What are New Literacies?

As part of my coursework this semester, I am reading and reflecting on chapters from New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning, 2nd edition by Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel. Here are some thoughts generated from Chapter 1 of the book:

New Literacies Ch. 1 is a discussion of the historical context in which “reading” evolved into “multiliteracies,” a field that aspires beyond “functional” levels of reading and writing.

I had heard the term “functionally illiterate,” but never “functionally literate,” and the more I read, the more the line blurred between the two. If literacy encompasses more than decoding and encoding the printed word, then it seems being “functionally literate” is the new illiteracy.

Or, perhaps the new illiteracy is “uni-literacy”? In other words, print-centric literacy (the focus of most in-school learning) simply isn’t adequate for survival in our text-rich, multimedia world.

This throws the word “illiteracy” into a whole new light, where it has less to do with an inability to read and write (basic skills adequate for the industrial era) and more to do with an inability to adapt to diverse situations and contexts in the present day as well as in unknown future pathways.

Lankshear and Knobel maintain that living and learning in this hyper-mediated world places complex demands on teachers and students: “Learners need new operational and cultural knowledge in order to acquire new languages that provide access to new forms of work, civic, and private practices in their everyday lives” (p. 16).

But multiliteracies is about much more than mere “workplace readiness.” There is an essential “critical dimension” as well. Here, the authors quote fellow Australians Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope (1997) who acknowledge that, yes, students must learn a “new language of work”:

But at the same time, as teachers, our role is not simply to be technocrats. Our job is not to produce docile, compliant workers. Students need to develop the skills to speak up, to negotiate and to be able to engage critically with the conditions of their working lives.

Thus, the illiteracy “crisis” of the 1970s, which Knobel and Lankshear recount on page 10 of their book, should not have been about helping the learner reach a “functional level” but about developing the whole person, equipping him or her to meet the challenges of living in a diverse and unpredictable society.

What a missed opportunity!

It seems to me the real crisis in the 70s was not about illiteracy but about coming to terms with new standards for engaged and informed participation in a post-industrial society.

And, if that’s the case, then we are still in crisis!  I am not just referring to the onus of No Child Left Behind legislation. Look at this post about an upcoming Education Summit planned for my community here in East Tennessee, USA, an area some refer to as “Innovation Valley.”

As member of multiple “stakeholder” groups (student, teacher, parent, citizen), I will attend and contribute to this summit, and I am especially interested in the morning break-out session titled “Making Learning Relevant,” which I suspect will echo themes from New Literacies pedagogy: hands-on inquiry, problem solving, networking, collaborating, and so on.

Yet, when exactly did “education” become synonymous with “workforce development”? I find it utterly regrettable that, in my community at least, we have to trade in such gross economic terms in order to “sell” education reform to the public at large.

And that’s what I think. (More about Lankshear and Knobel’s New Literacies to follow. . . .)


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Think on this:

"What if we just ignored the status of students in other countries? That wouldn’t be especially neighborly, but at least we wouldn’t be viewing the gains of children in other lands as a troubling development."

Alfie Kohn

"When I hear people say it's our job to create the 21st century workforce, it scares the hell out of me. Our job is to create 21st-century citizens. We need workers, yes, but we also need scholars, activists, parents -- compassionate, engaged people."

Chris Lehmann

Train of thought:

These are the communities where I network and cross-post. Come by for a visit!
Classroom 2.0
School Matters (East TN, USA)
Media Literacy

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