21st Century Clarification

Posted by on Jan 1, 2009


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.


  1. Doug Belshaw
    January 1, 2009

    Hi Ben,

    Interesting stuff. Thanks for the discussion you (jointly) started on Twitter and the link to the various types of ‘21st Century Literacies‘.

    Also, thanks for the brief discussion about semantics. I get really frustrated when people say something like ‘it’s just semantics’. Words and how we categorize and explain things are very important.

    I look forward to reading more from you in this area to stimulate my thinking for my Ed.D.. 🙂

    • Ben Grey
      January 3, 2009

      Thanks for being part of the discussion. Yes, I believe we need to be as precise as possible with our language. That is what makes this entire discussion so very important. If we’re all operating from different definitions of the same word, how can we expect to make true change in the learning experience for students?

      Yes, this discussion has been extremely challenging for me as well. I was a fifth grade teacher for five years, so I know how very important this is to the elementary level. I’m hoping to reach a point soon where the more the discussion takes place, the more clarity will be established. I think perhaps in the near future, it’s likely more questions will arise than answers, but I’m hopeful that these questions will lead us to answers and a position where we can work as a united team to further the cause of literacy.

      I read your post and it’s as sophisticated and thorough as anything that we have going here, so share that link with pride. I do disagree with you a bit that the notion of literacy is changing as dramatically as many people want us to believe. I think starting at the core of what it takes to communicate effectively (reading, writing, speaking, and listening) will serve as a springboard for students to engage the emerging skills that are developing due to the rapid change technology is facilitating in our society. If we can work from a common foundation, I believe we can be much more effective in getting teachers, students, administrators, and every other constituent group on board to begin to foster true change in our educational system.

      You knew I was going to disagree with you. I’ll try not to disappoint. I believe this is where it begins, not winds down. If we can formulate this foundation, we can build effectively upward. The definition of literacy is absolutely evolving. Very early in the history of mankind, we communicated through stories and actions. At that point meaning was drawn from communication through speaking and listening. If you could do both well, you were very successful and quite literate. The advent of printed word then forced the evolution of literacy to include reading and writing. Now ideas can be communicated by speaking and writing, and meaning can be drawn by the recipient by listening and reading. Will there be a new form of communication that adds another layer to literacy? Likely, but it will be macro evolution like we saw with printed text. The concept will still remain within it’s given framework (relating entirely to the communication of ideas) that causes us to call it literacy in the first place. Literacy can’t evolve into meaning general proficiency any more than a dog can evolve into a cat. It will most certainly go forward in an entirely organic state of evolution, but again, that evolution will still have to remain within the specified parameters of what makes literacy what it is, or else we will have to establish an entirely new nomenclature for this new concept.

      Outstanding comment. Some absolute astounding observations and support. Let me ask you this question. Could it be that the way we change how we teach the four main tenets of literacy be the defining focus that changes education rather than trying to change that which makes up literacy itself? What I see in your response is an opportunity for students to engage in the process of learning to be literate in new, dynamic ways. Using VoiceThread, blogging, exploring interrelationships and intercontextuality and the like could potentially vault our students into an entirely deeper ability to engage literacy than we had the opportunity to do when we were students. Imagine if we made that the focus instead of constantly trying to redefine terms that serve to cause confusion for those who are trying to teach our students how to engage. Both of your main points could be the means by which we engage this deeper level of literacy instruction to be sure.

  2. Kelly Hines
    January 1, 2009

    I’ve been following your conversations with Will Richardson and Bud Hunt on Twitter today (and over the past weeks). I find this conversation both frustrating and stimulating. I agree with you that this is not just an issue of semantics and that for real change to happen there needs to be distinct clarity as to motivation and necessity. I look forward to spending more time diving into researching these topics and articulating my thoughts as 4th grade teacher and how these particular skill sets are used/needed/taught in the elementary classroom.

    • Essie
      April 18, 2016

      AFAICT you’ve coeverd all the bases with this answer!

  3. ehelfant
    January 1, 2009

    Really do appreciate you making me think and continue to develop my thoughts on literacy and skills. My thinking about literacy was influenced by Mark Federman’s Why Johnny And Janey Can’t Read, And Why Mr. And Ms. Smith Can’t Teach:The challenge of multiple media literacy in a tumultuous time. I think that piece does a nice job of explaining historical shifts in literacy. I don’t think the discussion is a question of semantics but do think a common vocabulary is important if we are to get our constituent faculty members to understand the conversation and to use the conversation to help them understand why education needs to change. I think part of the issue is a need to define literacy and skillsets so we can get more intentional about teaching those skills and developing a modern day literacy. The concepts have to be articulated and understood by all if change is to be systemic and sustainable. My take on literacies and attempt to articulate it for my faculty is here:
    http://helcat.org/wordpress/?p=77. Almost afraid to share it as most of your readership is more sophisticated in their thinking about this but I’m trying to keep up:)
    I will follow this thread with great interest and try to get smarter in 2009! Thanks for pushing me in that direction!

  4. drezac
    January 1, 2009

    I think this is where this debate starts to wind down. You say, “we’ve really started misusing the term literacy.” Really?

    What do you have to say to the idea that the term is just…evolving? And why not let it evolve? I see this debate, and particularly your point of view, as an attempt to pull back the reigns. I say, let it go forward. Which it will, anyway.

    The question we might as now is: Do we risk disenfranchising our kids by assuming they will have these basic tenets of literacy? That’s where I see this argument going.


  5. Scott Schwister
    January 1, 2009

    Fascinating discussions taking place both here and south of your “confusion” post. Thanks for getting them started. Much here to sink the ol’ mental teeth into.

    While I’m heartened to see our familiar friends The 4 Pillars (read, write, speak, listen) out front, loud and proud, and I agree that they’re fundamental, it feels like something’s missing. You deserve kudos for critically raising the possibility that the 21st century skills/literacies moniker is slapping a new label on an old concept, and for worrying about the consequences re credibility. But I think there IS something new going on here that goes beyond the Big 4, or at least beyond our traditional understanding of them as the cardinal literacy compass points, and it’s worth our attention.

    Some really-really half-baked attempts to extend what I mean:

    SYNTHESES & INTERSTICES: Our traditional sense of reading/writing/speaking/listening (at least, of teaching them) tends to isolate them, focusing on each as if it’s a monolithic, stand-alone competency. You read. Tomorrow you write. Next month, during the speech unit, you speak. Might 21st c. literacy be about how they interact and combine and synthesize? About what happens in the spaces between the monoliths, or in the student whose engagement shifts quickly between them, and whose role (reader/writer/speaker/listener) shifts as quickly? I agree with the basic premises of your VT example—it’s useless without core literacy, and it’ll give way to something new before we know it. But I think it’s a good, current example of a “new literacy” experience in the way that it juxtaposes the Big 4, and allows (demands, almost) engagement with all four at once. And, more to the point, it demands attention to their interrelationships and intercontextuality. How, for instance, my thinking about a VT artifact organically changes from first viewing to second as a result of listening to a comment, or how my understanding of a comment changes as a result of composing my own comment. Is it enough to be just readers or writers in isolation? We need to be readers-who-are-also-writers, writers-who-are-also-viewers, and so on. Roles morph and morph again in a recursive process, you can never quite pin down whether you’re a particle or a wave, and suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore. Writing a blog post may involve all the traditional competencies of writing an essay, but the simple act of linking out to another blog weaves together the reader and writer roles so intimately that we have to treat it as something different.

    CONTEXT AND COLLABORATION: That said, I think the changes even go beyond role. Clay mentioned identity management and social reading as possible aspects of 21st c literacy. Instead of the simple person-to-text (text being broadly defined here) relationship I grew up with, where we often raised that silly question about “author’s intent,” students are now faced with a more complex, multimodal scenario. They may be relating to the text, but a link or two later and they very well might find themselves in a relationship with the author, too, not to mention a whole rotating cast of other readers and writers also interested in the same conversation. Communication and expression are no longer a one-off deal, but merge into a larger, possibly-permanent cloud. Mediating and managing your online identity become part of being able to effectively communicate. Being aware of your surroundings and context and audience become very important. It’s a variant of the tree-falls-and-no-one-is-there-to-hear question: If a tree wants to be heard, how and where should it fall to be sure it makes a glorious cacophony? Or if it doesn’t want to make a sound, can it find a place to fall where no one will be listening?

    Thanks again for starting some constructive unpacking of the buzz. Hope I haven’t tossed too many loose items back into the suitcase. Looking forward to reading more.

  6. laboring for invention « Higher Edison
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  7. Scott Schwister
    January 3, 2009

    @ben Yep. Literacy can be both particle and wave.

  8. Jackie Gerstein
    January 3, 2009

    Thanks for keeping up this discussion. But I still have to advocate for the redefinition of literacy based on the evolution of us as a species. You state that there are four pillars to literacy – writing, reading, speaking and listening. If we could travel back in time prior to the “invention” of the written word, how would the “scholars” of that time define literacy in the absence of reading and writing? Would you say that literacy did not exist prior to the written word? By limiting the definition of literacy to the four pillars, the distant past as well as the distant and not-so-distant future does not become part of the bigger picture.

    I would prefer a broader definition based on how people make sense of and communicate in the world in the 21st century – not one necessarily specific to technology. So I do agree with your comment, “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.” Hopefully, this discussion will lead to some “collective” understanding of the meaning of literacy in the 21st century.

  9. Jay Fogleman
    January 9, 2009

    Thanks for continuing an interesting conversation.

    Though I relish coherent working definitions, I agree with Doug Belshaw’s recognition that sometimes a pragmatic approach is necessary to move forward. Time for an application question:

    Given the different ways that this discussion has progressed, i.e. from twitter to web meetings, to blogs, should a person who is “21st century literate” be able to gather up, make sense of, and concisely synthesize this discussion, and then move towards informed action?

    The web has upset the produce/consumer hierarchy of knowledge and information, and has multiplied our students’ (and our own) access to knowledge, information, opinion, etc. I am beginning to think that (1) there are indeed new literacies required to collaboratively manage and act on this influx, and (2) as a teacher, I do not feel that I have the theoretical framework or tools to understand and teach around this problem. I look forward to reading (the abstract) of your thesis! 🙂

  10. dougbelshaw.com/blog » Blog Archive » The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies
    January 10, 2009

    […] come across Ben Grey’s blog post entitled 21st Century Confusion, which he followed up with 21st Century Clarification. Ben’s an eloquent and nuanced writer, so I suggest you go and read what he has to say before […]

  11. Steve Shann
    January 13, 2009

    Like Jackie, I found myself thinking historically as I read the blogs, tweets and responses.
    Ben, you said that maybe you’d think about including ‘viewing’ as a fifth to join the big four. What about ‘representing’ too? Australian English teachers (others too?) have been thinking about a big 6 for a while now: (1) writing, (2) speaking and (3) representing for that aspect of literacy that’s about communicating and/or expressing our ideas; (4) reading, (5) viewing and (6) listening for that aspect of literacy that’s about receiving others’ communications. It’s too neat, and if taken literally as if all these things were in tight unconnected boxes it’s ridiculous. But what I like about this big 6 is that it keeps us grounded in what literacy traditionally has always been about while at the same time making some room for the many ways communication has changed over the past.
    I’ve found the challenges you’ve been putting out really useful. Many thanks.

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