Thursday, September 14, 2006

The changing face of literacy

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, and I reckon I might like to do a paper on this for my course.

There's been a lot of conversation in the blogosphere about how the new literacy is no longer just about being able to read and write, but about being able to make use of ICT technology to learn, to share, to participate. There is concern that the focus of literacy teaching in schools is still based on a literacy that was suitable for our parents and our grandparents, but is no longer enough for us and will certainly not be enough for our children. Our children desperately need to learn keyboarding skills, but few schools provide teaching in this vital skills and even fewer make it compulsory.

This got me thinking that this is not the first time that there has been a change in what it means to be affluent in the literacy currency of the age. If we consider that literacy is a means to communicate information, to express oneself and to keep culture and or traditions alive, the following are forms of literacy that have held sway at various times in history:

  • Expressive movement and dance
  • Rituals
  • Cave painting
  • Singing and/or chanting
  • Dramatic re-enactments
  • Story telling
In the comparitively short time that people have been able to write, even that has undergone dramatic changes. At one time, people used a stylus and a wax tablet. Not that long ago, schoolchildren wrote with chalk on small slates (in fact, in the rural areas of South Africa, this was the case even in my lifetime, and might still be the case in some parts of the world) - they did not have scores of notebooks at home to refer back to. The provision of a text book to every child is a relatively new thing and is still not practised everywhere in the world. Hence the need to commit so much to memory.

Now the notebook could safely be phased out in favour of electronic alternatives and the text book looks like being phased out because of its short shelf-life. We have moved on to communal knowledge: wikis, blogs and "I keep my knowledge in my friends".

It seems to me that when other forms of literacy were the order of the day, anyone could have a go. Obviously some people would have a greater knack for it than others, as with anything, but I don't know that anyone was restricted from practising (of course I may be wrong - social anthropology not being my thing).

But then came writing and elitism. Time was once when only a select few people knew how to read and write and such skills were considered unnecessary for the unwashed masses. These people no doubt continued to rely on older forms of literacy in their relationships and the preservation of their culture, but the lack of access to the written word placed a ceiling on their prospects and expectations. The same is surely true today. Those who lack access to the skills required for current literacy are similarly disadvantaged and in danger of marginalisation.

Hmm. There's a lot to this, and I would be glad of any contributions from out there. If I do go with this for my course, I will be sure to give credit where it is due.

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