What Does It Mean To Be Literate In The 21st Century?

Our economies have for many years been moving away from old style manufacturing to services. That transition is set to continue, and requires new skills sets. Meanwhile, traditional and digital technologies are converging and becoming more integrated; and changing how we find, use, present and understand information. Robots are becoming ever more intelligent and have been forecast to be capable of replacing millions of lower skilled, and increasingly higher skilled, jobs in the USA alone in coming decades.

All of these will require new literacies not only for work but for living a fulfilled life, coping with the new complexities of our societies, and engaging as a citizen.

Literacy refers, traditionally, to the ability to read and understand printed formats. Transliteracy has been coined to highlight the need to be able to 'read and understand' concepts and ideas across a growing range of formats and platforms - oral, print, visual, digital - as technologies merge and integrate, enabling radically new approaches to presentation, verification and distortion of content. They focus ever more on critical thinking, the ability to question, analyse, challenge; seeing arguments from different perspectives; articulating ideas.

As with all skills, the need for these skills can be seen as a continuum from the functional - enough for day to day life, through socio-cultural to enhance life chances through to transformational which can underpin high levels of innovation.

Practical life skills are in short supply.  A recent survey in the UK indicated that 45% of children under the age of 13 could use a DVD or iPod but not tie their shoelaces - not in itself a problem given the availability of Velcro and slip on shoes, but tying a knot is important.

Another item highlighted 27 essential literacies under six headings, - financial, thinking, success, social, practical, happiness - which it claimed were not being taught in schools.  These ranged from critical thinking to knowing how to mend things, listening skills to budgeting. 

Science literacy is also a growing necessity. Issues such as addressing climate change and the benefits of new technologies, feeding growing populations all require an understanding of science. In order to understand the complex trade-offs and underlying issues, cause and effect.

Why is this important?

On one level, these discussions are not new. Howard Gardner discussed the idea of multiple intelligences as early as 1983. Daniel Goleman had a best seller in the 1990s with Emotional Intelligence. Work related profiling systems such as Myers Briggs examine individual capabilities across different skill sets. The discussion of 'new literacies' could be seen as little more than rebranding of old ideas, but in doing so it may focus attention and gather momentum for change and new solutions for our new economies.

Countries in the OECD face a double whammy: high unemployment and skills shortages. 23 million people aged 15-24 - about 17% on average are unemployed and not in education or training across the OECD; youth unemployment in Spain and Greece rises to 50% and over. At the same time, 40% of employers across the OECD complain of skills shortages affecting their ability to grow. The new OECD skills strategy aims to help identify and best enable the development of the skills needed to support economic growth. The question will be what skills, taught where, when, how and by whom? Soft skills and the new literacies will need to be part of the process.

A report from the Work Foundation in the UK bears this out. It looks into the issue of those young people not in employment, education or training. Its conclusion is that many of them lack not only formal qualifications, but the 'soft skills' needed in today's economy such as communication. It makes a range of policy recommendations on how to develop these skills.

The nature versus nurture debate in achievement and life success is a longstanding one. Recent research may indicate that soon we may be able to untangle some of the intricacies. A research team has identified small but significant links between 200 (of out 25,000 or so) human genes and ability in maths and language. It is very early days, but they think they may be able to develop genetic tests which are predictors of ability.

Elsewhere, nurture continues to focus strongly. Research into levels of early communication by parents with their childrenunder the age of 3 demonstrates a link between the numbers of words heard and later achievement. A difference of about 23 million words heard separated the highest from the lowest achieving. This includes not only the number of words, but also the type of communication - discursive and exploratory or repetitive and narrow.

It is almost certainly a case of both and, not either or nature and nurture. With social mobility, unemployment and the need for growth all hot political topics, new literacies could be the key to opening new routes to success.

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