Literacy, Democracy and Responsible Citizens

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.

Developing responsible citizens. One of the four aims of the Scottish curriculum.

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.SearchIn 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.CurateDrag 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.WriteA 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.

Responsible Citizens in the Digital Age

One of the four key aims of the Scottish Curriculum is to develop ‘responsible citizens’, ‘with respect for others’ and ‘ a commitment to participate responsibly in political, economic, social and cultural life’. One’s immediate thoughts are perhaps drawn to the life of the community, or the country, and the challenges of encouraging young people to engage in the democratic process at a time when trust in politicians is at an all-time low, but in an increasingly connected world, we have to think of responsible citizenship in global terms, especially in relation to the internet and social networks.

I learned the other day that YouTube is now the number one source of music for most young people. What happened to Top of the Pops while I looked away? Is it still on at seven o’clock on a Thursday? In reality, what is happening here is that the media which were once produced by the few and consumed by the many (and all at the same time), are now being produced by the many and shared by the many, at a time of their own choosing. To paraphrase transmedia guru Henry Jenkins, sharing is the new form of distribution. The implications of all of this are still emerging, but range from the ethical issues surrounding ownership, through digital literacy to e-safety and carbon footprints. How do parents and teachers begin to understand the issues, never mind teach the social responsibility which is such an essential part of the curriculum? Well appropriately enough, the answer may lie in the internet itself, and particularly in Google, which has developed an interactive curriculum on YouTube to support teachers in educating students on how to be safe, engaged and confident model ‘netizens’.

The initiative is aimed at students aged 13 to 17 and will help them to develop digital literacy skills on YouTube that would be applicable across the web. A list of 10 lessons has been devised, in which students can learn about YouTube’s policies, how to report content, how to protect their own privacy, and how to be responsible YouTube community members and, in the broader picture, digital citizens. The curriculum helps educate students on topics like:

  • YouTube’s policies
  • How to report content on YouTube
  • How to protect their privacy online
  • How to be responsible YouTube community members
  • How to be responsible digital citizens

Each lesson comes with guidelines for teachers and ready-made slides for presentation. There’s also a YouTube Curriculum channel where videos related to the project will be posted. Get started today by downloading your free Teachers’ Guide here.

Literacy for All

The idea of literacy development as the responsibility of all teachers, one of the core features of the curriculum reform in Scotland, is a challenging one for many secondary English and non-English specialists alike. While the perception of the English department as a service industry for the rest of the school, ensuring that young people are proficient in reading, writing, grammar and spelling, is almost a thing of the past, for some English teachers the thought of other subject specialists ‘teaching’ language skills is a threat to their own professionalism and perhaps even a dereliction of duty. At the same time, while many non-English specialists had happily embraced their role in the development of literacy long before the birth of Curriculum for Excellence, many others are reluctant to accept the responsibility, believing it to be somebody else’s job.

The language of the science outcomes demands sophisticated literacy skills

Arguably, the tensions described above were an inevitable consequence of the decision to maintain, more or less, the curriculum areas which existed before the review and, broadly speaking, the same departmental structures, to the extent that not even the nomenclature was up for debate – how relevant for example is the title ‘Home Economics’  for an area of study which is actually more relevant than ever in terms of healthy eating and wellbeing, but has a title which is not only years but decades out of date? Likewise Religious and Moral Education, which certainly needs to drop the ‘R’ word, and probably the ‘M’ word as well if it is to be taken seriously, since surely it is in fact Philosophy if it is being done properly.                

The same  is true to a great extent of English and English teaching. As someone who was proud to describe himself as an English teacher for many years, I was never entirely clear about my role, and I’m not sure that anyone else was either, the title itself suggesting …well, everything under the sun really. Was I teaching literature, or language, or media studies, or grammar, or spelling, or handwriting, or theatre?  The answer of course was all of them, and more or less in the order of priority which suited me and not the learners. It was great fun but somehow lacking in focus.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to rectify this confusion has been missed this time around, or perhaps was seen as a step too far; so instead we have two separate frameworks, Literacy and English as well as Literacy across Learning, which leads anyone outside of the educational establishment, and even some of those inside it, to the conclusion that there are literacy skills taught by English teachers and another, possibly less important, kind of literacy which is the responsibility of everyone else. (In actual fact the additional responsibility English teachers have is for the the study of literature, which is a separate matter).

This continued separation of roles is an artificial construct, and is not helpful. However, when you look at the language of the outcomes for all curriculum areas, the responsibilities seem clear enough. If I am a science teacher, for example, and a third level outcome for a learner in science says “I can produce a reasoned argument on the likelihood of life existing elsewhere in the universe” that would suggest to me that I have a responsibility not only to provide opportunities for that to happen, nor even simply to assess the extent to which the learner is able to do it, but to teach the skills required to produce a reasoned argument (which might include research skills; the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion; notetaking; summary; editing; presentation skills; dealing with feedback and many others). If I feel unable to do that at the moment, there is a definite and specific training need, and it is one which should be addressed as a matter of urgency. Unless, of course, your understanding of the responsibilities is different from mine.

Return to Islay

“I know only one thing about the technologies that await us in the future. We will find ways to tell stories with them.” – Jason Ohlar.

On Friday I had the pleasure to return to the beautiful isle of Islay to lead  a staff development day on Literacy with the staff of Islay High School and its associated primary schools. Like most of the profession in Scotland at the moment they are beginning to realise the significant implications of the  Curriculum for Excellence reforms, and are wrestling with some of the central issues, such as the notion of literacy development as the responsibility of all, and what that might look like in practical terms.

I hope I was able to demonstrate that the development of literacy is quite explicit in all of the curriculum frameworks, so in a sense there is no escaping that responsibility, no matter what sector you work in or what subject you teach, but the challenges for primary and secondary teachers are quite different, something which I will return to in another blog post. In the meantime, however, if people are to embrace that responsibility, the whole school community, including parents, must first come to a common understanding of what it is to be literate in 2010, what it might mean to be literate in 2020 and beyond, and to develop a common language around it. Here is an outline of my initial presentation to the staff – I would welcome your thoughts on it:

  • The definition of  ‘literacy’ in Curriculum for Excellence is “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language which society values and finds useful.” 
  • The Literacy framework recognises that the meaning of ‘text’ has to include the huge range of texts with which we engage on a daily basis, and that we should use a range of texts to reflect  this in our learning and teaching.
  • We live in a society where the image is becoming the dominant means of communication, and where once we used pictures to illustrate our written texts, increasingly we are using written text to illustrate the pictures.
  • Most of us engage with moving image texts more than any other form of text in any given day, so the development of literacy skills in young people should recognise that fact.
  • What links all of these texts is that they are all a form of narrative, so when we develop literacy skills in young people what we are developing is the set of skills which will enable them to engage critically with the range of narratives which are in the world, and to be able to construct their own effective narratives.
  • As teachers we also learn, and teach, through narratives, and the quality of the narrative will determine the effectiveness of the learning. To put it simply, there is a range of ways to tell a story, and we should use all the tools at our disposal to make it as good a story as possible, whether the story is a fictional one, or the story of Ohm’s Law, or the story of the First World War.

I would like to thank the staff on Islay for engaging so willingly and positively with some tough questions and activities, including subjecting themselves to a spelling test! You are in a very good place, literally and metaphorically,to show the rest of us how collaborative working is the only way we can make progress, how new technologies make it easier for us to share both ideas and information, and how the the new vision of the curriculum is much more dependent on the quality of the relationships in a community and not about mechanical processes. Slainte!

To see all the photographs from the event click here.