Amid a million voices, decoding and mastering multiple literacies

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Good teaching has never occurred within the binary of teacher versus student. We teach them and we learn from them. Simply to view students as empty vessels to be filled robs teacher and student of opportunities to learn from each other and grow together.

Good teaching is something you do with students, not something you do to them. We must know the world that they are decoding, even as they must know ours. As language has always been a living, evolving process, so now are all media. The literacies we must master are more multiple than ever. Many students are already mastering them; as teachers, we have to keep up with them or they won't hear us anymore.

The classroom is not the same place as it was when we were in school. The Internet has changed all that. Flat screens across the globe become portals connecting to art galleries, hospital operating rooms, Parliament, outer space and even places that can only be accessed by avatars. This is the new classroom and this is the new playground. Its teachers are everywhere, instructing and sharing all sorts of information.

Our students are creating and contributing to these open communities. Everyone out there now inhabits our classrooms. The keyboard is the new quill communicating instantly to the whole world. A billion voices are out there. And there's the rub.

A Teacher's Guidance

While our students may be pioneers in cyberspace, they still need the guidance of teachers who understand the language and who can help them sift the grain from the chaff, to locate truth in the techno-towers of Babel. A universally liberated voice that only says "I" is a voice that is neutralized and muted by a billion universally liberated other voices. Discernment is vital. The progressive''s simplistic equation that the Internet equals doing things better is as damaging as the traditionalist's fear that this may indeed be true. In fact, the Internet is not a new way of doing traditional things better; it opens up new things altogether.

Whether it improves reading, writing or connecting is no longer the point; it explores the things that we haven't been able to do before and it hones skills for jobs that don't yet exist. We need to give our students these skills because the tools have never existed before. We need to know our students and their knowledge. We need to share, to listen and to pay attention to them.

Providing the Skills Students Need

We must encourage students to go online: to read and understand privacy policies and the issues that surround them, to share their strengths and shortcomings with us and with each other, to trust our instincts and our willingness to learn from them.

We should encourage students to discover by doing and become selectors rather than mere collectors of information. By the time they graduate, they will all be able to extract material quickly and put it into a glossy PowerPoint or wiki. Great, but they need to know how to create and generate ideas and new knowledge rather than simply cut and paste the knowledge of others.

Tweeting, blogging and Facebooking do not make you literate; neither can we be fearful of those things because hiding behind those fears will lose our students the battle. Many are already innovating and creating. Students in Asia are making real money in online games such as World of Warcraft through gold farming (players amass game "currency" and sell it to other players for a fee, even though this practice violates many online games' policies). Avatars in Second Life create, design, build and even make money by opening virtual stores, producing and selling music and art, holding virtual jobs, or developing their talents as digerati by designing new games or products altogether. Whole new economies are evolving from cyberspace: Second Life trains new doctors in revolutionary surgical techniques, projects the hotels of the future and provides university students with cost-effective solutions to online learning. Such virtual economies will be mainstream by the time our students enter the workforce.

Developing Skills Beyond Multi-tasking

Our students are already amazing jugglers, experts at multi-tasking all those colourful balls in the ether, spinning them, catching them or letting them fall where they may. For them there's an unlimited supply of things to throw into the air, and they can handle many more at one time than we ever could. But a juggler needs the stability, confidence and stillness of firmly planted feet to succeed. So our students need to be grounded in the "monuments of unaging intellect," as William Butler Yeats might say, and in the skills needed to interpret, understand and apply that wisdom to the present and to their own lives. We must help them to focus, to reflect and to have those vital conversations with themselves as they determine their own place in the world. Economics, making a fortune and being materially successful must have a counterpoint of humanism, of knowing better how to live with themselves and not just how to live with and profit from their environment. They must learn to think critically and express themselves in the clearest language of the day, rather than in one that is coded, cryptic or exclusively the domain of the specialist, be it academic, technocratic or idiosyncratic. However, they must know these, too.

Yes, the future is now. We must embrace its challenges and enable our students to be its contenders and leaders. But we have taken a long time to get here. We can't dismiss as obsolete the values of the past simply because they have already "happened." Education must be part of the continuum. Information is never knowledge until it is connected to what we already know. That requires thinking, reflection, deliberation and the undistracted connecting of dots in the mind, even as new dots are added.

We believe that, for the sake of the survival of both thought and communication, the world will always require these skills, regardless of the medium. If they can be acquired in multiple ways, then let's develop those ways. Even in a digital universe, we cannot afford to regard any text –hard, hyper or hieroglyphic– as obsolete. Educators need to consider, evaluate and extract the real worth of any practice. It is as dangerous to jump on bandwagons as it is to miss the boat altogether. If we miss this boat in today's classroom, we as teachers will be left on a lost continent, fingering the pages of our beloved books and reading to the empty breeze.

"Multiple literacies" means just that. Multiple. Not exclusive. Teaching is not a battle to the death between books and the binary code. It is a symbiosis.

Remember Chaucer's clerk, a teacher: "And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach."

—Colin Brezicki & Shelley Thomas
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