5 future skills our students will need

5 future skills our students will need

Dr. Ken Beatty is a teacher trainer and TESOL professor – and the author of more than 70 books for Pearson. He is also a consultant on StartUp, an eight-level adult English series

In this article he explains how important it is for us to consider the skills our students will need for the future – and covers visual literacy, collaborative learning, critical and creative thinking, the digital environment, and learner autonomy.


Elevator to the Future: English Skills

“Would it be safer to take the stairs?” 

The question came to mind in Montreal last week when I visited a 1929 apartment building and came face-to-face with its equally ancient caged elevator. An elderly woman shooed me inside the polished brass and oak confection and, as we ascended, confided that when she first moved into the building, there was still an elevator operator. 

Ah, an elevator operator – it’s a career and skill set we’ve almost forgotten. But just as hard as it is for us to imagine doing a job that only involves opening and closing doors and pressing buttons, an elevator operator from 50 years ago would find it impossible to imagine much of today’s work. And, in turn, we may not be able to imagine the jobs our students will have in the coming years. Fortunately, it’s less difficult to imagine the education that will take our students there. 

To educate today’s students, we should heed the advice of Ali ibn Abi Talib (599-661 CE): “Do not raise your children the way your parents raised you; they were born for a different time.”

Today’s students are different in five key ways: visual learning, collaboration, critical and creative thinking, digital involvement, and control of their learning. 

1. Developing visual literacy

Today’s learners grew up with the rich multimedia of computers and are used to exploring ideas on their own. They’re less dependent on teachers for the information they want, and often find it in surprising ways. For example, avoiding dictionary definitions and instead doing image searches to understand new words. 

What you can do

Develop students’ visual literacy. Do they know the differences between bar charts, pie charts, and Gantt charts? Can they interpret the data in line graphs and Venn diagrams? Can they apply what they know to present and explain ideas in dynamic ways? Expose students to a range of visual formats, from illustrations to diagrams, and give them tasks where they have to use them. 

2. Encouraging collaboration

Schools were traditionally organized around competition, aimed at separating the most-able students from the least-able. But teachers today can’t ignore those who seem less-able; we need to be more like doctors, devoting the greater part of our time and resources to those who need it most. Our aim should be to bring everyone up to the same level. 

What you can do 

Collaboration involves offering more tasks where students can help each other, particularly getting more-able and less-able students working together to benefit from peer teaching. More-able students may resist, but remind them that one who teaches learns twice.  

3. Facilitating critical and creative thinking

Critical thinking has become far more important than schools’ traditional focus on memorization. Employers expect that students will become problem solvers. Gone is the factory model of employees doing repetitive jobs; those are now more efficiently and effectively done by machines. 

What you can do 

Traditionally, teachers have asked questions for which they know the answer and for which there is only one answer. Try to ask more open-ended questions for which there may be multiple answers. Ask questions to which you don’t know the answer. Encourage creativity. Ask students to brainstorm, and then use analytical skills to determine the best answers. 

4. Leveraging the digital environment

Today’s students are digital natives. They first learned to type on digital keyboards and, since then, have embraced phones as a key resource. English writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said that there were two kinds of knowledge: knowing a thing or knowing where to find it. For today’s students, finding information has never been easier.

What you can do 

Many teachers dread phones in the classroom, but they are powerful computers that let students connect to online learning resources and learn what they want, when they want, and where they want. Steer students toward using their phones to improve their English but also teach them to be reflective about the sources of the information they choose to use.

5. Offering autonomy

Today’s students are too often referred to as clients, suggesting that the teacher-student relationship is no more than a business arrangement. It’s wrong to think so but, at the same time, we recognize that today’s students are savvy about assessing what they need to learn and how they would prefer to learn it. They have grown up with ideas about multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993). 

What you can do 

Open a dialog with your students to see if they have learning preferences and whether these preferences can be accommodated in the classroom. Give more individual projects letting students choose topics based on their needs and interests.

Even among elevator operators, there were those who were better or worse at their jobs. Perhaps the greatest skill for students today is a sense that they need to take responsibility and examine the needs of any task or career that interests them, and figure out how to learn the skills that will get them there. 


Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books. 

Teaching future skills with StartUp

StartUp is an innovative eight-level, multi-skills general English ​course built ​around the Global Scale of English (GSE). It is a complete language program that motivates 21st century learners with relevant and media-rich content, and provides teachers with robust support to make teaching personalizable and easy.

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