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.