It’s not too often I read something which makes me continually nod in agreement, but Peter Hannon’s marvellous Reflecting on Literacy in Education (2000) certainly had me doing that!
As regular readers will know, in my Ed.D. thesis I’m looking at the concept of ‘digital literacy’ – whether it (or something like it) ‘exists’ and the implications this may have. At one point Hannon’s book made me think he actually had all the answers but, like all great works, it left me with questions and inspired me to do more thinking and research.
Hannon has a very logical and coherent style, demonstrating a clear-headed and considered approach to his subject. I’m going to string together some of his quotations so you can get a feel for what he’s arguing. He begins by explaining that differences between printed and electronic text are very real and cannot be ignored:
David Reinking (1994) has suggested that there are four fundamental differences between printed and electronic texts. First, he points out that while it has often been suggested that readers interact with text in a metaphorical sense, in the case of electronic text this can be literally true, for example in the way readers can respond to some texts by switching to other texts via ‘hot links’. Second, it is possible for electronic texts to guide or restrict the reading path according to educational or other criteria, e.g. requiring re-reading of passages if comprehension questions are not answered correctly. Third, the structure of electronic text can be radically different in ‘hypertext’… Fourth, electronic texts often employ new symbolic elements – not just illustrations but video clips and other graphics, including next ‘navigation’ aids. One can argue about whether or not these features of electronic literacy are desirable but that they have arrived and that they represent a radical shift seems beyond argument. (p.22)
Whilst I think that at this stage he’s probably jumping the gun slightly to ascribe these different elements to literacy, I do think that pointing out these four differences is important. There are those, for example, who simply believe that electronic text is simply printed text in a different format.
From here, Hannon goes on discuss, as other writers have before and after him, how literacy is dependent upon technology:
The nature of literacy in a culture is repeatedly redefined as the result of technological changes. Throughout history the introduction of new materials (stone tablets, skins, papyrus, paper) and new mark making methods (scratching, chiselling, ink, the printing press, typewriters, ball-points, laser printers, and so on) has meant both new users and new uses for written language. The consequences of such changes can be very complex – not just in terms of more literacy but different literacy (Eisenstein, 1982). Technology begins by making it easier to do familar things; then it creates opportunities to do new things. Our literacy today is consequently very different from that of medieval England not just because the printing press is more efficient than having scribes copy manuscripts, but also because printing and other technologies have stimulated entirely new uses for written language (e.g. tax forms, novels, postcards, advertisements) unimagined by medieval society. If the past is any guide to the future, we should information technology to transform literacy rather than eradicate it. (p.22-3, my emphasis)
The point that new technologies create new literacies because they allow different methods of expression and communication I believe to be monumentally important. Such changes lead to different norms of behaviour and cultural practice. Hannon gives the example of how email has removed tedious barriers such as printing a letter, putting it in an envelope, posting it, waiting for a reply, and so on:
Eliminating these stages not only speeds up the process of writing letters but also, like earlier technological developments in literacy, changes the uses for written language. It encourages a casual, immediate style of communication and it becomes possible, for example, to sustain a research collaboration with people thousands of miles away. (p.24)
Writing in 2000, Hannon was able to set up somewhat of a ‘straw man’ – the opponent who claims that because everyone has not yet got a computer with Internet access, teaching such literacy skills are pointless. Hannon, in a move which would delight any enlightened reader of the edublogosphere and believer in ‘School 2.0’, writes:
All our literacy students will end up using written language tomorrow in ways very different from those we can teach them today. This applies… much more strongly to younger students and children who, if development proceeds in the next fifty years as it has in the past fifty, will use written language in ways which we cannot even imagine. What matters in this context is that we teach what is important about written language – those essentials which can be expected to endure in future contexts. These could include the ideas that the value of written language depends on what we want to do with it, that all texts can be read critically, that there are many genres, that literacy has a potential for liberation, that writing can aid thinking, that reading can be enjoyable, that public writing is for readers not writers, and so on.
This is almost a ‘meta-literacy’ – an ability to reflect upon literacy not as a state, but as a continual socio-cultural construct.
Hannon then turns his attention upon those who espouse, almost unthinkingly, a ‘unitary’ view of literacy. He gives examples, all of which assume that literacy is a skill, that there is an ‘it’ of literacy to which we can refer. Opposed to this, Hannon investigates the claims of thinkers who put forward a ‘pluralist’ view of literacy. He quotes Lankshear (1987:58):
There is no single, unitary referent for ‘literacy’. Literacy is not the name for a finite technology, set of skills, or any other ‘thing’. We should recognise, rather, that there are many specific literacies, each comprising an identifiable set of socially constructed practices based upon print and organised around beliefs about how the skills of reading and writing may or, perhaps, should be used. (p.32)
Hannon also quotes Gee (1996:46) who is concerned about the context of literacy:
[T]he traditional view of literacy as the ability to read and write rips literacy out of its sociocultural contexts and treats it as an asocial cognitive skill with little or nothing to do with human relationships. It cloaks literacy’s connections to power, to social identity, and to ideologies, often in the service of privileging certain types of literacies and certain types of people. (p.34)
But does the pluralist conception of literacy lead to problems. What type of literacy should be taught at school. If they are all so very different from one another, should we be calling them ‘literacies’ at all. Hannon brings in Wittgenstein’s famous difficulty (1953: sections 66,67) in defining what a ‘game’ is in support of the pluralist argument:
And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’ for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc.overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say ‘games’ form a family. (p.36)
Just as Wittgenstein found nothing concrete in common between the different activities we call ‘games’ – yet still found a way to put them into the same category – so Hannon wants to do with literacies. He imagines them being set out on a family tree, with some more closely related than others. It’s an interesting concept.
He then, however, goes and muddies the water somewhat and, for me, spoils his argument slightly, by stating that we don’t talk of ‘musics’ even though there are many and varied styles. He also reduces theorists’ conceptions of literacy into two broad camps. He believes that there are those who believe literacy to be a skill and come from a psychological point of view, and those who believe it to be a social practice, who come from a sociological background.
Hannon concludes the chapter by offering a rapprochement between the two by quoting with approval Delgado-Gaitan (1990:29):
The ability to interpret linguistic and graphic symbols associated with texts requires one type of ability. Literacy is a sociocultural process, and it follows that another literate ability has to do with the sociocultural knowledge and cognitive skills that are necessary for the child and the family to interpret text. (p.38).
When I first read this, I thought it was a somewhat of a cop-out, a way of sitting on the fence. However, if we unpick it slightly, we end up with:
1. To decode linguistic symbols is an ability.
2. To decode graphic symbols is an ability.
3. Literacy is dependent upon the ability to decode symbols using the technologies of a relevant culture and context..
Ergo = To decode symbols using technology is a literacy dependent upon sociocultural factors.
I’m still thinking about this. At the moment I’m thinking it’s akin to genius as it cuts through a lot of the problems in defining literacy. On the other hand, I’ve a nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that it may be using a lot of words to say something which maybe isn’t worth saying.