Critical Literacy and Social Action

larsonOne of the classes I enjoy teaching the most is Literacy Learning as Social Practice. A key reason is the final assignment. Students do a critical literacy project where they identify a social issue or problem they are interested in investigating, research that problem, and then develop a social action that addresses that problem. For critical literacy, the action taken is a crucial step. Finally, they connect what they do to practice. Students experience this process as learners so they can think deeply about how they can take these practices to their own classroom.

Several years ago, we developed a website to show all our projects ( The idea was to construct a space where like-minded teachers can go to find ideas about literacy activities that have authentic audiences and purposes. The projects are incredible. Students have examined graffiti, the needs of refugees, poverty, inequitable access to higher education, among many other projects. Each time the course is offered, the site is updated. Join us in changing the world!

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 3.16.49 PM

No Trophies in the Knowledge Economy

For far too long education reform has been tinkering in the margins and offering band-aid solutions that keep the patient alive, but little else.  Lawmakers have chased fads and bad policies that haven’t helped children thrive.  One can only do so much to keep the patient comfortable before calling the Priest. Our education system is on life support and it’s time for the last rites.

Educators, school leaders and most parents already know that schools are outdated, though few think of a system that is fundamentally flawed and irreparable.  But it is.  The current education system isn’t just and equitable.  Our pedagogical approaches – placing knowledge into empty heads and assuming learning has occurred – isn’t working.  Furthermore, what children are being taught isn’t helping them to lead a successful life.

Schools do not approach education from an equitable and just position.  Instead we approach education like a little league baseball team whose coach is hell-bent on winning.  We should not exclude students with disabilities from general education settings, but we do.  We should not be quick to banish minorities to special education classes, but we do.  Approaching school with the mindset that everyone can learn and deserves the opportunity to learn is fundamentally different than our system now – a high-risk system that favors fielding the best team.  The very foundation of our education system should not be chasing test scores and “winning.”  That’s a dangerous lesson for students and a disastrous byproduct for our country. 

A part of the ‘winning’ attitude comes with reliance on test scores.  If a teacher is measured based on the success or failure of test scores, teachers are going to ensure that students pass tests.  The problem is that those high-stakes tests don’t help students wrestle with tomorrow’s big questions.  Instead, we should replace these tests with ongoing authentic assessments that measure learning and development.

Education’s mission of yesterday was to teach people the skills required to fill a workforce.  In short, we were training widget makers for our consumer economy.  But an education that trains students to consume a product doesn’t meet the challenges required in contemporary society.  We need to engage a dynamic generation of sophisticated children in knowledge production.  New technologies and their resultant new practices have radically changed the way humans learn, interact and produce knowledge in contemporary times.  We need an education system and workforce that understands how schools can better harness those tools to encourage creative solutions. 

How do we do that?  First and foremost education policy needs to stop chasing trophies and test scores and instead go in a more holistic direction.  Some of the most successful countries in the world – with the test scores to prove it – shy away from what Pasi Sahlberg calls the “GERM” Global Educational Reform Movement.  High-stakes testing kills creativity in the classroom and shifts priorities away from learning how to solve real-world problems.  The curriculum should offer opportunities to build new ways of seeing the world rather than a simple transmission of predefined content and skills that are still rooted in assembly line curriculum ideology. 

A school’s curriculum should not be prescribed.  It must be arrived at collaboratively through curriculum instruction teams that include teachers, administrators, parents, students and community members.  Having a more equitable and just process for curriculum development means more individuals can help shape schools with projects that are relevant and meaningful to their communities. 

Much of this is to push teachers and students to become ‘produsers’ of knowledge, meaning that students and teachers care less about the consumption of knowledge and more about the creation of knowledge.  Doing this not only transforms communities, but it gets young minds focusing on problem solving and problem posing – not regurgitation of facts.  It’s the shift from children and youth as consumers to children and youth, teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders as ‘produsers’ of knowledge.  Learners would ‘produse’ knowledge from an early age and apply that knowledge in new ways to everyday tasks with real-world audiences. For example, one urban element

In the knowledge economy, information is free and moving rapidly.  The analytical is becoming antiquated – because Google had the answer 10 seconds ago.  What computers cannot do well is ask the questions.  And to get any conversation started requires a question.  We have sat on the sidelines for far too long and now we have to ask ourselves this question: will we work with or against the knowledge economy?  Batter up.  ary classroom in Rochester, N.Y. advocated for healthier food options at their school through a student-produced documentary film, called “Lunch is Gross,” for district administrators. The student-teacher collaborative project, which integrated math, science, social studies, and literacy learning into all aspects of the project, resulted in a change in the district’s food vendor.

What do we do when everyone comes?

by Joanne Larson

I have been doing some reading outside of education lately that has deeply informed my thinking about literacy in an information and communication economy. I have been working through some ideas about the consequences of what researchers are calling the most profound change in human communication since the invention of the printing press – the collaborative knowledge production made possible by internet technologies, particularly open source practices. What happens when we make the shift from a one-to-many form of communication and knowledge production to a many to many, collaborative process?

Two books I read recently have really pushed my thinking. Clay Shirky’s book, Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations, looks at what happens when people can organize (or lead or educate) without needing traditional organizational (or leadership or educational) structures. Axel Bruns discusses the concept of produsage in his book, Blogs, wikipedia, second life and beyond: From production to produsage. He argues that humans are experiencing a profound shift in how culture and knowledge are produced and circulated, moving from traditional production models, to a participatory process in which we (non-professionals or pro-ams) have shifted from consumers to produsers (producing and using the knowledge that is produced). In his discussion of citizen journalism and wikipedia, he describes a process he calls casual collapse, where traditional (one to many) knowledge producers (newspapers and encyclopedias, specifically) have not fully grasped the nature and extent of the transformation humanity is going through. It made me wonder what schools may have missed and whether they are also experiencing this casual collapse.

With the shift in communication (many to many) and the transformative potential of immediate social action (flash mobs), and considering the speed and level of these practices, I am wondering whether schools have completely missed the boat? What if it’s already too late? Schools are so busy transmitting static knowledge and putting increasingly severe boundaries around what is allowed that I fear irrelevance has already set in. Publishing is global and free, social action and political change is possible without formal organizations and infrastructures, knowledge and information are generated at lightening speed by everyone, and it’s clear schools haven’t paid attention. James Paul Gee makes the point that schools are bad for everyone, white kids just get A’s for it, and he argues they will be irrelevant if they don’t account for these ontological changes.

Some of these ideas connect well with social practice theories of literacy and sociocultural-historical theories of learning, but we need more thinking about this. Bruns’s concept of equipotentiality (the assumption that while the skills and abilities of all participants are not equal, they have an equal ability to make a worthy contribution to the project) reminds me of Rogoff’s concept of community of learners, Lave and Wenger’s concept of communities of practice, and Gee’s concept of affinity spaces. Maybe we can figure this out after all?