Saturday, September 4, 2010

Social Collaboration: New Literacies

These days there's a lot of talk about what students need to be able to do with regard to something named, literacy.  The Common Core State Standards sets out to represent this and promises in the mix that adoption and application of these standards will result in "high quality education".  The framers write:
The standards establish a “staircase” of increasing complexity in what students must be able to read so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level reading no later than the end of high school. The standards also require the progressive development of reading comprehension so that students advancing through the grades are able to gain more from whatever they read.
Given these standards, one might think that a single, uniform understanding of literacy existed— an autonomous model of literacy (Street, 1995). Brian Street defined this type of understanding of 'literacy" as an autonomous model as it situates literacy as a neutral entity, stripped from social, cultural, gendered, and historical contexts.

In contrast, Shirley Brice Heath’s (1983) situates “literacy events” as people’s ways with spoken and written words.  I would urge that a sociocultural perspective be used to inform what we mean by new literacies, or we will continue to understand “literacy” as reading and writing whether it is on paper or the net. A sociocultural perspective understands that a person’s primary and secondary Discourse groups will influence his or her ways with words. As educators, understanding that our students may have different ways with words than is privileged in school allows us the opportunity to build associational bridges between the child’s primary Discourse and school-based practices.

The Internet does not alter this dynamic.  Rather, digital literacies represent new Discourses (Gee, 1996).  Whereas the Common Core Standards reify this older and flawed version of literacy as a singular matter,  NCTE's Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment captures the complexity of multiple literacies that is always embedded in cultural and communicative practices.  From NCTE:

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to
  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally 
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments
The Common Core State Standards situates Internet-based literacies as being merely electronic texts that are to be consumed and produced by students just as paper-based texts might be.  This is a colossal mistake. Absent from this viewpoint is understanding Internet-based literacies as communicative, collaborative, and cross-cultural.  As such, it is critical to help students develop and manage global learning-relationships.

Global learning is here. I know this to be true as an artist and as an educator. Below is an image I composed with Bradley Nichol, an artist from Canada.  We discovered that we each had an affinity for U2 music and decided to illustrate a few U2 songs from The Joshua Tree album.  Red Hill Mining Town was created without meeting Bradley in person or working on the image in the same place and time.  Bradley and I got to know one another via our participation in two social networks for artists and decided to collaborate.  We began when Brad sent me an image and I then remixed his image with some of mine and a public domain image to create the final work.  Since posting the work, 2200+ people from various places in the world have viewed the image and many have left comments.

Red Hill Mining Town. Image by Bradley Nichol and Mary Ann Reilly. 2009.

Empowering students in this century requires us to understand that the definition of classroom as a geographic space within a school building has been modified.  The classroom need no longer be limited to a pre-Internet world, just as our definition of being literate need not reside in that old world too.  We need to shake off these misunderstandings, not embed them within our curricula. The  standards offered by the Common Core initiative anchor us to a world no longer existing.

Works Cited

Gee, James. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: ideology in Discourses. NY: Routledge/Falmer Press.
Heath, Shirley Brice. (1983). Ways with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
Street, Brian. (1995). Social literacies: critical approaches to literacy in development, ethnography, and education. New York: Longman.


  1. Did the people who drafted the Common Core State Standards even look at NCTE's Framework? It appears that they didn't instead relying on definitions of literacy that predate the web and certainly don't take into consideration the power of Web 2.0 technologies that allow for student work to be collaborative in nature and published to an authentic audience. Why are so many states signing on to the NCCS's without question? Is it just for political expediency? It appears that may be the case.

  2. If u want the RTTT money you must sign on. Another mistake.

  3. I just want to keep rereading this post. So much to think about in regards to deepening our understanding of literacy and changing our perspective. You have me thinking about the fact that classrooms are no longer defined by geographic space and learning is no longer something we sit and have lectured to us. How does this change our teaching? How do we help students to learn in this new way? How do we rethink the literacy teaching in our classrooms?

    Digital literacy moves us rapidly away from a consumption model of reading books and taking in information, to one of creating information through synthesis, collaboration, and reshaping of understanding.

    Thinking of literacy learning as a staircase toward greater knowledge is a linear analogy that falls short of the power of literacy in today's world. Common Core Standards are "basically" that - a standard, but only a small piece of all students need to know to be literate in today's world. We know this as educators. Thank you for sharing your insight and deepening the conversation.

  4. Cathy I agree with your comment that digital literacy moves us away from a consumption model to a creation model. I think what we are all talking about here is transliteracy defined by Wikipedia as "the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks." Not being able to navigate one's way through websites, social media and all of the other content provided digitally will be just as limiting as being unable to read print.

  5. Thanks Cathy and Deb. I think it is both consumption and production as we consume texts (electronic and otherwise) and produce texts. What's different though is the remixing possibilities. That is made more probable through Internet in ways that manipulation via paper, scissors, etc. Has been more difficult, the common core just misses all of this. Kind of shocking how 1950s it all is. I hope many speak out. The CCSS will set us back.