The New Literacy
Reading, writing, and arithmetic no longer guarantee students a place in the workforce. A different skill set is in high demand.
The New Literacy (PDF)
Such questions underlie a new effort among researchers and ed-tech experts to ensure that students' critical-thinking and communication skills keep pace with their technological acumen. "It's not enough for students to master PowerPoint and Excel. They need to think critically about how they translate data and information into effective communication," says Karen Bruett, director of Education and Community Initiatives for Dell and board chairwoman of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.
Scholastic Administr@tor asked David Warlick, ed-tech expert and author of Redefining Literacy for the 21st Century, to shed light on these new literacies. What follows is his take on why four E's—exposing knowledge, employing information, expressing ideas, and ethics on the Internet-are so important and what they will mean to administrators, teachers, and ultimately to students as they prepare for the future.
When English teachers want to enhance students' understanding of Shakespeare's Othello at the Beacon School, a progressive public high school in New York City, the assignment may include producing a 30-second movie trailer rather than the typical report. Or it may be to write and post a review of the play to the teacher's web site. Such digital assignments are the norm at the Beacon School, where administrators and faculty have embraced the fact that in today's world, teaching students to become better learners involves helping them become better communicators within a contemporary information environment.
"Producing a trailer for the play is a means to understanding how to construct meaning in a visual sense as well as in a written sense," says Chris Lehmann, technology coordinator for the Beacon School. "Visual literacy is crucial to understanding how the world works. If you don't understand how to process the visual text, then you're missing a lot of what's out there."
We live in a time when the very nature of information is changing: in what it looks like, what we use to view it, where and how we find it, what we can do with it, and how we communicate it. If this information is changing, then our sense of what it means to be literate must also change.
The notion of contemporary literacy represents the essential skills involved in effectively accessing, processing, and communicating information. In our efforts to modernize classrooms and update curriculum, we have logically focused on technology and integrating technology to create opportunities for students to gain important technical skills. However, it's time to rethink this approach. If we can establish an expanded sense of what it means to be literate in this new information environment, then we may achieve more progress, in terms of better preparing children for the 21st century, by integrating contemporary literacy, instead of integrating technology.
Being literate in our digital world mirrors our traditional sense of literacy. We'll continue to access (read), process (arithmetic), and communicate information (write). But, like it or not, this information age requires skills that force the 3 R's (reading, writing, and arithmetic) to evolve into the 4 E's (expose, employ, express, and ethics on the Internet).
Most of us were taught to read information that was available in classrooms, libraries, and in our homes. The Internet and software constitute the library for today's students. And the information from these sources grows exponentially from week to week. To manage it, students and their teachers need to learn how to use an evolving array of search tools and strategies to get valuable information from a global electronic library.
But locating and decoding what they retrieve is only preliminary to the skills of critically evaluating information for accuracy, reliability, and bias. Traditional literacy taught us to take for granted the authority of the information we used. With contemporary literacy, students must show evidence of that authority. Students should be able to:
- Find information within that vast global digital library that's relevant to what they are researching
- Understand and explain what they find regardless of its format (e.g., text, images, audio, animation, or video)
- Evaluate the information to determine its value
- Organize that information into electronic folders or other personal e-libraries.
Numbers, numbers, numbers. Until about a decade ago, printed text was almost exclusively intended for reading and numbers were used for measurement and computation.
Today, thanks to digitization, almost all information can be described with numbers. They are the backdrop to music, pictures, and words on our computers, handhelds, and cell phones.
How we process these digitized numbers has also changed, as well as our notion of mathematics. The subject has become more important, and students can do much more of it using computers and the Internet. So the goal of teaching students has to extend beyond assuring that they can add, subtract, count, measure, and calculate. Students need to understand how to employ numbers to answer essential questions, solve real problems, and accomplish important goals. They must be able to compute large sets of visible numbers using computer spreadsheets and data-processing tools.
Expressing Ideas Compellingly
With information growing at such an overwhelming rate, and taking on such different formats, it's not enough to write a compelling paragraph. It's now about communicating with images and audio, as well as the written word. For students, learning the mechanics of writing a coherent paragraph is the start. From there, students must acquire the skills to effectively and creatively develop a message that will capture their audience's attention. This involves being able to write convincingly and effectively, and to incorporate images, sound, animation, and video. These are basics for contemporary literacy.
Schools are investing in digital still and video cameras and sophisticated editing software. We are teaching students to use desktop publishing and to build web pages. It is crucial that these skills and investments be applied within a context of contemporary literacy and not merely as technology skills.
Ethics on the Internet
In the 19th century, it was said that the pen is mightier than the sword. In the 21st century, it may be said that the word processor is mightier than nations. It certainly is changing the value of information.
We are increasingly getting access to enormous amounts of information anytime and anywhere. In addition, with powerful forms of technology almost at our fingertips, we are able to communicate to a global audience. Many students are masters at using the Internet to access research and other information, but this can also lead them into an ethical quagmire, from plagiarism to inappropriate blogs to hacking.
As a daily part of their instruction, students must learn to respect not only the accuracy of information but also ownership and the infrastructure that the information rides on.
Redefining literacy and integrating that into our curriculum provides a far more relevant and potent avenue for modernizing instruction than counting the number of computers and measuring bandwidth. It guides teachers in their instructional planning; tech directors in their procurement, implementation, and support planning; and better prepares children for their future.