EXPLORING THE 21ST CENTURY LITERACIES

03/03/2017
Better Learning
Timothy Gangwer

Dating back to the one-room schoolhouses, being literate has always meant the ability to read, write, speak and listen. As the world changes culturally, technologically and physically, so too does our ever-broadening definition of literacy. In recognition of this change, we must empower our students to explore and embrace the 21st century literacies.

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As the world changes culturally, technologically and physically, so too does our ever-broadening definition of literacy. In recognition of this change, we must empower our students to explore and embrace the 21st century literacies.

Media Literacy

Media Literacy is the skill of comprehending the nature of communications, specifically in regard to telecommunications and mass media. This ability requires knowledge of the framework of the media, and how it may impact the content of the media. Did you know that by the time children reach senior citizen status, they will have spent three years of their lives watching commercials alone?  Forty-two percent of children under the age of eight have televisions in their bedrooms, including 30 percent of those one year old or younger, 44 percent of two to four year olds, and 47 percent of five to eight year olds. Fifty-two percent of all zero to eight year olds have access to a mobile device: smartphone, iPad/tablet, and spend an average of 43 minutes a day using them. Nearly half of babies under the age of two watch an average of two hours of television per day. Psychologists believe children under the age of two learn best by interfacing face-to-face with other children and adults ... not screens.

According to the Center for Media Literacy, there are five key questions of media literacy school-age children should be taught:


Who created this message?


What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?


How might different people understand this message differently than me?


What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from this message?


What is the message being sent?

Digital Literacy

Digital Literacy is the capacity to use digital technology, communication devices or networks to locate, analyze, use and produce information. It is the ability to read, write and clarify media, to replicate data and visuals through digital manipulation, and to assess and implement new knowledge gained from digital environments. Because Digital Literacy has a tremendous impact on children, we must not forget the digital divide, those who have access to the Internet and those who do not. Many students rely on the schools and public libraries for access, which may limit their quest to become digitally literate.

Global Literacy

Global Literacy is understanding the interdependence among countries and their people, and having the ability to communicate and collaborate across cultures. Here is a Global literacy skill list to help assess students’ Global Literacy:

  • Position topics and viewpoints within their environmental, economical, political and historical context;
  • Outline obstacles and find resolutions with a thorough understanding of their complications, without oversimplification;
  • Chronicle the characteristics, elements, evolution and ramifications of global structures;
  • Find historical and up-to-date links, recognizing how the lives and fates of people on other parts of the world blend with our own;
  • Critically scrutinize information, while questioning assumptions;
  • Seek out a variety of viewpoints, while asking pertinent questions;
  • Initiate ethical positions pertaining to global matters;
  • Demonstrate an awareness of global responsibility and
    individual empowerment.

Emotional Literacy

Emotional Literacy is the ability to understand your emotions, the capacity to listen to others and empathize with their emotions, and the potential to demonstrate emotions effectively. Emotional Literacy enhances relationships, generates loving possibilities between people and encourages the feeling of community.

Emotional Literacy student objectives include:

  • Knowing your feelings;
  • Having a sense of empathy;
  • Learning to direct one’s emotions;
  • Mending emotional damage.
  • The four R’s of Emotional Literacy are:
  • Responsibility
  • Resourcefulness
  • Resilience
  • Respect

Informational Literacy

Informational Literacy is the ability to recognize what information is required, understand how the information is structured, distinguish the principal sources of information for a given need, find and assess those sources critically, then share that information.

Informational Literacy student objectives include:

  • Grasping the basics of the Internet;
  • Examining and classifying information;
  • Developing search queries;
  • Understanding the justification and components of a citation;
  • Evaluating plausibility, usefulness and websites;
  • Referencing sources and avoiding plagiarism.

Environmental Literacy

Environmental Literacy is the ability to demonstrate proficiency of the environment and the conditions affecting it, especially as it applies to climate, land, air, energy, food, water and our ecosystems. It means students:

  • Understand society’s influence on population growth, development, resource consumption growth and much more.
  • Study and assess environmental issues, and make precise conclusions about beneficial solutions.
  • Take both independent and communal action towards tackling challenges, such as participating in global endeavors, and creating solutions that encourage action on environmental issues.

Environmentally literate people are:

  • 10 percent more likely to conserve energy in the home
  • 10 percent more likely to obtain environmentally safe products
  • 50 percent more likely to recycle
  • 50 percent more likely to avoid using chemicals in yard care
  • Ninety-five percent of American adults (95 percent are parents) believe environmental education should be taught in schools.

Visual Literacy

Visual Literacy is the ability to identify and understand ideas communicated through actions or images (decode), as well as to be able to communicate ideas or messages through imagery (encode). Sixty-five percent of people in the United States are considered by definition to be visual learners. Therefore, we can assumed that 65 percent of our school-age population are visual learners as well. The question is, “Are their teachers Visual Teachers?”

It is critical to the status of our educational system that we are not using 20th century teaching methods to educate 21st century learners. Creative/critical thinking skills must be taught at the earliest age possible, for this becomes the foundation upon which our students will construct their educational experience, one that will evolve into lifelong learning. Just as our literacies have changed, so too will the structure of our educational system.

Timothy Gangwer is the CEO and Professional Development Director of the Visual Teaching Alliance (www.VisualTeachingAlliance.com). A former teacher and University Supervisor at the University of Texas, Austin, he is the author of Visual Impact, Visual Teaching: Using Images to Strengthen Learning, along with nine other books. He is the former Visual Literacy Consultant to the Ministry of Education, Paris, France; Ministry of Education, Toranomon, Japan; Mediterranean Association of International Schools, Casablanca, Morocco and the Association of International Schools in Africa, Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
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Issue 18.3 | Winter/Spring 2017

Southeast Education Network

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