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einstein-literacy21st Century Literacy: Introduction

The traditional concept of literacy was built on the assumption that the written word was confined to the printed page, but this is no longer the case. Text is accompanied by images, video, interactivity, and technology. “21st century literacy” requires the skills to not only read and write, but to consume and publish content across a range of media.

This standard for 21st century literacy is admittedly idealistic. The scope of the suggested literacy skills is too broad for any one person to master as it encompasses a range of left- and right-brained tasks and perspectives. The goal of this proposal is not to suggest that anyone who lacks ability in one or more of these areas is “illiterate.” Rather, the 21st century literate is someone who has studied a spectrum of communication challenges that require solutions rooted in written language, graphic design, interactive and motion graphics, code, and other relevant media. Students who learn what the solutions are need not learn how to implement them all. “Literacy” comes with an understanding of what skills are required to meet the challenges of communicating ideas and building communities around them. As such, when this article discusses the “skills required of the 21st century literate,” implied is that students learn to recognize what solutions and talents are required to solve a given problem—not that they should necessarily be capable of personally delivering work that requires teams of professionals in the “real” world.

Merriam-Webster defines literacy as: the ability to read and write; knowledge that relates to a specified subject. But neither the ability to read and write, nor subject matter expertise are sufficient to prepare students for survival in a media-centric world. Traditionally, students prepared written work mostly for on-campus publication in print and sometimes for subsequent “distribution” to the school library. Today’s literati are not only skilled with the written word, but with visual and interactive media. They are experts at publishing and promoting messages, and at engaging readers and viewers. Today’s influencer prepares graphs and charts, shoots and manipulates photographs, creates graphics and animations, edits audio and video, and delivers arguments and assertions through a variety of media directly to relevant communities around the world—even if some of that work is performed by people other than the author. No longer must a single teacher or thesis committee serve as a principal, isolated source of feedback. Today’s communicators share work with thousands of readers and viewers with whom they engage in discussion and defense of their ideas.

New media are now directly involved with the dissemination of ideas in every classical discipline. Many teachers are naturally hesitant to wade into the terrifying swamp of fast changing new media. But unless we wait for old teachers to die off, a dual approach is required that prepares teachers and students simultaneously to embrace new media and 21st century literacy skills in the classroom. Schools are tasked with introducing 21st century literacy skills to young people, but many educators (myself included) grew up with typewriters and phonograph records. Traditional teachers of subjects like math, science, and English offer course material that is arguably foundational and seemingly irrelevant to such subjects as web publishing and typography. When I taught web and graphic design at a university, most of my colleagues in the design department lacked the basic web design skills required of our undergraduate students. Though this did not diminish their value as educators in their respective subjects, a credibility gap develops when students perceive that their instructors are “old school” and not in touch with the many ways they engage with the world. If we are to inspire students to learn, we must use their preferred channels to communicate with them and teach them to master those channels.

Introducing 21st literacy is a gradual process. Students who are exposed to the full gamut of tools and media in middle school will find their curiosity and natural talents engaged by one or more facets of the presentation and publishing process by the time they reach high school.

Such high school students learn to recognize what solutions they can implement on their own, and they understand what skills and input will be required from outside resources. A student exposed to a media-centric curriculum may discover a talent for writing code and a simultaneous lack of ability to create engaging graphics. Another student may love design but feel no passion for writing. That self-awareness leads to humility, specialization, collaboration, and ultimately to the dissemination of compelling and powerful ideas and information. That’s 21st century literacy.

The problem of “not knowing what you don’t know” is a principal form of illiteracy addressed by this proposal. The ubiquity of publishing tools and media has resulted in an endless stream of mediocre messages. Word processor users fancy themselves to be typesetters. Authors choose photos from stock libraries and fancy themselves to be book cover designers. Carriers of cellular phone cameras fancy themselves to be photographers. The illusion that software ownership is a viable substitute for skill, experience, and perspective is but one of the maladies that afflicts contemporary messaging. The result is—more often than not—messages that fail to communicate at the expense of their creator’s credibility. The 21century literate can look at the language, look at the imagery, look at the layout and typography, look at the choice of media, etcetera, and see the difference between good and excellent.

21st Century Literacy: Challenges

The realities of the state of traditional American literacy and the obstacles confronting educational institutions pose grave challenges. Few schools have sufficient resources to provide students with small classes, up-to-date textbooks, nutritious lunches, and appropriately paid teachers. According to a study conducted in late April, 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the U.S. can’t read—14 percent of the population. 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read. 775 million adults are illiterate worldwide. If we can’t achieve higher levels of traditional literacy, of what value is it to set the bar higher? The notion that a school can simply embrace the principles of 21st century literacy and install an additional layer of “educate the educators” staff and facilities is unrealistic.

The goal of promoting 21st century literacy skills is to empower a new generation of thinkers, problem-solvers, and communicators, but many schools have their hands full trying to graduate students who are functionally literate (able to read)—and they should focus on the daunting task before them. Literacy trends follow well-defined socioeconomic boundaries. If anyone is to ultimately develop the tools and techniques required to address traditional literacy problems, it will likely be those children of financially stable achievers in private and magnet schools who are taught how to communicate through a variety of media to people and communities of various learning styles.

Worthy of mention is that a student who can communicate critical ideas through writing, images, and code will likely get into better colleges and find better professional opportunities, but the operative goal is leadership. Assumed is that the student is taught not only how to work with media, but what to do with it to catalyze positive change in society. Admission into better schools is a means to a meaningful end.

Writing and reading skills are in decline because traditional paper books must compete with radio, television, streaming video, podcasts, web content, and a variety of other media. Much of this media is published without the input of a capable editor so readers are exposed to a great deal of poorly worded and poorly organized content. Literacy and reading by any definition still begin with writing skills—with the study of spelling, grammar, and style.

21st Century Literacy: The Solution

What’s different is that a student can now be asked to publish work where it will receive public input and scrutiny. Wordcraft has a direct impact on the student’s (or professional’s) credibility. Turning in a paper to a teacher should not be an end in itself. If the teacher guides, shapes, and coaches the student with the goal of preparing the material for publication on a class or individual student blog, the teacher’s role shifts from adversarial judge to empowering editor. Contemporary publishing is a process of building communities around ideas. Students should be taught the requisite skills to present ideas and respond to the ideas of others. And media education should be extended to parents who wish to learn and serve as resources and guides to their children.

The solution lies in a redefined school media center. A handful of media center staff can work with teachers to evolve curricula in a media-centric direction. In what classes and at what levels are students expected to make Powerpoint presentations, generate info-graphics, or post their work online? A coordinated media-centric curriculum empowers teachers at a given grade level to assume that students entering their classes have already learned certain presentation skills. Teachers and students should view publishing as a mutual learning experience and presentation as a standard part of the classroom experience. Teachers will gain expertise over time, and will acquire more independence and confidence. Students and teachers who engage with new media and learn new skills can share their lessons and experiences with colleagues.

Fundamental to the success of developing a media-centric educational environment is the open acknowledgement that technology is vast, intimidating, and rapidly changing. Also key is the notion that media is the vehicle—not the message. Emphasis must remain on ideas, innovation, expression, and clear communication. Technology is presented as a way to extend the influence of well-formed ideas. Media becomes empowering.

21st Century Literacy skills

Reading and Writing: As much as media have evolved in visual, interactive directions, writing skill remains foundational. Books, blogs, and pedagogical materials are still largely text based, and text remains the ideal medium for storing ideas in searchable, sharable form. 21st century literacy expands the scope of writing to include meeting the standards and requirements of various types of publishing. The classroom as a vacuum is appropriate perhaps to elementary school students, but middle and high school students—young adults—routinely publish original content and responses on social media, blogs, and other online forums. If a student’s academic output amounts to hours of writing and research that disappear into the void of a teacher’s grade book, the student’s casual writing, by contrast, reinforces the notion that ideas are valued only by the ivory tower establishment while gossip and memes are the content of the “real world.” Real thought leaders use mainstream social media as a stage upon which to build communities around ideas. Why not make LinkedIn, WordPress, Instagram and Facebook useful, practical components of course curricula?

Meaningfulness is an ages-old problem with traditional expository writing. In academia, it’s not uncommon to write an expository “compare and contrast” paper, a book review, or a research paper that has the sole purpose of demonstrating that the student has met a course objective. Syllabi commonly state that a student will learn or demonstrate specific skills or knowledge, and teachers are held accountable for meeting these goals—another case of the classroom as a vacuum, and one that has given rise to an epidemic of standardized tests and other assessment instruments that interfere with inspiration and productive learning to benefit a pyramid of administrators and politicians whose careers depend on statistical results. In a world of content, the job of the writer—or content creator—is to make information relevant and findable. A student who writes solely to “demonstrate knowledge” is caught in a counterproductive political loop. A student who is tasked not only with researching and writing correct and accurate prose, but with publishing content in a style that’s relevant and meaningful to an intended reader is taught from an early age that scholarship and writing exist to bring meaning, understanding, change, and perspective into the world.

Reading and writing must no longer be taught as skills “they” say you’re supposed to have. Writing is the first step in publishing—and this shift suggests a sudden (and admittedly scary) expansion in the skill set required of millennial literates.

Printed Books: Traditional books are far from dead. In fact, print-on-demand (POD) technology produces somewhere between 250,000 and a million new printed titles each year. Order one of my books online, and my POD printer/distributor will produce a single hardcover book with cloth binding, foil stamping on the spine, and a 4-color dust jacket. They’ll pack that book in an Amazon box, drop-ship it to you, pay the bookseller their commission, subtract their production fee, and pay me my royalty. Students—even middle school students—have access to the greatest book production technology ever created. Never before in human history have freedom of speech and freedom of the press been so empowered. Schools can create collections and anthologies. Students who learn to organize their ideas into book form are rewarded by seeing their ideas offered for sale in the global marketplace, by holding a physical, tangible copy of their book in their hands, and by the credibility that comes with “having written the book on the subject.” How many college applicants submit copies of their books with their applications? How many job applicants? And though it’s impossible to quantify statistics, it’s reasonable to assume that the student who learns to turn ideas into books, and books into opportunities and inspiration will refine and repeat that strategy over the course of a lifetime.

EBooks: Though eBooks are limited in features and scope, they offer an even more economical way for students and teachers to publish and distribute their work. As with print publishing, writing skill is important, but the 21st century literate understands the features and limitations of ePublishing platforms, knows how to access eBook distribution channels, and understands how to build communities around the ideas contained in their written work.

Word Processing vs. Typing: A common publishing-related obstacle arises from the fact that typewriters have been extinct for decades, and not all of the old technology’s techniques translate to word processors. For example, most style guides now specify a single space after a period. My article on sentence spacing practices has received over 130,000 page views, suggesting that despite its codification into major style guides, the typing establishment has still not fully embraced the one-space rule. Half-inch margins, using spaces and line breaks to control layout, and ignorance of how to use “track changes” to facilitate discussion between writers and editors, are common problems afflicting even experienced writers. (My daughter was taught how to write in cursive script in the fourth grade, but has not yet been taught how to type!)

The 21st century literate not only knows how to read and write well; they know how to use word processors, spelling checkers, grammar checkers, style checkers, QWERTY keyboards, and other writing tools to produce well organized and technically correct content that can be understood by humans and found by search engines.

Discussion Forums, Blogging, and Social Media: are powerful and popular. Over 100 million websites are powered by WordPress, a popular open-source content management system. Bloggers who post regularly, who write around key phrases that search engines use to rank content relevance, and who share their posts on discussion forums and in social media groups can reach tens or hundreds of thousands of people, engage in discussion and debate around their ideas, and establish themselves as leaders. 21st century literati not only understand how to set up and format a basic blog, they know how to share content and market ideas through appropriate channels.

Typography: Word processing provides an entrée into typography, a subject of sufficient scope and depth that numerous books have been written about it. Though it’s not necessary for the average writer to understand the subtler aspects of type design, the 21st century literate understands that Helvetica (and its Microsoft clone, Arial) and Times are institutional fonts that lack both color and the typographical features required for effective book design. The 21st century literate chooses from a palette containing Caslon, Garamond, Bodoni, Futura, Gill Sans, and at least a half-dozen other faces, and knows to choose a standard font like Georgia in cases when an intended reader might not have a particular typeface installed on their system. The old practice of specifying that students use monospaced Courier to imitate the look of a typewriter is a sad case of clutching at straws in a technological tempest that robs students of powerful and important expressive possibilities. By exposing students to examples of how various typefaces affect the presentation of ideas, schools contribute to the development of a generation of thinkers and influencers whose prose transcends the literal meanings of the words they choose to encompass the persuasive power of presentation.

Presentation and Design is a general category of endeavor that has the greatest impact on an expanded definition of literacy. Writers must create work with the intention of presenting it, and then they must develop or access the requisite skills to deliver and display it across a variety of media. What presentation skills are required of the 21st century literate? Many aspects of graphic design complement and even replace the written word. Ultimately, content creators must learn to balance text with photos, graphs and charts, illustration, animation, video, interactivity, and other visual media with informed consideration of the negative effects of a cluttered screen or page.

Presentation, in a literal and specific sense, involves creating slides that augment a spoken lecture. Tools like Powerpoint, Prezi, and Keynote are ubiquitous in business, but most students are not well versed in the art of persuasive presentation. Too much text on the screen, cliché slide backgrounds, and tired typefaces are but a handful of the problems that commonly plague presentations. Platform and elocution skills required of presenters suggest that the school drama department may have a mainstream role to play in foundational education.

Basic Photomanipulation: The majority of students are visual learners. Information supplemented by imagery is more likely to be embraced by readers. Digital cameras are ubiquitous. Students should be able to size and crop images and save them in formats and resolutions appropriate to print and on-screen media. Basic color correction skills are likewise important and easy to master.

Graphing and Charting tools offer ways to present data in compelling formats. Pie charts, scatter graphs, bar charts, and other info-graphics can be easily generated from data entered into a spreadsheet. Anyone being groomed for thought leadership should have these tools in their arsenal, and be educated about the persuasive power of statistical design.

HTML and CSS are the backbone of most online content display. Despite the preponderance of visual tools, an ability to write markup and formatting code is another facet of basic 21st century literacy. HTML and CSS are not programming or scripting languages. The fundamentals can be learned in hours, and once the structural concepts are clear, expanding one’s knowledge and skills can be accomplished as easily as looking up new words in a dictionary. As with spoken languages, few people learn all of HTML and CSS, but by learning the basics of embedding images and links, controlling type size and line spacing, and positioning elements on a screen, it’s possible for thought leaders to more effectively share ideas through popular media.

Marketing ideas is the backbone of promoting products and services. Many marketing and advertising educators adhere to the philosophy that marketing is all about building relationships—which infers that building a business is all about demonstrating (not merely claiming) relationship-worthiness. Students who publish ideas into the world must consider the benefits of their ideas to the people who consume them. An idea need not be marketable in a monetary sense, but students can learn how to generate ideas that are valuable and meaningful in an environment where they can observe reader responses to that intention. Stripped of its commercial associations, marketing becomes a fundamental academic skill. Promoting valuable ideas instills the value of service to community, and brings the rewards of recognition along with failures that are equally (if not more) useful to the developing ideator.

21st Century Literacy: Conclusion

It’s easy to over-codify the specific skills required of the 21st century literate. Should all students learn about variables, for-loops, and functions in computer code? Should all students learn to edit video? Should all students learn about microphone placement, compressor-limiters, and parametric equalizers? The notion of a 21st century literate is an idealistic fantasy, and it’s one that would take decades to achieve in an imagined world where technology stands still. And yet, too often, the 21st century classroom tends to be so overwhelmed by competition from popular media and its ability to divert students’ attention, that it digs in its stalwart heels and pushes ever harder to impress the value of classical skills, media, and methods on students. Ironically, the same media that interfere with traditional learning can be integrated into the student’s day-to-day regimen. Ultimately, students will rank schools in the same way search engines rank content—by relevance. Students will “waste time playing with popular media” whether or not schools engage with it. Teach them how to leverage and dominate those channels, and they’ll be inspired to learn from schools and teachers who understand their world.

At the same time, it’s important to develop programs that bridge the generation gap between teachers and students. Teachers bring life experience, scholarship, expertise, and perspective to the classroom. These educators must be empowered to transfer these assets to students through the communication channels favored by their students. It’s time to mount a satellite dish on the ivory tower.

21st century literacy is all about delivering the message. Teach students about the requirements of powerful, eloquent messaging, and test the effectiveness of content on the world stage. The result will be students who recognize their talents and interests early, students who understand what they’re good at and what they’re not, students who engage with teachers, students who engage with colleagues, and students who enter college already endowed with the skills, directions, and perspectives needed to act as powerful agents for change in society.


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