Tag: skills

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

I’d really appreciate it if you tagged anything related to this post or topic literacyconversation.  It will help me (and others) collate ideas and conversations. Thanks! 🙂

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.

Because of my studies and deep interest in this field, I was delighted to come across Ben Grey’s blog post entitled 21st Century Confusion, which he followed up with 21st Century Clarification. Ben’s an eloquent and nuanced writer, so I suggest you go and read what he has to say before continuing with this blog post. 😀

The above blog posts sparked a great conversation on Twitter, of which I was part. The hugely influential Will Richardson suggested, as we were getting a little frustrated with being limited to 140 characters, that we have a live session via Elluminate the following day. You can find a link to the archived session here.

My own thoughts about that skillset/mindset/ability range we’re trying to quantify and describe by using terms such as ‘digital’ or ’21st century’ literacy are still a little jumbled. I’ve read, and am continuing to read a lot on the subject (and related areas), notes on which you can find on my wiki.

For now, though, here’s some highlights:

1. Literacies as ‘umbrella terms’

Many of the literacies or ‘competencies’ that are being put forward are described in ways that suggest they incorporate other literacies. Take for instance, this definition of ‘information competence’ (Work Group…, 1995):

Information competence is the fusing or the integration of library literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, technological literacy, ethics, critical thinking, and communication skills.

And again (Doyle, 1994)

In the last decade a variety of “literacies” have been proposed, including cultural, computer, scientific, technical, global and mathematical. All of these literacies focus on a compartmentalized aspect of literacy. Information literacy, on the other hand, is an inclusive term. Through information literacy, the other literacies can be achieved (Breivik, 1991). In attaining information literacy, students gain proficiency in inquiry as they learn to interpret and use information (Kuhlthau, 1987).

Ryan Bretag’s post, The Great Literacy Debate, introduced me to a word to describe this that I hadn’t come across before – deictic. This means that ‘literacy’ tends to be used in a way heavily dependent upon context. I couldn’t agree more!

2. Literacies defined too broadly or narrowly

As referenced above, if a type of literacy being put forward by an individual is defined too broadly, it becomes an umbrella term and of little practical use. Initially, I liked Judi Epcke’s comment that she’d heard Jason Ohler define literacy as “consuming and producing the media forms of the day”. But this began to trouble me. Aren’t consuming and producing different skills? And if they’re skills, is ‘literacy’ involved?

But then, defined narrowly, it’s easy to come up with counter-examples. For instance, if we define 21st Century Literacy in relation to technology, it begs the question ‘does literacy in the 21st century relate to printed matter at all‘. The answer, of course, would have to be yes, it does.

3. Do we need new definitions?

I share the despair of Gunther Kress (2003, quoted in Eyman) when he sees new forms of ‘literacy’ popping up all over the place:

…literacy is the term to use when we make messages using letters as the means of recording that message….my approach leaves us with the problem of finding new terms for the uses of the different resources: not therefore “visual literacy” for the use of image; not “gestural literacy” for the use of gesture; and also not musical “literacy” or “soundtrack literacy” for the use of sound other than speech; and so on.

Semantics are important. Whilst we can’t keep using outdated words that link to conceptual anachronism (e.g. ‘horseless carriage’) we must be on our guard against supposed ‘literacies’ becoming more metaphorical than descriptive.

Concluding thoughts

One educator left the Elluminate discussion on 21st Century Literacies before had really got going. He mentioned that he was in favour of deeds rather than words. I can see what he means, although as I have already stated, semantics are important.

But there comes a point where one has to draw a line. In my thesis, I’m using a modified version of the Pragmatic method, as spelled out by William James (1995:82)thus,

To ‘agree‘ in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed… Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with either the reality or its belongings, that doesn’t entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality’s whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement/ It will hold true of that reality.

Thus names are just as ‘true’ or ‘false’ as definite mental pictures are. They set up similar verification-processes, and lead to fully equivalent practical results.

I’m looking for a definition that doesn’t ‘entangle my progress in frustration’. I’m yet to find it, but I’ll keep on looking! :-p

References:

  • Doyle, C.S. (1994) Information literacy in an information society: A Concept for the Information Age, DIANE Publishing
  • Eyman, D., Digital Literac(ies), Digital Discourses, and Communities of Practice: Literacy Practices in Virtual Environments (Cultural Practices of Literacy Study, Working Paper #12, no date)
  • James, W. Pragmatism (Dover Thrift Editions, 1995)
  • Work Group on Information Competence, Commission on Learning Resources and Instructional Technology (1995), quoted by Spitzer, K.L., et al. Information Literacy: essential skills for the information age, 1998, p.25


My Ed.D. thesis proposal: What does it mean to be ‘digitally literate’?

I submitted the second version of my Ed.D. thesis proposal a while back now. I had to re-submit as I failed the first submission. This was a bit of a shock to the system, never having failed anything academically before. It was actually partly my supervisor’s fault – who has now left the University of Durham and doesn’t have a doctorate himself… :p

I was advised to wait until I had the marks back for the thesis proposal before posting it on my blog. Upon reflection, I could see this was a sensible thing to do, so now I’ve heard back and I’ve passed I’m going to post it in its entirity. I received 63% for the following, which isn’t disastrous but less than I would have hoped for. Because it’s my second submission, however, the mark that’s recorded is 50%. At the end of the day, I’m not overly concerned: my Ed.D. overall is pass/fail… 🙂

The comments on the following were:

This is a solid proposal which provides a detailed reflection of the relevant literature in which the proposed study is to be grounded. Although covered in less detail than the literature section, the proposal provides an appropriate methodological base for the research. The proposal suggests a cross-cultural component and it is important in this context that similarities as well as ‘discrepancies’ are identified and that the study does not become unmanageable. In general this is a good solid proposal.

(emphasis mine)

The proposal itself follows after the ‘tag’ cloud that is indicative of its contents (courtesy of TweetClouds)

Read more →

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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