Food for Thought: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

“Think before you speak.

Read before you think.”

– Fran Lebowitz

And read, think and speak before you teach.

  1. Encouraging your students to read is hypocritical if you don’t make time for it yourself.
  2. Not having new ideas, experiences and perspectives is a sin if your job is to motivate and share knowledge with a group of fellow humans.

For both of these reasons, bringing what you read into the classroom is highly recommendable, in my opinion. I’ll leave a list of other books I’ve farmed for ELT-related quotes at this end of this article, but here is my teaching-related harvest from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari, which I’ve just finished reading:

Could human teachers be adequately substituted by computers?


Vaunted ‘human intuition’ is really ‘pattern recognition’. Good drivers, bankers and lawyers don’t have magical intuitions about traffic, investment or negotiation – rather, by recognising recurring patterns, they spot and try to avoid careless pedestrians, inept borrowers and dishonest crooks.


How can a computer understand the divinely created human spirit? Yet if these emotions and desires are in fact no more than biochemical algorithms, there is no reason why computers can’t decipher these algorithms – and do so far better than any Homo sapiens.


An integrated computer system can maximise the advantages of connectivity without losing the benefits of individuality.

This is a topic of great interest to me as I move into online teaching with Enraid alongside my ‘in the flesh’ work; I explored the issues in an IH Journal article at the end of 2017 (read ELT 2.0 here)


As of 2018 we are still Stone Age animals. In order to flourish we still need to ground ourselves in intimate communities.

Training learners’ psychological fortitude is vital for today’s world

The hectic world of the early twenty-first century has produced a global epidemic of stress. As the volatility of the job market and of individual careers increases, would people be able to cope? We would probably need far more effective stress-reduction techniques – ranging from drugs through neuro-feedback to meditation – to prevent the Sapiens mind from snapping.

Our education systems and classrooms remain the same as the Industrial Revolution model of the 1800s

The challenge posed to humankind in the twenty-first century by infotech and biotech is arguably much bigger than the challenge posed in the previous era by steam engines, railroads and electricity.


The Industrial Revolution has bequeathed us the production-line theory of education..So far we haven’t created a viable alternative. Certainly not a scale-able alternative that can be implemented in rural Mexico rather than just upmarket California suburbs.

Ken Robinson:

Set objectives, not expectations. Always be present.

Human happiness depends less on objective conditions and more on our own expectations. Expectations, however, tend to adapt to conditions, including the condition of other people. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in conditions might leave us as dissatisfied as before.

What are we really capable of? What about our learners?

We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximise the human potential. We have no idea what the full human potential is, because we know so little about the human mind.

Encourage curiosity and get students to question everything

Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers (Voltaire). This is particularly relevant in today’s information avalanche, which is why I think teaching Media Literacy is so important.

Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question…Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the First World War.

The teachers themselves usually lack the mental flexibility that the twenty-first century demands, for they themselves are the product of this old educational system.

Teaching is (should be) helping

A wise old man was asked what he learned about the meaning of life. ‘Well’, he answered, ‘I have learned that I am here on earth in order to help other people. What I still haven’t figured out is why other people are here.’

Classroom atmosphere is inside

Nothing is beautiful, sacred or sexy – but human feelings make it so. It is only human feelings that make a red apple seductive and a turd disgusting. Take away human feelings, and you are left with a bunch of molecules.

Explore L2 identity

We should encourage students to explore who they are in the language they are learning. What are their L2 identity characteristics: personal and linguistic? Who is their L2 model? Who do they want to be in the L2 (not just ‘what do they want to get?’) This concept was introduced to me by Gianni Licata, and has a seat at the head of the table in my classes this year.

In order to understand ourselves, a crucial step is to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a fictional story that the intricate mechanisms of our mind constantly manufacture, update and rewrite.

There is a storyteller in my mind that explains who I am, where I am coming from, where I am heading to, and what is happening right now.

Other books I’ve ELT-harvested, among lessons for other areas of life:

Blindness, by José Saramago (Part 1 and Part 2)

Ego is the Enemy, by Ryan Holiday

Pour Me: A Life, by A.A. Gill





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