Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Unraveling the Teacher's Sweater - Questioning Fundamental Assumptions about #Literacy

During @budtheteacher 's keynote, "Show & Tell Is for Everybody: Purposeful Transparency as Professional Development" today at the 2010 Summer English Companion Ning PD Webstitute titled, "English 2.0: Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age" a statement was made in the chat window that led me to ask a question that probably is far more loaded than could easily be addressed in Elluminate. On Bud's request I am going to attempt to reframe the question here in hopes over time we might flush it out. (This is also re-posted on the Ning site)

In the chat a statement was made by someone to the effect of something like, "When are school leaders going to finally acknowledge technology as an important literacy skill?" Now, to give you a little bit of my background so you can understand where my response to this question comes from, I taught visual arts for 8 years before becoming a technology integration specialist and now teach a class at Hamline University on Digital Fluency (I intentionally do not call it Digital Literacy).

At the time that statement was made my mind was still somewhat in art teacher mode which made me think about Harry S. Broudy and the push for Discipline Based Art Education which emphasizes the importance of teaching visual and aesthetic literacy. The argument is that over 90% of the decisions we make in daily life are based on aesthetics and for most of us visual aesthetics dominate over the other senses in this process. We choose things based upon how we interpret their visual appearance all the time (which thing to eat, who in a crowd we trust to ask a question, which lane to drive in, which chair looks most comfortable, etc.). But, visual literacy is more than just aesthetics, it is rich in symbolic history that includes everything from allegory to pictograms to what patterns and colors mean in different cultures. For decades art educators have been using this explanation to defend the value of their programs but also to argue for visual literacy to be taught and recognized as just as, if not more, important than reading and writing. This argument parallels the question posed in the chat. My initial response to that question was something like, "Art educators have been beating that rug for decades to little avail."

But, the needs identified by the art educators have not changed so radically in recent years as technology has and maybe the sudden societal change posed by newly prevalent and disruptive technologies makes the argument to include technology literacy on par with reading and writing more persuasive. And, I agree that we should do this but this does pose a question and dilemma for educators. If we start expanding an modifying what we define as literacy doesn't it start a spiral unraveling effect?

The question we have to ask ourselves is, "how far down the rabbit hole are we willing to follow Alice's rabbit?" Our education system and the practices we teach/preach on a daily basis, indeed the fundamental principles many of us have based our careers on, is rooted in our largely unchecked assumption that most things can and should be classified an sorted. Most of us do not become simply teachers, we specialize in a subject. Most of our schools are organized into classes that meet around topics and we run students through this system in aged sorted herds where we sort our kids according to some kind of teacher-set criteria into rows of seats and then sort them again by an arbitrary rubric indicating their level of ability to fit the mold we define that defines our area of content. Most of us teachers are comfortable with this and take it for granted that this is the way school is supposed to be. Most educators tend to see the world in terms of categories and it makes sense that they do because they were good at school and thus rose through these ranks in this system without finding much need to question it. The epitome of this world view is content standards of which literacy is primarily defined as reading and writing. For as long as I can remember (except among the art educators I know who have been trying to crack this nut for decades) the thought that literacy is the ability to read and write has been at the foundation of our core standards and the core charge of schools.

So, my question was, does opening up literacy to encompass more than just reading and writing, if we start saying that to be literate one must know how to navigate digital space does that: 1. open Pandora's Box proverbial box on the definition of literacy? and 2. being that literacy is a fundamental reason for schools to exist, doesn't that cause a domino effect that will eventually lead to an unraveling of the whole endeavor? And, if it does, is this a good or bad thing? (Loaded question I know)

1 comment:

Mrs. Tenkely said...

This is a tricky one. I can understand the thought that if everything becomes a literacy there is a watering down or change in the way we view literacy and even how we view being literate. But each content area does have an aspect of literacy. A core that makes us literate in that content. There is a literacy to math in the language, vocabulary, functions. To be mathematically literate means that we have that shared language. The same is true of science, geography, and history. I think we can be technologically literate. Have you ever tried to explain clicking a radio button to a child or adult who doesn't share that core understanding? Perhaps it is because all disciplines share literacy (read, writing, speaking) that makes it possible to be literate in each.