Literacies – digital and otherwise…or not.

It’s a recurring theme – how do we develop our students’ literacy skills? Literacy is “an essential component of a learning society” and as educators we strive to ensure that our students develop the keenest literacy (and numeracy) skills possible so they can be active and productive members of society…blahblahblah…so that they can belong.

Lately I’ve been thinking on how literacy is becoming more complex. Dennis has brought out this conversation in me, first on Learning 2.1 in response to the blog post: What is Web 2.0? and then on his own blog via Boy in the Bubble Revisited.

(I made this, er, image with the tools at Pretty fun little image collecting site. Go play :))

Basically, with the technologies that have become a way of life – especially for our kids who didn’t know life before myspace, facebook, im, texting, etc…- literacy has whole new dimensions to do with immediacy of communication. We need to recognize and honour it in our teaching – this I believe. I also believe that we need to see it as a subset of the larger context of literacy.

We can do this, perhaps, by asking questions like:

  • how does it fit?
  • where and when is it valid to use this type of literacy and where and when isn’t it?
  • how do we negotiate between different types of literacy?
  • and – how do/should we teach all of this?

Dennis responded:

Both have value, both need to be tapped. Stretching the mind is ALWAYS a good thing. And understanding culture and thinking and the wonder of human ingenuity and creativity has to continue.

Personally I think there is more than a ‘both’. Looking at literacy as either digital or everything that came before is too dualistic for me – if I see literacy as a system (and I do) then digital literacy has an affect on all of literacy and vice versa. But I see where Dennis is going with this. It is a way(s) of reading and thinking and interacting with words, numbers, and thought that affects the way we need to teach.

“Literacy is on shifting sands,” [Heather] Blair says. “It’s a moving target. Our definition of what literacy is is a moving target. Our definitition has changed radically.”(from What is Literacy, Nov. 2005, CBC News Online)

Teachers struggle with motivation all the time. Intrinsic motivation – the motivation that comes from within ourselves – is seen as the type of motivation that triggers authentic and meaningful learning. By using tools that students are already comfortable with to access other forms of media/text is one way of developping intrinsic motivation – it may encourage students to ask: how does this fit in my world? And. more importantly, how do I fit in the world?

So, all of this is leading to why I don’t think we can look at literacies as one or the other, as dualistic. I think that an essential question for educators today is how do we integrate literacies in our students? and in ourselves?

If we continue to look at new ways of being literate in contrast to more traditional ways then I think it will only be all the more difficult to make connections with our students while we are teaching. And isn’t that what we are trying to do?

I’m just starting to think about this. I’m hoping y’all comment, ask me some questions to help me clarify exactly what I am getting at here…



  • I think that the most substantative element of the ‘classical’ education wasn’t so much the teacher disseminating knowledge to the uneducated masses, though that was certainly an element of it. What I see is more significant is the focus on mobilizing and orienting thought processes – that is to say, on the metaphysical discourse that historically has shaped world perceptions. In this sense, Aristotle and Plato (amongst others, of course) were taught and provided students with divergent ways of perceiving the world. In a contemporary setting, of course, there would hopefully be less emphasis on ‘this is the right way to approach reality’, and instead students would be encouraged to develop their own ways of integrating and understanding their worldview.

    The theory that was imbedded in the ‘classical’ education in many ways can be read as faulty – this is true of a great deal of the theorums of modernity that ordered the world – but I guess I get nervous that the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater (and this concern, in particular, very much does stem from my own thesis work concerning the modernity :P ). I guess I would be more comfortable/less uneasy if students were clearly embedded in an educational system that not only saw value in drawing on theoretical theorums (which they do now), but also saw value in teaching students what those theorums were, why they were, and how to question them. Students already do some of this, but oftentimes in reaction to the expressions of the teaching theory – they have to guess at the actual guiding principles behind education.

    Once students grasp the educational and broader theories that drive how they are taught to engage with media, they develop a skill-set that extends well beyond the tool, skill, or efficiency, and experience (what I think is) an incredibly transformative element of education.

  • Tracy says:

    Well, we are definitely in a period that is shifting away from a classical liberal education. As a teacher, I am no longer the bearer of knowledge that remains hidden from the student until I share it with them. Knowledge is available everywhere. I need to show my students how to organize it, sift through it, make critical decisions about it, and gain a deep understanding of the world and their place in it, not to mention how to get along and work with others while they are doing the same thing!

  • I think that there are multiple ways of engaging students, multiple different approaches to teaching, etc. My concern is that education has historically focused on guiding students towards particular resources -this has been a genuine issue, as disciminatory attitudes, etc were propogated by this means of education. At the same time, however, I worry that there isn’t a cohesive enough theory that runs behind the present modes of education (save for ‘efficiency’ and ‘skill-based’ learning) to give students the ability to cohesively take abstract thought and bring it to any area that they enter into. Just teaching students how to do a mash-up, without focusing on the ‘why this is important’ (preferably before actually teaching the skill…) is an issue for educational systems.

    There are clearly many helpful modes of approaching education (and I want to note that I wasn’t in any way trying to suggest that you lack a cohesive education philosophy or anything like that) but when I hear about ‘digital literacies’ and other ‘brands’ of literacy it often seems that educators speak about the need to ‘prepare’ students for the workforce by focusing on skills and data. A core complaint from employers is that students don’t know enough ‘real world things’ and so educational systems are shifting to produce workers that are intended to meet social labor demand (at least this is my experience in the University system). That seems to be a somewhat poor way of reorienting an eduational system, and a way that is very much at odds with the valorized ‘classical liberal education.’

  • Tracy says:

    Christopher, do you not think there can be more than one way of critically engaging with one’s environment, more than one method of understanding the world one lives in?

  • I think that my worry regarding ‘literacies’ really comes from the ‘why’ perspective – is literacy about a skill-set, and a critical analytic ability? I tend to think that it’s the latter, and that the former should be involved in actively learning how to critically engage with one’s environment. Teaching for the ability means that what they learn is portable across varying skill-sets. At the same time, that analytic abiility is backed by a particular epistemological framework, one that at least the educator ought to be aware of, and that framework is responsible for delineating what is negatively, and positively, valued.

    I just put together a post on literacy that builds on this a bit on my edublog, you might find it interesting.

  • Tracy says:

    I like how you write this, Dennis:

    “Literacy is about being able to make sense of the world we live in”

    and if we are concerned with learners making sense of their world we need to make sure we teach them literacy skills that are pertinent to the world they live in.

    A great man once said…learn the way they live…


  • Agreed.

    Completely agreed. Literacy is so multi-faceted now, that it would do damage to think of them separately (despite the word choices of my comment). Instead, we have to emphasize that a literate person is one who is proficient at all of these and can use them interchangeably and appropriately.

    As important as the proficiency is of course the ability to recognize and CHOOSE appropriately – take texting language for example.

    Literacy is about being able to make sense of the world we live in. It’s why I’m “literate” in English, but not literate in Thai. And it’s why so many are still not literate online.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Miss Profe says:

    Hi, Tracy.

    With Voice Thread, getting the students to practice their oral skills using a different format other than a standard digital voice recorder, while responding to topics of interest to them. As for the blog, much the same; guiding them with topic to which to respond in writing, while also getting them to take some ownership and post material of their own.

    At least, this is what I have in mind, while I am more refreshed.:) We’ll see what the new year brings when it arrives.

    I am interested in exploring Photo Story. I think the students would like posting photos – their own or from sites such as Flickr, and creating stories in Spanish. Thank your for mentioning Photo Story.

    I think that much of my reluctance is fear. No, really. I need to increase my own comfort level in learning alongside the students.

  • Tracy says:

    I’d be interested in hearing what you have planned with blogging and voice thread. How are you going to integrate them into your teaching and their learning? Voice thread is great. I’m going to focus a bit more on it next year. Where I thought my kids would love it, they were actually quite intimidated by the microphone – focusing more on the sound of their voice than what they were saying. I’m thinking I’ll need to design in a lot more silly practice time so they can get over it.

    Microsoft photo story is also cool. It’s a free download and what’s great is you can save your work as a file on your computer. I found this a good option for when we were dealing with pictures of kids/staff from around school and we didn’t want to deal with permissions for putting their faces on the web.

  • Miss Profe says:

    As a Spanish teacher, I have been contemplating the ways in which I can integrate technology into the productive and receptive literacies I am striving to develop in my students, i.e. speaking and writing (productive), and listening and reading (receptive).

    I would like to use Voice Thread next year, as well as blogging.

    Thank you for the post, Tracy.

  • Tracy says:

    Thanks for the link, Alan. I hadn’t heard of Inanimate Alice or istories before. The link you gave is broken though. Here is the correct link for istories:

    and for Inanimate Alice:

    and the education site:

    Thanks again!

  • alan says:

    Have you seen the latest episode of Inanimate Alice? Alice is a girl who grows up learning more and more about the world of gaming. The music and images really engage kids.

    Teachers can use this amazingly complex free online resource to stimulate story telling. Boys especially love it. There is a software available that allows you to create your own stories.

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