Redefining Literacy for the 21st Century

The following post was written by Laura Catharine Smith, a professor of German and Slavic Languages and one of the Humanities Center’s Faculty Fellows.

Each year, faculty in the humanities face the same question from students: Why should I get a degree in the German/French/Philosophy/Classics, etc.? The question is generally followed up with a remark stating that the student needs to get a degree that will help them get a job, a notion often reinforced by concerned parents questioning the usefulness of a degree in their child’s chosen field.  The discussion often underscores the fact that the needs of the current workforce really aren’t understood. Nor are the abilities that our students have to simply have a future with a good quality of life in which they are actors and agents in their own lives able to make contributions in their communities, and not just people who are acted upon.

In 2002, a coalition brought together members from education, business and policymakers to determine how to help the next generation(s) to be better prepared for the needs of living and working in the new century. Known as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, this group published a Framework for 21st Century Learning in which they outlined the skills they perceived as being critical for our students (for the skills map, check out this link). Although the coalition’s focus was on reshaping K-12 education, these skills are just as important in the post-secondary context. Not only are communication, critical thinking and problem solving important skills, but so are creativity and innovation, as well as flexibility and adaptability, and critically media and technology literacy.

In the past we considered literacy to be our ability to read and write, but in the 21st century, literacy has been redefined. Not only are students expected to read and write as before, and to use technology, but they are also now expected to use that technology to appropriately “access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge economy” (p. 14 of “Skills Map”). In the next bullet point, the ability to evaluate information is again listed, but this time with regards to “understanding the ethical/legal issues surrounding the access and use of information” (p. 14 of “Skills Map”). Although we often consider our students to be the most technologically savvy generation, the fact is the most students’ skills are limited to Gmail, Facebook, and the basic functions of word processing programs like Word.

But perhaps even more important for the future of our students is media literacy. In this current age in which we devour sound bites, but have difficulty reading to the end of a long article (or blog post) to  understand the actual message and context, the ability to navigate through the messages we receive from the media becomes even more critical. As a 21st Century skill, students are asked to understand the purpose of the messages and why there were constructed in a certain way and even more importantly the ability to (yet again) be able assess the information they receive from the media, including to be able to recognise biases, etc. In our weekly listening assignments in German phonetics, we made a shift last fall from listening for specific elements of pronunciation, an assignment that was not the most fun experience for students, to asking students to evaluate how stories they listened to were reported in a German-speaking country in comparison to within the US media. Students are now asked to evaluate not only media sources, but to begin to understand differences in the cultural contexts in which information is disseminated.

The importance for our students of being aware of what is going on in the world, by being a literate thinkers within the global context even has direct implications in their language evaluation. As students increase (hopefully) in proficiency, part of the requirement is to be able to speak about things outside themselves, to understand current events, and to be able to evaluate what is happening around them locally, nationally and internationally. Becoming fluent in a language is not just about language; it is just as much a cognitive exercise as it is a linguistic one.

Perhaps most telling is the fact that one initiative from ACTFL (the national association for foreign language teachers) is to examine how we are doing at helping our students develop this broad definition of literacy.

As we begin to rethink literacy within the 21st century context, we begin to expand our students’ horizons. We provide them with greater opportunities to develop critical thinking skills, to find ways to develop creativity and problem solving and we help them learn to think in terms of the consequences of events and ideas. And when we field question such as “What’s the point of this assignment?” or “How is this going to help us get a job?” by drawing on the 21st century skills we are better able to articulate the benefits of what we are doing in our classrooms to prepare our students for their futures not only at work, but also in their families and communities.

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1 Comment

  1. Ernie Orlando Class of '73 says:

    May 28th 2015. I frequently substitute teach in a suburban public high school. This morning in a humanities class of 24 seniors, virtually all of whom are going onto college(8 males,16 females) I referred to a young man with the last name of Paradise as Mr.Paradise Lost. No one got the tiny jest. Upon questioning, not one student had ever heard of Milton’s epic poem. Is the past merely past or is it lost altogether? Experiences like this make me wonder.

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