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Literacy and new media – a(nother) call for change?

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Cathy Burnett is Professor of Literacy and Education at Sheffield Hallam University. Her research focuses on new technologies and literacies with a particular interest in relationships between literacies within and beyond educational contexts. Cathy has published widely for academic and professional readerships on themes including digital literacies, literacy and identity, and on/offline space. Her most recent book, New Literacies around the Globe (published by Routledge and co-edited with Julia Davies, Guy Merchant and Jennifer Rowsell), draws on cutting-edge research to argue for new conceptualisations of literacy in pedagogy and policy. Cathy is co-editor for the journal Literacy .

There is nothing new about calling for changes to the literacy curriculum and pedagogy in response to developments in digital media and the practices associated with them. The seminal multiliteracies framework developed by the New London Group is nearly 20 years old (New London Group, 1996) , and literacy researchers have been referring to ‘new’ literacies for over a decade (Knobel and Lankshear, 2003). Numerous books, articles and blogs have presented cogent and compelling arguments for changing how literacy is conceptualised in education.
While there have been developments in certain countries and in certain educational settings in England, as in many other countries, we still face challenges in reconciling literacy as experienced in contemporary life with what literacy becomes at school. I recently worked with colleagues - Julia Davies, Guy Merchant and Jennifer Rowsell - on an edited collection, New Literacies around the Globe, for Routledge. Through juxtaposing studies of literacy in specific sites - both educational institutions and elsewhere - we wanted to highlight some key dimensions of literacy that tend to get missed as curriculum frameworks and pedagogical guidelines are mapped out. Rather ambitiously perhaps, we wanted to use these to stimulate debate about how we draw on insights from literacy research to inform policy and pedagogy. We are increasingly reminded of the mismatch between what research is telling us, particularly that based on careful in-depth studies of literacy in people’s lives, and what literacy becomes when framed as policy or curriculum and assessment frameworks.
In school - and I realise I am caricaturing here – literacy can often appear as:
- Focused on a specific, fixed set of skills and understandings that must be learned;
- Predominantly paper-based;
- Focused on complete texts that are read or produced within a fixed time-frame;
- Predominantly individual (even if collaboration is encouraged along the way);
- Purely cognitive;
- Something engaged in for future success;
- Bounded by a set of rules.
Whereas in everyday life, literacy is:
- Multiple (used in different ways in different contexts, significant for different reasons, and valued differently);
- Associated with diverse modes and media (not just paper-based texts);
- Provisional (texts are often re-written and re-mixed);
- Associated with multiple authorship;
- Experienced subjectively (physical surroundings- and the people and things present are significant to the meanings we make from texts);
- Social and embedded in relationships;
- Associated with experimentation and innovation;
- Continually changing.

There isn’t space here to expand on these ideas, or on the examples that illustrate them from the chapters in our book. However comparing these two lists is perhaps useful in re-stating some arguments that ‘new’ literacy researchers have made previously, and in thinking again about what literacy at school needs to be like if it is to be truly empowering. Distinguishing between ‘school’ and ‘everyday life’ in this way is of course an oversimplification not least because, for many, school is part of everyday life and of course because what constitutes schooled literacy varies from school to school, teacher to teacher, and pupil to pupil. However, there are differences in the way that literacy gets presented in documentation- curriculum, assessment, policy, etc- and the way it appears in research focused on what people actually do with and through literacy. This second list suggests that, among other things, we need to highlight, and value more explicitly, the role that schools play in:
- Recognising the linguistic, social and cultural resources learners bring while encouraging them to diversify the range of practices in which they participate;
- Encouraging the exploration and use of a range of modes and media;
- Making space for improvisation and experimentation as well as the production and analysis of polished texts;
- Valuing collaboration and highlighting how collaboration enables access to others’ texts and ideas;
- Acknowledging emotional dimensions of meaning-making;
- Encouraging learners to consider how they position themselves and are positioned by others through texts;
- Developing an understanding of the changing nature of meaning-making.

Many teachers who read this third list will see their own practice here. These ideas are not new, and creative and inspirational teachers continue to find innovative ways of re-working curricula in their own settings, whether or not this gets reported or recognised. However, overtly valuing these dimensions of literacy is problematic as they are difficult to measure. They are about process not outcome and assume a fluidity that is difficult to accommodate within a system- in England at least- where accountability is so closely tied to measurable outcomes. If we are to truly respond to repeated calls for change in the literacy curriculum we need to look again at how we value and recognise the things that matter to individuals and groups as they make meanings, and to understand that these are often too ephemeral or transitory to be measured. We need to change the rules if we are to do the best we can to support learners to engage with literacy in the digital present, and if we are to allow sufficient flexibility to accommodate what literacy/literacies might become in the future.
Burnett, C., Davies, J., Merchant, G. & Rowsell, J. (eds.) (2014). New Literacy around the Globe: policy and pedagogy. London: Routledge.
Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006) New Literacies: Changing Knowledge and Classroom Practice. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
New London Group (1996), ‘A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures’, Harvard Educational Review, vol.66, no.1, pp.60-93.

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