Digital Literacy: Reading the Paper Online

This post was supposed to discuss Chester Finn’s editorial about No Child Left Behind, which appeared in The Washington Post on Sunday. He outlines five myths about the law, taking both Republicans and Democrats to task for the way they mischaracterize the law, while providing some insight into the history of national educational reform.

I think the most important one of those myths–that standards will fix the schools–must be addressed at both the federal and the state level if the standards movement will ever have a positive effect on our schools. Finn writes, “For this to work, of course, good standards have to be in place, and NCLB doesn’t address the problem of mediocre or even downright silly standards.” How much of what our students are learning is about snippets of information that can easily be found when needed? Isn’t it more important that our students know how to use those snippets to develop understandings of larger issues? That rather than knowing Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States, they grapple with how someone like Jefferson could write that all men are created equal even while owning other human beings? That even as the country was being put together, the seeds of the Civil War that would threaten to rip it apart were being sewn? (I had this sudden flash to the musical 1776, where Rutledge of South Carolina sings about the link between molasses, rum and slaves. I saw that musical numerous times in the theater where I worked as an usher and sometimes think I learned more about American history that summer than in my high school course.)

While I focused on the content of the article, I was also intrigued with its format. The article is littered with hyperlinks that take the reader to lists of articles, videos and audio related to the link. Here’s an example for President Bush.  What a great example of how online newspapers can take advantage of technology to expand the focus of its readers.

However, one of the links on the Bush page also reminded me of the importance of helping our students become discerning readers.  For instance, I couldn’t help but click on the headline Bush to Phase Out Environment by 2009.  It’s a very funny piece from Andy Borowitz, originally published at Creators Syndicate.   It’s clearly a parody despite its third place ranking in the list of articles related to the President.  It would be a great discussion starter with students about the kernel of truth that makes it funny.  And, it might lead to reading and discussing other famous parodies such as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

The bottom line for me is that we need to be helping our students navigate this sometimes confusing world of digital publishing.   Susan Jacoby, in her current book The Age of American Unreason, takes on Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good for You) for suggesting that somehow Internet culture and gaming may be making us smarter.  I think here’s a good example of how Johnson may be right.  It takes a pretty smart reader to move from a serious news piece to a parody and be able to read both intelligently.  What we need to ensure is that they can make that move.

One thought on “Digital Literacy: Reading the Paper Online

  1. American Education is too full of “facts” and not enough higher order analysis, synthesis and evaluation. As you indicate, our students need to be taught how to process information and think beyond the mere words on the paper. NCLB doesn’t go far enough to address the inequities across this country and it never will as long as there is no agreement on the standards that we expect students to master.

Leave a Reply