21st Century Literacy: Two Words

There are no films, TV programmes, advertisements, books, paintings or radio shows. Nor do we watch, observe, gaze, inspect, listen or study. There are only ‘texts’ which we ‘read’.

Sometimes the language we use in the classroom is peripheral, complicating meaning and/or understanding. After all, words such as ‘film’ and ‘advert’ are only generic terms, used to classify texts, in our dumbed down world, where we clamour to have everything fitted neatly into little boxes. Words such as ‘watch’ and ‘gaze’ do nothing more than describe states of being.

None of these terms are helpful in preparing young people to be literate in the 21st century. The values placed on texts such as ‘films’ and ‘TV programmes’, when combined with words such as ‘watch’ or ‘listen’, are predominantly negative. The implication being: ‘no reading is required’. However, any student of Media Studies, Communication Studies or Linguistics will tell you that, this is not true.

Moreover, children are being born into, and are growing up in a “media-saturated society” (Strinati, 1992) where the boundaries between high and low culture have been eroded almost entirely. This is a dangerous world in which young people are growing up. That is, if we don’t begin to treat supposed ‘lowbrow’ texts with the same critical reverence as we have paid to fine works of art, classical music and plays.

It is my contention, that we can take steps towards achieving this, by redefining (and using) just two words. Those words are ‘text’ and ‘reading’.

With my semiotic hat on, I would suggest:

  • Text: Any work containing one or more sign.
  • Reading: To decode the meaning within a text through the understanding of signs.

If we reduce our classroom language to these two terms and help our students to appreciate the above definitions then we can change the way they look at the world; opening their eyes to the depth of meaning that can be found within a Shakespeare play and Call of Duty. Moreover, we can remove hierarchal precepts and establish a level of equality, in which both (highbrow and lowbrow) texts are read (critically) not watched or played.

Illiteracy: Ignoring the root of the problem

This post is a response to the article: ‘My pledge to end the shocking blight of illiteracy‘, written by Michael Gove, published in the London Evening Standard on Friday 10th June 2011.

For Michael Gove to recognise that there is a problem with literacy in the UK is pleasing yet also inane, in that anyone working in education could have told you the same thing. What is less pleasing but equally meaningless is his proposal to solve this “blight of illiteracy”, by testing students as young as six years old. In his words, this will “give every parent the reassurance of knowing their child will have a reading check – a literacy MoT – at the age of six.” I’m not sure what reassurance this will offer exactly? It is more likely to cause greater stress for both the parent and (more importantly) the child. What’s more it will create more form filling and data analysis for teachers, surely not the best use of their time. Without a well thought out program to tackle why young children are not reading and writing well, another test is simply pointless.

Equally worrying was the suggestion that extra funding would be provided to support the poorest students, should they be found to be under performing. While I’m not about to dispute the notion that children from poorer backgrounds are likely to struggle with reading and writing, I am not of the belief that they are the only young people who at school struggle with literacy. Many students who come from more affluent backgrounds have difficulties with reading and writing. The fact is that there are a significant number of factors that can impact on a young persons development as a reader and writer. Money is not the sole cause of illiteracy and it is not the sole answer to solving it either.

Gove and the government are (in my opinion) ignoring key issues and not getting to the root of the problem. The fact is that improving teacher training (also proposed in the article) is not a bad idea; there is always room for improvement. However, if this plan is based on a belief that teachers are not doing their jobs properly, that the current crop of teachers do not have the skills to help improve the literacy of children across the UK, then I believe this is highly misguided. I know and work alongside many excellent teachers across a wide range of departments, who are more than equipped to tackle this “blight of illiteracy”, but who have little time to address it effectively in what is an over-crowded curriculum. It is also the case that many talented teachers have fallen into the trap of teaching to the test. Exam boards have given less prevalence to the basics in order to boost results. The quality of a students spelling, punctuation and grammar counts for very little in the current AQA GCSE English curriculum and even less in English Literature. Arguably, at the present time, education is not focussed on tackling the fundamentals or addressing individual student needs – how could it be when schools are forced to be so target driven?

I’m not naive enough to believe that all teachers are perfect and must acknowledge that some teachers are not well equipped to tackle illiteracy when they can’t spell or demarcate a sentence correctly themselves? However, I do wonder why this is. Are we now seeing (in UK graduates) the by-product of ‘teach the test’ culture, created by target driven education? Are graduates accepted on to teacher training courses and awarded NQT status because so many teachers leave the profession after a few short years? Should the Government not be considering how to attract top graduates into teaching? Surely, if teachers were paid better standards would go up. It irks me to have said that. I, for one, am not in this for the money, but I don’t believe it’s that misguided to believe that a student graduating with a first in Biology is more likely to consider Medical School than a PGCE to teach Secondary school kids Science. The future career prospects (particularly financially) are far more appealing.

More tests; more money; improved teacher training – none of these ideas actually begin to address the root of the problem. The fact is that the road to becoming literate begins at home. Parents have to take a lead in reading to their children, encouraging and helping them learn to read and write. The proposal in the article that bothered me more than any other was the idea that the Government (meaning the tax payer) would provide “additional funding to make sure every disadvantaged two-year-old child has 15 hours of pre-school learning every week.” Once again money is seen as the answer and more significantly there is a continuation of what I feel has been an over-arching approach to education for the last 10-15 years. That approach (an ethos if you will) is that education is the sole responsibility of the state and therefore parents are absolved of their responsibility to educate their children.

Here are some proposals of my own that I believe would actually begin to tackle the real issues. Firstly, lets stop closing public libraries. In fact, lets make sure that every community (village, town, city) has a modern, well-resourced, space where people of all walks of life can come to read, research, and learn. The disparity between people’s experiences of what a library can be is huge. Just compare my local library in Gerrards Cross with the facilities available at the library in High Wycombe. High Wycombe library, like many city libraries, offers a hugely attractive space and wealth of resources to their communities. I believe that all communities should have such a resource at their finger tips.

Chalfont St Peter library, just a couple of miles down the road from me, is under threat of closure. The minute it closes, access to affordable resources for reading/learning have been cut off from the poorest people in the community. If these smaller, local libraries were better funded and resourced, the government would not need to throw money at poor families as suggested by Gove in the article. Would it not be economically (and environmentally) more sound to improve on the facilities that already exist? Perhaps the counter argument to the proposal above is that it leaves responsibility with the local community to go and use it. I firmly believe that if you make libraries relevant to the 21st Century, that if you fund them well and make them attractive spaces people will use them. It is lack of funding and level of neglect that ultimately decides the fate of many local libraries.

Therefore, I offer a second proposal. Instead of absolving parents of their responsibility in helping their children to learn to read and write. Why not provide them with the means to do so? For those poorer families in the community, why not give a portion of their welfare to them in the form of vouchers that can only be used in local libraries to borrow books or to buy books from retailers? This would raise the profile of reading across the nation and say to parents you have a responsibility to your children to not only ensure that they are fed, clothed and well looked after; you also have a responsibility to kick-start their education. Don’t get me wrong, I know that many parents who are raising their children in difficult circumstances, realise this is part of their role. However, for those parents in difficult financial circumstances, lets help them to be able to do it.

A question needs to be asked of publishers and retailers also. Why can Romeo and Juliet be bought for a pound but The Hungry Caterpillar will set you back four or five? Surely, children’s books need to be priced so that they can be afforded by poorer families as well as those with excess income. How this could be achieved, I’m not sure but it seems that books like many other commodities are increasingly over priced and as such become accessible to those who can afford them and inaccessible to those who can’t. This is where libraries have bridged the gap but as I have said before, if libraries close, then a valuable resource is lost. Perhaps then, the Government need to provide incentives to publishers and retailers to lower the cost of books, particularly children’s books to encourage reading.

I know that some of you will be thinking that iPads and Kindle’s provide a potential solution to getting young people reading. But I am unconvinced at this stage, mainly because I refuse to buy-in to the over hyped ‘Digital Natives‘ idea coined by Marc Prensky. Prensky and the many people who buy into his ideas ignore the fact that there is a significant digital divide in UK. The divide is there because of money. In my own classes, only a very small percentage of students have iPads, Smart Phones or Kindles. The majority of them (and I work in quite an affluent area) simply do not have them. If they read, they read from regular old paper books. Until, eBook Readers and Smart Phones are so cheep that they are ubiquitous then it remains that we need to find ways to make good, old, paper books affordable for everyone.

What I am driving at is this: Illiteracy is a societal problem not an solely an education one. Gove is ignoring the root of the problem and can only see a state mandated school-based solution. We need to think more broadly and we need to move the responsibility of ‘literacy’ beyond the four walls of the classroom.

More on the challenges facing education…

Having shared some of my thoughts on the challenges facing education on Friday, I have spent the last couple of days reading and commenting on a number of the fantastic purpos/ed posts submitted by educators across the web as part of Doug Belshaw and Andy Stews’ #500words campaign.

One post that really grabbed my attention was Fred Garnett’s post: ‘The Purpose of Education’. Fred suggest that our position as subjects rather than citizens has significantly impacted on our acceptance of the ‘National Curriculum’ for this long. He also, draws upon many different voices including Pat Kane and Sugata Mitra to help add clarity to his belief that education needs to be far more democratic built upon collaboration and learners’ interests.  It was Fred’s reflection on his own teaching experiences though that really made me think and forced me to comment on the post:

Having taught Politics to rich kids in the USA and then Computing to poor kids in Lewisham I concluded that the only difference between them was that the poor kids expected to fail. I decided that I should focus on motivating them to believe in themselves rather than burying them with curriculum facts.

This got me thinking (particularly in terms of school based education) that the challenges facing education are effected by the wealth of the area/community in which a particular school exists.

I asked Fred if it was okay for me to republish my reply here and he enthusiastically said yes. Below is a slightly edited version of my response to Fred’s post, you can read the post and see my response in its original context here.

Education: A dichotomy of challenges?

Great post Fred, I think your contrasting teaching experiences in the US and here in the UK highlight two distinct challenges that face educators today.

Challenge one is faced by educators teaching in communities where ‘expected failure’ has become the norm and thus turned a community (particularly the young) against education. They don’t see being smart and learning as ‘cool’. To them learning reeks of potential failure and so they ridicule it, diminishing its value (in their eyes).

Challenge two is faced by educators in far more affluent areas where young people have greater opportunities and value their time in school, not necessarily for the learning experiences but for the grades that they wish to achieve in order to take the next steps towards their ‘expected future success’.

Educators who find themselves facing one of these challenges have an equally difficult path to tread.

Educators facing challenge one have the inarguably difficult task on motivating young people who see little or no value in education – reinforced not only by their peers but by parents, by their neighbourhood, by the lack of opportunities within their community. They have to find ways to show them that they can be successful and to raise their expectations.

Educators facing challenge two on the other hand have to fight apathy from some while helping many others to understand that failure is a valid and valuable learning experience. This is difficult because it is not just the students who see failure as a bad thing, it is the parents, other teachers and the government who have fostered a society that judges success based on grades and financial worth.

To put this into an equation: Better grades + Better University = Financial Success.

With this mindset firmly entrenched it is exceptionally difficult to convince some youngsters that they can learn as much from failing as they can from succeeding. The conceptual logic for many is beyond them.

And these two challenges are not separate sides of a coin. In fact they are indelibly intertwined. The parents of challenge two children place them in direct opposition to the children of challenge one, and vice versa. Children who believe that failure is unacceptable tend to look down on those who fail and this show little empathy towards poorer people for example (I am massively generalising here) and in turn children who see success as unachievable sneer and mock those people who in society seem to be successful (all be it financially).

A society divided

So, where am I going with this? I think that education has to be about opening doors for people of all walks of life. It has to transcend culture, religion, wealth, race, age and so on. But to do that society has to change. The biggest challenge facing education and the one that will have the hugest impact on helping to decide what the purpose of education is, is whether or not the richest and the poorest in society can stop seeing each other as different and find common ground. Perhaps the common ground should be education, perhaps schools are the place for this common ground to be forged, perhaps schools need to be opened up and put right at the centre of each and every community? Perhaps schools can help mend a divided society?

Centres of Learning

I have been following with interest the furore over the potential closure of many public libraries. Some have suggested that a potential solution would be for the local school library to be used by the public as well. Some thought this sounded great, others were horrified by the idea convinced that it would put children at risk. Have we gone mad? Are young people not around adults all of the time when they leave school at 3:30? Do we really believe that every single adult who walks into a school is a child molester or pedophile? I think that the idea of making the school library the public library is a stunning idea. I think we should go further and rebrand our schools as ‘Centres of Learning’ where anyone of any age can come and take classes, use the library, gain access to IT equipment. Why should a child of 14 not sit next to an adult of 44 and learn French. I am sure when the 14 year old turns around to the 44 year old and asks why they are here, the answer will be as valuable learning experience as any – particularly as that answer would likely be: “because I wished that I had learned it when I was in school.”

Think of the potential value of young people sharing their resources with their elders; their parents and their grandparents. They can teach each other. I think as a society we have forgotten what a community is. I think we have forgotten to value all types of learning putting education solely on the hands of the government and schools. Education belongs to the community – to the people – it is for everyone!

If you want to read more on the purpose of education and the challenges facing it check out all of the #500words posts here. Along side Fred Garnetts post, other notable posts (IMO) include Tom Barrett’s very personal post: ‘What is the purpose of education?’ (with 34 comments and counting) and Dean Groom’s unique take: ‘purpos/ed’, applying his knowledge of games design to the question.