Essays

Modern Literacy

Are you literate?   Maybe you, like many people today, are offended when asked that question?  Of course I can read, do I look stupid?  I’m reading your insulting post right now, aren’t I?  While literacy once was taken to mean the ability to read (and write), in today’s world there is growing discussion of multiple literacies: digital, technology, computer, financial, social, political, and on and on.  The implication is that literacy has come to mean something more; something like the combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes that allow one to survive and thrive in our increasingly complex world.  One can certainly survive, for example, without knowing how to manipulate a smart phone, but many might challenge an assertion that one can thrive today without that knowledge and skill set.  As technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace and the world gets more and more complex, you feel challenged to keep up.  Indeed you might secretly feel you are slowly becoming illiterate, unable to thrive amidst the increasing complexity. Fear not: your salvation can be found in continued learning, and you don’t need to go back to school.  You can take charge of your own learning.  Indeed, you need to take charge of your own learning if you want to thrive.

One result of our education system is that we tend to conflate learning with teaching, schooling, education, and training.  It is related to all these things, indeed it is the reason for them, and it is not the same as any of them.  We don’t need teachers, schools, education systems, or trainers to learn.  Think back to your early learning experiences.  Did your parents tell you to swipe at that shiny object hanging just within reach as you lay on your back in your crib?  More likely, you were curious (although probably not conscious of being curious) and you simply took a random swipe at it as you exuberantly thrashed with your arms.  The shiny object moved, and it made a pleasant sound.  So you tried again.  Quickly you learned you could control something in your environment.  Of course, you might suggest you already instinctively knew that.  All you had to do was cry and a parent would come running to attend to you.  You were curious, you experimented, and you came to associate results with some of your activities.  You were learning to manipulate your environment.  No teachers, no classrooms, no books, no computers; just you, your curiosity, and your environment.  Informal learning.  Turns out much of our learning even into adulthood is informal.

Then somewhere around age 5, you started your formal education.  You entered school.  And this had good aspects and bad aspects.  The good aspects were that you didn’t have to figure out everything on your own.  You had a teacher and peers who could help guide your learning.  Someone once characterized this as “learn from the mistakes of others.  You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”  The bad aspects didn’t have to do with learning itself: they were the regimentation that was introduced to facilitate the process.   As a species, we had figured out how to significantly improve our standard of living by creating interchangeable widgets with standardized processes in factories—and we achieved significant efficiencies.  So we introduced that model into education: assume everyone wants to learn the same thing, they are starting at the same level of existing knowledge, and use a standardized process to move them in lock step to the next level.  Good theory.  In practice it never really worked very well for human beings because the assumptions just don’t hold water.

From that experience came several deep preconceptions we associate with learning: it occurs in a classroom.  It requires a teacher who knows the material, and indeed who determines what material I need to learn.  The teacher conveys the needed knowledge; my job is to absorb it and regurgitate it on the test.  And these concepts have become so deeply ingrained that we may even no longer challenge them.  But we must.  Learning is essential to maintain literacy, our ability to thrive in the world.  And no one can do it for us.  We have to take charge of our own learning.  So start now by asking yourself: what do I want to learn, why do I want to learn it, and how can I accomplish that.  You can do it.   We can help.

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