Ideas of what it means to be literate have changed significantly in recent decades. Traditionally, literacy has been rather narrowly defined as simply functional reading and writing that privileges written language. However, our notions of literacy today have thankfully moved beyond simplistic ideas of merely comprehending the written word on a page. Literacy is considered a social practice that requires the acknowledgement of numerous types of literacies (Luke & Freebody, 1999).
Research into multiliteracies and multimodal approaches to the reading and creation of texts has reshaped the literacy landscape and has also served to shift the focus from literacy as the sole domain of subject English to other key learning areas as well. A good portion of this research actually came out of Gee’s (2003) seminal work What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy and the work of the New London Group (1996).
Grab the controller: gaming and new technologies changing notions of what it means to be literate. Source: Flickr Creative Commons (CC)
Attention was brought to the fact that there is a multiplicity of and multifaceted integration of communication modes in use in society (eg. linguistic, visual, oral, sound and kinaesthetic) that require literate understanding and practice. Moreover, the act of becoming literate requires complex interaction between the learner’s background and language, and the context, purpose and discourse of texts explored (Luke & Freebody, 1999; Walsh, 2010).
A variety of new terminology has been developed over recent years which showcase how literacy has been changing and evolving, such as visual literacy, new literacies, digital literacies, multimodality and multiliteracies (Walsh, 2010). Whilst video games have been a fixture in many households since the 1980s, the complexity of gaming, new platforms and ways of interacting with fellow gamers are shifting and evolving in a manner than is becoming both integrated with our non-digital world, and simultaneously quite divorced from humdrum reality. Various applications, vines, videos and memes are requiring new and exciting ways and modes of creating and interacting with technology that simply did not exist a few short years ago. However, many of the skills and sophisticated literacy demands required to participate in these activities are not always acknowledged in schooling contexts (O’Sullivan, 2012). Indeed, there are a number of theorists (Buckingham, 2007; O’Sullivan, 2012; Leu et al, 2011) who argue that traditional pedagogies will be increasingly ineffective with students who are adapting more and more to engaging with popular culture. Theirs is a rallying cry towards technological immersion and strong engagement with popular technologies in pedagogical practice.
However, a differing approach that recently piqued my interest comes from Sugata Mitra. You can watch his TED Talk about his work here:
Mitra conducted a number of experiments all of which demonstrated the innate want of children to learn, and the malleability and ease of acquisition of many new literacies that are borne in technology. Essentially, Mitra placed several computers in walls of buildings in the middle of central India, and watched what happened. In a Rajasthan village, the children recorded their own music and then played it back to each other, enjoying themselves thoroughly. They did all of this in four hours after seeing the computer for the first time. In another South Indian village, boys assembled a video camera and were trying to take the photograph of a bumblebee. They downloaded it from a website, just 14 days after putting the computer in their village.
Children will learn to do what they want to learn to do… children can learn irrespective of where they are. – Sugata Mitra
Mitra posits that in his experiments he has discovered a self-organising system, which is where a structure appears without explicit intervention from the outside. Teachers were not involved in his experiments, it was left to the children alone to learn and discover. They learnt by doing, by experimenting, and importantly, by helping and teaching each other, and they were extremely successful in doing so. Similarly, consider the fact that one does not go to school to learn about how to use Minecraft or create a guild on World of Warcraft; it is figured out somewhat organically by the individual, and with help from peers familiar with the games.
This is not a new phenomenon, but it does link with notions of the “participatory culture,” which is emerging as the culture absorbs and responds to the explosion of new media technologies that make it possible for average consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways (Jenkins et al, 2006). Additionally, participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression and understanding to community involvement. The social practices underpinning participatory cultures are potent and very important for the development of multimodality and multiliteracies.
Perhaps there is no need for the teacher in role as the ‘sage on the stage’ anymore. The participatory culture and interaction with peers in real time and in digital communities is problematizing how the traditional classroom might operate, and perhaps even questioning its effectiveness. Is there a place for the traditional teacher when engaging students with new digital technologies? Should their role shift into more of a guide and facilitator, allowing students to navigate their own way to success? This is a question I don’t have an answer to just yet, but I think Mitra’s research is opening exciting new doors and possibilities for implementing new ways of teaching and learning that are more authentic, and more individually and community orientated. That is something I am excited about.
Buckingham, D. (2007). Beyond technology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Gee, J. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave McMillian.
Gee, J. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Retrieved from: https://people.ok.ubc.ca/bowenhui/game/readings/Gee-learnfromgames.pdf
Jenkins, H. et al. (2006). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved from: http://digitallearning.macfound.org/atf/cf/%7B7E45C7E0-A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF
Leu, D. J. et al. (2011). The New Literacies of Online Reading Comprehension: Expanding the Literacy and Learning Curriculum. Journal of Adolescent Literacy, 55(1), 5-13.
Luke, A. & Freebody, P. (1999). Further notes on the four resources model. Reading online, 3. Retrieved from: http://www.readingonline.org/research/lukefreebody.html.
O’Sullivan, K. (2012). Chapter 12: Books and Blogs: Promoting Reading Achievement in Digital Contexts. In Manuel, J. & Brindley, S. (Eds.). Teenagers and reading: literary practices, cultural contexts and contemporary reading practices (pp. 191-209). Kent Town, SA: Wakefield Press/AATE.
New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.
TED Talks. (2014). Sugata Mitra: the child driven education. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_the_child_driven_education#t-1000246
Walsh, M. (2010). Multimodal literacy: What does it mean for classroom practice? Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 33(3), 211-229.