Reflections by D'Arcy Hutchings

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Essential Definition of Literacy

Doug Belshaw seems to say that this is the essential definition of literacy in it's most generic form: "When we talk about literacy we're talking about using a tool for a particular purpose. That purpose is to communicate with other people and, potentially, other things." (p. 14)

This seems to mean that every time we are using a new tool (or technology) that a new word should be hitched to the front of the word literacy. This is how we get digital literacy and visual literacy. So... how does that get us to information literacy? Maybe this is arguing semantics (but isn't that what this is as we try to pin down a definition?), but the point of information literacy isn't to use a tool to communicate. It's about mastering the art of locating, evaluating, and then using information in a meaningful way. Sure, there is reading involved but I just don't see how that fits.

Perhaps in the quote above he meant for the first sentence to stand alone as the definition of literacy and the second sentence is meant to speak to "traditional print literacy."

"The commonsense ‘literacy’ to which we refer would be better described as traditional print literacy as it depends upon the technology of the printing press. As new tools for communication have been introduced — for example, email, social networking, video-sharing sites — so new forms of literacy are needed to understand them." (p. 16)

Being the first literacy, "traditional print literacy" didn't get a need modifier in front.

If we leave the definition of literacy so vague as it being the use of "a tool for a particular purpose," then everything is a literacy. Driving literacy, hair care literacy, saw literacy.

As he says, "as soon as we allow non-written artefacts to be equated with ‘literacy’ we open Pandora’s box." (p. 13)

So I am not feeling any clearer about literacy than when before I started reading this. I do not fault Belshaw for this. Literacy just has too many connotations that it doesn't have a smooth transition when you add "digital" in front. I think maybe we shouldn't be using the word literacy for any of these extra literacies... but I don't have a suggestion as to what that better term might be. Literacy just has so many connotations in itself that it's difficult to apply it in other ways without it feeling odd.

Kudos to Belshaw for trying to tackle this. The entire conversation makes me want to throw the term out the window and not bother with it.

Literacy as Life Skill

"Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn." (p. 16, Belshaw attributes it to "psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy that Alvin Toffler used in Future Shock (1970)")

This quote seems to suggest that literacy, at it's essence, is an essential life skill that helps one navigate and be meaningfully engaged in the culture and society around her. Hmmm... did I just stumble on the definition I refused to bother with above? Probably not. I'm sure someone could pick it apart as quickly as I picked at Belshaw's (perhaps because it's defining it by what it does and not what it is?). In any case, this way of thinking of literacy does leave room for both information literacy and digital literacy. Plus, I like it.

Stage Not Age

"This is a 3-19, ‘stage not age’ school where students are grouped according to interest and ability rather than when they emerged from their mother’s womb." (p. 32)

I've never heard of such a thing! I love this. A lot. Why on earth are teachers expected to teach an enormous range of abilities and levels in one classroom? I used to get in a lot of trouble for talking all the time in elementary school. I was bored out of my mind. I got things really quickly. I also learned well on my own, just figuring things out. My mother would get so mad when I'd come home and tell her how the teacher had me going around and helping the other kids again. She wanted me to be challenged and pushed and I rarely was. (Yes, there is an argument for learning better when you teach it... but I was beyond that.) I do often think how much farther and faster I would have gone intellectually if I had the kinds of opportunities I hear about today. I'm glad I could help my overextended teachers, but...

I whole-heartedly agree with Belshaw criticism of "schools [organizing] young people’s instruction by the accident of when they were born rather than by their mental, emotional and physical development" (p. 32).

Cultural vs. Context

I really like the model of that Belshaw created, the eight essential elements of digital literacies (be sure to refer to Chapter 5 to understand what each element looks like).

"To develop digital literacies you’re going to need to develop skills, attitudes and aptitudes in the eight areas I outline below:

  1. Cultural
  2. Cognitive
  3. Constructive
  4. Communicative
  5. Confident
  6. Creative
  7. Critical
  8. Civic" (pp. 43-44)

One thing that I am stuck on is the cultural element. Belshaw discusses context a lot in that section but he labels the element cultural rather than context. Why? Is there something here that is not covered by the more approachable and seemingly relevant word, context? There may very well be but I am not seeing it in my own reflection, nor am I seeing it written in his book.

Sequential vs. Progressive Learning

Belshaw's analogy of the way images load online with a slow internet connection as representative of two different strategies for teaching and learning was very effective. On pages 36-38, he includes images that demonstrate sequential and progressive encoding. He writes:

"The sequentially-encoded image loads each line one at a time from the top whereas the fidelity of the progressively-encoded image improves as the data is downloaded... I think that the difference between sequentially-encoded and progressively-encoded images serves as a useful metaphor for learning digital literacies. Our tendency in education in general is to package-up blocks of learning on a linear pathway. The learner literally does not see the ‘big picture’ of learning — only what comes next. On the other hand, letting the learner roam, whilst providing just-in-time support, can lead to a much richer and more enjoyable experience. They can see how it all fits together, even if they haven’t got all of the detail and nuance just yet." (p. 37-38)

I think this analogy is useful for learning in general, though perhaps not for every subject. Certainly within digital literacy and digital citizenship, no amount of classroom work or discussion can replace actually engaging with the technologies and online communities.

Biggest Criticism

My greatest criticism of the book so far is actually that it has no page numbers in the text. If one prints the book out so as to read it offline, one must wait to bring it up online to find the quote and get the page number from the pdf. This does not please me.