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Redefining literacy in the 21st century

As educators today, we are facing one of our biggest challenges: In an increasingly diverse, globalized and connected world, where it is difficult to know exactly what it will look like in 50 years, much less five years, how do we help students develop new literacy skills required for the future?

Consider a recent Grade 6 collaborative project in which students explored the interactions between businesses and individuals, and how they impact humankind and the environment. A key component of the project was for groups to interview experts in the field through email, chat, Skype or wikis. Students were also required to keep a blog detailing their learning experiences and personal reflections.

"The use of technology has opened up realms of possibilities for our students to communicate with experts in our local community and beyond," says teacher Christine Yakachuk, noting the enthusiastic feedback students provided on the project at Mulgrave School in West Vancouver. "In applying the skills they've worked on in various contexts to real-world situations, they take away skills they'll have for life: research skills of planning and gathering information from a variety of first-hand sources, and effectively communicating what they have learned." 

ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE CUTLER

ILLUSTRATION BY DAVE CUTLER

Today's technologies provide the opportunity for students to connect, communicate and collaborate globally. Tools such as blogs, wikis and Skype chat are just several examples of online spaces that have prompted researchers to redefine our traditional notions of literacy, as well as reconsider which 21st-century literacy skills students will require to prepare for success in an increasingly competitive global society. Educators across North America are being urged to adopt technologies and teaching practices that more accurately reflect the realities of the global workplace and the realities of their students' lives.

With no clear definition yet, the term "new literacies" generally refers to new forms of literacy made possible by developments in technology. When we talk about literacies in the 21st century, we need to move beyond common constructs of reading and writing that the majority of us grew up with, says Donald Leu, director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut. "Many graduates started their school career with the literacies of paper, pencil and book technologies, but will finish having encountered the literacies demanded by a wide variety of information and communication technologies," he writes in the book Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading.

What is important in instruction today is not to teach students a single set of literacies, according to Leu, but rather to teach students how to learn continually new literacies that will appear during their lifetime. This leaves educators with two critical questions: What key skills do our students need to know that will transcend the emergence of new literacies, and how do we start incorporating these new skills and strategies into our current curriculum?

Preparing Students with Key Skills

Knowing which literacy skills will be essential for students in the future is not an exact science. However, many experts agree on several core concepts and how teachers can get started.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) suggests that in the 21st century, a literate person possesses a wide range of abilities and competencies–in all, many new literacies. From reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms, these literacies are multiple, dynamic and malleable, according to the NCTE.

Reflected in Leu's research are concurrent themes in many reports, such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills' framework and the American Association of School Librarians' Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. Leu and members of the New Literacies Research Lab suggest that the top skills students need to embrace are the Cs of change: creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, self-control and comprehension.

A common misconception when discussing new literacies is the notion that students know more about the necessary skill sets, particularly when it comes to the use of technology and the Internet, than most adults. The ease with which students use computers can be misleading.

"We've made a mistake in assuming our kids are digital natives who know their way around the Internet and how to use these new powerful tools," cautions Alan November, an authority on education technology, in an interview with Dialogue magazine. "We are seeing the dangers of this daily. Teachers and parents need to experience these tools first-hand and become role models for our kids."

November sees helping students build critical-thinking skills as one of the key elements in preparing them for the online world. "On the web, kids can find any version of the truth they like," he says. "Given the fact that 90 per cent of them will likely look to the Internet as the first place to find information –and most in unfiltered environments–it's alarming to me that very little time is spent explaining to kids how the web works. Few know how to find information beyond the use of Google. They don't know how to validate it or question it. The ability to think critically about information on the web is essential."

Integrating New Literacies in the Classroom

Educators who experience new technologies first-hand, November says, are more likely to understand and adopt them into their teaching practices. For many educators, this presents a challenge, given heavy workloads and the rapid pace of technological change. When integrating new technologies into the classroom, November suggests teachers concentrate on the development of skills and the learning objectives of a particular lesson rather than focusing on the technology itself. "Otherwise technology just serves as a distraction," he explains. "Part of being literate in the 21st century means knowing which tool is right for the job. Before you embark on a project, have a clear vision of what you are trying to achieve with your choice of technology. Good pedagogy trumps technology."

In the case of Mulgrave School, sixth graders are guided and carefully coached through the process of using technology in conjunction with researching information and building community with outside resources. Experts suggest that learning how to harness the power of these technologies within structured learning environments is key. It will not only help prepare students for learning in the future, but also provide guidance on how to use these tools constructively in ways that facilitate authentic learning experiences.

—Christine Bridge
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