Literacy in Context

There’s been an interesting back and forth in Twitter about 21st century literacy.  Tomorrow, it will spill over into an Elluminate session that I am sorry I will have to miss.  I’ve written about 21st century skills in the past, equating them with leadership skills and suggesting that Ben Franklin possessed most of the skills that we now label “21st century.” So, Ben Grey’s eloquent post about 21st century literacies resonated with me:

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.

In another post, he describes how his ideas about literacy relate to a tool like Voice Thread:

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.

Certainly, Voice Thread relies on what some might consider “traditional” literacy skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening.  But there is another component that puts pressure on that definition: the use of images.  These might be the static images we choose to illustrate blog entries or they might be compiled into slide shows and videos, integrated with audio and text. Both choosing the images and then being able to read them seems to demand adding “viewing” to the definition.  I didn’t really understand visual literacy until I began making movies.  Learning how to let images help carry some of the story was an important lesson for me.

Literacy also has to do with knowing how to use available tools effectively and efficiently.  Learning to write across technologies is something I’ve considered before. Dean Shareski provides a perfect example when he writes about his frustrations with trying to use Twitter for deep conversations:

Certainly a great link can be posted but the minute a tweet engages people in a meaningful way that requires any degree of unwrapping, my immediate thought is “get a room”.  Frustrations mount as complex ideas are squeezed into a simple text messaging tool.

He recommends that people move into new spaces that allow more in-depth reflection:

Many newcomers to social media are trying to cram all forms of thinking and sharing into a single space such as Facebook or Twitter. I don’t think that’s a good idea.  While I always encourage people to start somewhere, I don’t mean for them to stay in one space.  So if you’re new to social media you might want to think about adding another space to your identity.  Take the idea tossed around in twitter and take it deep in your own space. Even if you only decontruct it yourself or have a couple of comments I think you’ll find that a more satisfying experience that trying to follow short snippets of insight. Twitter is great but a steady diet of twitter is like only ordering appetizers. At some point, you’ll want a main course.

His metaphor prompted me to think of one of my own: for me, Twitter is like a cocktail party.  We’re all sort of generally chatting and then a serious conversation takes off in the corner and we can eavesdrop and even got involved.  It dies down and may or may not be preserved but each person can take their bits and pieces and do something with them.  For bloggers like Dean, it might be a blog post.  For someone else, it might be a conversation in the teachers’ lounge. But the point is that different communication media have different languages and purposes and being able to navigate them effectively should be part of the definition of literacy.

And, once again, I reach into history to think about two people who were quite literate: Abigail and John Adams.  Like Ben Franklin, they used the communication media of their time more effectively than most people and their letters are a pleasure to read.  (And thanks to the Massachusetts Historical Society, you can not only read them but also view the originals!)  They hashed over the most petty domestic problems in the midst of conversations about revolution.  Since they spent much time apart, those letters were an important place for them to build their relationship, with over 1100 letters exchanged.  The pace is glacial when compared to our instantaneous world.  Talk about slow blogging!

Adams thought about literacy in his own time.  In a letter written just days after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams reflected on how different types of writing require different styles of language:

It is worth the while of a Person, obliged to write as much as I do, to consider the Varieties of Style …. The Epistolary, is essentially different from the oratorical, and the Historical Style …. Oratory abounds with Figures. History is simple, but grave, majestic and formal. Letters, like Conversation, should be free, easy, and familiar.

Abigail seems to take him at his word and her reply shows the easy familiarity of a long-married couple as she chides him for not providing the personal details she longs to hear:

I received a Letter from you by wedensday Post 7 of July and tho I think it a choise one in the Litterary Way, containing many usefull hints and judicious observations which will greatly assist me in the future instruction of our Little ones, yet it Lacked some essential engrediants to make it compleat. Not one word respecting yourself, your Health or your present Situation. My anxiety for your welfare will never leave me but with my parting Breath, tis of more importance to me than all this World contains besides.

Amidst all the lofty thoughts and big ideas, there is the need for simple human connection. How are you doing, she asks?  Whether we’re writing 140 character haikus or multi-paragraph blog entries, we are connecting with others as we do so.  Literacy facilitates that connection and children must be given experiences with all the various communication media so they can make smart choices about how best to make connections.

But, as Ben suggests, there is a difference between being literate and having the skills to manipulate the media.  As part of his contribution to the conversation, Gary Stager provided a link to an article by Seymour Papert from 1993 in which Papert discusses the changes that will take place in the way we communicate.  Papert writes:

But looking forward, we can formulate new arguments beyond the imagination of 19th century thinkers, who could hardly have conjured images of media that would provide modes of accessing and manipulating knowledge radically different than those offered by the Rs. Nor could they have formulated what I see as the deep difference between education past and future: In the past, education adapted the mind to a very restricted set of available media; in the future, it will adapt media to serve the needs and tastes of each individual mind.

He’s right: Abigail and John wrote letters because that was very restricted available media to them.  We face a plethora of media available to us and yet, I’m always struck by the fact that even though I’m staring at a computer screen, I’m doing a lot of traditional reading and writing.  There is some listening and viewing but it’s mostly text-based communication.

So, reading and writing still form the foundation of what it means to be literate.  But technical skills seem to loom larger now since we have to put those basics to work in a complex media world.  We can’t forget that part of literacy is related to navigating that media.  If we too narrowly define literacy, it’s easier to justify the fact that some 50% of Americans don’t have sufficient broadband access to watch Barack Obama’s weekly addresses on YouTube.   As this article from Business Week reminds us, defining literacy is less important than ensuring that everyone has access to practice those literacy skills.   In order to ensure access, we need to make it clear that knowing how to read and write with contemporary communications media does rise to the level of a literacy.  You can apply whatever adjective you wish–media literacy, digital literacy, 21st century literacy–what matters is the understanding that such literacy is the right of every citizen.

8 thoughts on “Literacy in Context

  1. Hi, Karen,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts related to recent Twitter discussions on 21st century literacy. You’ve managed to illuminate the concept of “discourse” in this piece. You’ve also called attention to the variances in types and styles of communications that enrich contexts by appealing to the various target audiences. Clearly, you describe “literacy” without limiting the *concept* of literacy by reducing it to a discrete definition.

    What I like most about your message is the acknowledgment that the communication “medium” influences the message (Marshall McLuhan). In the 21st century, the medium is increasingly technological and web-based. There can be no doubt that the influence of such a powerful new medium will extend the description of literacy. It is my highest hope that educators will see this “new medium” as an emerging form of discourse rather than a new definition of literacy.

    Thank you for a thoughtful post!

  2. Glad you enjoyed the post, Beth. I like your distinction between a form of discourse rather than a literacy. That summarizes my rambling ideas quite nicely. We’re still communicating; we’re just doing it with new tools. I often wish I were back in the English classroom as it would be fun to work with students in all these different media: how can you tell the same story in Twitter, in a blog entry, in a video…

  3. Thank you for bringing attention to your post for me on Twitter today. I agree with many of your points. For me, literacy is about reading, writing, and speaking. It has always been about adapting these core principles for different audiences and purposes. Now we are adapting them for different mediums; the core principles haven’t changed. I look forward to a time that we, as a unified group of passionate educators, can decide on a definition that will move us into the stages of creating practical change for kids!

  4. Michigan’s English Language Arts Grade Level Content Expectations include listening and presenting along with reading, writing and speaking. Listening and presenting look different in the media of 21st century. What does listening look like in these media, and how it is (or is it?) different from traditional means. As far as presentation goes–students are only limited by their imagination (and access!). Beth did an outstanding job of outlining the historical context and urgency of teaching these skills in her blog and I like how you wove an even deeper historical perspective in this post, going back to the founders of our country.

  5. I like the inclusion of listening and can’t help but think what an “old” literacy that is. Technology, however, helps combat the temporal nature of the spoken word. It has become easier to record and store everything so we can re-listen and hear things we didn’t the first time. And the ease of conversion to text means that if I prefer to read, I can thus be able to choose which literacy is my strongest one.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Kelly. Your notion of core principles resonates with me. There really are some basics, fundamentals, that all students must master in order to be able to communicate across different media.

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