The New Adolescent Literacy Guide: A great example of 21C continuity and change

There is much debate in education circles about 21C competencies; particularly about the extent to which this “new pedagogy” is a significant break from the past or simply a continuation or prioritization of well-established practices.   The new Adolescent Literacy Guide is an excellent example of a document that attempts to account for 21st century realities in its approach to both adolescence and the role of literacy in his/her life.   The four C’s of collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity are implicit in every page, and there is a refreshingly holistic attempt to account for the particular cognitive, emotional and social needs of the modern, connected, adolescent. I would argue that the impact of this document on the classroom, like the debate about 21c learning itself, is significant, and should be seen as extension of many good pedagogical practices from the past combined with a more nuanced consideration of a) the connected world adolescents work and play in b) the potential this connectedness has to transform the classroom. Rather than look for examples and patterns throughout, I will focus my discussion the document’s “Critical Literacy” component.

Structure of the Document

One of the helpful features of the document is that it focuses on the “why” and takes the time to justify its foundational principles and premises. After an overview of the five interconnected components (critical literacy, meta cognition, questioning, strategy and voice and identity) and three major skills (thinking, expressing and reflecting) each of the components is thoroughly outlined, it’s importance explained, and shown how to put into practice.   The end of the document practices the meta-cognition it preaches, and considers how this guide can be put to use for literacy teams, collaborative inquiries, coaches and school improvement. It also includes helpful appendices which contextualizes it in relation to other significant and current educational focuses; school effectiveness, curriculum connections, learning skills and related ministry resources.

Introduction-Establishing the 21C Focus

In the introductory pages, the guide acknowledges that adolescent education is unique and the importance of identity, autonomy, and the skills of self-directedness are much more pronounced during this time of life (p.9). It also acknowledges “the connection between literacy learning and the engagement and motivation” (p.5), a crucial and complex challenge in an age, and, I would guess, an acknowledgment/focus that might not have been explicitly addressed in past literacy guides. Furthermore the guide makes it clear that a caring environment is crucial for adolescents to learn, yet another indication of a more holistic rather than technical approach to literacy. Other indications in the introduction of 21 century focus is the need for adolescents to learn how to learn and develop “growth mindsets” as well as the need for “meta-cognitive” considerations of how they are learning (p.9) The guide also touches on the need for collaboration, both as a motivational tool and as skill to develop for work experience.   Finally, connecting literacy to real world questions with a practical and that answer’s the adolescent eternal cry “what is the point of this?” become ever more important.   The guide’s vision of literacy sums this up pretty well:  “All student are equipped with the literacy skills to be critical and creative thinkers, effective meaning makers and communicators, collaborative co-learners, and innovative problem solvers in order to achieve person, career and societal goals.” (p.12) Nicely put.

Critical Literacy

Critical literacy is hardly new. The need for students to be able to identify bias, assumptions, contextualize their reading, and identify target audiences is not new. Traditionally, this focus was probably most visible in media units and considerations of consumption and television. With the rise of the world-wide web, however, and the vast misinformation now available to all of us, critical literacy becomes a more important component.   The guide’s “why teach it” section justifies the importance in the following manner: “With the constant stream of information and the changing realities of contemporary culture, technology and society, by being critically literate, adolescents are able to determine what information is reliable… They learn to use the information gathered to form a personal stance and to take creative risks and become participants in bringing about change” (p.19) There are five guiding questions that the guide attempts to answer. Two of them are traditional (What relevant texts are used in the subject that could be analyzed for bias, fairness, and validity? What types of actions and or responses are appropriate to the subject) A third is also traditional but takes on a new meaning in the 21century (what kind so issues of equity, power and social justice are relevant to the subject?) I would argue that the new focus on real world learning shifts an emphasis on “taking a stance and engage in a response in the interest of equity, fairness and justice.” (Aside: This goal remains nebulous in my mind-as educators we are often encouraged to promote tepid versions of social justice, like “me to we” but educators who actually delve into the power structures at play and encourage radical real world action like protesting are usually told to relax and often are rebuked by their superiors). While questions of equity and justice might have been studied theoretically in the past, the fourth guiding question (What opportunities allow students to use technology to seek and share perspectives?) really transforms practice.   A classroom now has the option of using Skype or other forms of technology to contact in real time a village in Haiti from Toronto or contact a local politician via Twitter for their thoughts on certain contentious issues. A literary narrative may still be the primary focus, but increasingly, teachers are asked to extend learning and making connection to issues at play in authentic real world situations as a means of engaging students. Likewise, the fifth guiding question (What skills do student need to be critical users and creators of information?) shifts the focus from interpretation to producing artifacts that can then be targeted to specific audiences. This shift, perhaps the most important in the 21C movement, is a shift in emphasis to developing students to whom delineating projects and creating produces is second nature, presumably so that students can thrive in a world that is constantly creating meaning.

Works Cited

Ontario. Ministry of Education. Adolescent Literacy Guide. Ministry of Education, 2012. Web. 19 May 2014.

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