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What Does it Mean to Be A 21st Century Literate ?

Following the emails I got from some of you on the video I posted here the other day in an article entitled " What Teachers Need to Know about The 21st Century Literacy " I decided to write an expository kind of a post in which I shed more light on what it really means to be a 21st century literate. I hope you will bear with me and read the whole article.







Watching the video above " has triggered my intellectual curiosity and pushed me to dig deeper into what it really means to be a 21st century literate.

First off, literacy is a word whose meaning is transient. We hear and use it almost every day yet we seem to be stumped each time we are asked to define it. People differ on what literacy means to them and is very hard to find a unified definition as is evident in the video. Each of the educators interviewed provided a totally different meaning to literacy. I personally believe that to give literacy a shape and define it in such a way that it becomes intelligibly active within our linguistic repertoire entails that we situate it within a given context and for the purposes of this paper I would cover it from a historical perspective.





The notion of literacy is strictly connected and intertwined with the notion of time. The latter has even become a defining element in the explanation of the earlier. This very notion of time is clearly evident in the main question of the video, we are talking here about the 21 st century literacy and not any other literacy. To understand this literacy, however,  we need to delve deep into its history and see what meanings it used to have  and whether  these meanings are still the same or there is something new to it in the 21 st cenutry which would require us to redefine it.

Probing into the historical intricacies of literacy is analogous to embarking on a journey into the realm of knowledge.It is not a journey with no risks for lines are blurred ,notions overlap and perspectives grew increasingly in perplexity every time we get closer to the nucleus of literacy. 

Literacy accompanied Mankind during its evolutionary process. From the time of nomadic tribes , literacy was associated with the ability to utter fathomable words that can communicate a message. This communicative ability was detrimental to the lives of tribes as they depended on ' literate people' to coordinate  and organize their life.

The invention of calendars ( 10.000 years ago ) marked a remarkable breakthrough in the nomadic lifestyle of these tribes. It introduced them to a system of symbols and codes that helped them improve their ability to plant seasonal crops and eventually turned them into civilizations with sophisticated governments. For these newly civilized people, literacy meant not only being able to communicate using a spoken language but also being able to read symbols and interpret them correctly.




As Sunmerians and then the Egyptians started using glyphs to express the value of their currency around 6.000 years ago, there emerged a standard alphabet system consisted mainly of carving symbols into stone tablets. This new sophisticated system helped Egyptians take on massive engineering tasks, build new modes of transportation, and acquire vast power across an empire. With this new transformation, the meaning of literacy developed to acquire new added features. A literate now was someone who could scribe and carve symbols .

But before I go on with this chronology of literacy it is worth pausing here for a bit to think back about one of the definitions in the video that really caught my attention. One of the teachers interviewed gave a general definition of literacy which clicks in with what we said until now about it. He said " Literacy is being able to understand and read the world as opposed to text ". This, I believe, what literacy was all about before the introduction of written text. From the start of language to the invention of carvings and symbols, literacy could be summarized in one single statement " a way of making sense of the outer world and moving from chaos to order ". But did this definition stay static or did it evolve and expand ? Well. the second part of the chronology will probably have an answer.

Later, another era in communication began with the creation of the first form of mass media: Gutenberg's movable type, fitted to a printing press, which enabled writing to be produced as books with no scribes. This invention marked a transformational change in the way human knowledge was produced, gathered, and disseminated. Literacy ( now identified with reading and writing text ) spread along with printing setting the stage for the Renaissance, the flowering of artistic, scientific, cultural, religious, and social growth that swept across Europe. Next came the revival and spread of democracy.

The latest transformational change dates back to three decades ago, when the personal computer and then internet converged to throw us into the digital age. Anyone with internet connection has access to much if not all of the knowledge that came before.Today, smarphones are pocket-libraries, printing presses, cameras, radios, televisions and all in the palm of one's hand. Welcome to digital literacy.





Literacy, as we have seen through this short chronological account, has evolved, developed, expanded and matured through different periods of time. What is worth noting here is that during the maturation process of literacy, new meanings were built upon their antecedents, adding to them but never replacing them. And as the chronology stopped momentarily in the 21st century, then the ultimate " temporary " definition of literacy would , by implication, include all the first basic notions that were initially identified with it such as : reading, writing, communicating, and now 'digitizing'. With digitization comes a whole set of new features that could be added to the meaning of literacy including: collaboration, social networking, connecting, critical thinking, creative thinking, ...ect.

As a teacher keen on improving his teaching practices, I would highly underscore the digital component in today' literacy. Our students are digital natives who were born into a world technologically focused and to deprive them of this technology in their learning would be impairing their 21st century literacy. As John Dewy once said " If we teach today's students as we taught yesterdays, we rob them of tomorrow."


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  1. An interesting piece Med. Have you read any Mcluhan? Gutenberg Galaxy is a good place to start.

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