Saturday, February 20, 2010

21st Century Literacy

The term "literacy" is tossed about a lot, and is loaded up with many layers of meaning. Case in point is the video "What Does It Mean to Be Literate in the 21st Century?" from a couple of Canadian teachers. Definitions (or really, "understandings") provided by the teachers interviewed in the video range from classic "read and write" printed texts to facility with tools, to a Gardner-esque "multiple literacies" that correspond to different intelligences (e.g., emotional literacy, outdoor literacy).

I prefer to go with a media-independent notion of literacy as the ability to construct (or maybe discover) meaning from the world. "Reading" becomes a generic term for this process -- reading clouds, reading printed text, reading symbols, reading faces, reading film, reading math proofs, reading music, and so on. One teacher in the video used the Freirean terms of literacy as not just reading the word, but reading the world. And I might add, again in Freirean terms of active engagement, not just reading the world, but writing the world as well. Literacy becomes a general ability to be in the world in a meaning-ful way.

When it comes to electronic technology, literacy is often reduced to facility. The U.S. Department of Education, back in 1996, defined technology literacy as "computer skills and the ability to use computers and other technology to improve learning, productivity, and performance" (cited on this Technology Literacy page). One state education office defined is as "the ability to use, manage, assess, and understand technology." The ability to use a technology is a rather shallow skill -- much more important is the ability to create meaning, and to gather (or construct) meaning from what is done with the technology.

Electronic technology is only a subset of the technologies around us. The phonetic alphabet is a technology. As is the book and the newspaper. Part of being a critical reader and writer of any medium, is understanding the prejudices that the medium pushes onto the world (hence McLuhan's "the medium is the message"), and also the social context or matrix within which any particular technology is developed and deployed. Technologies always change the person that uses them. Literacy means understanding those changes, and being able to make critical and ethical choices.

The Alliance for Childhood's TechTonic report does a nice job of exploring this dimension of computer technology:
In the past, technology literacy was largely defined as skill in operating computers. That narrow approach was misguided from the start. But it is now dangerously outdated. A new approach to technology literacy, calibrated for the 21st century, requires us to help children develop the habits of mind, heart, and action that can, over time, mature into adult capacities for moral reflection, ethical restraint, and compassionate service. (p. 8)
And later,
The Alliance for Childhood proposes the following definition: Technology literacy is the mature capacity to participate creatively, critically, and responsibly in making technological choices that serve democracy, ecological sustainability, and a just society. (p. 60)
So what are the most important aspects of 21st Century literacy? As always -- the ability to construct or discover meaning in the world, the ability to make critical and ethical choices about the tools available to construct or discover that meaning, to engage meaningfully with the world. With new technologies, that means understanding how those tools are used to construct meaning, what "meaning" looks like, how to decode and critically reflect on media artifacts. (At my school at least, we spend a fair amount of time on strategies for making sense of printed texts, but no time on strategies for making sense of TV, movies, music, PowerPoints, websites, etc.) It also means understanding how economic systems work and how they push technologies into particular directions.

And especially it means learning how to think.



Jenkins said...

I never comment on blogs - never! - but I just discovered this and, well, couldn't not. I'm really into your discussion of McLuhan's work in the context of how we should be teaching media literacy. I've been listening to this conversation (on twitter, at conferences, on blogs) about how we need to teach our kids to think, to be global citizens, etc .. but it often ends there, without an examination of what that really looks like. You're right, the medium is the message, and that means we need to be introducing analytical thinking/skepticism/criticism/etc to the teaching of (and use of) PowerPoint presentations as well as to Catcher in the Rye. The medium matters.


Russ' said...

i find it interesting that at your school you state that the most time is still spent with text book learning and not so much with other, newer media.

tracey howse-lee said...

Jim, I thought that was one of the best points made in the video, "reading the world". I like how you broke it down even further and also that you added writing the world. I also agree that we should be teaching or helping students contribute in meaningful ways.