My Kids are Illiterate. Most Likely, Yours Are Too

Learning and literacy are absolutely shifting, and that means the roles of schools and teachers are going to have to shift as well.
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I'm a parent, and I'm not happy. My two kids go to "great" schools, they get great grades, and by all accounts they're very successful students.

Unfortunately, they're illiterate.

Right now, in their classrooms, they're not "designing and sharing information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes." Nor are they "building relationships with others to solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally." And as far as "managing, analyzing and synthesizing multiple streams of information?" Not so much.

Those are all key components of what the National Council of Teachers of English feels a "literate person" should be able to do right now. You can see all six parts of the definition here. Go look. Each of the six requires a real understanding of the changes and opportunities that online social learning networks and communities are bringing about. But after a combined 12 years of formal schooling, my 13 and 11 year olds are no where near to being on the road to "literate" in those contexts.


Let me be clear, I'm not at all bashing their teachers, who sincerely care about my children and want them to do well in school. And I am fully aware that the "literacy" issues most pressing for many kids in this country and around the world are much more about basic and crucial reading and writing skills. But all of our kids need to be in systems that care for them and are focused on literacy they will need to be successful in their lives instead of being focused primarily on standardizing their way to "high student achievement" based on a metric that is growing less and less relevant each day. And I'm mad that the "big" conversations around "reform" in education right now all revolve around basically doing what we've been doing for the past 100 years only "better," and that we'll get there by incentivizing teachers to teach for a test.

As others suggest, it's time for another conversation around education to start in this country, but it's one that's not being co-opted by billionaires and media corporations with tons of bandwidth and little or no experience in real schools or real classrooms. And, I think it's a conversation that has to start with learning, not schools. If we don't talk about how learning is changing first, the schools we create will continue to be places of "tinkering on the edges" instead of truly changed spaces.

Technology, specifically the Web, expands the learning opportunities our connected children and their teachers have. That's not to say that we can't do a whole lot of learning without technology; we can. But the reality for my kids and yours is that they are going to be immersed in these spaces, potentially connecting and learning with two billion strangers, required to make sense of huge flows of information and creating and sharing their knowledge with the world. That is their reality; it wasn't ours. The NCTE knows it. Heck, even the Obama Administration's National Education Tech Plan spells it out in no uncertain terms. (I doubt Obama or Arne Duncan have read it.) Learning and literacy are absolutely shifting, and that means the roles of schools and teachers are going to have to shift as well.

So here are some questions that keep me up at night: How are we to make our students literate if we ourselves are not? If we cling to age old definitions and ignore the wisdom of one of the oldest professional education organizations we have in this country, how do we provide my kids with the experiences they need to fully understand what it means to be a self-directed, participatory learner in this century? How do we make sure that every child and every teacher has access to these tools and connections? And what do we do when the reform conversations are being led by a majority of folks who have no context for the changes that are happening every day in these connected spaces, folks that by NCTE's definition, may have some literacy issues themselves?

As parents or educators or both, we're all learners first and foremost. I hope we can further explore these types of questions around how learning changes in these spaces.

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