(This is Part ONE of a six-part series on 21st Century literacy).

tree-200795_1920Literacy is changing. As teachers we know this, we see it in our classrooms every day. It is no longer enough to teach kids how to form and interpret marks on a page so they can read and write well enough to become functional members of society because, well, society has changed. So too has the way we interact, communicate, recreate, and source information on a day-to-day basis. There is so much more involved in becoming literate functioning members of society now than there was even 20 years ago.

Literacy has always been about making sense of the society in which we live. And developing the capacity to communicate is a fundamental aspect of this. Understanding the nature of the semiotic and linguistic structures within which interaction takes place in any given society is the cornerstone of effective communication, and therefore, participation.

The role of schools has always been to equip students with the skills they need to become functioning citizens. That is – prepare them to become contributing members of the workforce. But traditionally, the workforce played a much more passive role in the general scheme of things. Information was delivered to the populace en masse. And we, as passive recipients, had little choice but to accept it.  We were compliant. We went to work, we did our job – often in solitude, and then we went home and watched the six-o’clock news to find out what was happening in the world. We read books (or newspapers and magazines), wrote letters, watched TV. On weekends we visited shopping centres, went to the movies, or took the kids to the park.

Technology has changed all that. And while we might still engage in many of the aforementioned activities, we have become a much more participatory culture. We are socially, professionally, academically and economically connected in networked environments. We create information at almost the same rate we consume it (think social media). And if we don’t create it, at least having the capacity to create and to have our creations valued means having the potential to contribute equally, if we so choose.

In Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture (2009), Henry Jenkins and his research team identify the following as the cultural competencies of a literate society.

Playthe capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving

Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery

Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processessocial-media-1453843_1920

Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content

Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.

Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities

Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal

Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources

Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.

baby ipadIn the ensuing years since Jenkins (2009) called on Education departments to respond to the changing nature of literacy at a systemic level, much has changed in school-based contexts across the western world. Technologies that had not yet been released (tablets) to the public at that time now feature prominently in our schools and classrooms and are commonly used in the teaching of literacy from kindergarten on.

And recent changes to the Australian National Curriculum reflect the need for teachers to continue to challenge our concepts and understandings of literacy. By doing this, we are better placed to facilitate student learning to a level where they can develop their own motivations to pursue skills in areas yet to be identified using technologies yet to be invented so that they may seek meaningful employment in jobs whose existence is yet to be identified and/or created.

As ‘students are currently completing their schooling using reading and technologies that were not invented when they began,’ (Angel 2016) it is mind-boggling to think about what literacy might look like in another ten years. But what we can be sure of is the need for teachers to broaden their concepts, understandings and definitions of literacy in the 21st century.

Further Reading 

Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture – A Whitepaper developed by Digital Media theorist, Henry Jenkins, and his research team, for the Macarthur Foundation, discussing the nature of participatory culture and its impact on education systems.

Introducing Social Semiotics – Professor Theo van Leeuwen, from the Centre for Language and Communication Research at Cardiff University, UK, provides a ‘lively introduction to the ways in which different aspects of modern society combine to create meaning.’ This is a great starting starting point if you are new to social semitoics.

A Neat Summary of Linguistics – Professor Raymond Hickey Professor is a professor in, and researches, English Linguistics, at the  University of Duisburg and Essen, Germany, provides an accessible overview of the study of Linguistics.

21st Century Literacy – This is not a research paper per se, but still worth reading. It talks about the need to develop skills to effectively use the multiple media that makes up our high-tech reality.

This is Part one of a six-part series on 21st century literacy. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week: Reading in a Multimodal context.