Quick Tip Tuesday: A broader view of literacy

November 9th, 2010

What does it mean to be “literate” in the 21st Century? Johanna Riddle tries to answer that question in the introduction to her book Engaging the Eye Generation: Visual Literacy Strategies for the K-5 Classroom. We offer you her broader view of literacy in this week’s Quick Tip.

As our culture and communication continue to expand, the world grows ever more connected, and technology increasingly integrates our daily lives, the criteria for becoming a literate person in the twenty-first century also extends beyond traditional boundaries. Consider that the search engine Google produces more than 338,000 responses when prompted for “definition of literacy.”

Although the debate persists about whether it is reasonable to address so many characteristics in our literacy framework, most educators would agree that a literate person today must be able to do more than accurately read and write text.

The North Central Regional Education Laboratory, building on the work of the International ICT Literacy Panel, identified eight essential categories of literacy in today’s knowledge-based society:
• Basic Literacy: The language and mathematics skills needed to function successfully on the job
• Scientific Literacy: The ability to understand scientific concepts and processes to make good personal and social decisions
• Economic Literacy: The ability to identify and analyze the advantages and disadvantages of public policies and economic conditions
• Technological Literacy: The ability to understand and use the tools of technology to reach identified objectives
• Visual Literacy: The ability to “interpret, use, and create visual media in ways that advance thinking, decision making, communication, and learning”
• Information Literacy: The knowledge and skills necessary to find, analyze, and synthesize information using technology
• Multicultural Literacy: The ability to understand and respect differences among cultures
• Global Awareness: The ability to understand the world’s interconnections

New learning standards reflect these broader views, incorporating technology, visual, and communication skills into benchmarks for traditional introduction subject disciplines. An amalgam definition of twenty-first-century literacy might read like this:

reading and writing,
listening and speaking, and
analyzing and communicating
through a range of socially contextual symbols, including
texts and images,
in any combination
relevant to the individual or culture

Rather than merely “new,” today’s literacy is multidimensional, incorporating many different ways of receiving and expressing information and often involving creative collaboration. Visual literacy is central to such communication.

Writer John Debes coined the phrase visual literacy in 1969, but the idea of communicating and interpreting messages through visible actions and representations has been around much longer. Cave dwellers, drawing their images of great hunts, were documenting and archiving stories for future generations. Today’s Mandarin characters are elegant refinements of ancient Chinese pictographs. Byzantine and early Renaissance artists made generous use of symbols and icons to communicate meaning to a largely nonreading public. For example, they usually dressed central figures in particular colors and included a reed or scroll to indicate that the subject was a writer, a scribe, or an educated person. Other symbols were more subtle but still suggestive, and people of the era understood the visual messages portrayed in these “art stories.” When the advent of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century made books accessible to a wider range of the population, the definition of traditional literacy—the ability to read and write at a particular level of competency—took shape and became the generally embraced mission of educators everywhere. As innovation changes the way we understand the world, our definition of literacy transforms to include new ways of interpreting information.

The Age of Information, a term signifying the shift from the primary production of physical goods to more knowledge-based industries, has introduction included many challenges, but it also has unleashed an exciting universe of ideas, opinions, and perspectives. I first accessed the Internet in 1994 while taking a graduate course in educational media. I saw something unfolding that would revolutionize the way we learn and communicate. As an educator, I was fascinated by the richness and potential of this medium. As an art teacher and administrator, I have always been interested in the communicative aspects of visual imagery. Modern media and technology applications have refocused visual literacy. No longer an elective course of fine arts studies, visual imagery, fueled by technology and connectivity, has raced to the front and center of communication.

I also see a pressing need in education to recognize and respond to the world as our children know it. Technological innovations that once seemed exotic extravagances—the Motorola 2900 series cell phone, circa 1988, available at the hefty price of $2,000, comes to mind—now form the landscape of our everyday communications network. Today’s cell phones enable 85 percent of Americans to communicate verbally, textually, and visually on a whim; to connect to the Internet; to download music, videos, or up-to-the- second stock quotes; and to take photographs, organize daily schedules, or access directions to the nearest restaurant. More than 60 percent of America’s teens own their own cell phones, and more than 90 percent have regular access to one (Entner 2008).

“To succeed in the academic world, students must be proficient in both reading and writing,” Mary Burns, Senior Technology Specialist at the Center for Online Professional Education in Newton, Massachusetts, reminds us. “But to navigate in the real world, they must also be visually literate—able to decode, comprehend, and analyze the elements, messages, and values communicated by image” (2006).

Such accessible tools make collaboration and information sharing a way of life. Our students were born into this world, and they explore it fearlessly. Why isn’t this enthusiasm for discovery through technology a part of their daily educational landscape? It was a question that gave me, a teacher with practically zero technology skills, great pause. How could I possibly hope to empower children when I didn’t even understand their world?

Blend that soul searching with a belief in the potential and power of education for all, place it within a solid framework of core disciplines, and you have an unparalleled opportunity to grow a generation of creative, multiply skilled, lifelong learners. How could a teacher possibly pass up that chance?

Entry Filed under: Literacy,Quick Tip Tuesday

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