Teaching 21st century literacies

Howard Rheingold  has written an article for City Brights on 21st century literacies.  His opening paragraph asks essential questions for the future (and present) of education:

Will our grandchildren century grow up knowing how to pluck the answer to any question out of the air, summon their social networks to assist them personally or professionally, organize political movements and markets online? Will they collaborate to solve problems, participate in online discussions as a form of civic engagement, share and teach and learn to their benefit and that of everyone else? Or will they grow up knowing that the online world is a bewildering puzzle to which they have few clues, a dangerous neighborhood where their identities can be stolen, a morass of spam and porn, misinformation and disinformation, urban legends, hoaxes, and scams?

And here in a nutshell is the definition for 21st century literacies in plain English. What concerns me, and many others, is that the shift from traditional literacy to these 21st century literacies is not occurring in schools on any significant scale. An understanding of the critical need for a focus on these literacies isn’t happening from the top down, nor from the bottom up. And it’s not going to happen unless we, educators, step out of our teaching role and immerse ourselves in the 21st world as learners.

As far as I know, on the whole Australian schools still view online involvement for students as ‘a dangerous neighborhood where their identities can be stolen, a morass of spam and porn, misinformation and disinformation, urban legends, hoaxes, and scams?’ This is part of the reason for inaccessibility and filtering; for the rules prohibiting the use of online games and mobile phones at school. We talk about integrating technologies into the curriculum, but we still view these technologies as the enemy.

Perhaps many of us are uncomfortable about using new technology. We figure our students are naturals, that they’ll figure out the technology thing by themselves, better without us. Howard Rheingold questions the term ‘digital natives’ applied to our students:

Just because your teens Facebook, IM, and Youtube, don’t assume they know the rhetoric of blogging, collective knowledge gathering techniques of taggers and social bookmarkers, collaborative norms of wiki work, how to tune and feed a Twitter network, the art of multimedia argumentation – and, by far most importantly, online crap detection.

Rheingold makes it very clear how urgent it is for our students to be educated in 21st century literacies:

If you think that forgetting to teach your kids the facts of life is dangerous, wait until you witness the collision of a global superempowered infrastructure with a population of illiterate users.

There’s no mincing of words. According to Rheingold, our students will be illiterate if we don’t redefine our concept of literacy. What literacies are we teaching our students at present? Are these in line with the world in which they will live and work? We may not like digital media as much as our students, but isn’t our job as educators preparing them for their future? Their future is digital, global and networked. Digital literacy is not so much about the mechanics of digital tools; it is much more than that:

The most important critical uncertainty today is how many of us learn to use digital media and networks effectively, reasonably, credibly, collaboratively, civilly, humanely.

One of the commenters identifies the importance of teaching critical reading skills. Howard adds that ‘some, perhaps many, view critical thinking as a frivolous distraction from “the basics”… Others say that there is nothing new about this requirement’.  For teacher librarians, teaching critical reading and critical thinking has been part of their role for some time. As a teacher librarian,I find this problematic –  not the fact that we are delegated this teaching role, since we are ‘information specialists’, and our role must evolve in line with developments in the world of information – but that this teaching is seen as somehow separate from ‘the real curriculum’, that we come in for one lesson or two at most, and teach ‘information skills’ as discrete skills. We all know that this doesn’t work, that the integration of critical, digital literacies must be integrated fully in everyday teaching, and that curricular material must be selected with this teaching aim in mind. Our choice of medium must support the teaching of these literacies. If we use blogs, wikis or nings, it is not because we are ticking off our use of Web 2.0 technologies for the sake of being recognised as Web 2.0 savvy, it’s because we recognise that a networked learning  environment is the best way to prepare our students for their future. If we teach our senior students to critically evaluate newspaper articles and advertisements, shouldn’t we finally take the leap to teaching them the skills they need to navigate the deluge of online information?  They’re not reading editorials as much as they’re watching YouTube videos. Will they continue to get their news from newspapers? Or will they prefer real-time, real-people news reports on Twitter?

What are your thoughts? Let’s have a discussion.

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11 thoughts on “Teaching 21st century literacies”

  1. Social networking sites are enjoying phenomenal growth along with the entertainment options including You Tube, iPods, etc. Teachers need to provide students with the strategic academic alternatives to the Internet, the 21st century literacies. A local university questionaire of professors in Ontario published the result that first year students have poor online research skills. Yes, it seems there is much that can be done to identify these new literacies and to incorporate them within the secondary curriculum.

  2. I agree with your first point, Paul, that teachers should be providing educational alternatives for online activities for students, but first they have to jump in themselves. You can’t know what there is and what it’s like unless you do it yourself. Theory just doesn’t suffice in this instance.

    I’m not suprised about the poor research skills, and the same can be said about uni students in Australia as far as I know. My older son did his final school years through International Baccalaureate, and he’s grateful now that he can analyse, evaluate and cite references. Unfortunately it’s not so much a requirement in the mainstream course.

  3. Thank you for this article. You highlighted my number one fear — that the rate of change of public education institutions is too slow for the rate of change in technology-enabled social practices. Although I strongly agree that the problem with relegating the task of digital literacy education to librarians is that it segregates this task from the main curriculum, I do think it’s important to highlight this role of librarians. As online media displace books as the main source of information for young people, librarians remain vital, not only as caretakers for print media, which suddenly requires caretaking more than ever before, but as learning catalysts who are able to change their own curriculum more rapidly than all the teachers who are stuck with teaching to the test, are undertrained in digital literacies, and are bombarded with fear-propaganda about the dangers of the online world.

  4. Thankyou for your comment, Howard, and may I quote you with this answer? You’ve summed up the essential role of teacher librarians (as we call them in Australia), a role for which we sadly have to be pro-active advocates, since we are often not acknowledged as teachers. I think ‘learning catalysts’ could be a new name for us! Although it does make us sound a little dangerous.

    What you say about librarians is true, but the problem with us trying to make a difference is that we are often asked to come into class ‘for a research lesson’, cramming as much as we can, knowing that it may be the only time we have with these students, when we ought to be coming into class during the research process and giving ‘just-in-time’ lessons and individual help. Information literacy (as the term still stands here because we haven’t moved on with new literacies) is seen as a set of skills which are presented in a neat package, not as a learning process attached to meaningful curriculum.

    I’m not sure what other teacher librarians or teachers would say to this, but I would love to hear from them.

  5. Yes, certainly you can quote me. I like “teacher librarian” — the only suggestion I can make from my own experience regarding research lessons is to start with the students’ own interests/questions/concerns about some aspect of the subject matter they are studying — something about the subject that actually matters in their lives. But I don’t need to tell you that when students discover ways to use research tools to find about what interests THEM — and not just their teachers — they sometimes become more enthusiastic. Good luck!

  6. Hello all. Thank you for a fascinating discussion. Mr Rheingold, forgive my ignorance, but what have you published that I might go and read? I am an English teacher in South Africa currently engaged in a M.Ed research thesis on Adolescent Literacy Practices with a view to arguing for the very aspect of pedagogy that you are addressing, i.e., ‘teachers need to get with the Web 2.0 program’ and become more expert at digital literacies than their students. (Of course, my own learning curve is standing on its head as I explore Twitter, Second Life, etc. etc. ad infinitum.) My learners use IM on their cellphones a lot, Facebook and some email, but they are largely blog-illiterate and their search skills are shocking. I would agree with you 100% that the explicit, critical and systematic teaching of digital literacy skills cannot be ignored in the classroom, and with interactive web linked whiteboards, there really isn’t an excuse for its continued exclusion in teaching. I will be visiting this blog again soon.
    With thanks

  7. I am reminded of the pedagogical practice several decades ago of daily journal writing. Teachers, were encouraged to also keep a journal and model the practice for students.

    Today literacies extend to Web 2.0 communications: blogs, wikis, podcasts, etc. Once again, teachers should be there with their students, modelling the practices and providing the way. The best path of learning is to embark on the initiatives yourself.

  8. I must say that as a teacher I have never stopped learning; no one gives me the chance to see what that would be like! I think your article underestimates educators and the amount of time and effort they put into learning how to teach all the new skills that are cropping up and necessary for the students of today and tomorrow.

  9. Jackie, you’re right about teachers having to learn new skills. This is a time of rapid change, and to keep up requires strong resolve, but also a pause for thought: what are the skills our students need for their future? I don’t see an all-school shift in mindset. I do see a reluctance to embrace Web 2.0 technologies, and a fear of connecting students outside the classroom.

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