Defining 21st-century literacy - SmartBrief

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Defining 21st-century literacy

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A number of weeks ago, my friend Tom Whitby asked me to write an article for SmartBlogs about literacy. Tom Whitby also inspires me. Among his various activities is facilitating an online community of more than 15,000 educators devoted to the topic of personal learning networks. PLNs describe a range of skills and techniques, practiced by many educators, to fashion personal information networks of people and knowledge sources, from which they can learn.

These educators are publicly practicing contemporary literacy in order to achieve what has become the primary purpose of literacy –– to continually learn. Literacy is a foundation of democracy. This is why we teach it. But, as a reader, were you taught to read as well as you do? Certainly, you would not be reading now, unless someone taught you to. But, as you read this article, are you calling to mind your teachers’ discreet lessons? Do you consciously know when you are scanning or reading for detail? Do you recognize and label alliteration, cause and effect and inference?

When we read, we engage in habit –– because we have had a lot of practice. Getting through high school and college requires us to read textbooks, reference works and journal articles selected and required by our teachers. We learn to read by reading content that has been filtered, packaged and designed to ease our way to understanding –– to be taught what is prescribed by standards documents. We read well because reading is how we were taught. But what happens when we finish school, only to discover that learning has become a critical part of accomplishing our everyday professional and personal goals –– and there are no teachers and textbooks?

I never sit to write an article, program a computer or plan a presentation without having to learn something that I didn’t know before. Without teacher and textbook, I must work to find, and sometimes translate, relevant information, determine its value, select the best information, organize and synthesize it –– and often, I must digitally manipulate the information into a form that works for me. These are basic literacy skills because they are contemporary learning skills, and they are part of being a reader today.

When we teach literacy by prescribing what is read, we are not teaching children how to learn. We are teaching them how to be taught. We’re not making them literate. We are making them teachable. Becoming literate today requires curriculum that asks learners to make decisions about what they read and to be responsible for their decisions. It invites them to expand and experiment with knowledge and ideas for reading that address their personal interests –– unconstrained by government standards. It gives them permission to make mistakes because we learn from mistakes.

Our goal should not be literacy. We should be insisting that our children become learning-literate. When learning has become such an essential part of our lifestyle, we should not be satisfied with schools that establish success by measuring how well our children have been taught. We must be willing to ask, “Do standardized tests demonstrate a readiness for the 21st century, or simply show how prepared our children are for the 1950s?”

David Warlick (@dwarlick) is a 35-year educator. He has been a classroom teacher, a district administrator and a staff consultant with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. For the past 15 years, Warlick has operated The Landmark Project, a consulting and innovations firm in Raleigh, N.C.