Mediation: classroom activities for the skills needed for the 21st century workplace

Numer JOwS: 
str. 15
Ilustracja: Dorota Zajączkowska

As an important element of our role as educators is to equip our students for their future careers, we surely need to think of how we are going to teach them particular skills. This goal can be achieved by recourse to the recently extended CEFR descriptor scales for mediation, as they go beyond the traditional four skills by focusing on developing: the facilitating of communication with a range of audiences, the collaborative building of meaning, and critical thinking. This article focuses on mediation and some of the dimensions that it can take and gives practical examples of teaching activities that can be used to employ mediation in the classroom.

Since the beginning of the 20th century automation has had a considerable impact on the jobs that people do, and the skills that they need to learn. A 2018 report from the Mckinsey Global Institute predicted that by 2030 the number of work hours spent on physical and manual labour will fall by 14%, and work entailing basic cognitive tasks will fall by 15%. In contrast, the work hours spent on labour requiring higher cognitive skills, social and emotional skills, and advanced IT skills are set to rise by 8%, 24% and 55% respectively. The authors of the report argue that apart from programming, the worker of the 21st century needs to excel at a range of soft skills, as higher cognitive skills jobs require critical thinking and decision making, the processing of complex information and creativity, while social and emotional skills jobs need advanced negation and communication skills, interpersonal skills and empathy, initiative taking, adaptability and lifelong learning.

Mediation – the new meaning

Often when people first hear the term ‘mediation’ they think of the more common use of the word, which refers to resolving conflict between people or groups. While the authors of the CEFR descriptor scales acknowledge that mediation has a range of meanings, including the need to diffuse tensions, the main thrust of the CEFR’s notion of mediation is one that sees the learner as someone who acts as an intermediary, who facilities communication when there is some kind of barrier. Most importantly, the learner is not seen as simply a conduit for information, but as agentive: one who actively chooses.

Examples of the communication that can be facilitated include the explaining of everyday information (i.e. announcement at a train station) to someone who does not speak that language; or helping two individuals who may or may not speak the same language to be able to communicate with each other; or it can be the paraphrasing of a complex or technical text or conversation in a more simpler way to facilitate understanding. Thus, the texts can be either spoken or written, and the authors envisage a wide range of barriers beyond simple language.

Types of mediation

So now let’s have a deeper look at the types of mediation that were employed to design the CEFR descriptor scales. We will first look at an example to illustrate these from the perspective of language teaching, although the mediation descriptor scales are just as readily applicable to any learning situation. Imagine the situation: you and a friend are on holiday in a foreign country, let’s say Korea, and while you speak the language, your friend does not. You go into a restaurant for lunch, but the menu is only in Korean. A language teacher could look at this scenario, and they might say the solution comprises of three elements: lexis – words describing food i.e. rice, chicken etc., and restaurant words i.e. table, chopsticks etc.; grammar – present simple, present continuous, modals; and functional language – language for making offers, suggestions, polite refusal etc. Now while all these are important, we are still missing some vital components, and this is what the mediation descriptor scales bring.

Fundamentally, the different is the choices that you make about what you say, and the strategies you employ to achieve these goals. To illustrate this, let’s go back to our scenario. Firstly, you have to be able to translate the menu, or what the waiter is saying, from one language into another, and for the previous set of mediation descriptor scales this was the primarily function of mediation. In contrast, the updated descriptor scales can be used both interlinguistically and intralinguistically. After an initial glance at the menu you might first summarize the menu’s main categories. Also, to best help your friend you need to be able to relay the information accurately if they are going to get dish they really want. You probably wouldn’t just start at the beginning of the menu and work your way through systematically till the end; instead, you would prioritize and select particular dishes to enumerate. Also, only translating words might not be enough, you might have to paraphrase; use exemplars; or relate a dish on the menu to one your friend is more familiar with. The choices you make of course depend on your friend’s questions and responses, and those in turn of the waiter, as you play the role of an intermediary, and so clearly mediation has a cultural and social, as well as a linguistic function by helping others, in this case the waiter and a friend, to develop a deeper understanding.

To do this to the fullest extent means developing the ability to step back from our everyday assumptions, and be able to critically examine them and the concepts and belief systems that underlie them. Thus, we can develop a deeper, more nuanced appreciation of not only our own culture, but that of other cultures. They become not simply others who do other different or strange things. So if we return to our example of the restaurant in Korea, we find ourselves surrounded by many things that are different from a restaurant back in Poland. By going beyond our assumptions about what should be ‘food’, ‘dinner’ or ‘flavour’, we can help our friend appreciate and understand another culture in a fundamentally deeper way. Also, providing that the restaurant is not too busy, we help the waiter develop an appreciation of Polish cuisine, and the delights of zurek, pierogi and bigos!

In addition to the linguistic, social and cultural dimensions of mediation we have introduced in the above example, we now want to add pedagogical mediation. By this we mean the day to day activity of a classroom teacher i.e. cognitive mediation: the scaffolding of knowledge from basic concepts or concrete examples to more sophisticated and abstract concepts; developing critical thinking skills; classroom organisation (whole class, group and pair activities) in order to facilitate the collaborative co-construction of meaning between the learners; and relational mediation: classroom management techniques; conflict resolution; the developing of rapport; and keeping students on task.

CEFR descriptors – what do they mean?

In the new CEFR companion volume the scale for mediation is divided into two categories: mediation activities and mediation strategies. In turn the mediation descriptor scales are subclassified into mediating a text, mediating a concept and mediating communication. The mediation strategies descriptor scales are subclassified into strategies to explain a new concept and strategies to simplify a text. In total, there are 21 scales of mediation. However the researchers, who designed the mediation descriptor scales, Brian North and Enrica Piccardo, strongly emphasized that, “the fact that we bring one aspect into focus in order to describe does not imply that we believe it enjoys a separate existence in an atomistic model.” In other words, one language event can simultaneously have a number of functions, and while the different scales let us dissect it, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture1. It also should be noted that the descriptors are written as can-do statements, that we may use to assess someone’s proficiency at a particular skill. But while they can be used off the shelf, practitioners are encouraged by the authors of descriptor scales to rewrite the descriptors to match the specific purposes of the course, which they are designing. Indeed calibrating the descriptors to the specific needs can realise the full potential of the CEFR descriptor scales by helping a practitioner to design a course’s learning aims, learning materials, and its assessment tasks. For example, we designed a course for our university to train student lawyers to better participate in a client consultation competition, and it really helped us to identify the discreet skills that were needed to build an effective course2.

Mediation in practice

In the next part of the article we will outline some suggested teaching activities that employ mediation. In light of what we said earlier, although we have linked the learning activities to particular scales, this is not intended to be a complete list of the scales that could be used to analyze the resultant language events. We have tried to select learning activities that can be applied to a range of learning contexts. Like the CEFR, these activities can be used in both L1 and L2 settings.

Group text summary

Processing a text in speech and in writing; note taking; collaborating to construct meaning; collaborating in a group; facilitating collaborative interaction with peers; encouraging conceptual talk; strategies to simplify and streamline a text; and strategies to explain a new concept – this involves selecting information from a text, reorganising the information for a new purpose, summarizing, paraphrasing, negotiating with a partner and within a group, and communicating the information successfully.

a. Give the class the learning objective. This will enable them to choose the relevant information from the texts that you are going to give them;

b. Divide you class into groups (range of abilities spread evenly through the groups) and give each group a text. These texts can be of different genres i.e. newspaper, academic text, magazine, blog etc., but they should be on a related theme;

c. Each student reads the text individually, identifies the key points by underlining it and making notes (NB a lesson based on identifying effective note taking strategies is also a great activity for mediation);

d. Each group of students discusses the key points that the members of their group has identified in order to agree on a final group set of notes. This should be written up neatly by the group scribe, so that it can be shared. We suggest that software such as Google docs or Padlet is used to facilitate the sharing and editing of the document. Having an electronic version also means that it can be more readily transfered onto PowerPoint slides;

e. Each group briefly presents its notes via PowerPoint to the rest of the class. To encourage active listening, each student is required to make notes when the other groups are presenting, and when the presentation is completed they have a few minutes to formulate a few questions for the all members of the presenting group. This both widens the participation in presenting the information, and hopefully ensures that ‘a hero’ doesn’t do all the work for the group;

f. Each student then is given copies of all the finalised notes (again if these are shared electronically then it saves both on paper and time spent at the photocopier) From these notes each student produces a draft version that combines all the texts;

g. In pairs, the students compare their draft versions and give feedback to each other. On the basis of this feedback the student then writes their final version which can be submitted for grading and feedback from the tutor;

As this activity has a number of stages, the practitioner may decide to set some of the writing stages for homework, or reduce the number of stages employed. If the notes and drafts are written using Word and then shared via Padlet, then there is also the possibility of students collaborating outside of the classroom, and so encouraging autonomy.

Ask the expert

Strategies to explain a new concept (linking to previous knowledge, adapting language, breaking down complicated information) explaining specific information; and explaining data. In this activity the tutor can see if a learner can take information that they learnt in one context, and then share this information with non-experts. This is particularly important for a range of specialists such as scientists, medical staff, and IT specialists, who have to communicate specific technical information to non-specialists in a manner that is understandable to them. The questions that the student need to address of course depends on their level of knowledge. There are many great examples of ask an expert websites on the web i.e. www.digitaltrends.com/topic/ask-an-expert. These provide practitioners with ideas for questions that are rooted in the real world, and they also often provide model answers, which can be provided to the students.

a. The teacher selects a question that are appropriate for the level of the student. The student then either writes or producers a poster or PowerPoint that answers the question;

b. A version of this for lower levels could be that the students have to choose a process that they have studied i.e. the carbon cycle, and they have to then produce a poster that shows the process, and then they present it to the other students in the class.

Strategies for resolving conflict

Facilitating communication in delicate situations and disagreements and facilitating in a pluricultural space; and acting as an intermediary in informal situations. While we often can find functional language for resolving disagreement and conflict, there are less materials that focus on the strategies that learners can employ to resolve disagreements. This activity helps raise students awareness of ways to mediate between friends and classmates.

a. The tutor gives the students some functional language for describing resolving disagreements, and some examples that help to contextualize their use;

b. The students are told that they are going to take part in a role play that involves a number of difficult situations i.e. You are sharing a house with other students, but they have not done the housework that they had agreed to do;

c. First the student talks to the tutor/ a partner and discusses how they can resolve the problem;

d. The students discuss in groups, and they try to come to a resolution;e. Possible follow up activities include looking at ways of resolving disagreements and showing empathy in either an academic or professional settings.

Tourist topics

Processing a text in speech and in writing. These activities focus on the selection of specific items of information and are intended for lower level L2 classes.

a. Ask half of your class Group A (students who are more proficient in a second language) to imagine that they are from the L2 country, and that they are planning to visit Poland. Then ask them write an email about what they could do while on a trip;

b. If the students are willing, they can use their own email accounts, or they can write them on paper. Have their emails sent/distributed to the other half of the class Group B;

c. Ask Group B to use L2 or L1 websites (depending on their level of proficiency) to do some research about popular activities for tourists in their city, and then ask them to write a reply to the email that they received. Make sure that they attach the links to the websites that they looked at;

d. Have Group A read the replies, and look at the websites they were supplied links to.The students could then do follow up activities based on the websites that had been selected i.

e. writing a summary of the website; student A describes a picture of the tourist attraction, while student B uses their instructions to draw a picture; the students look up the attraction on Google Maps and summarise the reviews that it has received; the students decide in a group which attractions they would most like to visit, and then they plan the itinerary of the trip.

Email register bingo

Relaying specific information in writing; and facilitating in the plurilingual space. This activity focuses on getting students to notice the importance of register when writing emails.

a. The tutor displays six possible topics and some extra information that could be used to write the email on the board. The student roles a dice to pick which topic they will write about;

b. The tutor then displays six different people, who represent different levels of formality i.e. friend, teacher, boss, priest etc.. The student roles the dice again, and then writes a short email, being careful to use the appropriate level of formality;

c. When the student has finished writing their email, they swap with a partner, who reads the email and gives them feedback. The teacher circulates and notes some errors to be shared with the whole group later;

d. The student then roles the dice again and chooses another person (degree of formality to write to);

e. Steps C and D can be repeated until all the roles have been used up.

Gold fish bowl debates

Leading group work; and collaborating in a group. This task focuses on the mediation descriptor scales for group work.

a. Before the debate the students are given the topic of the debate. The tutor can provide the source texts, or the students can be required to research the topic on their own;

b. The students are divided into two groups – Group A and Group B. Group A sit together in a inner concentric circle, while Group B sit in an outer concentric circle and observe Group A’s discussion, hence the name Goldfish bowl debate;

c. Group A elects a chair, and then discusses a range of discussion points that the tutor has devised. Group B observe and make notes on different aspects of the interaction that takes place between the members of Group A;

d. The two groups swap roles;

e. Group members from A and B pair off and give each other feedback;

f. The tutor can give individual feedback to the chairs, and more general feedback to the whole class.

Listening circles for Ted Talks

Relaying specific information in writing; translating a written text in speech into writing; and adapting language. TED talks and other short educational videos are often used by practitioners to introduce argumentation and debates into the classroom. While the production values, searchability and brevity of TED talks certainly has advantages, it should not be accepted uncritically as a template for academic presentations. This activity raises student awareness of the rhetorical structures used to present arguments in TED talks, and helps students to notice the differences between TED talks and the genre of academic presentations.

a. Either the tutor or a group of four students select a TED talk that is appropriate to their area of study;

b. The students are each given different role which focuses on a specific feature of the TED talk: language and meaning, background and context, structure and organisation, presentation and delivery. For more information please see: www.academic-englishuk.com/listening-circles;

c. Each student watches the video independently, and make notes on the aspects assigned to them by their role. They are also encouraged to further research points of interest;

d. The students share their notes together and dicuss the arguments put forward by the TED talks presenter to support their position;

e. Give the students an academic style guide to help them to assess the language structures used in the TED talk. The students look at the transcript of the TED talk, and mark up examples of the divergences between academic style and the rhetorical style used in the TED talk.

Conclusion

We hope that we have demonstrated the benefits of using the mediation descriptor scales as a teaching tool that goes beyond the teaching of the traditional four skills, and indeed enhances their use. We also hope that the teaching ideas that we have suggested have demonstrated in a practical way that mediation can be used in the classroom, and that they have inspired you to use them, or adapt them to your own specific teaching context. Although it is not the subject of the article, it is important to remember that the can do statements are readily adaptable, and we can personally testify that doing so can really illuminate the process of designing a course. Finally, we believe that paying attention to the use of mediation in the classroom will help our students to develop the skills they need for the 21st Century workplace. These skills include collaborative working and learning; the developing of critical thinking skills; being able to learn autonomously and so become a lifelong learner; showing empathy to others; and being aware of the importance of register when communicating with a diverse range of audiences. Above all, we perceive mediation as enhancing our ability to look beyond our day to day assumptions and actions, and to see the wider world in a more nuanced way.