Saturday, January 10, 2009

Are they or aren't they?

New literacies? Is 21st Century Literacy about something new? Or are they the same literacies that educators have always valued. I'm going to work some of the skills I hear about most throughout this entry, the terms will be in italics.

I like some of the work presented on the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, particularly the social studies curriculum they've presented. But I also agree with Jay Matthews at the Washington Post (I'm sure he'll be thrilled to know of my support) when he says that "young Plato and his classmates did the same thing in ancient Greece." Communicating effectively is hardly a new skill.

So what's changed? Maybe it's the urgency? Some might think so, but the developing the ability to innovate has always been urgent for a child seeking to rise out of poverty. Same for problem solving.

So what is new? Developing media (or information) literacy means that students need to learn to analyze media for bias, artifice, motive. . . that's not so new, is it? However, given the ability of technology to simulate reality like never before, I think there's something to calling this a new literacy.

Creating knowledge used to be for the elite. For those who struggled through the "system" and made it to the pinnacle of higher learned and moved into the ivory towers or the glass towers of business. Now it's for everybody, a la Clay Shirky. I think this is where we start to see the promise of the conjunction of technology and knowledge in the 21st century. The fall of the gatekeepers. This era started when college dropouts built multi-billion dollar empires based on intellectual capital. I have a teacher friend who argues that saving money for a four-year old to go to college is pointless (I'm pretty sure she's doing it anyway). She says "no one is going to need to go to college to succeed in 14 years." Is she right? Is the time frame right?

Literacy in the old fashioned sense, the ability to read, still reigns as the most powerful 21st century skill in my mind. Reading is part of so many learning paths. Technology does not make reading unnecessary, technology makes reading even more essential. Knowledge is still stored and retrieved primarily in text form.

A few thoughts about why text still rules: Reading is faster than listening. Faster than watching video. A movie starts with a script (or it should). A good reader can skim or extract partial information. The reader has control and determines the pace with text--fast forwarding doesn't have the same effect. None of this means non-text media aren't also valuable, important, and fascinating.

So, back to the beginning--are these new literacies or not? Does it matter?

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