Monday, March 31, 2008

The Planet is Their Classroom; Are They Ready to Learn?

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. ~ Eric Hoffer

The Future is Upon Us

The world my grandson Aidan will inherit is not the world of my childhood. A few weeks ago, for example, I learned that seeds are now more important to our future than I could have ever imagined. Norway has decided to help the planet bounce back from disaster by establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on an island that lies in the Arctic Ocean only 620 miles from the North Pole.

The Seed Vault can store up to 2.25 billion seeds and exists to preserve the biodiversity of the planet. Over 100 countries are contributing seeds to the vault. This is truly an international effort aimed at research, food preservation, and hope in a time when the world is predicted to experience drastic global climate change over the next 100 years.

This is the world my grandchildren and our communities’ children will inherit. Are we equipped to prepare our students for it? Does the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and hundreds of stories like it have a place in our curriculum?

I virtually attended the February 26, 2008 opening ceremonies inside the vault and you can too. It really is a trip to the future. Coincidentally, February 26 was Aidan’s sixth birthday; he is a kindergartener looking forward to a life of learning. What skills or literacies does he need for the 21st Century?

21st Century Literacies

We are well on our way to answering that question. A Google search to define 21st Century Literacy turns up 246,000 hits. A perusal of the top ten sites reveals references to multimedia literacy, information literacy (three mentions), digital-age literacy, multicultural literacy, visual literacy, media literacy, computer literacy, technology literacy, and network literacy. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that technology is having a tremendous impact on the thinking about what students need to know for the future.

Mary Devaney Columbo in an article New Literacy Skills for the 21st Century discusses the work of the Internet Reading Group at Clemson University and the New Literacies Research Team at the University of Connecticut. They have identified five new literacy skills students need to acquire for online reading. In On the Road to New Literacies Nancy Gustafson and Grace Maley discuss how their school district is implementing the Framework for 21st Century Skills developed by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills. Both articles appear in the spring 2008 issue of MASCD's journal Perspectives.

Three more important sources for information on 21st Century Literacies are:
Toward A Definition of 21st Century Literacies

Recently the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) issued a statement they called Toward A Definition of 21st Century Literacies that summarizes a lot of what I have learned about this topic.

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to
  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose 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 multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments1
The digital universe where these literacies are evident is far removed from the world in which most parents, educators, researchers and politicians live. It is at best a foreign country and at worse the “dark side.” The language, behaviors, norms, tools, and learning environments, although at times virtual, are very real for those who use them; however, unless you experience them yourself, you will not be able to understand them or realize their importance for learning in the 21st Century. Perhaps if we acknowledge how difficult change is for us, we can overcome our resistance to the dramatic shift the digital world represents.
Resistance to Change

Frank Duffey in I Think, Therefore I Am Resistant to Change describes the psychological barrier we have to overcome if we are to understand these new literacies and transform education to prepare our children for their Svalbard-Global-Seed-Bank future.

Mental models resist change. People don't like to change what they think they know. Given new information to consider, individuals will search their existing mental models to ensure that the new information is consistent with what they know…. If the individual cannot link … new information to an existing mental model, he or she may … discard the information as irrelevant, unimportant, or wrong.2
Building Learning Communities

I was introduced to the digital world of learning at a conference in Massachusetts last summer, Building Learning Communities 2007, It was the first time in my life I sat in a conference room to hear a keynote address where every other person had a computer open on his or her lap, and most if not all of the laptops were connected to the Internet. What I was slow to realize then was that some of the computers were communicating with colleagues who for whatever reason could not be physically present in the room, but who were nonetheless present virtually via computer They could be any place on the planet with an Internet connection.

K12 Digital Instructional Development

I went on from that experience to learn more about the digital world of learning that is currently evolving and, I predict, will continue to do so for some time. In October 2007 I attended a free three-week online conference called K12 Online Conference 2007 that is archived on the Internet at and will be held again in October 2008. Mark it on your calendar! What I learned at the conference opened my eyes to teaching and learning environments that were virtually unknown to me. Since then, with the help of a few people I met online at the conference, I have developed an online network of teachers, administrators, technology specialists and librarians from across the United States and the planet. They have helped me experience and understand the potential importance of the National Council of Teachers of English defined 21st Century Literacies to education for the future. They are part of my virtual network, and I cannot thank them enough for all they are doing to prepare our profession for education in the future.

Collective Intelligences

The MIT Center for Collective Intelligences,, was recently established to answer one research question: How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before? For the sake of my grandson Aidan and all the children, I urge you to take the first step.Drop any resistance to the new literacies paradigm, commit yourself to learn more about it, and as you do, invite the colleagues from your professional learning community to join you on the journey I have begun into the digital universe our children will inherit. I am convinced, as MIT apparently is, that collectively we have an opportunity to pool intelligences globally in ways we cannot imagine today to answer the questions of tomorrow. We have to claim these opportunities and help our students to claim them. I suspect it may be the only way we will be able to live creatively and successfully in a world that could be very different from the one we are equipped to live in, a world that is rapidly disappearing.

1 Toward A Definition of 21st-Century Literacies, Adopted by the NCTE Executive Committee, February 15, 2008

2 I Think, Therefore I Am Resistant to Change. Francis M. Duffy. Journal of Staff Development, Winter 2003 (Vol. 24, No. 1). National Staff Development Council.

This article is in the Spring 2008 edition of Perspectives, MA Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

The two images come from Classroom and are used with permission of the site creator.


jenny said...

What a wonderful post Dennis. It seems that many of us are focusing on this fundamental question and the shift that needs to happen with our fellow educators to ensure that our students are well equpped for a networked world. You have articulated the shift that needs to happen very well - you've helped clarify some of my thinking.
Jenny Luca.

Carolyn Foote said...


This is a post I plan on sharing with leaders at our campus.

Thanks for collecting some excellent resources on 21st century literacies.

Last year, our campus set up a Vision committee to talk about what we needed to start doing to prepare for the graduate of 2020, and tried to outline the literacies they would need.

But as you indicate, identifying them is a step, but implementing the change is another challenge.

Thanks again.

Dennis Richards said...

Hi Jenny and Carolyn,

Thank you for your comments. I'm pleased you find the post useful.

You might be interested in this wiki page where I have collected a number of links to resources related to this post.

You'll find 21st Century Internet Literacies @ my innovation3 wiki:

SCMorgan said...

Dennis, I echo my thanks. I am presenting on this topic this weekend, and I am engaged in ongoing discussions about this with my faculty. Your thoughts and resources are valuable and timely.

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