There continues to be an interesting discussion regarding the definition of literacy, the question of literacy being literacies, and the idea of literacy in the 21st Century. Of late, I’ve stayed on the fringes of the conversation and even directly avoided it to deal with questions I found better suited for educational change.
That all changed this evening as I tweeted my rough definition of literacy: Literacy is a group of evolving skills, habits, and dispositions as well as a form of knowledge needed for thoughtful, meaningful, and effective communication (in socially relevant contexts) and learning.
For me, it is important to see literacy in a social context, to take into account that it is socially constructed. As Freire (1987) noted, “literacy had to be viewed as a social construction that is always implicated in organizing one’s view of history, the present, and the future” (p.2). For me, literacy is situated in the cultural understandings of effective communication and communication needs and those skills are deictic.
This means seeing the skills and skill sets that make up a literate person as organic and rooted in what is happening socially, politically, and even economically. In fact, Barton would say literacy is “a phenomenon [that] requires for its explanation the attention of at least 8 academic disciplines: physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, technology, political science, history, and anthropology”.
In other words, that is one heck of a phenomenological and ethnographic study whereby the rapid pace of technological advancement is the target for literacy becoming a deictic term: “literacy is inescapably a social phenomenon” (Holme, 2005, p. 3). But that is for people like Doug Belshaw whose study of digital literacies is a must follow if this post is of interest to you.
21st Century Literacy ?
I like it.
Honestly, I like it a lot. Not for the fact that some feel the 21st Century has brought with it new literacies. No, I like it as a means of contextualizing the discussion of literacy and new skills and skill sets that literacy has in the 21st Century. Eventually, the 21st Century will be dropped if and when society comes to accept the skills that constitute a literate person as the norm. Right now, the discussion of 21st Century Literacy or literacies might seem repetitive and it probably is for many educational technologists who have accepted and maybe even have embraced these new skill sets. However, outside of those ed techs, the context of literacy may still be situated in a 20th Century skill set.
However, because as Heath (1980) states, “the concept of literacy covers a multiplicity of meanings, and definitions of literacy carry implicit but generally unrecognized views of its function and its use” there lies a need to define our scope of discussion if we are to convince someone of a need to evolve or expand their scope (p.123). For me, this is most readily done by stating 21st Century. For others, it is New Literacy, digital literacies, media literacy, literacies, and so on.
That is not to say that I like how The Partnership for 21st Century Skills drives literacy by throwing every possible term in front of it: global, financial, informational, etc.. I simply like the context of the discussion, at this point, created by stating 21st Century (probably the same reason the Partnership throws everything in front of it).
I’m Not a Social-Linguistic or Literacy Expert but I did Stay at a Holiday Inn Express
While I do struggle a bit with the relevance of the conversation mostly because of its deictic nature or as Barton states, “Literacy is an ideological approach meaning the definition varies from situation to situation and is dependent on ideology.” But, I also struggle with it because I question where we are grounding our beliefs and where we are drawing our beliefs.
I’m not an expert in literacy nor am I a social linguistic. It doesn’t mean I can’t engage in the conversation but I try to keep some perspective on how much I can, and maybe should, contribute.
Which is why I suspect I have avoided this conversation in favor of one that discusses what it means to be well-educated in the 21st Century and thereby what does it mean to educate and create learning opportunities for such a person.
However, the value in defining terms is critical to rhetorical discourse, and it is my sincere hope that defining and contextualizing literacy leads to something higher. I, for one, look forward to the day where schools are fostering literacies to help create well-educated, global citizens!
Barton, D. (2006). Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of written language. WileyBlackwell.
Freire, P. (1987). Literacy: Reading the world and the world. Routledge.
Gee, J.P. (1996) Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London and NY: Longman (never directly referenced but a lot drawn from including deictic and semiotic domains)
Heath, S. (1980). The function and uses of literacy. Journal of Communication.
Holme, R (2005). Literacy: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press[Tags] literacy, 21stcenturyskills, literacies, ncte, digitalliteracy, newmedialiteracy, literacyconversation [/Tags]