EN/SANE World

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

21st Century Skills Backlash?

According to Education Week, there may be a backlash against notions of 21st century literacies and those, like me, who promote them.

How soon before some high-fallooting Ph.d.-waving asshole stands up and says, "Now we got folks tryin' to teach em' comics in school instead o' Shagspert!"? The countdown is on....

As the Stephen Sawchuck penned article "Backers of '21st-Century Skills' Take Flak" suggests, though, the backlash is not really a backlash, it is just continued resistance that Education Week and Cultural Literacy purists are drawing more attention to. As is stated by a very wise Linda Darling-Hammond, the curriculum debates inherent in new vs. traditional literacies, etc. have been going on for at least the entirety of the 20th century.

There is a good analogue here to comics and literacy scholarship. Even though my work and the recent work of others has folks thinking about comics and graphic novels, many other scholars and teachers have been writing on the subject for as long as there have been comic strips and comic books in America. Think late 1930s as a starting point. There's a reason I quote Dewey and Vygostsky in the intro to Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels....

As well, the analogue also extends to notions of "either/or." It shouldn't be "instead of" but "in conjunction with." We can't have critical literacy-based curricula because we need to focus on functional literacy skills? Cultural literacy needs to trump all literacy? Only Shakespeare plays and no Shakespeare podcasts or Manga to supplement them?

It's not an either/or proposition. Literacy is a continuum. That's why I am so keen on focusing on how comics can help students develop functional literacies, cultural literacies, critical literacies, and certainly New/Multimodal/21st century literacies. Getting at one literacy skill doesn't and shouldn't mean ignoring others.

We all want all students to read (functional literacy). We all agree that factual knowledge provides (cultural literacy) a good base for being considered educated. Why can't we all agree that considerations of power, justice, and point of view (critical literacy) as they relate to factual knowledge help students develop greater understandings and also help them develop inquiring, curious minds? Well, some might not want others to have those types of minds, of course.

And that's the tension between those who seem to have a beef with new literacies and those who want to focus on other types at the exclusion of critical literacies: The functional/cultural camp is afraid that the critical camp is trying to subversively overthrow American values -- and there may be some truth to that -- and the critical camp is afraid the functional/cultural camp is sneakily, subversively trying to keep underprivileged populations "in their proper place" -- and there may be some truth to that too.

But we are living in the 21st century -- even here in Texas -- so the term "21st century skills" generally applies to the skills students will need to live well in the world they'll inherent for the next 91 years. Knowing how to read print is a necessity. Knowing how to read non-print is a necessity. Knowing history and basic math, science, and language arts skills is essential. Knowing how to think critically about who makes decisions in the world and how they get formed is important. Knowing how to navigate new spaces while understanding their precedents -- important, important, important. 21st century skills are all -literacy skills.

So, if Spider-Man helps an ESL student gain functional literacy, while a Manga Shakespeare helps build the comprehension of a 10th grader while he reads it along with a viewing or reading of the play, and examining Joe Sacco's Palestine helps a World History class understand the tensions in Israel, while American Born Chinese helps a class understand identity and ethnicity and a group of senoirs are deconstructing Watchmen as an example of 1980s nuclear hysteria/pre-millinium hysterics in relation, let it be.

Our kids live in the 21st century. Any skill they need from school, whether they get it there or not, is a 21st century skill.

2 Comments:

  • [a big sigh of relief]

    I'm glad you wrote that.

    The either/or (and the fact that we jump to it so quickly) makes me crazy. As if I (or any other educator) want to teach comics only and throw out all traditional books, poems, plays, et al.

    It's just a piece of the puzzle and it works. Why is that a problem? It boggles the mind.

    This all reminds me of the ever-popular calculator debate.

    By Anonymous Chris Wilson, at 8:14 PM  

  • Chris, this is nothing like the calculator debate. We all know calculator use causes dysentery! ;)

    Yeah, the assumptions that people have and either can't or won't see beryond boggles the mind.

    By Blogger Bucky C., at 10:26 AM  

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