Rethinking Skills and Content (Otherwise Known as Defining Emerging Literacies)

Cross posted from 21st Century Connections.

Literacy has changed, whether we want to recognize that or not. The simple fact of the matter is that what it means to be literate for our students is not what it meant to be literate when I graduated from college. That shouldn’t be shocking or surprising as literacy has always been evolving and morphing. What could be shocking, even terrifying, is to understand what being literate today means and come to the realization that it is a skill set that I no longer possess because I stopped growing intellectually, deeming myself too busy to invest in my academic currency and now find that I am professionally bankrupt. Fortunately, that hasn’t happened to me yet, and I would wager it hasn’t happened to you or you wouldn’t be reading this. That said, it is incumbent upon us to come to an understanding of what it means to be literate; what emerging literacies must be taught along with fundamental core knowledge to prepare our students.

An interesting place to begin to look at why emerging literacies matter and what they are might be to read 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. It is an interesting look at how literacies have changed. He begins his 12 page article:

In fact, I am going to introduce you to the notion that our beloved literacy is now nothing but a quaint notion, an aesthetic form that is as irrelevant to the real questions and issues of pedagogy today as is recited poetry - clearly not devoid of value, but equally no longer the structuring force of society. I will ask you to consider that our society’s obsessive focus on literacy would doom future generations to oblivion and ignorance, if only they cared a whit about what, and how, we think. Further, I am going to challenge the assumptive ground upon which our institutions of education -primary, secondary and tertiary - are built, and raise the real question of our time -and of any time - namely, what is valued as knowledge, who decides, and who is valued as authority.

He details historical shifts in modes of communication of knowledge and our concept of what knowledge is and who the ultimate knowledge authority is. He includes an example of the power of participatory culture and alludes to the collective wisdom of the masses. He develops his position and ends with this nugget that for me crystallizes the current paradox in education; the notion that we are teaching them supposed knowledge with structures and methodologies that do not translate into learning and in a time and place when it is not knowledge we should be teaching but wisdom we should be imparting and developing. He ends with a look at how culture and the way knowledge can be obtained and interacted with have changed.

So why can’t Johnny and Janey read, and why can’t Mr. and Ms. Smith teach? If Johnny and Janey are under the age of 20 they are living in a world in which the Internet never didn’t exist. They are living in a world in which Google never didn’t exist. They are living in a world in which everyone who matters is either a click away, or text message away, or a speed-dialed call away among a variety of devices, all of which - regardless of what they look like, or how they functionally behave, or what they are called - are the same: they are connection devices. Unlike we who were socialized and acculturated in a primarily literate societal ground, in which our experience with technology and media is primarily within a linear, hierarchical context - all artifacts of literacy - today’s youth and tomorrow’s adults live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity. Everyone is, or soon will be, connected to everyone else, and all available information, through instantaneous, multi-way communication. This is ubiquitous connectivity. They will therefore have the experience of being immediately proximate to everyone else and to all available information. This is pervasive proximity. Their direct experience of the world is fundamentally different from yours or from mine, as we have had to adopt and adapt to these technologies that create the effects of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity. Johnny and Janey naturally make sense of the world as they experience it …..The UCaPP world - ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate - is a world of relationships and connections. It is a world of entangled, complex processes, not content. It is a world in which the greatest skill is that of making sense and discovering emergent meaning among contexts that are continually in flux. It is a world in which truth, and therefore authority, is never static, never absolute, and not always true.

Knowledge is dynamic and the way students do things, including learn, has changed. Scenarios that create engagement and stimulate intellectually curiosity are different. What remains the same is our professional obligation to facilitate the creation of teachable moments; teachable moments that intentionally include the emerging literacies.

So What Are the Emerging Literacies?

The enGuage 21st Century Skills, ISTE’s NETs, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills Framework provide the most definitive explanation of these skills and literacies. While those documents are great, it is difficult for some faculty members to really appreciate what that means and how that plays out. I think it is important for institutions to examine what is current and try to articulate it in the language that makes sense for the internal culture, to translate important concepts into the vernacular that will allow it to take root and become indoctrinated into the culture. Our technology committee, which is an expanded PLP team, spent some time talking through the literacies and tried to sort them into themes that we believe we can breathe life into with all of our constituents. The following list was our best attempt at synthesizing the above documents into talking points for our internal culture.

Literacies of a Life Long Learner (L4)

* Basic Literacy (3R+ rigor + technology basics + disciplined mind)
* Habits of Mind Literacy
* Visual/Media Literacy
* Information Literacy
* Intercultural Literacy (Global/Cultural Awareness)
* Citizenship and Ethical Literacy (Digital Citizenship)
* Network Literacy (includes communication and collaboration in a flat world)

Let’s take a brief, closer look at these.

Habits of Mind Literacy

This literacy is the one that we claim we always teach. It includes critical thinking, persistence, risk-taking, creativity, all the ideals that an independent learner would possess. There are two slightly different schools of thought on Habits of Mind. I interpret Costa and Kallick’s philosophy to be slightly stronger on the importance of metacognition while Sizer and Meier’s framework invokes more of a sense of understanding community and acting with ethical behavior. (I think Pink would like Sizer/Meier while Friedman would gravitate to Costa/Kallick but that’s just a fun little supposition on my part.) Collectively, they describe the behaviors that are needed in future thinkers and learners. While we have always tried to teach these, technology allows me to make their acquisition more transparent and provides a tool around while a creative and engaging curriculum can be built.

Basic Literacy (3Rs+ rigor + technology basics + disciplined mind)

Basic Literacy has also been around for awhile. It covers teaching the foundational skills students need and developing Gardner’s disciplined minds.

It does not necessarily prescribe a canon of content beyond that which is necessary to allow students to acquire the skills needed to communicate and read; to develop numeracy, scientific, and economic literacy; and to be proficient manipulating electronic devices. (Yes, I’m wrapping technological literacy into basic literacy as it has become a basic skill and shouldn’t be thought of as an added skill to address but as a fundamental skill that is essential to success.)

Visual/Media Literacy

Just look around you - the recent election, the case for global warming or energy alternatives, the move to green - everywhere we are bombarded by messages ranging from subtle to overwhelmingly persuasive. All need to be viewed with a critical eye that seeks to discern truth and bias, innuendo and allusion, and fact from fiction. In the reverse, how can I select an image, series of images, video, or music that will appropriately convey my message? This expands our responsibility from teach students to understand and produce the types of documents the printing press made public to a compulsory obligation to teach student to understand and produce the wide range of communication formats that the computer makes possible.

Information Literacy

In a world where information is being created at an exponentially increasing rate, students need to learn how to manage it - to evaluate its integrity, to respect it as property, to detect the bias inherent in much of it, and to create with it. Students should become discriminate consumers, creative producers, and scholarly researchers. They have a wealth of information at their fingertips must learn to access it and construct meaning from it. We cannot teach them what they need to know for jobs and processes that aren’t yet a reality. We can only prepare them to learn how to first ask the right questions and then to construct the right answers.

Intercultural Literacy (Global/Cultural Awareness)

Students need to understand, appreciate, and respect differences in perspectives that are based on culture. They can develop this to some extent in humanities courses that expose them through art, history, and literature to other cultures. They will not become literate without exposure to other people and technology certainly affords us the opportunity to make synchronous and asynchronous connections.

Citizenship and Ethical Literacy (Digital Citizenship)

Our immediate spheres of influence are much wider now and potentially transcend what were once cultural barriers. The six degrees of separation is more rapidly unveiled. The ability to collectively interact, create, publish, connect, organize, and promote has never been greater. Students must understand what the appropriate barriers are for personal safety and global collaboration. They must understand what the implications of their digital footprint might be, regardless of whether or not they wore the shoe that created the footprint. They must nurture their online identity.

Network Literacy (includes communication and collaboration in a flat world)

In today’s networked world , students and teachers have the ability to create a learning network. They understand this power when framed in the context of a social network, largely because of the impact facebook has had in teen culture. It is our job to show them the power of networking for learning and to leverage that same power in our own professional learning. It is this literacy that requires a certain proficiency in all the other literacies as it situates learning in a global, interconnected web that understands that the intelligence of many, when properly engaged and directed, can be harnessed to do incredible things.

Can we impart these literacies to our students with the same, traditional content?

I would argue no, not even basic literacy (wasn’t I clever lumping technology into that basic category!) We need to expand the content to include more opportunities to include perspectives from other cultures if students are to achieve fluency in intercultural literacy. We need to provide students with interesting learning scenarios that force them to ask good questions, questions that demonstrate critical thinking, discernment, attention to bias, and an awareness of culture. Most importantly, we need to rethink our content so that we are asking them to work with content that is relevant and/or interesting to them. We need to use the emerging literacies to make some tough choices about what the canon of content is. If I can google it readily and get the answer, it might not be worth spending time on, especially if I have to omit something that might be genuinely engaging and interesting.

We must remember that the students must not view education as learning for learning sake - just as it should not be technology for technology’s sake. Our mission is to prepare our students for their future, to arm them with the skills that will allow them to solve the problems they will inherit; to give them the compass that will allow them to navigate their life in their world. Rather than asking them to prepare for our world, perhaps we should spend some time understanding their world better? It’s a difficult but necessary imperative. This imperative will require us to rethink professional development. If we are to be ready to rewrite lessons with an eye toward the literacies and new,engaging content, we need to rethink professional development and update some of the mechanisms we use to design curriculum, to update those structures and devices so they foster and facilitate the development of 21st century curriculum. Next blog post we will examine professional development and some of the framing constructs that we invoke in our curriculum design.

In the meantime and in keeping with visual literacy, take a look at these images which define some of the areas of education that we need to rethink. Do you understand them or do you, as most of us do, need to continue to learn to be the most effective facilitator of learning that you can be?

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18 Responses to “Rethinking Skills and Content (Otherwise Known as Defining Emerging Literacies)”

  1. Beth Holmes Says:


    This is a thorough and comprehensive explanation of a dynamic and complex issue. Literacy is a “moving target” in a rapidly changing world. You’ve done a superb job of aligning the work of those who attempt to harness definitions of “21st century literacy.” Still, we recognize, and reserve the right to add to our list of literacies as the world morphs and changes. Who might have guessed a few months past that we would be adding “collateralized debt obligations” to our list of financial literacies?

  2. Doug Belshaw Says:

    Wow! This is going to take a while to take in and process. Thanks, Elizabeth!

    This will help inform my Ed.D. on the concept of ‘digital literacy’:

  3. annelisewojo Says:

    I wonder what progress you’ve made in your school with implementing these literacies you described above. Does your school have a plan for making this shift? All of our teachers have now had a full day of PD this school year to fully engage in a discussions around 21st Century skills, our own school rubrics of these standards (mostly adopted from West Virginia new 21c standards and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills), particpated in a lesson that modeled many of these skills/literacies and ended by taking existing lessons and trying to incorporate new twists into them based on the new 21c standards. We are now at the next steps stage…..figuring out how to make sure we are moving in the right direction…..making sure all teachers are taking that step……looking for ways to track/monitor to make sure the students are getting these new literacies. Do you have any insight or ideas on next steps?

  4. topspeeds Says:

    Wow! This is going to take a while to take in and process. Thanks, Elizabeth!

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