21st Century Confusion

Posted by on Dec 20, 2008

I don’t think I’m a fan of the whole 21st Century Literacies concept.  I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the entire approach.  I did say “think”, so I’m still working through all this.  Let me explain.

The traditional definition of the term “literacy” means to be literate.  This comes from the most current version of Webster’s Dictionary.  That begets the question, what does it mean to be literate?  Again, according to Webster, being literate is being able to read and write.  Typically, traditional literacy also includes speaking and listening as well.  So, if this is the case, what’s the 21st Century distinction of the term?

I believe this is where the whole notion is lost on me.  If we’re talking about literacy, let’s talk about literacy, as in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  If we’re talking about other skills that people need to be successful in the modern era, then we’re probably talking about skills rather than literacies.  If we’re being specific about these skills applying uniquely to the 21st century, we should probably call them such.  Although, are there really any skills that are being called 21st Century Skills that are new in the 21st century?  Think about it.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills believes demonstrating originality, communicating, being open and responsive, acting on creative ideas, utilizing time efficiently, accessing information, etc. are all 21st Century Skills.  I’d retort that in reality, these skills have always been in existence and of the utmost importance.  They don’t need to have the 21st Century moniker on them to make them significant.

And I think that’s the heart of the issue for me.  The whole idea of qualifying all of these skills, or even literacies if you want to adopt a broader sense of the term beyond the traditional, with 21st Century confuses what the real focus should be.

A perfect example of this is a discussion I heard recently on the “It’s Elementary” podcast.  Angela Maiers was the guest, and at the beginning of the conversation, she established her working definition of 21st Century Literacies. She gave a definition that included the traditional aspects of literacy as well as collaborating, investigating, and communicating.  A few minutes after stating her definition, she explained that all of this comes from research that is over 5 decades old.  Again, if what we’re talking about is what we’ve been talking about for so long, why do we feel the need to throw the catchy buzzword in?  Why can’t we just accept that we’re still talking about traditional literacy?  Why this great sense of urgency to rename it?

Coincidentally, while I disagree with Maiers’ naming conventions, I do believe her approach to teaching literacy as she explains later in the show is dead on.  She talks about teaching kids to inference and reach deeper levels of comprehension, and she advocates that we stop focusing so much on the oral fluency piece devoid of comprehension.  Being one who has witnessed many assessments that only test students based on their oral fluency rate, and then places them in intervention groups based on that rate, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree with Maiers on this.  I just really wish she wouldn’t call that type of instruction 21st Century Literacy instruction.  Simply put, she should just call it excellent literacy instruction.

It’s rather self-evident that society has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, and the way we engage students has changed as well, but the fact remains that the primary vehicle we use to educate is still an iteration of communication.  Technology is playing a vital role in the way we will hopefully shift from an industrial model of educating to a new learning-centric model that has yet to develop, but the technology itself isn’t the point.  The 21st Century whatevers aren’t the point.  The point is learning.  I believe if people were more prone to discard the rhetoric and engage in true learning, the conversation about what we call it would be rendered rather moot.

Thanks to Ken-ichi for the Flickr image.


  1. Karen
    December 21, 2008

    I appreciate your thoughtful analysis. This “literacies” thing may be just the latest swing of the pendulum. I haven’t decided yet myself. I know I do worry about a focus on the “gimmicks” of technology in education rather than on the big questions about things like how this technology stuff might/could affect the way we think about schooling.

    • Ben Grey
      December 26, 2008

      Exactly. See my comment to Angela above for why I agree with you about the danger of people perceiving this “new” name to be just another swing of the pendulum.

      I think the problem I have with Ohler’s definition, is that it’s too nebulous. Yes we can talk about consuming and producing media forms, but what is it at the core of every media form we consume and produce? I would maintain it’s the basic tenets of literacy: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. To say you draw meaning from media in a different way, is in my opinion, inaccurate. Even the whole idea of Visual Literacy being new isn’t true. There is absolutely nothing new about the way we see and interpret images. Visual art has been a major part of every culture since the beginning of man, and that is at the core of visual literacy. It’s a way to read. It’s simply seeing something with our eyes and allowing our brain to interpret. Thanks so much for bringing up Ohler’s idea. I think it’s an excellent example of where we need to engage this discussion. Your comment has pushed my thinking as well, and I appreciate it.

      Your comment and reference about the resistance to change by past principals was exactly right on. People get so afraid of the tools that they lose site of what it is the tool is allowing a student to do. Think of the entire online environment. Many people express so many fears about safety, students developing lazy writing habits, the reduction of sustained attention, etc. that they miss one very significant point. Students are reading and writing more now than ever before. The majority of what they do online requires reading and writing skills. Think of blogging. That is entirely based on reading and writing. I’m afraid calling the learning that takes place due to new technology something different than what it really is actually degrades the integrity and quality of the learning taking place.

  2. Judi Epcke
    December 21, 2008

    I recently heard Jason Ohler define literacy as “consuming and producing the media forms of the day”. This is a broad definition that includes reading and writing, of course, but includes much more than that. I don’t know that it specifically encompasses the “collaborating and investigating” competencies mentioned by Angela Maiers, but certainly those are important skills for ‘consuming and producing’ current forms of media.

    Just thought I would throw this in to the mix. Ohler’s definition was interesting to me. Like you Ben, I’m trying to make sense of this 21st century literacy concept as well.

    Thanks, as always, for pushing my thinking with your posts.

  3. Angela Maiers
    December 21, 2008

    Would it surprise you that I completely agree? The topic of the show rather than the point of my talk was 21stC Literacy. I am all for discarding the rhetoric and getting down to the business of teaching literacy in all it contexts-across all disciplines and domains.

    If there were a “New” part to the definition, it refers more to the standards of literacy rather than the process itself. Advanced literacy was once viewed as something reserved only for the elite. In today’s world success at all levels, whether you wish to be a NASA scientist or work the floor in a manufacturing plant requires these new “basics”.

    If we have to give it a “Label” (21st Century Literacy, New Literacy, New Basics, 21st Century Skills etc…”) to capture attention and create a dialogue of changing the way we define and teach students the skills and strategies they need for their future-so be it. Whatever it takes-don’t you think? Look at where the” label” got us to!

    • Ben Grey
      December 26, 2008


      While I absolutely agree with you regarding the importance of teaching what is necessary for all people to be successful in a literate world, regardless of their station in life, I still think we should be very wary of using fluid terminology to define that which we know to be best. Teaching writing is a good example of this. If everyone in the building isn’t using common language when teaching students, there develops a sense of confusion among the students. An unnecessary level of confusion, and that serves to detract from the success of students learning what they truly need to know.

      I do also agree with you that the very naming convention has sparked an important conversation, and potentially a change in general instruction, but again, calling what has always been something new serves to confuse rather than inform. Teachers now have the impression there is yet another new layer of complexity and pedagogy that they must invest in, and that typically proves to be more of a detriment. Wouldn’t they feel more empowered if you were to tell them even with the emergence of all the new technology and methodology, the imperative goal of learning remains to teach students to read, write, speak, and listen? Don’t you think that would serve to ease their fears of technology changing the importance of what students still need to learn?

      My position essentially boils down to this, let’s just call things what they are. Excellent literacy instruction, that which you are working to promote, should be called such. We don’t need the new labels to capture attention. We just need to let people engage in the relevant discussions around what is best in a given context. The real issue with adding new titles is that other people are using the same title, and it’s causing far too much confusion. We’re losing the precision of language, which is an essential function of a truly literate person. Vocabulary matters, and as such, we should be choosing the right words for the right occasion.

  4. L Winebrenner
    December 21, 2008

    I agree with you on the concept or “labeling” 21st century literacies, cell phones are 25 years old, computers even older. One of my reading assignments was Windows on the Future: Education in the Age of Technology (McCain & Jukes, 2001) and on page 19 it lists items, “principals reported students were too dependent upon paper in 1815 and did not know how to write on a slate” and in 1907 the National Association of Teachers states, “students depended to much upon ink and were losing the skill to sharpen a pencil with a knife” and in “1950 students were being ruined by ball point pens, using them and throwing them away” and “thus losing the values of thrift and frugality”.

    Our education was not labeled by the tools we used or the century we incorporated the tools. As a parent of HS grad/college freshman I am still amazed at the different level of technology skills throughout the US. We currently live in a school district that is extremely behind the power curve of technology integration in the classroom but she was expected to incorporate computers into the college classroom life. My daughter has attended public schools in 4 different states and our experiences with technology in the schools varied from state to state. Yet none of the report cards or state test results stated she had 21st century grades or results. Thank goodness learning new gadgets and incorporating technology was something we did throughout our military assignments.

    I believe people who are on that other side of the technology digital disconnect buy into the “21st century” phrase whether it is literacy or any other field that is being marketed. I don’t see our teens buying an iPhone or iPod Touch because it could be marketed as a 21st century portable learning device.

    Like you I participated in EdTech Talks when Angela was speaking and I love the difference she is making with educators. Lifelong learning is a passionate or deliberate choice once one leaves the law required educational requirements. The people, not just teachers, parents, or students who have integrated technology into their lives have done so because they chose to do so not because the time zone or the century changed.

    Thanks for the post. While I may not agree with the labels…if the students, parents, or teachers that I volunteer with are calling it whatever…I choose my battles…my goal is to get them to do what they do but add the computer (or some technology device) to their lifestyle. Battling over terminology I leave for them…practical application of their skills is something I do on and off the battlefield

  5. mrsdurff
    December 21, 2008

    This show host of It’s Elementary also agrees (gasp!). My definition is a little different. I view a literacy as the ability to comprehend and convey meaning using a medium.I’m not sure that one has to be able to do both to be literate, put i believe consuming and creating are closely linked. This is the big picture, the whole tamale. Linked are the reading, writing, listening literacies. Put the ability to read and write music as well as art appreciation and artistic talent are too. Also included are theatre, sports, science, and all those other literacies or skills or abilities too. Doesn’t really matter what we call them, except to remember that when we say anything is “21st century” those in power listen, open their ears and their pocketbooks.
    One must remember too that this show host is very disturbing (principal said so), radical, & never politically correct except on the air (when i bit my tongue).
    This kind of discussion is good, hope there are more!

    • Ben Grey
      December 27, 2008

      Mrs. Durff-
      I would absolutely agree with you that too often terms get exploited for the purpose of advancing a cause. Often the cause is quite disassociated with learning. I will disagree with you on your expanded definition of literacy, though. I think me being able to play the guitar makes me a guitarist, and a musician, not literate. I think the word “literacy” has become more synonymous with the term skill. I’m focusing on that distinction in my next post. I’ll elaborate soon.

      I love the quote “a candle that lights another is not diminished.” Excellent metaphor. I also appreciate your focus on communication. I believe that is what literacy, and even learning for the most part, is all about. I’m writing these words that convey the thoughts I’m thinking that are read by you and made meaningful by your interpretation. We’re communicating. That’s what literacy is all about, and it absolutely can, and hopefully will, continue to knock down walls.

      Your last sentence is precisely what I would say we need to be talking about. The fact that new technology isn’t bringing about an entire new definition of literacy, but rather, it is offering amazing new opportunities for people to practice and engage in the core of what literacy is all about, and has always been all about. Communicating. Regarding your thoughts on the way teaching hasn’t changed much, I agree. More on that here.

      Yes, there are so many possibilities for people to engage in literacy, and I’m glad so many people have been willing to offer their opinions about it here. I do believe this is a topic that could easily take up an entire evening’s time and even extend into the wee hours of the morning if we ever all sat down together to have an open discourse about it. Thanks for adding your voice and thoughts to the discussion. I agree with you that we still need to maintain our focus on the basics and allow the potential of technology to extend our interactions with the core.

  6. David MacGregor
    December 21, 2008

    Read your post and its replies with interest.

    I am currently working on a project intended to improve ‘financial literacy’ with a large banking organisation. So it occurred to me that, inorder to achieve a meaningful outcome it would make sense to re-examine the premise: what exactly do we mean when we use the term? (I had assumed that I innately understood the meaning).

    A quick search provided this answer (top of the list – Google):

    “In broad terms, literacy is the ability to make and communicate meaning from and by the use of a variety of socially contextual symbols. Within various levels of developmental ability, a literate person can derive and convey meaning, and use their knowledge to achieve a desired purpose or goal that requires the use of language skills, be they spoken or written. A literate person can mediate their world by deliberately and flexibly orchestrating meaning from one linguistic knowledge base and apply or connect it to another knowledge base. For example, knowing that letters symbolize sounds, and that those sounds form words to which the reader can attach meaning, is an example of the cognitive orchestration of knowledge, a literate person conducts. Literacy is “not in isolated bits of knowledge but in students’ growing ability to use language and literacy in more and broader activities” (Moll, 1994, p. 202).The definition of literacy is dynamic, evolving, and reflects the continual changes in our society. Literacy has, for instance, expanded to include literacy in information and communication technologies and critical literacy (Cunningham, 2000; Harste, 1994; Leu, 2002; Mol1, 1994; Paris, Lipson & Wixson, 1994; Yopp & Singer, 1994).”

    What fascinated me was the idea of making meaning. In the beginning of widespread literacy most people were muted by their lack of access to communication resources – their thoughts controlled by the oral communication of their betters (church, royalty and land owners). Making meaning with limited resources meant that superstitions and self-perpetuating ignorance prevailed.

    The thrilling thing about literacy, to me at least, is that it enables people to not only absorb information but also to communicate ideas with others – a candle that lights another is not diminished.

    If the 21st Century concept is significant it is the opening of the floodgates for the spread of ideas. In fact, I suggest that access to social media and open channels (unmediated by ownership or capital) …”A literate person can mediate their world by deliberately and flexibly orchestrating meaning…”

    Returning to financial literacy – an Australian study has suggested that even a mild improvement in financial literacy amongst 10% of the most challenged would grow that country’s economy by $10 billion and create 16,000 new jobs.

    It seems literacy, generally, knocks down walls.

  7. Jennifer Wagner
    December 22, 2008

    Hi Ben!!

    Good discussion brewing. Thanks for stirring it for us.

    To me, literacy has not changed — the ability to use language to read, write, listen, and speak. The only thing I would add to that would be also to THINK. (http://jenuinetech.com/blog/?p=482)

    I think the issue that we continue to overlook, when we discuss literacy (whether new or old) is that we continue to overlook the real problem here. The problem which I feel is: how teachers are teaching and how students are learning. And the output of both.

    If I walk into pretty much any classroom, I will see students learning the exact same way I learned when I was in elementary school in the 1960’s and 1970’s. And that is very very sad.

    Students in rows. Teachers dictating information. Students reading as called on. Worksheets, worksheets, and more worksheets. Tests to test memory of students (not concepts or facts) — just memory of information that will be lost quickly when no longer needed. And same old thing, day after day after day.

    Sorry, I digress……………

    Back on track — I don’t think that literacy has changed…..but I do think the output of the literacy options have.

    And therein lies the problem — are the new tools dictating a new definition for literacy? Personally, I don’t think so……..

    I just think new opportunities of how to express each literacy has grown tremendously.

  8. Paul R Wood
    December 23, 2008

    Very timely post as just recently I was asked by someone I have been working with and who is new to blogging, twitter, 2.0 etc. , “What would I list as the essentila literacies skills?” As I have reflected on that question, I kept coming back to the basics, reading, writing, communicating, thinking, analyzing, etc. Then I thought about whether or not that was what they are today, in this time and space and I felt that yes, we need to be able to do that and the big difference is that there are multiple ways for that to take place. The connectivity gives so many people a great variety of ways to connect, correspond, learn, interact, etc not just within four walls, but everywhere. New input from across the globe, reaching out, maikiing a difference,learning the differences, finding out the similarities.

    Thanks for starting the discussion and creating more for me to think about. After reading through the other comments, I so think this is the right direction but I also think there are so many possibilities for this to happen.


  9. drezac
    December 23, 2008

    Were obviously in a transition period as technology is integrated into curriculum. As this transition happens, we are going to redefine the terms that we currently use and morph them for the common audience. I think this is a natural progression, and, actually, I get quite interested to hear how things get changed.

    I think what you’re really arguing against here, is folks coining terms for their own personal sake, and, thus, giving the original definitions less weight. That’s where I can see where this can get personal for an educator; there’s just too much verbiage out there right now for educators to get a real grip on all of this. Between wikis, mathcasts, podcasts, embedding, etc., we struggle as tech teachers trying to get classroom teachers to use the tools in the first place, and we further risk alienating ourselves from them with all these new terms.

    We’re trying to get off the tech island, right? And work on the mainland with everyone else!

    Or are we? I often wonder if all this confusion isn’t somehow created on purpose, if only to have some “expert” explain it all to us (and pocket some change in the meantime).

    The reality of it all is: it’s still going to change. But like Gardner realized that there are multiple intelligences, there are, perhaps, multiple literacies. Perhaps all it takes it one white paper, to iron it all out.

    • Ben Grey
      December 27, 2008

      I’d love to see the white paper if you develop it. Yes, we want to get off the island, and in fact, there shouldn’t really even be an island to begin with. That’s the problem. Technology has become this something else. Something outside reality. Even the fact that everything is called “virtual” when talking about tech sets it behind to begin. What I’m doing now, while considered virtual to some, is in reality, quite real. I’m holding a discussion with you that we likely wouldn’t have had without this medium. And the way we’re discussing? By using our literacy skills. Not some new literacy, but rather, we’re both reading and writing. Yes, there are a few specific skills that we’re using to make this happen, but those are skills rather than literacy. I’ll explain more in my next post.

      I’m glad Smeech pointed you this way. I appreciate your comment. All of your points are salient and true, but I would maintain those are skills rather than literacies. I do think there’s an important distinction between the two. As I told Drezac, I’ll explain more in my next post. Coincidentally, you made mention of the dreaded 2.0 term in your closing paragraph. I am half-way through a post about why I abhor the entire notion of the term Web 2.0. That post is forthcoming as well.

      Ah, excellent point about the variegated levels of literacy. If a 3rd grade student can read and write, is he/she literate? Yes. Can they get better at literacy? Absolutely. As with many things in life, we don’t stop when we’ve acquired the most base level ability in any concept. For example, if I ran a twelve minute mile, and you ran a six minute mile, even though you are accomplishing the task quicker and more efficiently than I am, we are both still running. Same goes for literacy. We can always get better. Even as adults, we continue to get better. Your notion of breaking literacy into smaller subsets is what I would consider breaking up the whole into specific skills. The list of “new literacies” you cited all require the use of some form of one or several of the main tenets of literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening). The execution of those specific examples, however, does require the use of specific, finite skills. That, I believe is the major distinction in this conversation. We have literacy, and then we have specific skills. I plan to elaborate on this point in my next post. Thanks for the challenging thoughts and for helping me shape my next piece.

  10. Clay Burell
    December 24, 2008

    @smeech sent me here. Glad I came. I like your questions.

    The only uniquely “21st century literacies” I can think of involve the web.

    Students need to be able to evaluate information on screens upon which any sage, charlatan, or idiot can publish. That’s new (sort of. Books really are open to the same range of authors).

    They need to learn “online identity management,” and I would argue that’s a new literacy. New because they’re publishing themselves, and that means reading/writing/speaking/filming/photo-ing (literacy), and 21st century because privacy has never been so porous as now. They need to know how to keep Big Brother, Big Employer, and Big Google from knowing too much.

    They need to learn “social reading” online. By that attempt at a cute label I mean the ability to evaluate communication acts by strangers in social networks, emails, comment threads wherever, and the whole range of places people can attempt to connect to us individually now. They need to be able to “read” a phish, for example, and a fraudster, and yes, a p&rv.

    Hm. What else. Co-writing might be new. “How to participate in collaborative writing communities.” Wikipedia, for example. I know I don’t know how to do that.

    Could we even go so far as to say that social networking online is itself a “new literacy”? That networking is (or may be) an essential skill for adulthood in the 21st century?

    Hm. Searching. That’s new, yes? How to effectively search for good, timely information online, and do so efficiently. I know I’m still not great at that.

    I’ll stop there. Thanks for the prompt. I agree the “21st c.” buzz can be as tiresome as the “2.0.” But I think the Berners-Lee Revolution has created some unique changes, just as Gutenberg’s did. Can you see any I missed?

  11. Truly Twenty-First C. Literacy (Beyond Buzzwords) | Beyond School
    December 24, 2008

    […] Grey’s “21st Century Confusion” post asks a simple question that I’ve often toyed with too: The Partnership for 21st […]

  12. Brendan
    December 26, 2008

    If literacy is defined as being able to read and write then 3rd graders are literate. Do we stop teaching them in Reading and Writing? I specifically choose 3rd grade because traditionally there is a drop off between 3rd and 4th grade in Reading skills. (Difficulty in adjusting from mostly decoding skills to inferring skills)

    I agree with Clay in that there are some literacy skills specific to web based mediums.(still not really 21st century in a literal sense)

    Drezac’s notion of multiple intelligences is also very good.

    While creating new buzz words has both positives and negatives it is important to remember that buzz words are marketing tools to sell to the public.

    These buzz words I think are usually created from the evolution of how we use and define necessary skills/tools.

    A few hundred years ago if a person could barely read and write he could still be considered literate. Perhaps because the the majority of people couldn’t, so it made no sense in breaking up the small percentage of people who could read and write into different skill subsets.

    Today, at least in the developed world, most people can read so it is natural to break literacy into smaller subsets.

    Literacy in the 21st century will include reading and writing, but it will also include txt msgs, internet video, voicethread, phishing scams, evaluating sources, and a host of other things we certainly don’t know about yet as the 21st century has just started.

    Some of these literacy skills will simply be retreads of old skills in a new environment like evaluating the quality of an author.

    Other skills will be new like communication protocols in Second Life.

    The point is experts in teaching literacy won’t care if you call it 21st century skills or literacy skills, while many mom’s and dad’s and especially school boards will want to know if teachers are preparing students for the future.

    Now the question is are the teachers going to be given the burden of translating for everyone or will the administrators do that grunt work?

  13. drezac
    December 27, 2008

    One more thing… I found this link at Noodletools, which I think you’ll find helpful. This takes things straight from Gardner’s words. If you frame literacy from a multiple intelligences standpoint, it actually makes things extremely less confusing.

    Howard Gardner says that “literacies, skills, and disciplines ought to be pursued as tools that allow us to enhance our understanding of important questions, topics, and themes.”

    I believe that technology is a tool. Not a skill. The skills that students acquire to read- their “literacies” -are all framed by their different intelligences. If we pursue literacy as a tool, then it takes to onus off of teaching kids how read for reading’s sake, and frames the concept of teaching literacy within a certain context.

    So basically- you can teach a kid to read. But perhaps you can’t “teach” them to be literate. You can only influence their literacy by exposing them to life and to experiences, much like the band student who will be much more musically literate than the business student.

    21st Century Literacy (or skills) are too broad of terms because we don’t even know what those will look like in 5 or 10 years. That term is irresponsible.

    Great conversation!


  14. Doug Belshaw
    December 29, 2008

    Hi Ben,

    I’m writing my Ed.D. thesis on the concept of ‘digital literacies’. From my research so far it would seem that everyone either:

    a) Feels uneasy about the term ‘literacy’ applying to anything apart from printed matter.

    b) Comes up with a definition of a new type of literacy – media literacy, techno literacy, digital literacy, 21st-century literacy, etc. and tries to use it as an umbrella term for everything else.

    In my thesis I’ll be attempting to come up with some type of semantically-acceptable terminology for that thing we’re all grasping at. You know, that ability/skill/literacy/know-how that separate digital newbies from those ‘fluent’ (for want of a better term!)


    • Ben Grey
      December 29, 2008

      I’d be very interested to hear more as your thesis develops. My responses to your two current summations of your data.

      a) I don’t think it’s an aversion to the term applying beyond “printed matter”, but rather an aversion to applying the term beyond its organic context. I maintain that literacy is the core of communicating. And at the heart of all our communication is reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Certainly that applies beyond printed matter, and I believe the emergence of new technologies is serving to advance the literacy cause rather than change the very essence of it. I’ve yet to see a technology communicate beyond the four tenets I mentioned above. The only wrinkle that I’m currently wrestling with on that is visual. Do we call interpreting images reading, or is it something else? I’m still working on that.

      b) I absolutely agree that the term literacy is becoming an umbrella term. Which, in my opinion, is unfortunate. If you look at the newer applications of the term, such as those you listed (media literacy, techno literacy, etc.) the term is being used more synonymously with “understanding”, “proficiency”, or even “comprehension”. I, like you, am still trying to come up with the correct term that encapsulates what it is people are really trying to say instead of literacy. Let me know if you come up with it.

      Thanks for the comment. I hope you’ll keep me updated on your research and conclusions.

  15. Heidi Hass Gable
    December 29, 2008

    Good morning!
    I’ve been part of the committee that has created and continues to update our community literacy plan. We talked about the definition of “literacy” for the purpose of our plan and there’s one main difference that I see between my childhood and my children’s:

    When I was a student in K-12, I learned to read, write, speak and listen – as Ben mentioned above. And when I wanted to find information, I could pull out the encyclopedia, find the desired section and know that I was reading the words of the experts – I could TRUST the source.

    Only once I got to university did I really learn about assessing the source and the veracity of the information that I found. Maybe a little bit in higher secondary school – but it certainly wasn’t a focus!

    The difference for my children is that they have to learn from very early on to assess information. As soon as we put them on the internet to research “horses” or “Egypt” or any other topic for a school project or report, we also have to teach them to question the source, to verify the data they find, to think about whether the stuff they find makes sense or not? And that’s starting in what? Grade 3? That’s 8/9 years old!!

    I can’t speak in terms of pedagogy, as I’m not a teacher, but I would say that a person is not “literate” in this world (using a definition for literate = able to read, write and communicate meaningfully, able to navigate the world of information) if they do not know how to ASSESS the information that they find.

    This used to be the realm of higher education – but now EVERYONE needs to know how to find information (often on the web) and decide whether it’s true or not? Clay talked about this above: “Students need to be able to evaluate information on screens upon which any sage, charlatan, or idiot can publish.”

    How could we function in this world if we didn’t know how to search for and think critically about the information that we find? This is no longer a spot on the “literacy spectrum” that is reserved for academia and the “experts”.

    So, has literacy changed fundamentally? I think I agree that no, it hasn’t. The tools have changed, the skills required to do those things that make us literate have indeed changed. But WHAT we’re doing hasn’t changed.

    I’d even argue that social networking is something we’ve always done – the internet has just immensely expanded the “fishing pool” of contacts. I’ve always “gathered” my pool of experts and contacts within my network but mostly they were local. Now that network easily extends across continents and time zones!

    But what has changed is the place that we are on that spectrum that you’ve talked about. How do we get that concept across to teachers, school boards, governments, parents? What terminology do we use to differentiate between a world where the vast majority were “consumers” of information to this world where, very quickly, the vast majority are “creators” of information (and not always GOOD information!!)?

    How do we convey the importance (and the difference) of teaching ALL of our children the skills that only university going adults used to learn in the past?

    And what is the pedagogy of teaching 10 yr olds the critical thinking skills and techniques that we used to teach to 20 yr old academics?

    I wonder…

  16. Roger Stack
    December 30, 2008

    Great conversation – but for the most part the dialogue appears to focus on ‘new media literacies’ and the changing (21st century?) contexts of information/communication.

    I would like to see other literacies included – social and emotional literacy, environmental literacy, spiritual literacy… Literacies that I believe are also essential to function, participate fully, and be healthy and successful in the 21st century.


  17. Tracie Weisz
    December 31, 2008

    Sooo many comments already, but this is one of those posts it is difficult to resist commenting to (I love those!). I agree that these kinds of ideas about literacy aren’t new. I’ll echo what a few of the above comments have already said – it is the medium that is new, and I think learning that medium goes beyond just learning a skill. This medium is flexible, malleable, adaptable, fluid and most importantly available. It doesn’t matter where you live, how much your family makes, where you’ve traveled, who you know personally, how much education you, your friends, family, or community has. These and many others are all factors that have in some way helped, but mostly hindered a student, teacher, or school’s ability to authentically apply their literacies in the past. The privileged (by this I don’t necessarily mean money – it could be just living in a city with a vibrant culture) or unusually ambitious few who could really use these literacies become our “creative class” (hey – another buzzword!). All the rest have been relegated to learning these literacies as some abstract concepts that they have no use for and therefore don’t value. I think it’s more than just a skill set – at the very least it’s added value to our basic definition of literacy. 21st Century literacies indicates that we have significantly updated our definition of literacy in a very profound way.

  18. Barbara Saunders
    January 1, 2009

    The “21st century illiteracy” I’ve seen seems to reflect a shaky grasp of fundamentals. My Web developer mentioned a few weeks ago that some of her clients struggle with learning to resize an image because they do not deeply understand the concept of mathematical proportion, that is, retaining the ratio between height and width.

  19. » Literacy in Context In Another Place: thinking about education
    January 1, 2009

    […] possessed most of the skills that we now label “21st century.” So, Ben Grey’s eloquent post about 21st century literacies resonated with me: I believe this is where the whole notion is lost […]

  20. Steve Layne
    January 2, 2009

    Ben –

    How can I not begin by commenting on your impressive use and mastery of vocabulary or the fact that you are clearly able to convey your thoughts with correct use of mechanics in an age where many believe “ok” is the true spelling of the word? Actually, the quality of your writing, in my estimation, supports your contention that what IS important has BEEN important for quite some time.

    What we call it is inconsequential entirely; however, the renaming of what has always been is common in large part because, whatever the field, someone slightly tweaking old concepts and providing a new zinger-of-a-name for them ultimately lead these “pioneers” to book deals and lectures that propel them to fame and most decidely, to fortune. I shall resist the urge to name names from my own field, but I believe it is true whether we are talking about literacy, law, medicine, etc.

  21. laboring for invention « Higher Edison
    January 2, 2009

    […] Is there nothing new under the sun? Ben’s question has spawned some excellent discussion here, here, and […]

  22. Di Mulvihill
    January 5, 2009

    Hi Ben, Congrats on generating such a vibrant, interesting conversation. I loved your comment about there not being a need to rename the basic idea of excellent literacy instruction as a basis or springboard from which to jump into all the developmental aspects of literacy required for the 21st century.
    I also loved Angela Maiers concept of adding the concepts of “collaborating, investigating, and communicating.” I love both concepts because I see that as they meld together they form part of the actual evolutionary learning continuum which could be referred to as “effective literacy”.
    I have enjoyed interacting with older teachers during my career and I have watched the concept of literacy emerge as something akin to a rich tapestry ‘rug’ being collaboratively woven over the years, as a result of collaboration, respect and communication, in a never ending quest to prepare our students for the needs of an uncertain future. Innate in this image is a deep respect for the ability older teachers possessed. There is a belief amongst older progressive teachers here in Australia that you ‘never throw the baby out with the bath water’ Therefore we remain open: ever asking ourselves “what is best for the students” ,listening to the “new”, studying it, implementing it, tesing it, evaluating its effectiveness and either adding it to the tapestry or, shelving it until we happen upon a scenario or a group of students who would benefit from that unique method and invariably, this occurs.
    As soon as society relegates ‘the past’ or history as ‘obsolete’ the valuable foundations are lost, older teachers lose their confidence and can no longer contribute confidently to the ongoing conversations which add to the collective wealth of experience. Their contributions are ‘lost’. because they are considered by youth as obsolete. How can that be truth? They metaphorically experience having their wonderful tapestry rug pulled out from under them. Lets keep the tapestry growing, valuing whats gone before and respectfully adding and/or subtracting ideas and opinions, methodologies and pedagogy so our options grow ever richer and broader. Its for the good of all really!!

  23. The Need for Literacy Skills
    January 7, 2009

    […] Bretag’s The Great Literacy Debate, Ben Gray’s post 21st century confusion and  21st century clarification. There have been discussions on twitter and plurk and these lead […]

  24. dougbelshaw.com/blog » Blog Archive » The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies
    January 13, 2009

    […] is defined too broadly, it becomes an umbrella term and of little practical use. Initially, I liked Judi Epcke’s comment that she’d heard Jason Ohler define literacy as “consuming and producing the media forms of […]

  25. letter from camp 2.0 « Higher Edison
    January 21, 2009

    […] sherman |   Lo and behold! Just as I was sinking into despair, lamenting that the Great 21st Century Literacy Debate will never reach resolution, I stumbled across this letter from camp […]

  26. Maria
    February 6, 2009

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. This is very useful.

  27. Charrai Hunter
    June 6, 2009

    As an Secondary English teacher of over eight years I have come to discover that literacy goes beyond the simple ability to read and comprehend. I have also discovered that the reason we have so many adults that are functionally illeterate is because educators think that this is an issue that has and needs only to be addressed in the early years of education. Studies show that most American secondary students read below grade level, yet their content texbooks are written two to four grade levels above their current grade. This creates a great problem because although in the generic and broad sense of the term students have the ability to read and comprhend they do not have the literacy skills to grasp “gateway materials”. Gateway materials being things such as standardized test or textbooks. Literacy skills are important because they teach students how to understand and ANALYZE a text.

  28. » Digital Literacy – Reading Recovery Conference 2011
    January 13, 2011

    […] Like the monk, many are having difficulty in grasping the concept of  new modes, mediums, and technologies. I am so greatful to have a HelpDesk (aka PLN) of my own, that help me work through the process.  […]

  29. Bob from Business Courses
    August 24, 2011

    Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak AND understand context. Whatever form or method is used for learning, be it traditional or with the use of modern technology, it still boils down to language and how it is grasped, expressed and understood.

  30. MindShare Learning Report
    November 4, 2011

    […] to see this months issue of Educational Leadership devoted to conversations about literacy and what being literate means in a global, digital space. As I devoured the issue, I reflected on my own literacy […]

  31. Katrina Cassidy
    September 4, 2012

    Can I just add in that for me viewing is another vital dimension of literate skills. By that I mean the way in which we read one another, body language, tone, attitude that type of interaction. I believe that strongly supports our ability to be literate. Any Ideas?

    • Ben Grey
      September 5, 2012

      I agree that viewing is a key dimension as well. I’ve seen many people adding viewing to reading as you “read” your environment whether that be through visual images or through body language and interactions. I’m undecided on whether viewing is its own category or if it’s encapsulated within the broader context of reading.


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