Almost six years ago, I wrote a piece for Huffington Post titled “My Kids Are Illiterate. Most Likely, Yours Are Too.” (Nothing too provocative there, right?) My point was not that my kids couldn’t read or write or do basic math. School had done a decent job of making that happen. Instead, my point was that “literacy” is now much more than reading, writing, and being able to do basic math. Or, at least, that those concepts all have a higher bar in the modern world of networked learning. And even back then, as I pointed out in the post, the definitions of “literacy” were already changing fairly radically. I still trot out the National Council Teachers of English expectations for “literate readers and writers in the 21st Century.” You know, the one that includes “Manage, analyze, synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information” as one of the six aspects of modern literacy.
And if you check out the newsletter link to the Mozilla Foundation’s evolving definition of Web Literacy, you know that the bar continues to rise. There is a lot in there that even someone like me struggles with, despite spending a good deal of my waking hours reading, writing, and creating online. Safe to say, literacy is a bit more of a beast these days.
So, how are we doing with that in schools? I think at best, the results are mixed. It’s becoming increasingly clear that in general, people are not doing a great job of “reading” the world, as in making sense of it, verifying it, and taking the time to think critically about it. (Donald Trump anyone?) The Web has made the whole process more complex now that the traditional editor is out of the mix. Yet, are we teaching our kids to be editors instead of just readers? Are we thinking about hidden agendas, spurious “facts,” the cred of the author when we “read” these days? (And here I mean “read” as in any piece of content, text, video, audio, etc., that we consume either online or off.) When you read stories that suggest that only 1/3 of 12-15 year olds can tell the difference between search results and ads on a Google page, well… (I wonder how many adults can.)
But aside from the more traditional ways of thinking about literacy, it’s also constantly evolving. Who would have thought 10 years ago even that coding, personal privacy and security, transparency, synthesis, and remix would all be parts of the color wheel of literacy? As Audrey Watters argued in her EML whitepaper “Rethinking the Definition of Literacy” from two years ago, “new technologies create new literacies.” And that is even more true today as we begin to grapple with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, adaptive software and much more. What will literacy mean in those contexts?
While I think the “Are our kids literate?” question is certainly an important one, an even more significant one may be “Are our schools literate?” Is modern literacy something that is a part of our DNA, or is it something we try to “teach” as a separate entity using some off the web curriculum to pace us through it? I think you know that the answer, by and large, is that we’re not practicing literacy in schools in ways that either model or teach our students the skills they need to become truly literate in today’s world. Obviously, we’re not talking about a three week unit in the second half of seventh grade. And we’re also not helping our kids in this regard when we bring digital tools into classrooms and then employ them for traditional purposes. (The “digital worksheets” thing again.)
So where do we start? While we have a propensity in education to attack all problems in isolated silos, literacy development is cross discipline, acurricular (if that’s a word) and something that we live. Teaching it happens through experience, whether that means experience with reading and writing traditional texts, or it means reading and writing with new technologies and spaces enabled by those technologies. Literacy is a culture that we develop and keep current as we move into the future. Given that, here might be some places to begin:
- Teachers and students engaged in curating information on a theme or subject (such as “climate change,” for instance,) using tools like Feedly, Diigo, and Evernote to organize and share what they find.
- Making the 14 skills on the Web Literacy wheel a deliberate part of both student and teacher learning.
- Discussing coding and making not as classes and spaces but as pedagogical stances that permeate every classroom
- Thinking more deeply about the role of “context” as opposed to an emphasis on “content”
- Having teachers model their own successes and struggles with literacy for their peers and for their students
None of these are rocket science, obviously, and I’d love to hear what work you may be already doing to create more literate cultures in your schools. At the very least, however, we have to be willing to acknowledge that by modern standards, our students and we ourselves have some work to do when it comes to being fully literate.