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21st Century Literacies

My vent about Arne Duncan’s six-day school week kicked up a lot of discussion over the past few days. I can’t remember the last time one of my posts attracted 40 comments. Of course many of them are my replies, but still…

Unrelated: Here are some photos I took yesterday. I just can’t get enough of these dogwood blossoms. They won’t be around much longer. (click to enlarge)

Reading through those comments reminds me a bit of a debate that was held more than 10 years ago at a CoSN conference in Washington, between Judy Salpeter, then editor and chief of Technology and Learning Magazine, and Todd Oppenheimer, who had just written a piece (The Computer Delusion) for The Atlantic Monthly, critical of technology in education.  They both made points — and very effectively so.  But they were both taking aim at different targets — at different visions of what education should be doing for us today.

It’s what I see here.  There is a dramatic difference between what Arne Duncan (and many politicals) probably sees when he envisions appropriate education for today’s children, and what many of us are certain needs to be happening in our students formal education.

I love it when someone smarter than me, says it better than I ever could.  In his opening blog post for Online Instigator, Howard Rheingold explains that our children and grandchildren need to…

…grow up knowing how to pluck the answer to any question out of the air, summon their social networks to assist them personally or professionally, organize political movements and markets online? Will they collaborate to solve problems, participate in online discussions as a form of civic engagement, share and teach and learn to their benefit and that of everyone else?

In my vision of the formal education that inspires these skills in our children, the classroom plays only a very small part.  These are not just literacy skills.  They are learning skills — and they can not merely be taught.  To do so only insults and irritates our children.  These are skills that must be practiced authentically in order to become habits, not just skills — and the most authentic place to practice them is outside the classroom.

What I’m suggesting is less time in the classroom, not more.

Rheingold continues pressing the point of the importance of these skills when he says that…

The speed, scope, and spread of knowledge might be more critically important at this historic moment than microchips, initial public offerings, business models, 3G networks, Web 2.0 services, or fiberoptic cables.

The nature of information has changed — not in what it does and what it means, but in what it looks like, how it flows and grows, and where and whom it comes from, how we find it, what we use to find it, …  It means that there is still much that needs to be taught.  The teacher and classroom, though I suggest might take up a smaller part of our students’ day, has actually become far far more important.  The library and librarian has become far far more important — if they can re-image themselves to reflect a new information landscape.

Rheingold continues…

And don’t swallow the myth of the digital native. Just because your teens Facebook, IM, and Youtube, don’t assume they know the rhetoric of blogging, collective knowledge gathering techniques of taggers and social bookmarkers, collaborative norms of wiki work, how to tune and feed a Twitter network, the art of multimedia argumentation – and, by far most importantly, online crap detection. (Rheingold)

Our children know how to play the information.  They still desperately need us to teach them how to work the information.

I have to smile when I consider that the fellow who shares such insight into our children’s education still wears tie-died shirts — but so be it.

Education researcher, James Paul Gee, writes (article) in the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research that…

We live in a high risk world of interacting complex systems. A world subject to dangerous global warming, a now melting high-risk global economy, and massive destruction due to unchecked poverty and population growth.  Natural systems are no longer independent of human beings.  Urban environments and human energy seeking now affect temperature and storms.  Things that were once “acts of God” and are now also “acts of man.”

In my view, in the twenty-first century we need the following—and we need them fast and all at once together: embodied empathy for complex systems; “grit” (passion + persistence); playfulness that leads to innovation; design thinking; collaborations in which groups are smarter than the smartest person in the group; and real understanding that leads to problem solving and not just test passing.  These are, to my mind, the true twenty-first century skills.  We will not get them in schools alone and we will never get them in the schools we currently have. (Gee)

We need to reinvent education, not just prolong it!

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Gee, James Paul. “Games, Learning, and 21st Century Survival Skills.” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 2. 1. April 2009 Web.11 Apr 2009.

Rheingold, Howard. “21st Century Literacies.” [Weblog Online Instigator] 10 Apr 2009. SFGate.com. Web.13 Apr 2009. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/rheingold/detail?blogid=108&entry_id=38313>.


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  • Patty Rehfus

    Amen. I’m taking a course now on 21st Century Literacy (using your textbook as a matter of fact) and so far our emphasis has been almost solely on bringing 21st Century Skills into the classroom. Equally important, I think, is teaching kids to learn when they’re not in the classroom. So many of the frameworks we have looked at are about adding to the laundry list of what we are supposed to be teaching. If we are to meet the needs of our students we need to reimagine the interaction between schools and the rest of the world and reinvent the roles of teachers and librarians.

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  • Heather Summers

    Thank you for gathering these ideas in such a cohesive manner. I have had many fleeting and not so fleeting thoughts about the topics you discuss here. Two that really stand out to me are the need for, a vision of the formal education that inspires new literacy skills in our children where the classroom plays only a very small part. The idea that, “…these are not just literacy skills but learning skills — and they can not merely be taught”, sits deep with me. Much can be offered to children outside of the face to face time spent in the classroom which involves a lot of direct instruction where the teacher is the “knower” and the students are the recipients of knowledge. If planned properly, work done outside of class and in a less traditional manner gives students the autonomy to be makers of meaning and creators of knowledge. Take for example the Wiki that my colleague just created for his English Lit. students. It prompts students to follow a plan for reading and reflection by reading chapters, viewing shot YouTube video clips that are used to engage them in higher level thinking about topics in the novel and then prompts them to engage in discussions on these topics with one another on the wiki’s discussion board. The teacher then views the discussions, highlights the most intriguing pieces and brings the conversation back to class and asks students to take it to a new level. This level of engagement is hard to create in a face to face discussion due to the impromptu nature of in class discussions. The wiki prepares the students to think more deeply and form their own comments and opinions before coming to the table for a face to face discussion. It appears to be an empowering format for the students. I think this solution is a response to your idea that we need “collaborations in which groups are smarter than the smartest person in the group”.

    You also mention that as educators, we “only insults and irritate our children” because “…these are skills that must be practiced authentically in order to become habits, not just skills”. I agree with you that, “the most authentic place to practice them is outside the classroom.” Your suggestion that we spend less time in the classroom, not more could be alarming to many educators, administrators and parents. I think this only because they do not see the richness of alternative forms of educating our students. In fact, it is not only the richness of these tools that they cannot see, it is the tools themselves of which they are unaware. This ignorance can be eliminated when we recognize that, “our children know how to play the information. They still desperately need us to teach them how to work the information.” It is our job as educators, to learn new the literacies of the 21st century and decide upon the manners in which they can best be used to help our children become independent, inventive, problem solvers.

Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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