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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Deeper Learning: Defining Twenty-First Century Literacy

Only a decade and a few years in, how can we fully describe the twenty-first century learner? So far, this we do know: She is a problem solver, critical thinker, and an effective collaborator and communicator. We also know that a deeper learning environment is required in order to nurture and grow such a learner.

Watch a high school student talk about developing 21st-century skills through deeper learning.

How about that last characteristic of a 21st-century learner, effective communicator? Being literate means one who is advanced at reading, writing, speaking, and listening. And, in all schools -- deeper learning driven or not -- literacy is a curriculum fundamental. Its importance President Obama explained in a speech a few years back:

"[L]iteracy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy we're living in today. Only a few generations ago, it was okay to enter the workforce as a high school dropout who could only read at a third-grade level. Whether it was on a farm or in a factory, you could still hope to find a job that would allow you to pay the bills and raise your family."

In today's world, being literate requires much, much more than the traditional literacy of yesterday. According to the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), twenty-first century readers and writers need to:

  • Gain proficiency with tools of technology
  • Develop relationships with others and confront and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

In the Classroom

When it comes to effective communicator, we can no longer consider college and career ready as simply sending students out as good readers and writers. As the definition of literacy evolves in our world, so does the charge of schools in helping students work towards and gain mastery of the skills and abilities NCTE has outlined above. Let's take a look at some of those:

Gain proficiency with tools of technology. The greatest tech tool of all? The Internet. It undoubtedly gives access to an unending wealth of information and has revolutionized our lives. I remember years ago trying to fix my lawnmower. I went to three public libraries trying to find a lawnmower manual that was close enough to my machine to be useful. Now? Go to YouTube and someone will take you step-by-step through repairing or making just about anything and everything.

But for all the amazing, valuable stuff on the Web, there's loads of misinformation, half-truths, and misquoted, useless stuff. In preparing children to be literate in today's world, it's urgent that we teach the skill of scoping websites with a critical eye. Kids need to be explicitly trained in spotting everything from blatant pseudo-facts to slightly questionable content. This ability to "filter" will be required of them in both university and work.

Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts and manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information. The term multimedia, which means using more than one medium of expression or creation to communicate, encompasses a great deal more than it did 10, or even five years ago. To convey their deeper learning of a new concept, I remember having students include with their written analysis a printed graph, chart or image, and later, I required they add some audio or video element or links from websites. Now, students are creating websites as the task itself. A flat, inanimate thing like a written report or essay -- or a book or newspaper, for that matter -- is no longer the paradigm of communication.

Communication today is like a living thing, morphing continuously -- a hybrid of script, interactive, audio, and moving images. What does this mean for teachers and students? Schools need to be preparing students to masterfully navigate, judge, and create this type of sophisticated communication -- and do so quickly and efficiently.

What's Next?

It's true that, through deeper learning, many teachers and schools are already guiding students into this new century well-equipped to think critically on their feet, problem solve, and communicate effectively. But as we enter our thirteenth year, we need to stay mindful that the definition for 21st century learner -- and literacy -- will continue to change.

Deeper Learning Blog Series

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