Literacy and Democracy: are they one and the same?

digitalwordcloudEffective communication is the cornerstone of a democratic and literate society. And everyone has the right to engage freely. There are few people in the western world who would disagree with this. But the reality is that there are groups of people who have a much more limited capacity to communicate, than perhaps, a generation ago.

To understand why this is, we must first understand the nature of a ‘literate society’. The boundaries of literacy are changing. Where once, literacy meant being able to read and write, these days literacy necessarily incorporates use of the various technologies and platforms utilised to interact meaningfully in society.

So much of our interaction occurs online, that limited access to the hardware (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc)  means limited engagement. Shopping, watching television, booking accommodation and travel, or movie and concert tickets, paying bills, banking, and importantly – socialising, is increasing conducted in cyberspace. True, these are all first-world activities, but our reality is that if we cannot (or do not or will not) engage at this level, we cannot effectively consume or contribute to the society in which we live.

To all but the digital natives, these things do not come naturally. They need to be taught. And while once teaching our kids to read and write meant arming them with literacy for life, now teaching literacy means so much more than reading and writing. Literacy has become much more about being able to consume and create a range of multimedia in multimodal formats. Teaching kids to become life-long contributing literate members of society means providing them with the skills to decode a range technologies not yet invented, for purposes not yet defined, to engage in occupations not yet created or identified.

But what happens when subsections of the community are not able to access the tools required to become literate entities in this new and emerging technological environment? Are they relegated to a further position of disadvantage because of it? And who might these people be? The answers to these questions may surprise you. It’s not only socio-economic disadvantage that precludes people from engaging meaningfully.

Even if people do have access to the necessary hardware, if we don’t have the knowledge or skills to teach kids effective literacy, how do we teach them appropriate social and economic engagement?

And it’s not just kids who are in danger of becoming less-than-literate in a 21st century sense. There is a generation of older people who have not had access to digital instruction, and their children and grandchildren (gen x-ers and y-s) who may have adopted the technology but are self-taught and not necessarily offay with the ins and outs of effective engagement. It’s these generations who tend to leave themselves wide open and are overrepresented as victims of hackers, identity theft or trolls. And it’s these same generations who are teachers and parents. Therein lay the issue.

Kids are starting school with the knowledge and expectation that they can and will engage and perform technologically at a level that, more often than not, surpasses that of the adults in their lives. Parents and teachers want to do the best by their kids, but working in schools, I get to see both ends of the stick. I hear about kids as young as five accessing the internet on their ipods and DSs, in their bedrooms unsupervised, and scrolling through youtube videos looking for something to watch, and inadvertently accessing a Barbie video – a pornographic parody of a Barbie video. At five years old. At the other end of the scale is the 11-year-old who is not allowed access to social media of any kind, which means she is ostracised from her peer group socially and unable to engage effectively in digital citizenship lessons at school. Both sets of parents want the best for their kids, but both are damaging their kids in irreversible ways by not having a full understanding of what it is to be literate in a digital world.

21st century literacy is about ‘reading’ danger, communicating effectively, differentiating between a ‘selfie’ and sexting. 21st century literacy is about creating meaningful content, engaging in appropriate texting, understanding cyber etiquette, and locking down your profile. 21st century literacy is about understanding copyright and plagiarism, and recognising reliable research. And most importantly 21st century literacy is about knowing how to communicate via soundbite, image, video, and text — appropriately, positively, comfortably and meaningfully. How literate are you in the 21st century?




Writing to a test

testThe NAPLAN testing regime begins again this week, and as happens at this time every year, the media goes into overdrive with analyses of the pros and cons of standardised testing. Some of these reports are well-researched and intelligent critiques of the pitfalls of putting kids as young as seven under the pressure of exam conditions, of the narrowing of the curriculum as educators are coerced into ‘teaching to the test’, of tying funding to test results. And some reports are nothing more than politically motivated scaremongering designed to instil fear in the populace.  But I’m not going to engage in this debate.

I want to focus on just one aspect of standardised testing that I believe is incredibly destructive. Writing. Kids need to learn to write and teachers need to teach them how to do it. There is no argument there. An inspiring teacher is an invaluable resource for a child learning to write. But writing is so much more than developing the technical aspects of grammar and sentence structure.

A child learning to write is like a bird learning to fly. Small steps first. Then as they grow in confidence, they become bolder, knowing that there is support behind them. Safe, supportive environments encourage children to take risks with their writing. Sometimes the risks fail. But it’s not a big deal because with guidance and opportunity, those risks eventually pay-off. And the results are writers who blossom and thrive and develop a life-long love of writing, or at least reading.

But standardised testing is jeopardising this process. Children are becoming nervous. They don’t want to take risks because they don’t want to let their parents and teachers down. They comply with the formats thrust upon them by teachers who are pressured by education bureaucracies and government policy. They write recounts and reports and expositions and maybe a bit of narrative. They remember to use capital letters and full stops and try hard to use nouns and verbs in the right places. And they feel bad about themselves if they don’t score well.

A generation ago, children learned how to write using the ‘whole language approach’. We know now that that approach was not particularly successful. Hindsight taught us that explicit teaching of the technical aspects of writing is necessary. But the pendulum has swung too far and now we are inhibiting the development of creativity in our children by being way too prescriptive in our approach to literacy development. Once again, we’ve missed the mark to the detriment of our kids. And writing in general.

Teachers are well placed to assess student writing. They always have been. And in a classroom environment where the teacher has access to student writing in formal and informal contexts, both on paper and in electronic formats, any teacher worth their salt will recognise the need to instil passion and a desire in children to write. If kids understand the value of writing, if they want to write, they are far more receptive to learning the technical aspects that enable them to strengthen their writing. But if kids are scared of making a mistake, or of disappointing, this too will show up in their attitudes to reading and writing.

Writing is power. But it’s also a joyful, colourful, enriching way to engage with and participate in the world around us. How long before governments get it right?