Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Literacies are Cultural Practices

In a recent exchange of tweets and a more extended "conversation" via Karl Fisch's blog post, "No One Right Way" () the question of whether it is prudent to locate the teaching of 21st century literacy skills in a separate course or embedded across classrooms was raised by Will Richardson. I weighed in not to discuss the question of location, but rather to suggest that the question inadvertently situates literacy as a cognitive skill stripped of social, economic, and technological contexts and why this is a bad idea.

When "literacy" is understood as being a transferable commodity not influenced by any social context and considered an independent variable, an autonomous model of literacy (Street, 1984) is being embraced.  An autonomous model of literacy is based on the belief that any student learns skill x and who the learner is, is not, the context of where the learning is occurring and when is rendered meaningless.  The skill is understood as being independent from actual human reality. Stripped of gendered, social, racial, historical, technological, and economic overtones--literacy learning exists as a cognitive task to be mastered.

In contrast to an autonomous model, a group of theorist, the New London Group*, published an influential paper, A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures in the Harvard Educational Review (1996) that asked us to understand that "literacy" learning is multi-dimensional and socially situated.  Skills do no exist outside of a given context and how we learn and even come to name something as a "literacy skill" is culturally determined and bound.  Literacies are not isolated events.

For me, this understanding shifts the conversation about where something we are calling "21st Century Literacy Skills" might be taught—to the more important understanding that naming something a skill (that is true and singular for all) limits the actual complexity and surely undermines learning.  Instead of understanding that we all have different ways with words (Heath, 1983), we situate some children as "disabled," "at risk" when their ways with words do not match the dominant culture's ways.  Worse, once all this labeling is done and these children are "relocated" into  an "intervention" program or classification, responsibility is seemingly met. 

Reading and writing, be it with paper or electronically, are cultural practices influenced by our primary and secondary Discourses (Gee, 1990).  James Gee explained Discourse as:

a socially accepted association among ways of using language, other symbolic expressions, and 'artifacts', of thinking, feeling, believing, valuing, and acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group of 'social network', or to signal (that one is playing) a socially meaning 'role (Gee 1990, p. 131).
Apprenticing learners into multi-literate behaviors and dispositions valued in this century requires communities of practice where more knowledgeable others (teachers, community members, students, peers, experts in the field) help learners to understand essential attributes through practice, analysis, apprenticeship, and reflection.  Neither transmission or training will do this. The question then may not be where will these experiences will occur, but how.

*Theorist included: Courtney Cazden, Harvard University, Graduate School of Education, USA; Bill Cope, National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia, Centre for Workplace Communication and Culture, University of Technology, Sydney, and James Cook University of North Queensland, Australia; Norman Fairclough, Centre for Language in Social Life, Lancaster University, UK; Jim Gee, Hiatt Center for Urban Education, Clark University, USA; Mary Kalantzis, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, James Cook University of North Queensland, Australia; Gunther Kress, Institute of Education, University of London, UK; Allan Luke, Graduate School of Education, University of Queensland, Australia; Carmen Luke, Graduate School of Education, University of Queensland, Australia; Sarah Michaels, Hiatt Center for Urban Education, Clark University, USA; Martin Nakata, School of Education, James Cook University of North Queensland, Australia.

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