Sunday, February 09, 2014

Literacy in the 21st Century

Well, it's 2014. Isn't it time to make the shift to a 21st century framework in our education system? Just what is 21st century learning? Fundamentally, I believe it's a pedagogical shift of thinking that prioritizes learning over teaching. Our system has been undergoing this change for some time, but it's still glacially slow, especially at system levels.

Much of the groundwork is being laid by classroom teachers and is often led by technological innovation. My concerns about 21st century learning are generally twofold: as someone who believes that all teachers are teachers of literacy, I want to ensure that we do not lose the significant gains made in literacy in Ontario. More teachers believe that they bear responsibility for teaching literacy today than they did 10 years ago. Secondly, we have great opportunities with new technologies as many teachers are re-engaged in professional learning (especially after a rough year with the government last year) and are keen to experiment in their classrooms with tools that promote creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and above all, changes that empower student voice and choice.

What is 21st century learning?

Source: Ontario Minister of Education's Student Advisory Committee, August 2012

With the re-vamping of the EduGAINS website (re-launched this past January), the Ontario Ministry of Education's 21st Century Learning branch officially launched an online presence, but it's still a little light on substance, citing a continuation of the consultation process it began in 2010.

The Ministry does identify 4 areas of priority for 21st century learning:

  • "Engaging students as partners in their own learning
  • Harnessing the capacity of technology to engage learners and to optimize and amplify student learning and achievement
  • Emphasizing and teaching important higher-order skills such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and entrepreneurship
  • Supporting educators in preparing our students for a rapidly changing, technology-driven, globalized world." [All text quoted directly; emphasis mine].

Much of this clearly draws from Michael Fullan's Great to Excellent (2013) report. As a "Special Advisor to the Premier" (note that this was former-premier, Dalton McGuinty), Fullan argues that "Six C's form the agenda: character, citizenship, communication, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, and creativity and imagination" (8), which seems to be the basis for 21st century learning in Ontario. While the Ministry continues with the research and consultation phase, using the Fullan report's ideas, many school systems are already grappling with defining 21st century skills for themselves.

For me, a focus on literacy must be maintained. But, what is literacy in the 21st century?

In Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice (2007) from editors Kylene Beers, Robert E. Probst, and Linda Rief, we are offered a collection of essays that attempt to provide teachers of adolescents "an edited collection where many voices came together to explore the many facets of adlescent literacy: reading writing, motivation, young adult literature, vocabulary, comprehension, and assessment, to name a few" (xi).

In her opening chapter, Beers presents a compelling argument about the changing nature of literacy, tracking different forms of literacy: such as signature literacy of the colonial era, to recitational literacy that characterized education through to the early modern era, to the emphasis on textual analysis that characterized the post-war to late 90s (7-8). Underlying the entire collection is the belief that 21st century learners are different and are a reflection of their times, in as much as students of previous times were a reflection of their times. Beers' acknowledges the role of Thomas Friedman's 2005 The World is Flat  and Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind (2006) in defining the skills that today's students need in the conceptual age:
"making meaning and connections will be valued as will focusing on the multiple possibilities of any situation over seeking one solution. In this age, creative thinking will be the key to success. ... [I]n the flat world, producing, not consuming, information is the measure of success." (8)

Students are viewed as creators or producers of text. Nowhere is this more evident than in student use of technology; many students are engaging with texts outside of classrooms in ways that are more meaningful and more authentic to them. In all of her books, Beers excels at including students' voices, such as the student blogger engaged in environmental issues but failing English; my own observations reveal students independently creating blogs, fan-fiction, computer games, or complex digital tracking systems for hockey drafts and pools. I often try to remind myself to create these authentic tasks, but old patterns (and lesson plans) die hard. Change is slow. And improving EQAO scores and or even our own testing too often remains a goal of our classes; it's the old argument that we're preparing grade 10 Academic level students for university. Why don't we just focus on preparing students for the world rather than another system (university) within this world (and one which many will not attend)?

Beers is pretty clear about the role of standardized testing in school improvement planning; what she labels academic literacy, or the literacy needed for school texts and tests, is of limited value to the students of today (6). Instead, she offers 4 areas of learning that are fundamental to academic achievement: digital-age literacy, inventive thinking, effective communication and high productivity.

Similar to Beers, Jim Burke draws on both Pink and Friedman extensively, using Friedman's argument that "a flat world is a competitive world in which, thanks to digitization and the Internet, work will increasingly go to the people with the best skills, who can do it with the necessary time constraints, for the best price, regardless of where they live (152). He provides his students with real world examples of this by bringing community members into his classroom to discuss the realities of literacy in their workdays. Burke uses Friedman's list of skills necessary in the flat world to generate his list of 21st century learning in which students will need to be:

  • great collaborators and orchestrators: the ability to effectively combine different individual skill sets in any situation (be it with geographical, political, cultural, linguistic challenges) for the benefit of a team goal (153)
  • great synthesizers: "take the many (perspectives, texts, ideas) and synthesize them into one new idea and form that draws on all the others that came before it" (154)
  • great explainers: the ability to provide, with clarity and in specific contexts, explanations of complex processes and products (154-55)
  • great leveragers: "managing oneself despite a constantly evolving workplace that demands new skills and abilities from its workers" (155)
  • adaptors: given the changing demands of workplaces, this is the ability to adapt one's current skills and knowledge to meet the needs of different situations that will arise (156)
  • green people: the ability to think of inter-connected systems (as in nature) as well as those who will capitalize on the emerging opportunities in "bio-inspired solutions to our looming energy and environmental problems (Friedman in Burke, 157)
  • passionate personalizers: "the ability to take a basic service and transform it into something only they can do or that meets some local need the community has" (158)
  • great localizers: the ability to use global resources and technologies to create local solutions (159).

At the core of Burke's thinking are students: he is attempting to ensure that the skills taught in his high school English classes are relevant to both students and the community at large. I would argue that this is akin to Fullan's notion of citizenship. One of the clear functions of schools is to prepare our students for society; today, the notion of socialization is called character education or citizenship education, but the goals are the same: prepare students to be good citizens. Or as Burke frames it,

"If Friedman's is a flat world, it is also a brave new world, one in which we are inextricably a part, and where success and well-being go to those who learn how to live in it despite its ever-changing demands."

I share Kylene Beers' concerns for the students of today and hope to foster her vision of schools of the future:

"Schooling is still primarily about teachers distributing information and then students giving it back. Some schools understand the importance of inquiry, the value of collaboration, the critical need for creating and questioning and wondering. They understand the learning potential when students self-select writing topics and reading material. They have come to appreciate the absolute necessity for using technology as a tool for learning and not an electronic workbook for remediation, the difference between writing  as a way of understanding and writing as reporting, and the inescapable truth that the measure of success must be more than a single state-mandated, minimum-standards test." (11) 
I believe in schools that are responsive to students' needs, that encourage student voice, that focus on critical and creative thinking while grounding everything in literacy (and numeracy for that matter), all while maintaining high expectations for students. I believe that this vision of schools needs to be collaboratively developed within school communities -- staff, students, parents/guardians, community members, administrators -- all have a responsibility in developing effective programming for students.

I also believe we can deliver this in Ontario schools. Our teachers, administrators, board level staff -- and yes, I would even argue the Ministry of Education -- also believe in 21st century learning.  And, while much of the innovation will continue to come from teachers' classrooms, soon some clarity of thinking and coherence of goals will need to come from people in leadership positions. As the Ministry shifts to K-12 models (which is well underway in the division responsible for literacy), systems have the opportunity to envision better ways of meeting student needs.


Beers, Kylene. (2007). "Introduction" and "The Measure of Our Success." Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Eds. Kylene Beers, Robert E. Probst, and Linda Rief. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. pp. ix-xvii and pp.1-13.

Burke, Jim. (2007). “Teaching English Language Arts in a ‘Flat’ World.”  Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice. Eds. Kylene Beers, Robert E. Probst, and Linda Rief. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. pp.149-165. 

Fullan, Michael. (2012). "Great to Excellent: Launching the Next Stage of Ontario's Education Agenda." Retrieved from .

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