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Sunday / May 16

Modern Literacies: Helping Students Navigate Our Complex World  

Listen to Julie Stern discussing learning transfer on the Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast with Peter DeWitt:


This blog is part four of a series on learning transfer. For more on teaching for transfer, see this first post, this second post and this third post. 

What are you passionate about outside of the long-standing disciplines such as mathematics and science? What skills do you think our young people need to navigate today’s complex world?  

Whether you are excited to teach students about ethical reasoning, digital citizenship, or critical thinking, we’re united by our belief that traditional curriculum isn’t enough to prepare the students of today for the problems of tomorrow. Modern Literacies is our term for the countless programs, initiatives, philosophies, and pedagogies that all seek to bring in new ways of thinking, knowing, and doing into education. We chose the term literacies (in the plural) to call attention to the fact that, in addition to all important cognitive literacy, being a meaningful participant in modern social, civic, and professional life requires an increasing variety of social practices, tools, and technologies (Knobel & Lankshear, 2007; Gee, 2010).

Consider all of the different competencies that students need to navigate today’s complex world. The table below contains a list of a few common examples. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but simply a way to demonstrate examples of additional skill sets students need to live meaningful lives.   

Examples of Modern Literacies   

We want to capture the fact that, with the sun setting on the first quarter of the 21st century, and start looking forward, but also do better acknowledging how our past continues to shape our present and future. And, in that same spirit, consider how tomorrow might look different. What if we devoted time to studying ethics in schools today? Or anti-racism? Or systems thinking? Or ways all three bodies of knowledge can be used in conjunction with each other to create a more equitable society?  

Just as we can teach the most important concepts of mathematics, science, language arts, etc., through the Learning Transfer Mental Model — or ACT Model — we can teach the concepts embedded in these modern literacies. Practically everything in life can be viewed through this three step way of facilitating transfer. The figure below shows the model in simple terms.  

The ACT Model   

Let’s take, for instance, the important realm of digital literacy. We can break this down into concepts such as safety and privacy. Students must acquire and consolidate surface level learning with each of these important concepts. Next, they can start to see patterns emerge about the relationships between them as they explore situations in digital literacy, such as: How does privacy impact safety online? These connections will better allow them to transfer their understanding to new situations in their academic and personal lives.  Take a look at the table below which turns an ISTE standard into specific concepts.  

Once we’ve identified corresponding concepts, we want to use the ACT model to help students acquire, connect, and transfer understanding of those conceptual relationships. We can arrange them using these basic steps below to gain a picture of how the modern literacies can enhance our course.  

Thinking Prompt  

Step 1: Identify  

Write each of the major modern literacy initiatives or concepts you’ve identified as important on its own index card or sticky note.   

Step 2: Organize and connect  

Physically place your focus concepts in the center and arrange the other cards in relation to your focus concepts and to each other. Ask yourself:  

  • How do these fit together?  
  • Which concepts serve as gateways to others?  
  • Which concepts can be grouped together?  
  • What happens when I rearrange or reorder these ideas?  
  • How is everything related?  

Keep arranging until your web of concepts mirrors the infrastructure you hope to build in students’ brains as they investigate modern literacies throughout the year.  

Step 3: Put it into words  

Now, taking on the perspective of a student in your class, translate your web of concepts into prose. What do you hope students will say they have learned after investigating these concepts in your course? Use first person language. The following sentence frames might help you get started:  

  • Before taking this class, I had never really thought about ____ and ____ before, but after doing ___, ____, and ___ I now realize that ______.  
  • I used to think/believe _________, but now I think/believe _______ because _______.  
  • I am so grateful that my teacher pushed me to consider how _______ relates to _______, because now I understand that _________.  
  • Although I may forget much of what I learned this year, I will always remember that ___________.  
  • I wish everyone could take this class so they would also come to understand that _____ and _____ impact _____ by _______.  
  • I am now more prepared to _______ because I understand that _______.  

In order to prepare students to meet the demands of the 21st century, we need to teach beyond the traditional academic disciplines. The various initiatives – new competencies, new pedagogical tools, new conceptualizations of what it means to teach and learn – aimed at preparing students for the complexities of modern life can be united under the umbrella of modern literacies. Traditionally, schools and teachers have approached these initiatives as burdensome – and stress inducing! – add-ons to an already crowded curriculum, forcing teachers to juggle too many priorities and, in the end, execute all of them rather poorly.   

However, we think there’s another way. By more fully envisioning how modern literacies relate to the core of our disciplines, we can narrow our focus and anchor our courses in these important elements without having them feel extraneous. In fact, as long as we are teaching for transfer and guiding kids along the path from academic to real-world transfer, we will automatically be pulling in modern literacy goals, because that is what real-world transfer demands.   

For more strategies that will help you teach for transfer, check out Learning That Transfers by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo. 

Written by

Julie Stern is the best-selling author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary, Visible Learning for Social Studies, and Learning That Transfers. She is the thought leader behind the global workshop series Making Sense of Learning Transfer, and is a certified trainer in Visible Learning Plus. Her passion is synthesizing the best of education research into practical tools that support educators in breaking free of the industrial model of schooling and moving toward teaching and learning that promotes sustainability, equity, and well-being. She is a James Madison Constitutional Fellow and taught social studies for many years in Washington, DC and her native Louisiana. Julie moves internationally every few years with her husband, a US diplomat, and her two young sons. Her website is www.edtosavetheworld.com.   Krista Ferraro is a history teacher and department head at Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts. Her passions include civic education, social justice, and preparing students for effective global citizenship. Previously, she served as Deputy Director of Public Policy and Curriculum Innovation at Chavez Schools in Washington, DC, where she also taught history and public policy courses. Her published works include the bestselling Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Secondary. Krista holds bachelor’s degrees in American Studies and Spanish from Cornell University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from American University. She is also an alumna of Teach for America.   Kayla Duncan is a personalized instruction coach for Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Georgia. Her passion centers around empowering student voice through meaningful, authentic experiences and increased ownership. Kayla currently supports personalized learning schools in creating their new vision for education through the design thinking process. She believes the voices of students and the community should drive what happens in the school building. Before her coaching role, Kayla taught elementary physical education and middle grades mathematics. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from the University of Georgia, a Master of Arts in Mathematics Education from Western Governors University, and an Educational Specialist in Learning, Design, and Technology from the University of Georgia. Kayla is pursuing a Doctor of Education in School Improvement from the University of West Georgia and hopes to use this new knowledge to propel schools toward innovative visions for education. Kayla resides in Georgia with her husband, a fellow educator, and their fourteen-year-old dog Georgie   Trevor Aleo is a middle school English teacher in Wilton, Connecticut where he designs meaningful learning experiences while reading and writing alongside his students. Prior to his current position, he taught high school and was a grade level lead in Prince William County, Virginia. In addition to leading teams at his own school, he’s drafted curriculum at the district level, created instructional resources for the Virginia Department of Education, and presented at local, state, and national conferences. He believes education should help people become better sense makers and story tellers and is a passionate believer in pedagogies that align with those values. Growing up in a house of teachers, he developed a love of learning that continues to serve as the driving force behind all his work. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in Teaching from James Madison University and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Learning Design and Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Trevor currently resides in Fairfield, Connecticut with his amazing wife Lindsey and will be welcoming a son into the world somewhere around the release of this book.

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