Lo and behold! Just as I was sinking into despair, lamenting that the Great 21st Century Literacy Debate will never reach resolution, I stumbled across this letter from camp written by a wacky kid named Sherman. Brilliant! It neatly answers all those thorny semantic questions, addresses all the unresolved issues, and wraps up the whole package with a musical bow. It’s a little blurry, but the violin part truly rocks. Time to put this debate to bed, people. You can thank me in the morning.

If there be nothing new, but that which is

Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,

Which, laboring for invention, bear amiss

The second burden of a former child!

–Shakespeare’s Sonnet 59

Ben Grey asked some critical questions recently about 21st century literacy. What are we really saying when we toss around that handy phrase in mixed company?  Does it mean anything? Ben wonders if it’s all just an exercise in semantics, and worries that too much imprecise talk about skills, new literacies, and proficiencies is muddying the water. He argues that the 21st century skills/literacy concept is an emperor with no clothes, and that behind the label are familiar literacy tenets: reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing. Is there nothing new under the sun? Ben’s question has spawned some excellent discussion here, here, and here.


If we’re talking about literacy, let’s talk about literacy, as in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.  If we’re talking about other skills that people need to be successful in the modern era, then we’re probably talking about skills rather than literacies.  If we’re being specific about these skills applying uniquely to the 21st century, we should probably call them such.  Although, are there really any skills that are being called 21st Century Skills that are new in the 21st century?  Think about it.  The Partnership for 21st Century Skills believes demonstrating originality, communicating, being open and responsive, acting on creative ideas, utilizing time efficiently, accessing information, etc. are all 21st Century Skills.  I’d retort that in reality, these skills have always been in existence and of the utmost importance.  They don’t need to have the 21st Century moniker on them to make them significant.

And I think that’s the heart of the issue for me.  The whole idea of qualifying all of these skills, or even literacies if you want to adopt a broader sense of the term beyond the traditional, with 21st Century confuses what the real focus should be.

I’m not so sure this is just a semantic debate, or a matter of parsing definitions of literacies vs. skills. Nor do I completely agree that what’s happening is just repackaging of existing concepts. My comments on Ben’s follow-up post:

While I’m heartened to see our familiar friends The 4 Pillars (read, write, speak, listen) out front, loud and proud, and I agree that they’re fundamental, it feels like something’s missing. You deserve kudos for critically raising the possibility that the 21st century skills/literacies moniker is slapping a new label on an old concept, and for worrying about the consequences re credibility. But I think there IS something new going on here that goes beyond the Big 4, or at least beyond our traditional understanding of them as the cardinal literacy compass points, and it’s worth our attention.

Some really-really half-baked attempts to extend what I mean:

SYNTHESES & INTERSTICES: Our traditional sense of reading/writing/speaking/listening (at least, of teaching them) tends to isolate them, focusing on each as if it’s a monolithic, stand-alone competency. You read. Tomorrow you write. Next month, during the speech unit, you speak. Might 21st c. literacy be about how they interact and combine and synthesize? About what happens in the spaces between the monoliths, or in the student whose engagement shifts quickly between them, and whose role (reader/writer/speaker/listener) shifts as quickly? I agree with the basic premises of your VT example—it’s useless without core literacy, and it’ll give way to something new before we know it. But I think it’s a good, current example of a “new literacy” experience in the way that it juxtaposes the Big 4, and allows (demands, almost) engagement with all four at once. And, more to the point, it demands attention to their interrelationships and intercontextuality. How, for instance, my thinking about a VT artifact organically changes from first viewing to second as a result of listening to a comment, or how my understanding of a comment changes as a result of composing my own comment. Is it enough to be just readers or writers in isolation? We need to be readers-who-are-also-writers, writers-who-are-also-viewers, and so on. Roles morph and morph again in a recursive process, you can never quite pin down whether you’re a particle or a wave, and suddenly we’re not in Kansas anymore. Writing a blog post may involve all the traditional competencies of writing an essay, but the simple act of linking out to another blog weaves together the reader and writer roles so intimately that we have to treat it as something different.

CONTEXT AND COLLABORATION: That said, I think the changes even go beyond role. Clay mentioned identity management and social reading as possible aspects of 21st c literacy. Instead of the simple person-to-text (text being broadly defined here) relationship I grew up with, where we often raised that silly question about “author’s intent,” students are now faced with a more complex, multimodal scenario. They may be relating to the text, but a link or two later and they very well might find themselves in a relationship with the author, too, not to mention a whole rotating cast of other readers and writers also interested in the same conversation. Communication and expression are no longer a one-off deal, but merge into a larger, possibly-permanent cloud. Mediating and managing your online identity become part of being able to effectively communicate. Being aware of your surroundings and context and audience become very important. It’s a variant of the tree-falls-and-no-one-is-there-to-hear question: If a tree wants to be heard, how and where should it fall to be sure it makes a glorious cacophony? Or if it doesn’t want to make a sound, can it find a place to fall where no one will be listening?

The counterpoint to “laboring for invention” is that necessity prompts invention. We and our students are faced with compelling necessities that truly are new and different. 21st century literacy as response to disruptive innovation, anyone?

Will Richardson has convened a far-ranging Elluminate discussion on this question that’s happening right now. Notes from the session can be found here.