Literacy skills

‘Our system is, more than anything, an artifact of our Colonial past. For the religious dissenters who came to the New World, literacy was essential to religious freedom, enabling them to teach their own beliefs.’

I came across the above quote in a recent article by Matt Miller in The Atlantic. While volunteering in a 6th grade classroom, I got a close look at what passes for ‘essential’ literacy in schools these days.

The students were asked to read pages 79-84 in their Social Studies textbooks and answer questions 3, 4, and 5 at the end of the section. Sound familiar? Here’s the literacy strategy most of the students followed:

1. Read pages 79-84.
2. Read the questions at the end of the section.
3. Search for the answers by using the glossary, skimming for the keywords in the section, or by looking up the keywords in the index.
4. Write the answer, directly as it appears in the text, in a notebook.
5. Read the answer aloud if called on by the teacher.

The questions were mildly interesting (What contributions to medicine and astronomy did the Egyptians make?), but I was confused about what the students were supposed to do with the disconnected facts they found.

So what if the Egyptians correlated the movement of the star formation Sirius with the flooding of the Nile to create the 365 day year? Why should the students care, and how will the information be meaningful to them beyond the test on Friday?

Let’s compare this to a similar literacy activity in the game Urban Science, which was similarly played by middle school students this summer. The students were asked to read a request for proposals that called for redesigning a neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin. Here’s the literacy strategy most of the students followed:

1. Collect background information on the site and write a memo to their fellow planners
2. Conduct a physical site visit and write a neighborhood assessment
3. Listen to stakeholders’ opinions in the virtual neighborhood and complete a stakeholder assessment
4. Design preference surveys to elicit stakeholder feedback
5. Compile stakeholder feedback into a comprehensive stakeholder assessment
6. Use the information previously gathered to complete a final plan and a final report
7. Present and defend planning solutions to the mayor of Madison, professional planners, and other city officials

What’s striking about the differences between the literacy strategies used in Urban Science and in the Social Studies classroom is not just that these are better literacy strategies. The reason the Urban Science strategies seem like better literacy practices is that the tasks are actually meaningful. In this epistemic game, the search for information is directly related to the problems players are solving. As David Williamson Shaffer talks about in How Computer Games Help Children Learn, the kind of learning that takes place during epistemic gameplay ‘requires that players care about what they are doing. They have to care enough to persist in doing it in the face of obstacles significant enough that overcoming them leads to real learning’ (126). In the epistemic game Urban Science, players perform tasks that are consequential; that is, the tasks have ramifications for future tasks and goals.

In other words, literacy is a set of skills that matter in the world. Traditional print literacy mattered in Colonial times because it was essential to things that people cared about, like religious freedom and the ability to teach their own beliefs. In our digital world literacy is no less essential to freedom. But there are different literacy skills–even different kinds of literacies–that young people need to secure economic, cultural, social, and intellectual freedom.

And the literacy skills that are meaningful in this new century seem to be more a part of a game than they are a part of at least one classroom that I visit on a regular basis.

GAPS is housed within the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.