Sep 11 2010

Teaching Literacy in the 21st Century

As I was sitting, brainstorming, trying to imagine how one would go about teaching literacy in the 21st century, I was having a terrible time with it. My thoughts were random, disconnected, and all over the map. Even using mind maps, I couldn’t seem to organize my thoughts about what a 21st century classroom would look like. Then it dawned on me that I didn’t have a clear picture of how literacy was defined. Since it’s obvious that the “Three R’s” are—while not irrelevant—mostly outdated, and David Warlick’s “Three E’s” are slightly nebulous, I wanted to define for myself what I believed 21st century literacy was. You can click on the graphic below to see how I laid out my ideas on how to define literacy.


Diagram 1 - 21st Century Literacy

The basic premise is three-fold in that 21st century literacy is comprised of three areas (I couldn’t escape the philosophical trifecta): Communication, Problem Solving, and Content Knowledge. The reason I broke it down in this manner is because I looked at myself and other working adults and realized that 99.9% of their waking lives falls into one of these three categories. Do these three (non-alliterated) branches replace the “Three R’s”? Not in the slightest. In fact, you can see from the graphic that both the “Three R’s” and the “Three E’s” are each present under each wing (represented by green lines) of my vision of 21st century literacy. For example, it is not possible to effectively communicate without the ability to read, write, or do basic math. It is likewise not possible to effectively solve problems without the abilities to “expose, employ, and express.”

While this could be the subject of an entire research project in and of itself, this was simply something I had to do to get to the real crux of the matter—imagining how to teach literacy in the 21st century. With my own definition of literacy clearly laid out (for me), the next step was to decide how one would instill this new literacy in students; what tools would a school/classroom employ to make their students literate in communication, problem solving, and content knowledge? A three-pronged (alliterated this time, naturally) approach of Collaboration, Creation, and Community (see graphic below).


Diagram 2 - 21st Century Classroom

All three of these approaches are served and delivered by what I called a “Challenge Team.” This team is not a grade-level team, per se (though it might be at the younger levels), but rather, just a team whose strengths and weakness are complimentary to each other so that every aspect of a student’s needs are met by at least one member of this team. This team would stay with the group of students for as long as was practically possible (K-12 in an ideal world). The team would include (or designate from within) one member who is a library/media/research specialist, and one who is an information technology (IT) specialist.  It is the responsibility of this team to design (or gather) all curricula for the students, so that it is perfectly tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. They would also make sure to ask of each other “why are we learning this” so that they can make decisions on the value of the material before the students ever encounter it.

I won’t go into great depth about my “Three C’s” (again, source of an entire project), I would just say that I again looked at the “real-world” lives of people and tried to figure out how to best prepare students for this “real world.” Collaboration doesn’t only happen between the students, but also between curricula, and between what I called “cultures” (this could literally include foreign cultures/peoples, but could also just mean people from other schools or states). Community will be emphasized (as it is currently de-emphasized in modern academia) through service-based education, ethics-based education, and network-based education. In other words, learning in the context of the greater community (how do I get along with and work beside all the other people in the world?). Finally, students would learn the material for the purpose of creation. This not only forces students to cover fewer things in greater depth, but also helps them figure out (on their own) how one would “ever use this” in life. This also gives them the opportunity to teach what they have learned to others, for as we know, teaching others is the best way to learn for yourself.

I apologize for the length of this, but as I said, I had to put more thought into this than I had originally intended, so what you get is the result of all that thought. Please share in the comments below any thing you agree or disagree with and how you might change it.

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    • Jada Reed on September 14, 2010 at 6:23 pm
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    Ryan, very nice maps. I can tell you put a lot of thought into it! I, like you, felt like the Three R’s were important to keep in the picture.

    Your second map really shows some great suggestions. Your “Three C’s” were a great addition for the activity. The “Challenge Team” really sparked my interest! Like I said on another comment, the group/teamwork really is important for kids to learn. They need to learn how to work together, how to share information, how to take responses, and simply how to communicate.

  1. Wow, very in-depth and a little challenging to understand considering these are someone else’s thoughts and designs. After a couple of weeks of reading Warlick and some of the other journal articles that feel that the three R’s are, as you put it “outdated” I have to say that even though those concepts are dated, as an educator I do see their merit. I’m still not clear if these authors believe we should stop teaching these concepts all together or just in another way, which is probably the most likely idea. I can’t imagine the three R’s no longer being part of the academic process. Even though technology can do a lot of the work, I think it says a lot of a person if they can create a perfectly written sentence or solve a very involved formula or equation on their own using their very own technology, their brain! It must be the elementary teacher in me that can’t fathom a first grade classroom without the three R’s.

    Your maps are very detailed and obviously have a lot of great thought behind them. I like the community aspect. From the readings in this class and some information from my other class it is obvious that the community component is key to technology integration in curricula. Blogging with other students in other countries and working on collaborative projects is a very exciting concept and idea for education. What an amazing way to learn!

    • ryancorcoran on September 16, 2010 at 10:51 pm
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    I’ve commented on several folks’ blogs so far regarding this issue, but I think several people have gotten the wrong idea. To my perception, neither Warlick nor anyone else is suggesting that the Three R’s are irrelevant and need to be replaced or that they’re no longer a “part of the academic process.” But rather that the Three R’s are only building blocks to a greater, more valuable literacy. In other words, those who can “only” read, write, and do math are the new equivalent of those who “only” have a high school diploma. Yes, you can be successful in life, but you’re going to have to work much harder at it.

    • pallender on September 17, 2010 at 10:58 pm
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    I can say that you have sparked my interests. I just finished posting my map on my blog and then decided it was time to look at other maps. I feel that your ideas of collaboration are true. All areas of the work force are using more collaboration and in amazing ways with technology. Look how many businesses use technology and collaborate with employees in all areas of the world working on the same project. There are more people now days working for companies from the comfort of their own homes with the help of technology. I agree that collaboration and technology will play a major role in how schools teach and what they teach.

  1. […] opening the gigantic proverbial can of worms that exists in trying to define what “literacy” means, the postliterate era is defined as that time after skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic […]

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