Bonfire of the literaciesPosted: March 25, 2016
This post has one message: If it’s not reading or writing then be suspicious if it’s described as ‘literacy’.
I am well aware that ‘literacy’ has a number of meanings. Google gives me two:
1. The ability to read and write
2. Competence or knowledge in a specified area
It is the second usage that I object to because it is one of the many manoeuvres that make the process of education less easy to understand. It acts against clarity and allows vague and ill-defined skills and competencies to feed off the credibility and self-evident value of that first definition; the ability to read and write. Everyone understands that learning to read and write are essential. These are probably the two objectives that all those involved in the education debate can agree upon, even if some promote dubious methods to achieve them.
Firstly, it is not clear that even reading, writing, speaking and listening should be grouped together as one thing that we can call ‘literacy’. Speaking and listening are skills that humans have likely been utilising for many millions of years. We have therefore evolved mechanisms for picking them up implicitly from our social surroundings, hence the seemingly effortless way that most children learn to talk. Yet reading and writing are inventions of the last few thousand years and for much of this time, they were the preserve of a tiny elite. This is why we invented schools in order to efficiently pass on this unnatural, artificial skill to large numbers of people.
This doesn’t mean that we cannot teach children anything that will improve their speaking abilities: we might stress enunciation or pass on knowledge of rhetorical devices, knowledge that would also apply to writing. But we don’t have to start from the very beginning like we do with reading and writing so the processes are qualitatively different.
It becomes even more confusing when we start to refer to any specific body of knowledge as ‘literacy’. Why do people talk of ’emotional literacy’ or ‘visual literacy’? It’s instructive that with well-worn school subjects we don’t tend to add this redundant term. We don’t generally talk of learning ‘scientific literacy’ or ‘historical literacy’; we talk of learning ‘science’ or ‘history’. Yes, the term ‘scientific literacy’ does crop-up but it is often when someone is trying to sell a dumbed-down version of a science course with all the hard bits taken out. I think this is telling.
Let’s reverse the perspective. Why would we talk of learning about ’emotional literacy’ rather than learning about ’emotions’ which is, presumably, what we mean? Well, it seems a bit lightweight and insubstantial to talk of ‘learning about emotions’. Why not talk of learning about ‘images’ instead of ‘visual literacy’? The same problem arises – does that really warrant extended classroom time? Is it really as important as learning to read?
No. The ‘literacy’ bit has been stuck on the end in order to give the subject matter more gravitas. It is there to hijack the esteem we have for genuine literacy. It is a bait-and-switch approach that diverts attention from the fact that we are asking children to engage in fluffy, insubstantial and largely pointless activities instead of actually teaching them something worthwhile.