Critical Literacy – a personal perspective

Like Ken I need to sort out where discussion is going to focus in this course and what type of literacy we will be talking about. Traditionally literacy has been thought of in terms of reading, writing, speaking and listening – at least this is in the UK where the National Curriculum for schools includes a ‘Literacy Hour’ – one hour every day of learning how to read, write, speak and listen (and all that entails). I remember when this was introduced to schools – force-fed literacy, according to a prescribed set of lesson plans- every day. Enough said!

However, this course is obviously about more than just reading, writing, speaking and listening – or I assume it is – as there is that word ‘critical’ in the course title. But what are we to be critical about and what are the critical skills we need?

Rita’s first question in Moodle give us a steer.

‘What do you perceive to be the critical literacies to be able to learn, work and play in a networked world and why?’

From my own ‘off the top of my head’ perspective (and trying to clarify my own current understanding, so that I can mark what I think at this point near the beginning of the course), here are my thoughts:

1. I obviously need some technical literacy or I won’t be able to take advantage of the networked world for learning work or play. If I wish, I can be very choosy, although I think it’s probably better to be connected to the internet and know how it works, than not. However, I haven’t felt the need to add, for example, Second Life to my list of literacies. So I need to be able to critically evaluate  which technologies I need and have a certain basic level of skill to learn how to use them.

2. Once I get into the networked world I find I am deluged with information. I have to be able to critically select what I need (from a range of media) – and once found I have to skim and scan (I have to be really good at this as there is so much information), understand, interpret, analyse and synthesise what I have selected – and come to some conclusion about whether it is useful to me.

3. Of course my information doesn’t just come from resources. The network’s richest resource is its people and this is where I have to apply what critical faculties I have to effective communication through first making appropriate connections and then through speaking, listening and writing. My ability to do this is heavily influenced by me as a person, my motives, attitudes and emotions – but critical skills also come into play in deciding who to connect with and which conversations to follow or not.  I think this involves some sort of critical awareness and acuity, and ability to use my past experience to inform my current and future practice.

4. Once the connection has been made I may have very limited visual and audio cues to assist me in developing the connection, so I have to be a good listener (hopefully an empathic one too). The ‘listening’ may be done through audio, but may equally be done through text. Critical listening involves ‘hearing’ beyond the words, and  understanding and accurately interpreting what is being ‘said’.

5. In responding to others, questioning is an important skill – to seek clarification, surface assumptions, elicit alternative perspectives and dig deeper. Robert Ennis (1962) suggested these 12 questions for critical analysis of an idea:

  • Is it meaningful?
  • Is it clear (as opposed to ambiguous)?
  • Is it consistent (as opposed to contradictory)?
  • Is it logical? (a conclusion will follow necessarily)
  • Is it precise (specific enough)?
  • Is it following a rule (does it apply a principle)?
  • Is is accurate (reliable)?
  • Is it justified (an inductive conclusion is warranted)?
  • Is it relevant (the problem has been identified)?
  • Is it taken for granted (an assumption)?
  • Is it well defined?
  • Is it true (whether a statement taken on authority is acceptable)?

Ennis, RH (1962) A concept of critical thinking. Vol. 32, No. 1,  pp. 83-111. Harvard Educational Review

These are the sorts of questions I need to ask, not just in conversation with others, but when interacting with any sort of information resource.

6. Following reading, listening and questioning, my response will often be written, but I have a whole host of technical tools which I could use for responding. The critical skill in writing is being able to compose a response which is articulate, which effectively communicates its intentions, which can be accurately interpreted and which demonstrates an ability to think critically (taking into account all the above).

7. In trying to read, write, speak and listen critically I need to try and  ‘think outside the box’. Jean Piaget sums this up nicely:

The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive and discoverers. The second goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify, and not accept everything they are offered.

This has always been the case, but learning in a networked world increases the need to be aware of the limitations of ‘group think’ and ‘echo chambers’.

8.  Finally, my own experience tells me that in this networked world I have to be even more able to reflect on my own learning, to constantly question my own attitudes, thoughts and behaviours – and to be as ‘open’ as I can – for someone who always comes out of those tests as an introvert :-).

These are my current thoughts about what critical literacy means for me on the basis of my past experience and current practice.

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