From the “I’m An Ex-English Teacher and I Can Make Up New Words Department:”
We have a huge focus in schools on literacy, and deservedly so. Almost no one argues that kids don’t need to be able to read and write and do basic math. We measure ourselves by literacy rates. We create rubrics and tests and other assessments and label kids as “good readers” or “bad writers” or “competent at math.” We put literacy at the center of our work.
We don’t do that so much for other subjects or skills. Sure, we dole out grades in science and history and French. But those aren’t skills focused as much as that literacy stuff. I mean, my kids didn’t get a grade on their skills as a scientist or as an historian. It was more about the content, the knowledge.
All that said, it’s debatable today that being able to read and write and do math in the most widely held sense gets us even close to being literate today. Reading is no longer linear or solely text based. Writing is no longer local or text based. Math is no longer computation based.
I’ve argued in the past that through a modern lens that encompasses all of the new genres of reading and writing and mathematics, most kids are illiterate when they graduate from school. Most adults who teach them are illiterate as well. Most people in general would be considered literate in the most modern sense of the word.
We seem not to like to talk about this, however.
Literacy, unlike most other things in school, is in flux. It’s evolving. Quickly. And that makes it hard to teach. If we think of literacy as something to “learn” and get a grade for, it signals that we think it’s static. That it’s a box to check and move on, when in reality, it’s a new box every day.
I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off focusing our efforts on helping kids become “learnerate.” As the word suggests, do they have the skills and dispositions to learn their way to whatever outcomes they desire? Are they curious? Are they persistent? Do they embrace nuance and not knowing? Are they reflective? Can they create and vet their own curriculum, find their own teachers, and assess their own progress? (Add your question below…)
None of those things happen because of explicit teaching. None of those things are easy to measure. They are dispositions that already exist in every child and skills that are nurtured and developed tacitly in the process of doing meaningful, important, beautiful work with others. You become learnerate by continually learning, not by being taught and measured by a test or a competency, but as manifested in the desire to learn more. (We’re not learning if we don’t want to learn more, btw.)
“Learneracy” is currently not our focus in schools. But it should be. Especially today when each of us has so much more agency over and access to the things we want to learn, whenever, wherever, and with whomever we want to learn it.
Robert Schuetz says
As is often the case, I agree with you Will.
“Learneracy” make so much sense. It’s a term that can replace a lot of the overused, or misunderstood, teacher-speak that’s out there. Plus, it establishes a focus, a relevance, for modern schools and modern learners. Put a hashtag in front of “learneracy” – your term needs to stick.
Will Richardson says
Thanks, as always, for reading, Robert. Kinda wild that no one has really used that term before…
The only thing that will help this argument is to give some examples from grades three through 12. What does this look like?
Will Richardson says
What does learning look like???
rob ackerman says
What does this type of learneracy look like for ….say…..an 11 year old?
“Can they create and vet their own curriculum, find their own teachers, and assess their own progress? “
Jason W says
Ive been using that term for the past few years! Love it and totally agree with your thoughts! #learneracy
Marianne Toftgaard says
Thoughts from Denmark:
I think we have to stop thinking, that teaching or learning is ever ‘containable’. You can’t say, okay, now I’ve learned that (well, obviously, you can, but you can’t say that you’ve learned all there is to learn).
Learning to me is getting to know how to ask better questions. There are always better questions to be asked. And that never finishes.
The question here is of course, how to teach this, and how to make the being_able_to_ask_questions_part as important as being able to find (and remember) answers. Remembering answers is so much easier to check.
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment, Marianne. I’m not sure this is something we teach or can teach as much as nurture and support. Kids are filled with questions. School should be about answering them. Instead, we make them answer ours.
Terry Elliott says
I get where your word is going, but doesn’t it run the same risk, eventually, that “literacy” does, making something legible that is inherently illegible? (Please read this post by Venkatesh Rao about the scholar James Scott’s use of legible-illegible distinction: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/).
You do note how this is not an easily defined term and for that I am grateful. I am also glad that you noted that we cannot likely teach passion, persistence, curiosity, and the whole affective catastrophe. Folks in the training community call this 70-20-10. Guess which aspect of learning in the workplace is the 10% (at best).
Could there be an uglier word than “learneracy”? I guess we are always trying to objectify the forces of complexity in order to make them more “do-able”. At least I have been guilty of that in my own teaching. Coining words is the equivalent of putting a handle on a skillet so that you can grab it and use it. We all do it. My argument is that we need to be careful what we lose by doing it.
I love your courage here as you struggle with the idea that “Most adults who teach them are illiterate as well. ” I feel that all the time and it’s not imposter syndrome. I believe that the consequences of your argument point to places most people will not or cannot go to. Keep on pointing just like the Zen folks do in the parable of ‘searching for the missing ox’. Just keep pointing.
I truly agree with your opinion that “Learneracy” should be in our focus nowadays. But don’t forget about the huge cheating problem with custom writing services help. For example http://pro-papers.com/ and many others similar agencies working on someone’s tasks every day.
Julia Black says
I like this idea and believe that we have to do something to get our children much more active in their learning process. The quote from Alvin Toffler resonates with me “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those cannot read or write but those that cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. I spent much of last year collaborating with a secondary school in the UK and I was shocked by how passive the students were by age 12, 13 and 14. In our environment which focused in on them learning through their passions they often didn’t know what they loved to do. So I agree if we can move away from focusing in on some very narrow skillsets and turn our focus to empowering students to be the learners they were born to be that would be a great start for any strategic shift in focus.
Juila Hart says
You become “learnerate” by continually learning, I truly agree with this one. Learning I think should not only be existing in school but also in the home. Not only we can learn through our parents or siblings but also while interacting with friends and colleagues. And most of all learning should not be only based on textbook. It can be also through communication and common curiosity.