There are very few references to literacy these days which don’t have an adjectival prefix – digital literacy, financial literacy, emotional literacy etc. – which makes me wonder whether literacy has simply become a synonym for learning. Which also makes me wonder whether, when we talk about literacy in the traditional and narrow sense, we shouldn’t call it what it is i.e. the ability to read, or to write grammatically, or to spell a specified list of words without reference to a dictionary or spellchecker. Is it possible to have such a range of definitions of ‘literacy’, or does the word ultimately become meaningless? I guess that is my thought for the day.
It may sound like romantic tosh, but I’m sure most teachers, if not all of them, enter the profession to try to make a difference to the lives of those they teach. I certainly did. I grew up on a council estate in a semi-rural area of south-west Scotland. I was the first of my family ever to go to university, and I could only afford it because of a generous government grant. One of the biggest influences in my life at that time was an inspirational teacher called Bob Bates. He used to read aloud to us, books like Animal Farm and Lucky Jim and Of Mice and Men, and we were captivated. He was never overtly political, but it was undoubtedly a political message; literature, and education generally, have the power to transform lives. Which is why I could never really understand expressions like ‘you shouldn’t mix politics and sport’ or ‘let’s keep politics out of this’. Politics are an integral part of who we are, what defines us as adults, so the idea of keeping our politics out of our teaching did not make any sense to me. I should add, however, that this is not the same a saying that we should be presenting young people with a singular view of the world, or that we should not be prepared to have our convictions challenged, but simply that if you try to leave the political aspects of your character at the door of the classroom then you leave part of your soul with it.
Those of you who follow the blog on a regular basis, and especially those of you who live in the UK, will have realised by now that what I am leading to here is the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, the most important decision facing our nation in over 300 years. I have set out my own reasons for voting YES below, and you can follow my curated history of coverage of the referendum, Scottish Independence – The Quiet Revolution – on Scoop.it by clicking on this link. If you are a fan of Pinterest I have also been collecting some of the hundreds of pro-independence posters which have become a feature of the campaign. Again, click on the link and you will find them.
One of the most significant, and controversial, aspects of the referendum is the decision to give voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds (see also Literacy, Democracy and Responsible Citizens). Why it should be controversial is something of a puzzle to me, since it is entirely in keeping with aspects of citizenship in the Scottish curriculum, yet while there is almost universal agreement with the notion of teaching citizenship, a significant number of adults still seem reluctant to accept the idea of actually granting it to those very young people they wish to see behaving more responsibly. I have heard more than a few worrying stories about debate being closed down in schools rather than encouraged, and many local authorities, while ostensibly trying to ensure impartiality, are frightening teachers into avoiding the topic altogether. This is not the way to develop a healthy democracy.
The referendum decision is one for the people who live and work in Scotland alone, but the consequences will affect all of those who live in the UK, so it is something which should be on the agenda in schools the length and breadth of the British Isles, and possibly beyond. If you are a teacher and interested in setting up a discussion or debate, you may want to check out these links, where you will find plenty of material to get you started. You will need to get off the mark quickly though; the referendum takes place just a fortnight from now, on Thursday the 18th of September!
Why I Will Be Voting YES
I personally have done reasonably well as part of the UK, so why am I voting Yes?
Put quite simply, I don’t want to grow up in a country where an increasing number of our children are being brought up in poverty, where a new food bank opens every four days, where immigrants are treated with suspicion, where replacing nuclear weapons is more important than repairing roads, and where over 2,000 of our elderly population died needlessly last winter because they couldn’t afford to heat their houses.
I don’t belong to a political party. Never have. But this referendum is not a choice between one political party and another. It is not about any individual politician or political leader. It is about one thing and one thing only – whether you think decisions about Scotland are best taken by the people of Scotland or whether you think they should be taken for us at Westminster? The ‘democratic deficit’ means that in only 13 of the past 35 years did Scotland get the government at Westminster that it voted for – and we know how that turned out. Anybody remember Tony Blair and Gordon Brown?
On the other hand, let’s have a look at the current Scottish Government’s record. Acting within the constraints of Westminster cuts (Scotland’s budget is allocated via a ‘block grant’ from the UK Treasury) they have introduced free prescriptions, free healthcare for the elderly, free bus travel for over-60s, in addition to free university tuition fees – education based on the ability to learn, not on the ability to pay. Scotland already has its own separate education system, legal system and National Health Service (separate in terms of policy but reliant on London spending decisions). These services stand comparison not only with the rest of the UK but with the rest of the world. Scotland has more universities per head of population in the top 200 than any other nation.
So, if we are capable of running education, the law and the health service for ourselves, then why would we be incapable of defending ourselves, running our own welfare service or managing our own money? Another glaring example of the democratic deficit in Scotland is on the issue of nuclear weapons – opposed by around 80% of Scots, yet imposed by all the main political parties at Westminster, at a cost of something in the order of 100 billion pounds. Just imagine how that money could be spent to benefit the everyday lives of the people of this country.
Westminster isn’t working for the people of Scotland. The current coalition government’s so-called ‘austerity programme’ is a choice, not an inevitability. It is a myth to say that we are a poor country. There is an abundance of money in the UK, it is how the wealth is distributed that is the problem – did you know that there are currently around 280,000 millionaires in Britain? The UK is currently the 4th most unequal country in the developed world. As a result of Westminster cuts, ONE IN FOUR children in Scotland is living in poverty, and that figure is closer to ONE IN TWO in some parts of Glasgow. Smart education policies can compensate to some extent for inequalities, but only full economic powers can allow us to tackle the underlying issues. Last year there were over 2,400 excess winter deaths among the elderly in this country, double the rate of colder EU countries, and 49% of pensioners are currently living in fuel poverty. These are truly shocking statistics.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the solution lies not in hoping for a change of government, or heart, at Westminster, but by voting to stand on our own two feet and to choose a different route, a different future. Independence is not a new concept; it is normality for most people. There are just over 200 independent countries in the world. Three quarters of them have only been independent since 1900, and many of them are smaller than Scotland.
With control of our own affairs Scotland can potentially be a world leader – not in terms of bombs, or threats, or posturing on the world stage, but in areas like renewable energy, and in making a significant contribution to protecting the future of the planet. As an example, the largest tidal energy project in Europe is just about to get underway in the Pentland Firth. When completed it will power 40% of homes in the Highlands. At a time when scientists are warning about the dangers of global warming, think how much potential there is out there, not only for Scotland to become self-sufficient in energy, but to be a net exporter of energy to other countries, and to lead the way in tackling climate change.
So the question is not whether we are big enough, or smart enough, or whether we can afford it. There is only one question to be answered. Do you think decisions about Scotland should be made by the people who live and work in Scotland, or do you think they should be made by Westminster, in the House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords? This is not about ‘separating’, or turning our backs on our friends and neighbours. It is about standing on our own two feet and making our own decisions. It’s about hope, not fear. It’s about the future, not the past. It’s about ambition, not tradition. It’s about fairness, not about wealth.
We have the opportunity – perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – to create the kind of Scotland we want to see in the world – a greener, fairer, more democratic Scotland. As singer-songwriter and political commentator Pat Kane said: “You’ve got the chance to stand on this earth and say: I built a better society. I decided to do that, for myself, for my children, for future generations. And all it needed was a cross in the right box.”
If ever there was any doubt about the links between literacy, education and democracy, and the struggle which many in today’s world still face before they have access to what some of us take for granted as a universal right, we were brutally and starkly reminded of it this week in the story of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by a gang of militant thugs, after having the courage to speak out about the realities of life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley, which included the closure of girls’ schools in the region. Fortunately, Malala survived the attack and has since been flown to England for more specialist treatment, but in the meantime the Taliban have confirmed that they will try to kill her again.
Closer to home, in Edinburgh to be precise, Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond and the British Prime Minister David Cameron officially signed an agreement which sets out the conditions for a referendum on Scottish Independence, to be held in the autumn of 2014. It is a historic moment in Scottish politics, and one of its more interesting and controversial features is a proposal to allow 16 and 17-year-olds a vote for the first time in the history of democracy in this country. Opponents argue that this would set a precedent for elections in the UK, a matter which should be fully debated at Westminster rather than in the context of a referendum, while supporters point to the fact that before the age of 18 – the current minimum voting age – a young person could be legally married or join the armed forces, and is already paying taxes through VAT on purchased goods. The result will have consequences for democracy across the British Isles, and potentially across the globe – at the moment Brazil is one of the few major democratic nations whose citizens have the right to vote from the age of 16. However, no matter the merits of the argument, the referendum does provide the ideal opportunity to engage young people in learning about the democratic process and the role of the media (including new media) in politics, helping them to become the ‘responsible citizens’ which the new curriculum sets out as one of its key objectives. In terms of literacy development, it will be interesting to watch and judge how many politicians and media commentators are able to say they have met this crucial outcome:-
“I can persuade, argue, evaluate, explore issues or express and justify opinions within a convincing line of thought, using relevant supporting detail and/or evidence.”
Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, Literacy Across Learning, Outcome 4-29a (age 14+)
There is no doubt also that social media will play a significant role in the referendum campaigns, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube perhaps featuring most prominently, but there are numerous emerging new digital tools and websites within which young people can learn to gather information from various sources, edit, re-order and present the arguments in their own words and with added commentary. Isn’t that, after all, what the the traditional ‘discursive essay’ was designed to show? I have listed just a few of them here.
One of my favourite sites is dropping knowledge, a good place for teenagers to begin to explore some of the big issues facing them and the world today. After joining the community they are able to contribute to existing discussions, or can begin a discussion by posing their own question. (see my ‘Asking Questions’ reading strategy for more on the significance of educating young people to ask questions as well as answer them). Dropping Knowledge itself arose from an understanding of how provocative, challenging and entertaining questions, presented through powerful visual images, can inspire new thinking.
“Respect is the number one policy. dropping knowledge users come from many different countries and cultures and have widely different views. In fact, the platform encourages and celebrates multiple viewpoints. Treating others with respect is part of co-operating effectively to build a dynamic online community.”
Dropping Knowledge ‘Golden Rule’
Mashpedia, which describes itself as a ‘real-time topic explorer’, is a web application that aggregates content for millions of specific topics. It fetches content from different online sources in real-time, and aggregates everything in a user-friendly interface, including information from Wikipedia, recent news, books, videos, images, twitter messages and Facebook pages – all related to the topic in question. Mashpedia aims to simplify the access to information and content stored on multiple sites, while making sure it is immediate and up-to-date. Go there now, type in ‘Scottish Independence’ and see what happens.
Take Part is a digital media company with the single mission to ‘make participating in positive change easy, rewarding, and part of everyday life.’ Students and teachers can take part by commenting on articles, videos, galleries, and blogs, receive news and updates from Take Part on the burning social issues of the day, or actively participate in groups or campaigns on topics such as Food, Education, Social Justice, Animal Welfare and the Environment. Registered users, who must be 13 or over, may upload and post photos, profiles, messages, notes, text, information, music, video, and other content, provided it does not ‘infringe or violate the rights of third parties’. If you want to discuss with your students issues surrounding copyright, ethical use and Creative Commons, this may be the place for you.
Google recently launched a new service called What Do You Love? It’s a simple search box, similar to the one on Google’s homepage, but it returns results from more than 20 different Google services, including Google Translate, Trends, YouTube, Maps and Groups. The results are presented in self-contained boxes that can, in some cases, be extended by clicking on the forward arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the box. If you need even more results, you can always click the button in the lower left corner of the box and go directly to the chosen service. Like Mashpedia, the results are displayed in an attractive format. The discussion begins when choices have to be made and there begins the learning process!
According to its founders Storify ‘helps its users tell stories by curating social media’. There are four stages in the creation of a digital narrative using Storify:- 1.Search. In the Storify editor, you can search social media networks to find media elements about your chosen topic. Look through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram and more to gather material for your stories. 2.Curate. Drag and drop status updates, photos or videos to bring together the social media elements that will best illustrate your story. You can always re-order elements in your story, or delete them if you find something better and you can always add more items later on. Your story is always editable, so you can pull in the latest from the social web. 3.Write. A Storify story is more than just a collection of elements from social media. It’s also your opportunity to make sense of what you’ve pulled together. You can write a headline,an introduction and insert text anywhere inside your story. You can add headers, hyperlinks and styled text, build a narrative and give context to your readers. 4.Embed. Stories can be embedded anywhere on the Web by simply pasting an embed code, just like embedding a video. You can also connect Storify to your WordPress or Drupal blog, publish to Tumblr or Posterous, or send an email newsletter through Mailchimp. Read more about Storify in my previous post below.