I’m thoroughly enjoying the excellent discussion going on here about the whole notion of 21st Century Literacy. I find it fascinating, and the conversation has me thinking about this in ways I never would have had we not all engaged in the discussion. That’s certainly a testament to the power of collaborating and communicating, but I surmise that’s a whole separate blog post. I’d like to take this one to focus on some clarification I’ve had on the idea that there is not such a thing as 21st Century Literacy.
First, and foremost, I don’t believe this is a mere discussion about semantics. Well, that’s not entirely true, to be honest. Semantics is the study of language and communication, and that is certainly at the heart of our discussion. More to the point, semantics is the only reason we’re having this discussion. Someone recently told me this whole topic is just another semantics discussion when we should really be focusing on what to do. I find that most interesting. How, exactly, can any of us do anything when we haven’t decided in which direction to begin the doing? That’s like me saying that I want us all to start advocating. Just go advocate. That misses the entire point. The only reason we advocate is based on the cause of advocation. The same is held true for this discussion. If we want students to learn to be truly literate, aren’t we required to define that which want them to be?
The second point is that I’ve realized we’ve really started misusing the term literacy. It’s now being applied to mean comprehension, or proficiency, or even understanding. Look at this example. For every type of literacy, the word proficiency could and perhaps should be used. Why aren’t we using that word, instead? Why take a word which focuses on the core of how we communicate and misapply it to mean a proficiency in a given context? That’s where I truly disagree with these “new” literacies.
Finally, I believe there is a distinct difference between literacy and skills. Literacy is based wholly on how we communicate. In fact, it is the very nature of how we communicate. We share and gather ideas from one another by writing, reading, speaking and listening. That is entirely how we form meaning from another’s ideas. Well, I shouldn’t say entirely. Just recently Gary Stager suggested on Twitter that perhaps “showing” would be one more way. If I’m standing next to you, I might show you my ideas through specific movements. For example, I might show you how to hammer a nail by doing the act itself while you gather meaning from my actions. Which then begets the need to add “viewing” as well. I need to think more on this one, but it does have great merit.
If literacy is the way we communicate thoughts and ideas, then what about text messaging, creating videos, using a tool like VoiceThread, or any of the host of emerging technologies we’re utilizing to communicate? Shouldn’t those be called new literacy? Probably not. I would maintain we can only use those effectively by engaging the main four tenets of literacy. The specific execution of the tool does require a finite skill set, but a skill set is entirely different than a literacy. Let me get specific using VoiceThread as an example.
VoiceThread is an excellent way for people to post an idea and have others add value through conversation. At first blush, it may appear that in order for this communication to happen, a new literacy would have to be formed. A person must understand how to post on the internet, and perhaps the person would want to do so recording an audio comment, wherein he/she would have to have the ability to operate both a computer and a recording device. This is all true, but those are finite skills specific to a certain tool or even era. At some point in the future, VoiceThread won’t be necessary anymore as something else will come to be that will do what it does, only better. Or perhaps the tool itself will evolve into a better iteration, but either way, the user experience will change, thus making the specific skill set required to utilize VoiceThread simply a finite set that will change over time.
The real essence of using VoiceThread, however, is in engaging the true process of literacy. First, I must either read or listen to the original idea being posted. Once I’ve gathered meaning by doing so, I can formulate a response. To respond, I will either speak or write my thoughts. If I can’t do these core tenets of literacy effectively, VoiceThread will be useless to me. It is the very act of engaging literacy that makes this process meaningful.
This same rationale applies to all the aforementioned tools that appear to be changing the nature of literacy. The nature isn’t changing. Yes, the skills are, but skills are different than literacy.
So why this whole discussion in the first place? I think it is imperative that we all work together to help better the learning experience for students. If we’re all calling and advocating for different things using the same terms, the result will be to dilute the power of what is most effective. Some have said that the words we use don’t matter, but the fact we have the conversation and talk about this is what’s really important, and while I think the conversation is good, I think establishing what is most effective is better. If we come to the conclusion there are 21st Century Literacies and the 21st Century Skills are really simply those which have always been, what will happen when we present these notions to the decision makers in our districts/regions/nations, and they find the obvious holes in the entire structure and leave us appearing as though we’re espousing an empty philosophy? We will be discredited, and our effective efforts to support change will be blocked.
There’s still much to talk about, and certainly I hope in the near future the talk will turn to action. But again, I would hope we can resolve exactly what the action will look like before we sit atop the horses and begin the charge for change.
Thanks to j /f /photos for the Flickr image.