On the important differences between literacies, skills and competencies.

Literacies, skills and competencies

I’ve currently knee-deep in web literacies stuff for Mozilla.

Or should that be web skills?

Or perhaps web competencies?

It’s a complex, contested, and nuanced area. The differences between literacies, skills and competencies shouldn’t merely be glossed over and ignored. These differences are important.

Let me explain.

Literacies

Literacy is the ability to read and write. Traditionally, this has meant the ability to read and write using paper as the mediating technology. However, we now have many and varied technologies requiring us to ‘read’ and ‘write’ in different ways. As a result we need multiple literacies.

Because literacy depends upon context and particular mediating technologies there is, to my mind, no one literacy to ‘rule them all’. Literacy is a condition, not a threshold.

Skills

A skill is a controlled activity (such as a physical action) that an individual has learned to perform. There are general skills (often called transferable skills) as well as domain-specific skills.

Skills are subject to objective thresholds. So, for example, badges awarded by Scouting organisations signify the reaching of a pre-determined level of skill in a particular field.

Competencies

A competence is a collection of skills for a pre-defined purpose. Often the individual with the bundle of skills being observed or assessed has not defined the criteria by which he or she is deemed to be ‘competent’.

Competencies have the semblance of objectivity but are dependent upon subjective judgements by another human being (or beings) who observe knowledge, skills and behaviours.

Conclusion

The important point to make here is that whilst competencies can be seen as ‘bundles of skills’, literacies cannot. You cannot become literate merely through skill acquisition – there are meta-level processes also required. To be literate requires an awareness that you are, indeed, literate.

That sounds a little weird, but it makes sense if you think it through. You may be unexpectedly competent in a given situation (because you have disparate skills you have pulled together for the first time). But I’m yet to be convinced that you could be unexpectedly literate in a given situation.

And, finally, a skill is different to a literacy in the sense that the latter is always conditional. An individual is always literate for a purpose whereas a skill is not necessarily purpose-driven and can be well-defined and bounded.

Does this resonate with you?

 

Why the knowledge vs. skills debate in education is wrong-headed.

Gnome heads

Back when I was a lowly trainee teacher I engaged in a debate with someone high up in the local authority after a training session. They were arguing that ‘skills’ are all we need to teach young people. I argued (as a History teacher) that they didn’t know what they were talking about.

Now, however, I realise that we were both wrong.

This post by Oliver Quinlan about A.C. Grayling’s presentation at the recent Education Festival got me thinking. Especially this bit:

What we should be looking for is not the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of understanding. Many schools recognise that theory of knowledge and learning about learning are supportive of the rest of the curriculum. Grayling feels that this should be at the centre of the curriculum, not as an added extra.

And then yesterday, Tim Riches tweeted me the link to this post, pointing out how scary it is that the government are preventing people from talking about ‘skills’ in a curriculum review:

Among the wilder, though double-sourced by me, rumours I’ve heard about the curriculum review were that the word “skills” was banned from any documents by ministers, simply because they wanted to emphasise “knowledge”. While I am not going to get into the knowledge versus skills debate here, suffice it to say that most university prospectuses stress the importance of both.

But then I realised. What we should be developing in young people are capacities. Skills and knowledge flow from these.

It’s what employers look for when hiring people. It’s why we have phrases like “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” We recognise that certain people have greater capacities in certain areas than others.

I look forward to seeing an education system that promotes capacities.

(oh, and when we get there, we should award badges) 😉

Image CC BY-NC-SA amy_b

 

Digital literacy: a function of poor design?

You’ll notice that I haven’t written a blog post about the new Apple iPad. There’s two reasons for that. First of all I haven’t got one (yet), and the second is that what would I have to say that hasn’t already been said? The iPad has been included in almost every presentation I’ve seen over the last few months as an example of outstanding design. The tech community have marvelled at the fact that people – such as the very young and the very old – are able to use the device intuitively. People haven’t had to have training to do things they and others find useful.

There are many definitions of digital literacy, the subject of my Ed.D. thesis. As I have discussed before, almost all of them are ambiguous in one of seven ways. Some of them are ambiguous due to semantics, some due to scope, and some because of scale. And some, quite frankly, as a result of a combination of two or three of the above. Many definitions of digital literacy conflate skills with knowledge, wrapping it all up in a Prensky-esque assertion that it is almost the preserve of ‘digital natives’.

This, of course, is nonsense. There is no reason why the mere use of a digital tool should require a separate literacy or, indeed, anything over-and-above the basic skills that primary schools should (and do) teach. It’s my belief that poor usability and bad interface design can be mitigated by the learning of procedural skills early in life. This in the eyes of older people who can remember life before that technology is assumed to be some kind of meta-cognition and a higher level skill that it actually is.

My favourite example of this is the ‘digital camera’. You don’t hear people of school age using this term. It’s an anachronism. Who uses film cameras in nowadays other than enthusiasts? The concept of taking a picture and it immediately appearing on a screen isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, my son happily snapping away as a 2 year-old and learning to frame shots as a 3 year-old.

It’s all about dominant paradigms. If you grew up taking photographs in the send-your-film-away-to-get-prints era, it takes a conceptual shift to move to digital photography. All the while you’re looking for the ‘equivalent’ of something in the digital system from the film system. It doesn’t quite work like that. It’s functionally similar but qualitatively different.

So, to my mind, much – but by no means all – of what we refer to as digital literacy consists of procedural skills. And the learning of such skills can be aided a great deal through effective interface design. For the second time this week I’m going to recommend you look at Chris Messina’s work – this time his rather useful Flickr collection of web usability stuff.

Digital literacy is a concept past its sell-by date. As I argue in an upcoming journal article, it’s lost pretty much any sense of creative ambiguity it may have once had. It also makes little sense from a procedural skills point of view.

We just need to design better user interfaces and nudge people into making more informed decisions. Enough of this talk of ‘digital literacy’! :-p

Image CC BY raneko

 

The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies

As most people reading this will already know, I’m studying towards an Ed.D. at the moment. My (tentative) thesis title is What does it mean to be ‘educated’ and ‘digitally literate’? The impact of ICT and the knowledge society upon education in the 21st century.. You can find my thesis proposal here and bookmarks related to my studies here. My current thinking is that I’m just going to focus on the concept of what ‘literacy’ means in the 21st century as it’s a huge and confused (confusing?) field.

 

21st Century Skills: not just about ICT

Many educators who I talk to seem to be of the opinion that the only way the world is changing is that more ‘technology’ is being used. And that is usually conceived of as a passing fad, a bad thing, or something which will be forced upon them.

Computer chip?

However, I believe that the use of ICTs is actually just a subset of a wider change that is happening at the beginning of the 21st century. Knowledge, or at least our conception of it, or at least the conception of it by people that have influence, is changing. It is no longer something that resides in the heads of the great and the good, but something that is distributive. Knowledge, to use a metaphor, is not the nodes on the network, but the connections between those nodes. Wisdom comes through having a meta-view of the network and understanding how the nodes can and do interact.

A podcast to follow up on: Podcast 39 – The Vocabulary of 21st Century Learning by Wes Fryer

 
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