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.

Edugains.ca. Web. 19 May 2014.

Freedom and Necessity: What Does Student Engagement Really Mean in the 21st Century?

A recent New Yorker article entitled “If a time traveller saw a smartphone” asks the question  whether our  latest devices are making us more or less intelligent.  It reminded me of a plethora of  education articles that I have come across that either celebrate or condemn the BYOD movement in education. These are usually  framed from the standpoint of one of  two polarized camps;  advocates who see  the use of devices  in terms of  their potential to  “engage not escape’  the real world,  and  critics who  bemoan the bundling of an  infinite  number of distractions  that fit in the palm of a young person’s hand, a veritable pandora’s box of diversion.    For the first group, devices are both a saving grace when teaching digitally oriented millennials and a reality of 21rst century living that the education system in good conscience should mediate for its students in the name of good citizenship.  For the latter,  BYOD is the latest  educational trend that, while well  intentioned,  encourages (almost demands!)  a range of  impulsive and addictive behaviors  that provide a  complete distraction from what goes on in  the classroom.  Whether BYOD is the school system’s poison or its cure, the end which both parties seek is heightened student engagement, the first  by completely incorporating devices into classroom practices and the second by getting rid of them from the landscape altogether.

A  helpful starting point for sorting through this debate is the work of  the great Canadian professor Marshall Mcluhan’s.  Here in the TCDSB  where I teach, we have a school named after him, and  I often use his theory as an entry point for middle and senior level students into a media/technological critique (the full lesson is located in my Lesson Plans Posts for  those interested).  Marshall’s often quoted  “the medium is the message” suggests that  a shift to device aided learning is an issue of utmost importance; since our uses of technology over time determine our forms of cognition, and  the mediums we choose to engage in are far more important in our formation than any of the particular messages that these mediums mediate.   Adherents to constructivist and inquiry based learning would certainly agree! Less famously,  but more relevant to our purposes, Marshall used a simple tetrad of questions to consider the implications of adopting any  new technology :

He asks

1) What does any artefact enlarge, enhance, or  prioritize?  The radio, for instance, shifted our collective consciousness away from the printed word to an auditory one.

2) What does it erode or make obsolete?  This asks  what is diminished or becomes less  important to us collectively because of this shift.  In terms of news, radio made newspapers less important for up to the minute concerns.    In term of entertainment, it created a common consciousness of pop culture for sounds.

3) What does it retrieve?  The radio retrieved a sense of centralized information and public consciousness that groups coud all tap into at the same time and experience communally (unlike reading which creates public consciousness without the communal joys of collective experience)

4) What does it reverse and flip? Centralized perspectives that are short of editorial  diversity

These four, relatively simple questions can be applied to any technological development.  Pedagogically, they can be used both as an analytical tool of the past to examine technological developments historically, or they can be used as a speculative tool to imagine the consequences of  mind blowing futuristic inventions.

What I like about Mcluhan’s tetrad analysis is that it acknowledges the myth of linear technological progress;  if something is gained by a new form of technology, than something else is replaced and lost, simultaneously.   What is enlarged will always do so at the expense of something else.  Does the development of the car to replace the horse make the world a better place?   Depends on your vision of a better place.

The interesting thing about smart phones and tablets is that their essential feature is nebulous, because of their multi- utility.   As an extension of ourselves, the cell phone is part physical tool (flashlight) part memory (notes) part resource (google maps) part communication device, etc.    But essentially,  I would argue, especially for teenagers, the smart phone extends our social connectivity.  Applying Mcluhan’s tetradic analysis of the smartphone:

1) What does it enlarge?  a) The smart phone allows for continual connectivity to our established social ties and the potential connection to form new social ties despite constraints of locale or time.  We now have the freedom to satisfy related social desires by being reachable at all moments of the day. b)  One could also argue the smartphone enlarges individual choice, tribal dependancy, deliberate communication and narrows personal spheres of engagement, as even in public spaces, people can choose to be connected to the familiar and the narrow .

2) What does it erode?  a) I would argue it erodes an era of clear demarcations for work/play social/professional /consumption that used to depend on geographical necessity.   It also might be said to further erode traditional public space as a meeting point for a broad and communal purpose.   While it has the potential to broaden one’s world and expand horizons, the world at large can also be tuned out in favour of  one’ particular interests.

3) What does it retrieve? Community life of a simpler time when humans travelled in tribes and were continually surrounded by blo0d ties and lived in smaller groups. The smartphone allows individuals to always be connected to a support system that makes them feel secure, whether that be mother-child or a group of friends.

4)What does it reverse? When taken too far,  the phone provides an anarchic freedom that confounds the human brain and overwhelms it with anxiety.  For current generations, social formation that leads to anti social behaviour, a lack of positive risk taking, and breaks down public discourse into silos of focused interests.

The integration of  smartphones technologies  in are lives implicitly  means that  “distraction” is part of the new status quo.    The phone as an extension of our mind means less clear demarcations of the personal and the professional.    Yes,  self-regulation is possible, but, I would argue, the phone transforms our own notion of what self regulation means.   As a  teacher, if I  am running an educational app in my class  and three pictures of my newborn son pop up on my screen, I am probably going to want to look at them. Whether I do or not has a lot to do with the situation-am I in mid sentence?  Is there a possibility that this notification is a real emergency?  Is this really a distraction or simply a nice pause in the day that I should share something personal with my students before continuing…my  decision will be calculated according to my conscientiousness as a teacher,  and the real world circumstances that are affecting me at that moment.  Likewise, my students make similar judgements throughout the lesson: “should I take the  eight seconds to watch a SNAP CHAT or should I watch it later?   Do I fee morally culpable to be off task?  Will anyone even know if I am off task?  IS THERE EVEN A TASK WORTH COMPLETING  that I’m supposed to be doing or are we killing time?  I.

Engagment, put simply, is going to look radically different in a BYOD classroom.  Philip Schlecty  discusses five  levels of engagement.  While this is a helpful  framework,  the social connectivity of devices  seem to demand an articulation of what engagement looks like practically.  Can  I simultaneously be  both engaged in the activity and in the many notifications my phone is signalling?  The answer is yes, if I can prioritize my time and attention.    This is not to suggest that we can  multi task effectively- but rather, prioritizing engagement is the skill to re-focus on the primary task at hand and produce effectively within the parameters of allotted time.

Going back to our original BYOD debate,  I would argue both positions from critics and advocates have a place in curriculum delivery   Any activity that is based on mindfulness, collective consciousness, and a sharing of human spirit will probably not be ameliorated by  devices.   This includes a good old fashioned story circle or listening to a lecture by an expert from a field, or a restorative session about bullying.   In each case, it is the power of presence and collective purpose that needs to be heightened  As a basketball coach, I certainly don’t want my players to be dividing their attention on a device when we are trying to contribute our collective positive energies towards winning a game. Mindfulness matters, and it needs to be modelled.   On the other hands, it is clear that BYOD enthusiasts are pushing for the evolution of factory model classrooms into more interactive, collaborative, inquisitive and real world based teaching practices.    Devices provide an affordable and powerful way of both  mediating  world that students are already navigating outside the class room, and extending their awareness of worlds they have never imagined.  The question is whether both mindfulness and connectedness can be promoted simultaneously and whether  our students  who are conditioned in BYOD environments can then effectively apply mindful practices to specific parts of the day

Ultimately, Mcluhan prophesied that  all technologies are transformative, and therefore there will be a price to pay for adopting them.    Engagement in the BYOD classroom must be re-defined, as it will no longer exist in the form of  all eyes peeled in the same direction, or a quiet focused classroom solving the teacher’s lone equation on the board.    Teachers will have to let loose of their control and understand that time management will be a struggle for many, and that that struggle, like the development of many skills,  will require certain forms of scaffolding to be perfected.    Does the BYOD movement make for a better world?  This much is less clear.  In his article, Tim Wu concludes  by saying “But make no mistake: we are now different creatures than we once were, evolving technologically rather than biologically, in directions we must hope are for the best.” It is ironic that  in a post-modern era commonly promoted as the era of  ultimate self determination, the  virtue of hope propels us forward into the unknown future.

The Listicle: A Form Worthy of the Classroom?

One of the first thing that struck me when I began immersing myself in Twitter’s EdTech/21C /Flipped Classroom discussion is the abundance of listicles that fly around every day.  At first it was hard to take this phenomenon seriously.  As a colleague of mine wryly noted, “I thought I had exhausted the listicle when I stopped reading Cosmo in grade 11″. Personally, I have long associated the form with late night television and Letterman’s ‘top ten” which Dave used as a thematic and time sensitive vehicle to focus his humour on one subject without beating it to death (imagine  he had  prepared a top 30?). Yet a form of writing once reserved for catching our attention at grocery store check outs now seems to be the go to  web form for all sorts of content.  Question: Does that make  it worth teaching?

Answer:  I think it can be used in the classroom  in a few helpful ways:

(Caveat:  One of the frustrating parts about the  modern edtech dialogue is the bashing of the traditional essay, while simultaneously embracing the idea that students int the 21 century really need to be making connections  by analyzing and synthesizing information to solve authentic “real-world” problems.   To suggest the essay form is not complimentary to this type of content is ludicrous.   Students struggle with essay writing  precisely because it is the form  of connection making par excellence.   Originally the essay was a creative argument that was anything but  formulaic, achieved by making logical and creative connections between universals and particulars that remains quite difficult for most of us.   The five paragraph essay is simply a scaffolded version of this, which good teachers find ways to pump some life into.   So what if  students will never have to write essays in real life?  They will have to structure letters to employers, make toasts at weddings and eulogies at funerals.  They will have to organize their thoughts and think about their roles in a complex world.  In short, they will have to do a lot of thinking, and the act of struggling with words to articulate coherent and meaningful thoughts  that are beautiful or sensible or relevant to someone else  is a worthy endeavour. It’s not everything and it’s not  for everyone, but essay writing is great form of self expression. Now that that’s off my chest…)

Four  Super Simple Ways to Use the Listicle in Intermediate/Senior English Classes

1.  A listicle democratizes ideas before creating hierarchy. It is by nature non intimidating.   It can be effectively used to scaffold the writing process, much like brainstorming, as a pre-cursor to structuring ideas based on a more critical framework.

2.  A listicle creates structure through number and therefore can include more content that is less relevant.  For students who are learning to write, the focus might be on trimming the number down and hierarchically determining the most important points.

3.  Listicles can be studied to show how writers often use them to include points that aren’t all that logically strong, but add some novelty or some humour to entertain us somewhere in the middle; in other words, they are great for quick fix internet viewership.   If students are learning to target particular audiences with different online tools, the listicle  will probably play a pivotal role…

4.As a pedagogical tool, the listicle can be used as a collaborative form.  Groups can be assigned to create a listicle and everyone take responsibility for 2-3 points.  Members can then collectively take a look at all contributions and give them some sort of classified form.

I would love to hear how other educators are using listicles in their classes!