Posts Tagged literacy
Choose your terms wisely. Alt title: How I am slowly eliminating the term ‘basic skills’ from my classroom
I’m half way through semester 1 and currently reading my students’ assignment 1 work. They had to tell me, with reference to personal experience as well as scholarly theory, what their philosophy is on English teaching and which pedagogical approach they find most relevant in 2014.
In the weeks leading up to the assignment due date I impressed this message upon them:
If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.
Now, I wouldn’t seriously fail an assignment on the back of such a mistake (though I will ask students who make the mistake to meet with me and explain why they haven’t been in lectures!). But from what I’ve read so far, the scare tactic worked and the message has thankfully sunk in.
So this is how, one cohort at at time, I am slowly doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.
Why do I bother with this?
I have a personal beef with the term ‘basic skills’ as it is an affront to the work of educators on many levels.
Firstly, there are the negative connotations of the term basic. If these skills are so basic, as in ‘boring’ or ‘unintriguing’, we should not be surprised that students don’t flock to master them. Nor should we expect teachers to employ pedagogies that drill students on them lest we run the risk of boring everyone to death.
Secondly, it belies the complex task of engaging students with learning in areas such as literacy or numeracy. If the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then buddy, how about you come try it?
Thirdly, I find that when most people talk about basic skills, what they really mean to talk about is something like ‘key concepts’.
A prime example was seen today when national education correspondent Justine Ferrari (who should well and truly know the difference between knowledge and skills) wrote an article comparing how “key maths concepts” are taught in Australia compared to Singapore, then tweeted to publicise her article announcing that it was about ‘basic skills’. I would dismiss this as an honest mistake, except that Justine is no rookie and has been writing about education for years.
I tweeted back to let her know my thoughts:
Am I just being pedantic?
No, I don’t think so.
The terms we use to describe ideas MATTER.
As an English teacher, I know this. As a journalist, Justine knows this. But what I want so desperately is for all my students to know this too.
This semester I personally lecture and tutor all 110 students in English Curriculum Studies 1. They all have a sense that there are such things as ‘fundamental concepts’ (which relate to content knowledge) and they all wanted to advocate learning ‘skills that are important for life’. By taking the term basic skills away they were forced to articulate what it was they actually believed in. Was it literacy? If so, they were empowered to use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies. Was it life skills? If so, I directed them to the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, where they could find out about and debate the thing closest to ‘skills’ currently underpinning Australian schooling.
Good bye basic skills!
I know I can’t change the world over night. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from my own class that I at least give the 100+ students I teach each semester pause for thought.
My message to them: If you mean literacy or numeracy, then say so. And be ready to explain your definition of such terms.
I’ll end this post by sharing an answer that I gave one student a few weeks ago. She asked: what should we do when people insist on using the term ‘basic skills’? I suggested she might ask such people to list what those basic skills are. I already know from experience that most folks have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t you tell me what they are?). Instead they just have some washed-out notion in their heads that includes spelling and multiplication tables…and that’s about it. I also assured her that most people at dinner parties would be bored by the conversation by that point, so it’ll rarely come up ;)
Parent-teacher interviews are another story. A story for another time perhaps.
I’ve been back from overseas now for a few weeks and have almost (almost) accomplished the Great Assignment Marking Catchup. We’re all faced with one from time to time, but for me having a trip overseas is still always worth it!
Part of my overseas stay was, amazingly, in Cairo. I had never been to Egypt before, or anywhere in the Arab region. Most of my time was spent at the MILID Week meetings at Cairo University, which was the event I was there to be part of.
What is MILID?
MILID stands for ‘Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue‘. UNESCO, together with the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) have created a UNITWIN Cooperation Program and Global Chair on ‘MILID’, to focus resources and efforts across partner universities from around the globe on Media and Information Literacy.
To give you an idea of what the group does, here are two of the seven objectives of the MILID network:
- Act as a Observatory for critically analyzing: the role of Media and Information Literacy (“MIL”) as a catalyst for civic participation, democracy and development; for the promotion of free, independent and pluralistic media; as well as MIL’s contribution to the prevention and resolution of conflicts and intercultural tensions and polarizations.
- Enhance intercultural and cooperative research on MIL and the exchanges between universities and mass media, encouraging MIL’s initiatives towards respecting human rights and dignity and cultural diversity. (http://www.unaoc.org/communities/academia/unesco-unaoc-milid/)
How did I get involved?
Across the globe there are eight universities involved as Chairs in the MILID program. My institution, Queensland University of Technology, is the Chair from Australia. Other countries represented are: Spain (Autonomous University of Barcelona), Egypt (Cairo University), China (Tsinghau University), USA (Temple University), Brazil (University of Sao Paulo), Jamaica (University of the West Indies), Morocco (Mohamed Ben Abdellah University).
This semester QUT has run a pilot course in Media and Information Literacy and Intercultural Dialogue, using the UNESCO Curriculum for MIL. Along with Michael Dezuanni and Hilary Hughes, I’ve been teaching the course to students online, for free, from over 70 countries.
MILID WEEK is a space to promote contact and cooperation between international organizations, associations, NGOs, universities, media, research groups, researchers, teachers, and students from around the world working in media literacy and information and intercultural dialogue. (http://milidweek2013.blogspot.com.es/p/presentation.html)
This year Cairo University was the host of MILID week, which ran from 22-25 April. Last year the week was hosted in Barcelona, Spain; next year the week will be hosted in Beijing, China.
What I liked best about my first MILID week was the opportunity it provided to speak in depth with colleagues in this specialised field. Over the days of debates and presentations we shared information about how media is being used (and subverted) in our countries and regions, as well as the politics of information literacy in schools and communities. This event gave us space to find common interests and develop shared strategies for promoting the concept of MIL.
What did I learn?
It was eye opening to consider such questions during the MILID week as: How can we plan collaboration via social media in a group that includes members from China? How can we share media texts across national boundaries to promote intercultural dialogue? How can media and information literacy support social justice initiatives?
Mostly I was interested to learn about how other universities worked and how much attention is given to media literacy and/or information literacy in different places. I came away with the impression that Australia is relatively well-placed in terms of access to traditional and new media, connection to the internet, and use of social media. But I wonder whether Australian students are exposed to practices of citizen journalism as much as they might be? It struck me that in a place like Egypt, citizens currently have a lot of motivation to produce their own stories and information…by contrast the culture of media consumption in Australia seemed complacent to me.
And, as always when spending time with folks from a range of countries, I was reminded of how monolingual my world is. I speak next to no words in other languages; most of the people around me from Anglophone countries were in the same boat.
If I can’t go in person to the MILID Week in China next year I’ll be disappointed now, as I feel like I only just got to know this group and my place in it! However with the week falling in April/May, right in the middle of semester 1 in most Australian universities, I can’t say I will be able to take this kind of a break away from classes again for awhile. Either way, I’ll be continuing to promote the new MILID journal and contribute online to the Clearinghouse.
Soon the MIL Curriculum will be available via an interactive module-based website, to complement the existing PDF of the Curriculum. I’ll be sure to post again with details once the site is launched!
Thanks to QUT Faculty of Education and UNESCO for supporting this travel and development opportunity.
I have to say, after just 10 days of owning an iPad, I am noticing some significant changes to my literacy practices – and being confronted by a range of literacy challenges!
I’ve solved the ‘where is Word’? problem – you can download apps, such as Pages, which costs about $10. I haven’t bought that yet because I want to try and do as much on free apps as I can before I get frustrated and am forced to buy (that’s what a school teacher on a tight budget would have to do).
Literacy lesson #1: There are no obvious ‘windows’ in this operating system. There is also no obvious place where you can see a directory of all your ‘files’. There are apps that are always on and you can look in on them any time.
But…how do I ‘save’ my work then? –> LITERACY OF STORING/SAVING AND BACKING UP DATA IN DIFFERENT PLATFORMS/OPERATING SYSTEMS?
Literacy lesson #2: Google docs can be used as a free word processing tool. I just open it in the web browser (Safari) and work from there.
But…when I’m not online I can’t access Google Docs. –> LITERACY OF ENSURING YOU CAN ACCESS YOUR MATERIALS AT POINT OF NEED?
Literacy lesson #3: I am LOVING using ‘Notes’. It’s an app that comes with the iPad. It works even when you are not online. The ‘what should I use to take notes in class/meetings?’ problem to me is solved with this. And because the only formatting available is the ability to leave empty lines and use capital letters, all of my focus is going into getting the ideas onto the page. None (at least much, much less) of my energy is going into design considerations. I never realised until formatting was taken away from me just how much thought I give to the design of a word document.
So…is that the difference between ‘writing’ and ‘word processing’? Or between ‘scribing’ and ‘writing’? or ‘notes’ and ‘documentation’? –> LITERACY OF WRITING FOR YOURSELF VERSUS FOR OTHERS? LITERACY OF FIRST DRAFTS (maybe “no Mary Jane, you can’t just do your draft in Word, because that’s your publishing platform and I don’t want you thinking about formatting your writing yet”. hmmm…)
Food for thought.
I should say, I have also wondered how much of this thinking is coming from using th iPad per se, or if it is the cumulation of being exposed to many new tools recently – a notebook computer, my Playstation and my Kindle had already got me thinking, but now it’s just all come to a head.
I’m thinking about this faster than I can write in-depth posts about it, but I hope these ideas and questions can launch some discussion!
Stepping it up this week a bit in the ‘modelling-best-practice’ stakes…
It occured to me that as I am advocating the importance of studying texts and their traditions to…well basically, the development of human society as we know it, that I’m not doing enough of this in my own university classes.
Last week I got a real buzz relating the theoretical material in this unit to contemporary texts and practices, namely to the story of Terminator II and to the ‘Pirates vs Ninjas’ meme. So this week I am using another text as a way to relate to theory, this time going into even more depth.
I have chosen the film Pleasantville. I am going to use this film to explore ‘critical literacy’ and interrogate the resistance to critical reading of text in secondary English.
Yes I am.
Now, to construct the learning experiences.
In the lecture I am going to focus in on metalanguage, showing students how historical paradigms of English curriculum (skills, cultural heritage, personal growth, critical-cultural) have been revisioned in two more recent literacy frameworks that have had significant influence on contemporary English curriculum – Luke and Freebody’s ‘Four Resources’ model, and Green’s ‘Three Dimensions’ of literacy (which we have already been using at length). I’m also going to rock their world by showing them how subject-specific pedagogy relates to more general theories of pedagogy, such as the ‘Productive Pedagogies’ that are used here in QLD, as well as to theories of learning such as Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.
The two hour tutorial though. Hmmm.
My message in the coming weeks will be to embrace ‘workshops’ as well as individual and group ‘project based learning’ as alternative approaches to lesson organisation. I want them to start thinking about how we traditionally do “class” and what learning experiences are encouraged there. As I’m electing to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ this week I suppose I should give them a taste of this too…but what to do?
Perhaps I will split the two hours into a ‘workshop’ and a ‘project’. Will I have time for both? I’d like to also screen the first ~20 minutes of the film in class, giving me 30 minutes for the rest of the workshop.
That leaves ~50 minutes for students to complete a seperate project. But what?
I’ve been watching Bianca do this – I know I need to start with a driving question or challenge…
…and thus I am away to make coffee and have a think about this.
Ideas welcome x
Anyone who has attended the AATE/ALEA national conference in the last…well, many years, might have noticed this year that ALEA and AATE have gone separate conference ways – ALEA in July and AATE in December.
There are a range of practical reasons for this, but for me it highlights some common territory between English and Literacy teachers that has perhaps been assumed over the years. After all, when we go to these conferences aren’t the Literacy teachers invariably Primary school teachers? Are English teachers really Literacy teachers at all? To what extent to we belong ‘at each others conferences’?
So I have put in a proposal to deliver a 30 minute paper on the topic: Queer as folk: The English and Literacy teacher divide
The title purposefully invokes queer discourse in questioning the way we use labels in constructing our identity.
I’m hoping to stir up some controversy with this one – hope it gets accepted!
Some interesting conversations have converged for (on?) me this week following the release of the draft Australian Curriculum. Discussions with Roger Pryor and Jan Green through tweets and blog posts about the power of social networks and leadership have challenged me to be more optimistic about what will happen in classrooms after the launch of the National Curriculum.
Roger and Jan are both advocates of leadership models where participative (loose) practices within the school can mediate the directive (tight) policy environment and accountability systems within which we work. In a post to her blog Jan describes being filled with confidence for the future of students because of the powerful and passionate debate about national curriculum taking place between education professionals through social networks. On this point I certainly agree. In this brave new world of federal curriculum control strong leaders and their PLNs will be key in influencing the spread of new ideas and practices.
But optimism about curriculum enactment is not enough for me.
Tonight I have been re-reading a paper by Colin Lankshear that identifies dominant meanings of literacy and related reform proposals, and I would like to quote him here at some length:
The meanings of literacy in educational reform discourse and their associated modes of “doing and being around texts” are both informed by and intended to inform ideals and practices of literacy much more generally. They are also intended to permeate larger “social ways of doing and being” – such as being workers, citizens, parents, consumers, and members of organisations – that are mediated by texts.
…Hence, investigating meanings of literacy in educational reform proposals also involves asking what (and whose) perspectives, priorities, and world views prevail within them.
…Reform proposals are like scripts, frames, or “cultural models.” They encode values intended to change people and social practices – and which will change people and practices to a greater or lesser extent depending on how fully they get implemented in practice.
…The key question here is: what kids of “visions” for life, people, and practices more generally, are encoded in these scripts?
Lankshear is discussing literacy here, which for me is apt as it is the English curriculum that is of most concern to me. But his observations about educational reform apply to all curriculum areas.
Just a few days on from the release of the draft Australian Curriculum for English, my biggest problem with its “vision” for English is the constraint of new literacies. Even if we were to accept the (100 year old) notion of Language, Literature and Literacy being divorced as separate ‘strands’, the lack of reference to explicit spoken and visual ‘skills’ in the Language strand is a gross neglect in this curriculum reform. This is without doubt a reaction to conservative media hype about ‘dumbed down’ curriculum, and a pandering to parent-voters who will feel reassured by a ‘back to basics’, ’3Rs’ approach to teaching English.
While I too am hopeful that schools will be able to implement this curriculum in meaningful, ‘loose’ ways, it simply isn’t good enough to stand back and let through a script that, as Lankshear insists, will change people and practices, in such a retrograde way. English teachers have fought long and hard for rich and generative definitions of literacy, and of what it means to understand and create meaning in a wide range of texts.
What are we going to do?