Michael Strickland

Michael Strickland

What does it mean to be literate today?

Academics regularly wrestle with pinning down a comprehensive definition of literacy. The simple definition, “the ability to read and write,” becomes increasingly complex when analyzed. What does mastery of reading and writing look like? How do we measure it?

Educators discuss measures for digital and technological proficiency, but digital isn’t always better. There are great advantages to working with media, files and devices in the digital domain. Nonetheless, we are still living in an analog world. We still touch things with our hands, hear through our ears and see with our eyes. Our bodies are clear and wonderful analog reception devices.

An increasingly large percentage of our everyday experiences start out or somehow exist in digital form. But none of our interactions with these pieces of our lives actually occur in the digital domain. On the contrary, every one of these experiences happen in an extraordinarily high-resolution analog domain most commonly known as the real world.

How do the values of our communities and cultural practices come into play? Becoming literate still requires developing some basic skills and strategies, but now skills that merely involve surface-level decoding and recalling information are hardly enough.

Students need the capacity for critical thinking and the ability to personalize meanings to individual experience. Can they apply what is read or written in the real world, under many different circumstances, and with many different types of texts? “Despite the complexity, literacy is the global metric we use to assess the health and competence of communities,” according to the National Council of Teachers of English Standing Committee on Global Citizenship. “High literacy rates have been found to correlate to everything from better access to economic opportunity, to better nutrition, to environmental sustainability.” Given that we want students to achieve all of these, how should we teach them?

Students should be able to create, navigate the world landscape and map their own personal learning networks in safe, effective and ethical ways. They need the ability to engage with people around the world in these online networks, to take advantage of learning opportunities that are not restricted to a particular place and time, and to be conversant with the techniques and methodologies involved in doing this. Kids may be more technologically savvy, but they need help sorting out which information, and which people, to trust.

Today, we need to consciously teach kids how to read and write in linked environments. Not only what we are required to do with texts that have changed, but also the texts themselves. We are both presented with texts and we generate them in endless variety: books, magazines and pamphlets of every conceivable design; letters and memoranda arriving via fax, email, and snail-mail; television screens, computer screens and numerous other electronic screens and displays in our kitchens as well as our offices. We collect them in a mountain of documentation for everything we buy that must be assembled, cared for or operated. But as with learning networks and digital tools (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, RSS, Scribd, Flickr, Tumblr, Mashable, Snapchat, Instagram … Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Udemy), the landscape keeps changing, seemingly with the wind.

The terrain can also be dangerous. As David Bednar mentions in his classic talk, “Things as they Really Are,” we can all be susceptible to “potentially stifling, suffocating, suppressing and constraining impact of some kinds of cyberspace interactions and experiences.” He continues: “Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, Twittering, online social networking and potentially addictive uses of media and the internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication.” I’ve been enjoying recent trends in which people are rediscovering and resurrecting older analog technologies. Printed books, paintings, vinyl records, sculptures and musical instruments offer unique and immeasurable value. They provide tactile physical experiences that a purely digital world has started to remove.

Today’s learners need skills that help them adapt to a new and altered landscape. The definition of what it means to be literate has evolved with the increasing demands of an increasingly complex and rapidly changing society. Schooling plays a critical role in making literacy accessible to every child. Digital instruction must be designed in ways that mirror the kinds of work environments students will eventually encounter in their personal and professional lives.

Shift away from rote instructional practices that are tied to individual tools. Move toward digital resources that inspire students to create, play, design, explore and innovate. In our increasingly technology-driven and globalized world, literacy instruction should elevate students. They are to become productive citizens and effective communicators. Instead of being at the mercy of the latest device or app, educators and parents should leverage their own expertise to translate ideas and rhetorical structures across digital and analog worlds.

Michael Strickland of Pocatello teaches for Boise State University and is a visiting scholar at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Leadership, Equity and Justice at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.