Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Old Literacy/New Literacy

There's a debate going on in educational circles that I think is profoundly important for the future of education in general and libraries in specific.  "21st Century Skills" reigns as the current buzz word of choice to the point it has become somewhat meaningless.  What do we mean by that?  NETS standards?  Critical thinking?  Technology?  All of the above?

Critics claim it's the latest education fad. They argue it's actually just a re-packaging of old 20th Century skills long recognized by Bloom:  analyzing, synthesizing, creating. And I do believe they have a point. Many of the "new literacies" we promote are touted as methods for engaging students more deeply with content.  Don't write an essay, the thinking goes, produce a documentary!  The tools are different, but by creating a real project for a real audience, students finally engage with all those analytical modes we've been trying to get them to for so long.  Or that's the theory.

Anyone who has ever had a class produce documentaries knows they can be every bit as weak and brain dead as an essay.  That usually happens when the focus is on the tool rather than the learning...but that's another blog post!

My point here is that many of the nay-sayers miss a fundamental difference in how students are choosing to learn these days. Quite bluntly, literacy is changing.  Like it or not, the internet is transforming how we read, how we process, how we study.  I'm 52 and long entrenched in novels, and even I can see a difference in my reading habits.  It's more of an effort to read a book these days, I must admit.  And not just because I need reading glasses now.  Once I'm into it, it I'm fine, but I feel a definite cognitive shift in that first chapter or so.

Doug Johnson wrote an interesting post the other day describing post-literacy reading habits and how libraries must change to meet the needs of students who increasingly choose to work and think in modalities other than writing or reading. Most tellingly (for me), he argues:
...postliteracy is a return to more natural forms of multi-sensory communication - speaking, storytelling, dialogue, debate, and dramatization. It is just now that these modes can be captured and stored digitally as easily as writing. Information, emotion and persuasion may be even more powerfully conveyed in multi-media formats.
While there is a plethora of literature about "new literacies," I have found very little that actually defines what that means.  The University of Connecticut is one exception, and I was lucky enough to sit in on a conference call with Greg McVerry, the Neag Fellow at UConn's New Literacies research lab.

As he pointed out, the dilemma isn't a tech issue, it's a literacy issue.  Students come to any given learning experience with something of a "textbook mentality"--they expect to find their "answer" specifically stated somewhere in the text, with everything titled and subtitled for easy skimming.  I certainly see that in my own students;  if they can't find a sentence directly addressing their topic (usually in the first 10 minutes), they give up and declare "I can't find anything!"

We're in a new age, however.  Rather than texts, or even libraries, where books are edited and chosen for content, students Google the web in a sort of "self directed text construction"  (Greg's term--isn't it great?). Students themselves act as editors (ideally), and while the topic may be the same, by researching online, each student constructs a different text as they read different links.

They start bogging down, however, with the sheer amount of information available to them. Remember the old days when you had to have "two books and a magazine article" for your research paper? Students now have access to thousands of sources. Moreover, in addition to the authority problem we all try to teach them, they now have another issue:  how do I synthesize the information I've learned from multiple texts  and put my own spin on it?

That is the consistent problem I see students struggle with--they're surrounded with stacks of information, but don't know how to organize and reshape it into something meaningful for their paper.  Worse, they are often side-tracked into non-relevant issues by the plethora of links leading from any given page.

For me, 21st Century Skills are only nominally about technology.  As a profession, we must come to grips not only with teaching students to find and manage information, but also teaching them to synthesize it,  to make it their own, whether they're writing an essay or producing an Animoto presentation. While good teachers have  always pushed for that in student work, the sheer variety of information available to students now--textual, visual, auditory and mash-ups of all three--make it not just a nice perk from the academically inclined, but a necessity for ALL students.

Yet we consistently take them to the point where they start putting it all together---then just give them a due date and say "have at it."  Like the Sidney Harris cartoon, we expect the miracle to happen, and, disappointed, grade them down when it doesn't. We would be better teachers, produce more successful students,  if we were "more explicit...in step two."

How we do that, I don't know, but let's start the conversation.  It's certainly something I'm going to think heavily about this year.  Any sudden insights, and I'll certainly post them!


  1. yeah, getting the kids to the "synthesize" part is hard-- they will read a zillion things and then vomit them out, paraphrasing stuff all the way-- and probably forget everything they put on paper (or on the Web 2.0 app I'm having them use at the moment) the next day. Its the synthesizing the stuff they learn into something new that is the hard step...

  2. Ever the handout-queen, I'm trying to design a planner that could help them take the key points they've learned, and turn it into something new, but how the heck do you teach "Be original!"?