Over the next several days, I’ll be writing about different issues that can be viewed through different lenses, and as a result, create different perspectives among educators. Many of these issues are also climate and culture issues, so I’m very interested in where you stand personally, as well as where your school district stands. I’m planning on identifying the endpoints of the spectrum and I’ll ask you to weigh in on where you are at across that gradient. And if you believe that there are different endpoints to the spectrum of positions, please let me know that as well.

The first post in this series is an important one, and addresses a serious fundamental question that I believe schools must revisit, or in some cases, visit. I’ve included this topic in recent presentations, and it always creates a great deal of conversation.

As educators, we are inundated with phrases such as “21st Century literacies” and what does it mean to be literate in the 21st Century. At the same time, other groups advocate for 21st Century Skills. There is certainly a difference between literacy and skill, and how we define the relationship between the two in our schools defines how we approach teaching and learning.

So, what do you believe? Are there new literacies, 21st Century literacies, that are afforded by the new connective technologies at our disposal? Or, is literacy simply literacy, and a timeless concept? Where do your beliefs fit within that spectrum, skills to literacy?

20 Responses to “Spectrum: 21st Century Literacies or 21st Century Skills?”
  1. Obviously these are heady questions that will never be able to be packaged neatly. While I’ve seen a few lame attempts, they rarely capture more than a snippet or try to simply things to comfortable frameworks that usually leave me feeling unsatisfied.

    I do believe there are some new literacies. I know David Warlick talks about the information a lot and gets criticized for his perspective but it does resonate with me. For example, I think there is a literacy around handling information. The idea of filters. In days gone by, we taught students how to find information, it was somewhat scarce. That’s not the problem anymore and quickly students are tasked not simply with authenticating information but more importantly how to manage their lives. The onslaught of streams is only going to escalate with mobile technologies. I think a literate person is one who knows how to have information flow to him/her effectively. That does include things like RSS but is really about knowing how to filter.

    So that’s just one part of what you’re looking for but while many things are timeless, understanding that information has not just increased but is fundamentally different, needs to be recognized. But I’m sure others will disagree, so let the learning continue.

    BTW, nice to have you back. ;)

  2. Excellent question! I have been asking myself what my definition of literacy is. Can I really consider learning technology a part of literacy when I advocate it as a useful tool, more context than content? What does it mean to be technologically literate (or for that matter technologically illiterate)? Do we define literacy by the tools we use, or how we use them?

  3. Anna Niemeyer says:

    Dictionary.com offers the definition to these terms: Skill: the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well; Literacy: a person’s knowledge of a particular subject or field: to acquire computer literacy. Given these aforementioned definitions of the two terms you offer in your post, I believe that it’s much more important to have the skill. wmchamberlain poses the important question, “Do we define literacy by the tools we use, or how we use them?” I think it’s how we use the tools that’s important. We need to stop thinking about the tool and consider how the tool is the means to foster student’s understanding of the curricula. We don’t sit and banter about how to use the chalkboard, paper or pencil. We use those tools in the classroom where it’s applicable to curriculum. Isn’t better to have the skills to know where to apply the tools where it suits the task at hand? (From a students’ perspective: Who to connect to? Where to find information? What resources will support what I’m trying to understand or show what I’ve learned?) To have the skill to know when, where and how to apply the tools that make sense to foster student understanding of the curriculum in my opinion is key.

  4. Debbie Cohen says:

    Hi David, and everyone else…

    First, a confession. This is the first time I have ever participated in a discussion like this. But since I ask my students to engage in this type of discussion all the time, I figure I should have some of my own experience with it. So here goes.

    Why do we see literacy and skill as separate ends on a spectrum? In my mind, they are inextricably linked, constantly and recursively informing one another as we learn. How can one posess a skill without the literacy that serves as its foundation? As an English teacher, I encourage my students to read critically; yet without the fundamental literacy of decoding and making meaning of text, reading critically (a skill) is impossible.

    I also feel that adding the term “21st century” to the debate about literacy vs. skill simply recontextualizes and complicates the age old question about what the purpose of education is for students. As educators, what is the intended “end point” of our work?

    It seems to me that the documents you posted for us to look at further illustrates my point: The documents themselves don’t truly work at cross purposes. What I see as the central difference is the group that has produced each document. The “skills” group is a consortium of businesses and some academic/educational groups. Their focus is on how to produce a competent American worker in, I assume, a business context. The “literacy” group is an organization near and dear to my heart, the National Council of Teachers of English, who don’t seem to be as directly concerned about making a new American workforce. (And yes, I do realize that NCTE has now joined the “partnership for 21st century skills”, a great move, IMO.)

    I should conclude…the bell just rang and my freshman classes don’t function that well unsupervised!

  5. DSJ says:

    @Dean: I would think that “handling information” is a skill and not a literacy. It seems that most definitions of literacy are incapsulated by the ability to read and write. Other definitions enlarge it to be able to read, write, listen and speak. I would agree that the skill you speak of (the ability to manage information) is an important one, and one that we must refocus on due to the ability of anyone and everyone to publish information. I just see that as part of a larger literacy, and that is one of being “information literate.” I struggle with the above definitions, I’ll be honest. I believe that visual literacy is important, and you see a great deal of research and literature that focuses on the skills necessary to be visually literate. Is visual literacy embodied within the ability to read, write, listen and speak? Is information literacy? I suppose you could make that argument but it sometimes seems an unnessary argument. What I think is interesting is to simply focus on this: what does it mean to be well-education in 2008? Thanks for your comment.

  6. DSJ says:

    @wmchamberlain. I wouldn’t think we would define literacy by the tools we use, or how we use them. Literacy stands alone regardless of tools or their use. For example, I consider the ability to write a literacy, and that is independent of the tool used to accomplish that, whether it is a pencil or a computer. You are still writing. Certainly there are differences between individuals in how well they write, and you could certainly make an argument that a person may be more literate than another with regards to writing. I’m not sure I’m making that much sense here, but I continue to think that with the emergence of connective technologies, new skills emerge that support and contribute to being literate. Thanks for reading and contributing.

  7. David says:

    @Debbie: In the presentations I do, I see several camps: 1) those that believe there are new literacies and 2) those that believe there are new skills. That’s the reason I artifically framed the spectrum the way I did.

    I find your ideas interesting. You say “How can one posess a skill without the literacy that serves as its foundation?” I see it the other way around. I see that the accumulation of certain and discrete skills leads toward the development of a literacy, so that skills are supportive of literacy, and not the other way around. We need to have a discussion some time on this. :)

    As far as the 21st Century stuff, I agree and like the way you framed that–that it recontextualizes (and certainly complicates) how we look at a well-educated citizen. I think the recontextulization should lead to a re-examination of the way in which we teach certain skills, and, add new skills that support the development of literacy.

    In regards to the development of a workforce, we again are in agreement. That’s an outdated outcome for education in the United States.

    Thanks for commenting and challenging my thoughts.

  8. Debbie Cohen says:

    I didn’t really mean to challenge you as much as I was confused. I do see where you are coming from with the skills/literacy debate. It seems now, in reading my post, that I had it backwards. I would certainly agree with you that at least initially, a student does accumulate skills until they hit a critical mass of “literacy”.

    Yet I still contend that at a certain point, and I think what I mean is at a point of higher learning, a person can be literate in a certain area (reading, writing, media literacy, visual literacy, etc) and still be in need of particular skills, that when acquired, will enhance and expand that literacy. But at the same time, the student is adding skill to an already functioning and useful literacy without the context of which, the skill would be meaningless (or at least much less useful). It is at that point, I think, that skills and literacy become mutually supportive of each other, and we leave the “critical mass” theory behind for a more fluid and recursive one.

    But as for the “new literacy vs. new skills” question…you can probably guess that I would answer that there are (probably) both new skills and new literacies, or at least new ways and contexts in which to use the “old” ones. But I’m not entirely certain how I feel about it yet. Can we talk about this more when we meet about Moodle?

  9. Edwin Wargo says:

    Great questions and conversation!

    I think there are skills that students need to learn that are commensurate with our time-period and technologies that we have at our disposal. Whether the aggregate of these skills equals its own literacy is where I’m not entirely sure yet. I can certainly see both sides.

    To me, the heart of the 21st century skills/literacy reach into our traditional subject areas: language/English, math, science, social studies, PE, music, art, etc. It’s in these “traditional” areas, not in isolation, I think, where students are/will be assimilating and applying their 21st century knowledge. In fact, I think one of the undergirding enablers of the current connective technologies is constructing knowledge/understanding of traditional subject areas. By doing so, knowledge is constructed and skills developed through collaboration, communication, and the other 21st century specific skills. I think it’s 21st century skills that students can apply to their specific subject area to help them solve problems and thrive in that field. What better way for a student to understand a mathmatical or literary concept, for example, by honing and learning 21st century skills in parallel.

    A basic example comes to mind from my recent experiences working with a teacher in reading fluency and VoiceThread. I think there two approaches with students. We could have said either say here’s VoiceThread, here’s how it works, and let’s do something. Or we can say we’re going to practice reading and give you a chance to share your reading with others and listen to others. If there’s a discrepancy in what someone reads, we’re going to collaborate and figure out the difference. To start reading, let’s go to VoiceThread. The difference for me is that students are reading first and using a tool to help facilitate that reading. The focus is the reading not the tool.

    I guess I lean towards literacy being an evolutionary concept that advances through new discoveries, ideas, theories linked to cultural, societal, and economic shifts. While there are common themes and technologies now in the 21st century, I would think each subject area has it own nuances about what it means to be literate in the 21st century. Some of those differences are from the natural advancement of those specific areas (new discoveries, new knowledge) and some of it’s using the tools that are available at the moment in time. Currently, it’s connective technologies. In 2100, I’d imagine we’re still going to have the same traditional subject areas but the ways in which knowledge in each of those areas is constructed, shared, and presented is going to be different. New skills will be required but I’m not sure still that it’ll be a “literacy”.

    Hope that all makes sense.

  10. Jim Lerman says:

    Fascinating discussion you’ve got going here David! Please allow me to add my two cents.

    I tend to equate skills with the term “habits of mind” or “ways of thinking.” For example one may think in a collaborative or a competitive way. Another might think in an inductive or a deductive way. Another might in an inclusionary or exclusionary way. And one may be skilled at a high level in one area of endeavor, such as mathematics or basketball, and at a low level in another, such as business or playing chess. So skills are situation-specific and also exist on some sort of continuum. They certainly can be learned and taught, and also possess an element of innate ability or predisposition. Some people will never be able to throw a football 50 yards.

    I also tend to agree that much of the discussion about 21st century skills has been dominated by an economic model of work, though certainly not all. If one contrasts the largely business-dominated Partnership for 21st century skills with the earlier Metiri Group work that produced the Engauge materials, they are striking in both their similarities as well as differences. As Chris Lehmann stated so eloquently in his recent “The Schools We Need” video
    , “What should teachers teach in the age of Google? Wisdom.” What’s more important, getting 1550 on your SATs or being like the guy who blew the whistle on Enron or Colin Powell?

    I wonder if perhaps the skills vs. literacy debate might be informed by looking at some of the discussion that is becoming more prominent these days on the concept of what it takes to become an expert in something. The popular yardstick is about 10,000 hours. That works out to about 20 hours a week for 10 years. Being an expert requires literacy, skill, and judgment — all elements that contribute to wisdom. As one moves from novice to expert, one acquires these elements, and probably a lot more as well.

    So, to me, skills and literacy are not an either-or proposition, or a matter of whether the egg preceded the chicken. To arrive at wisdom and expertise, one requires both.

    And, just to muddy the waters a bit more, I’ve lately become taken with the notion that one essential thread running through all the currently discussed literacies is pattern recognition. In this age of superabundant information in all fields, what enables us to succeed and thrive is the ability to discern patterns among the many literacy buckets with which we are forced to deal…to discern patterns and be able to apply these patterns to solving problems in ill-defined situations that call for wisdom and expertise.

  11. Ryan says:

    As a college student who is going to be a teacher this blog raises some interesting questions. I beleive that literacy, meaning the ability to read is a fundamental must. Even with all of today’s technology, the ability to read, write, and use math are necessary to suceed. The ability to use new forms of technology will further prepare students for endless possibilities in an always changing world.

  12. Ben Grey says:

    I believe this to be an extremely important and relevant conversation to have at this moment in our educational culture. I believe this notion extends beyond the 21st Century Skills vs. Literacies debate, but this is certainly an excellent place to begin.

    I didn’t want to completely jeopardize your comment space, so I posted my thoughts on this issue here. http://bengrey.com/blog/?p=52

    I will say that, in my own personal philosophical approach to this, I believe there isn’t such a thing as a 21st Century Literacy. I also disagree with the way the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has established their notion of the new skills. If a skill is transcendental in relation to a specific historical era, then the skill itself needs no qualifier (such as the 21st century adjective). Being able to collaborate and communicate would be an example of a transcendental skill. However, if a finite skill is needed for a specific period of time, and will be proven antiquated once a cultural/era shift occurs, then it should be termed with the appropriate description. Using an ink quill, for example, would be a specific skill that was needed in the past, but is no longer relevant. Perhaps that would have been called a 16th Century Skill. This begets a whole separate conversation regarding what are the finite skills that we will no longer need in the near future (cursive handwriting, specific qwerty keyboarding skills, html coding, etc.)

    I hope this conversation continues, and I appreciate you framing it the way you did, David.

  13. drezac says:

    The question is moot. What we are talking about instead of literacy, should be intelligence. If you follow Gardner’s theory, then perhaps what we’re talking about is Information Management Intelligence or Technology Intelligence, Create Your Own Intelligence, etc. The fact that we’re talking about this at all means that we’ve fallen into the trap laid by “experts” who mean to drive the conversation.

    I don’t know if this argument stems from Alvin Toffler’s quote, but this comes down to how we view things. Should we take up a completely new view and create new literacies? To frame things in this way serves who, exactly? Shouldn’t we just use the vernacular that we already have in place like Gardner (which is a concept that I’m fine with) and just add to that?

    If we choose to go the new literacies route, I’m sure that it would create a lot of discussion, and some folks could write a new book on the concept explaining the whole thing to us, and maybe teach an adjunct class on the topic…. or we could just use the existing concepts that we have. This is a pure example of having too many cooks in the kitchen or too many “experts.” Tomorrow I think that I’m going to write a white paper on Wiki Literacy. I could take credit for coining that term. Oops, looks like this guy (http://www.sociallibraries.com/course/node/294) has already beat me to it!


  14. Social intelligence, attention training, impulse control. The one thing we all have in common with our students is the pressure to adopt and adapt to increasingly digitized social contexts – in life, learning and work. Unfortunately, digital learning and social spaces – like offline spaces – are best negotiated by those who have well developed productive skills and habits of mind and behaviour. Those students (and persons) who suffer from existing emotional, social or learning challenges bring those issues with them to online spaces. Those of us who are higher functioning (and tend to occupy positions of power and influence) take for granted a vast number of social codes, literacies and intelligences that are more elusive to those who have not had the benefit or mentorship of scaffolding in these areas. Meanwhile, our students with at-risk behaviours jump into social spaces and reproduce many of the unproductive behaviours (disinhibition, attention seeking, abuse, self harm, risk taking) that challenge them offline. As I see it, nobody is currently addressing these hidden social literacies or how to help and engage those who lack the privilege of functional social codes and intelligences. We cannot make the Big Sell for classroom2.0 social and participatory media if we do not also address the hidden social literacies, privileges and codes that are required for productive, meaningful and successful use of these tools. I would argue that social literacy is another hidden dimension of the digital divide as well – especially in the context of social media.

  15. On wikipedia, UNESCO says, “‘Literacy’ is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.” Given this definition I believe that literacy is forever the same, however, the means at which we obtain and disseminate literacy skills constantly changes. As schools it is imperative that we offer students the chance to effectively communicate with the “wider society” mentioned in the definition. I think that the argument can be made that in a flattened world, those that cannot communicate globally are effectively illiterate.

  16. Albert says:

    You bring up some really good points, now we are in the 21st century and what has changed? Literature has changed enormously from the 20th century and now this.

  17. I am very impressed with the quality of the discussion. I have been persuaded we need global awareness skills that involve media literacy, IT competencies and problem solving skills. The issues we face as a planet mean that we have to stop pressing on with teaching the old paradigm–that sees knowledge as a commodity (taught by the priests transmission style) and skills as something that are of a second order category. I agree with Joey Richards about the dynamic natre of literacy skills. But to bring this down to the practical–let students solve problems using social networking tools in real time and in group settings using IT to connect globally.

  18. I am surprised by the change of literacy in the last few decades. I think that is a a product of the culture we live in now…

  19. Agreed on Edwin’s point, To me, the heart of the 21st century skills reach into our traditional subject areas: math, science and social studies etc. It’s in these “traditional” areas, not in isolation, I think, where students will be assimilating and applying their 21st century knowledge.

  20. Trent says:

    I definitely think literacy, skills, and education are different for the 21st century and should be taught in a way to keep up with the times. Jobs have certainly changed in many areas and technology makes things much more efficient.

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