. I’m using language from the New Jersey 2020 Standards, because that’s where and when I teach. Without further ado, let’s play a game of “What the Heck Would This Look Like in a Language Classroom?” (It’s a working title. Go with it.) I have pulled examples from cool units I’ve seen and lessons that I’ve made up myself. If you feel it, steal it–and give yourself credit for meeting the standard!

9.1.2.CAP.2: Explain why employers are willing to pay individuals to work.

There is a phenomenal unit about ethical fashion and sweatshop working conditions that ties in beautifully with this standard–and takes it a step farther. Why do employers sometimes not pay individuals a working wage? Students can search the hashtag #whomademyclothes (in whatever language they study) on Twitter and Instagram and find images and information. They can read about ethical fashion and which companies pay their workers a living wage (and which do not). They can examine the factors that determine the cost of goods, and how they as consumers can vote with their dollars. This is an amazing unit and I can’t WAIT to teach it; I’ve been sitting on it for months!

9.2.5.CAP.5: Identify various employee benefits, including income, medical, vacation
time, and lifestyle benefits provided by different types of jobs and careers.

I do not know of one country in Western Europe that doesn’t look with disdain on American working habits. There is a Japanese word that means to work oneself to death. What better way to have students examine employee benefits than to compare them to expected benefits in the target culture? France passed a law that employers may not require employees to respond to emails outside of work hours. Not all attitudes toward jobs are the same; in fact, they couldn’t be more different. Explore it and allow students to learn about their own culture as they need to in order to make educated comparisons!

9.2.8.CAP.4: Explain how an individual’s online behavior (e.g., social networking, photo exchanges, video postings) may impact opportunities for employment or advancement.

This has a “free speech” unit written all over it. What is freedom of speech? What is not freedom of speech (e.g., the ability to say whatever we want with no social consequences)? What challenges do Americans face in terms of social media use? Do employers have the right to refuse employment because of social media posts? What kind of posts should terminate employment? What recommendations are given to prospective employees in the target culture regarding social media use? How does this compare to countries that my limit or restrict use or access? In some classes, a spirited debate may arise: Which approach is better? Should the government regulate social media? How? This could be really cool.

9.2.8.CAP.19: Relate academic achievement, as represented by high school diplomas, college degrees, and industry credentials, to employability and to potential level

One of my favorite stories to tell in my education and career unit is one that was recounted to me by a French tour guide. Students at the Ecole National d’Administration (the French Harvard, if you will–all of the French presidents have gone there) choose their positions based on their class ranking. The first student takes the top offered position, regardless of whether it’s what they *want* to do or not. If they deviate from the expected choice, other students will boo and throw things at them. There is no “follow your passion”, no accounting for interest; you choose the most prestigious job available to you. My students have a field day with that, as you can probably imagine. How does the rest of the world reconcile the Steve Jobs entrepreneur-college-dropout path to which so many Americans seem to aspire? What do they think of “follow your passion” as career advice? (Spoiler alert: they think it’s insane.)

There are so many cool things to discuss that can relate to these standars. Consider your curriculum as it is now; how are you already giving your students a chance to discuss the standards? Give yourself credit where it’s due!

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this; comment below or interact with me on social media!


  1. […] Last time, we talked about ways that these seemingly out-of-reach skills can actually show up in our classes more often than we think, and we examined some standards in the “Career Awareness and Planning” umbrella that are actually quite applicable to comparisons we might make between students’ cultures and target cultures around the world. Today, we’re tackling the “Civic Financial Responsibility” umbrella. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s