Monday, June 21, 2010

Rethinking Language and Learning

Please note: This post has been prepared for the 'The Learning Network' sponsored by Richard C. Owen Publishers to promote professional development. I will lead a discussion based on the post with TLN on the 29th June to 1st July. You can find out more about it and register HERE. Regular readers of the blog can also comment in the normal way.

Language and learning were frequently spoken of together in the 1970s, but today if you read many publications on language and literacy and consider major programs at literacy conferences, it is rare. Instead, you are more likely to hear literacy experts talk about multiliteracies, digital literacy or digital literacy across the curriculum.  I find this worrying. Why? Because the shift in terms reflects a loss of understanding that what schools do ultimately is to provide students with the necessary tools for learning and offer them varied opportunities to use them.  It also seriously underestimates the role of language in learning. The following quote from the report 'Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum' (published by Futurelab) will help to illustrate what I mean:
Digital literacy is the skills, knowledge and understanding that enables critical, creative, discerning and safe practices when engaging with digital technologies in all areas of life. Some people associate digital literacy simply with the functional skills of being able to use a computer or particular software package effectively.  But digital literacy is about much more than having access to or being able to use a computer. It’s about collaborating, staying safe and communicating effectively. It’s about cultural and social awareness and understanding, and it’s about being creative... (it's) about knowing when and why digital technologies are appropriate and helpful to the task at hand and when they are not.
While the sentiments expressed in relation to digital literacy are worthwhile, 'learning' isn't mentioned once. While learning is implied in the statement, technology is central, not learning and the quest for knowledge. The report speaks of "engaging with digital technologies" not learning. As well, when knowledge and understanding are mentioned, it is in relation to technology, not learning. And while the use of digital literacy for "tasks" and "communication" is noted, learning about the world is not the focus.

The same document represents 'digital literacy' diagrammatically as depicted below. Note that it is digital literacy that is represented centrally with all else supporting or related to it. Once again, 'learning' isn't mentioned, and while 'information' and 'communication' do appear, 'knowledge' does not.

The way the report positions digital literacy is even more surprising when you consider that one of the aims of 'Futurelab' is to transform teaching and learning, "...making it more relevant and engaging to 21st century learners through the use of innovative practice and technology."

We need to reposition learning at the centre of the curriculum, not as something that is peripheral, or a by product of skills instruction in any area (including digital literacy), but the very focus of our teaching.

Three Elders whose work can help us shift the focus

The above report should offer a warning of the need to avoid the 'tool' becoming the end or focus of learning. Instead, we need to keep in mind that keyboards and the Internet are simply the means for wider learning and the acquisition of, or construction of knowledge. While the UK report offers much insight into the use of the Internet and digital forms of literacy, it offers little about learning and how language and literacy in all their forms are essential for learning. It seems that many today have forgotten the wisdom of our elders. In the 1970s as a Curriculum Consultant I drew on the classic James Moffet work Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1968) that helpfully defined English as:
  • language (knowledge and manipulation of usage, vocabulary, structure, style),
  • in use (skill in reading, writing, listening, speaking),
  • in context (of literature, media, personal expression and everyday communication).
What Moffet's work did was to stress that language always has purpose, audience and modality and that it is always situated. There are skills to be learned but they serve something else - learning! 

In the 1970s Michael Halliday's timeless work Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language (1975) stressed that a quest for meaning is central as we:
  • learn language (we learn language as we interact with others and encounter our world),
  • learn through language (we use language to build up a picture of the world in which we live), and
  • learn about language (we understand the nature and functions of language).
One of the many useful insights from Halliday's work was his reminder that the meanings we express in and through language (“content”), cannot be separated from the words used to encode them. The artificial curriculum separation into English where language is taught, and subjects like science and maths where 'content' is taught, is unhelpful (even if practical and perhaps necessary up to a point). Halliday's work supported the instincts of many good teachers that integrated approaches and frequent varied opportunities for interaction are critical pathways to learning.

But it was Douglas Barnes in From Communication to Curriculum (1976) who pulled together language, learning and pedagogy. He stressed that it is learning that must always be at the centre of the curriculum.  He also reminded us that if language (including of course literacy) was defined narrowly as a means to transmit knowledge or information, then learning would become simply the replication of other people's knowledge and information.  Instead, he argued for what he called an 'Interpretation' model as opposed to a 'Transmission' model of teaching and learning. Each broad category (which he was quick to point out are somewhat idealised and never applied in pure forms), could be differentiated based on how the teacher viewed knowledge, what the teacher valued in the students, the way they viewed their role, and how student participation was evaluated.  An 'Interpretation' teacher:
  • believes that knowledge exists in the knower's ability to organise thought and action,
  • values the learner's commitment to interpreting reality,
  • perceives the teacher's task as setting up dialogue in which learners can reshape knowledge through interaction with others, and
  • perceives the learner as already possessing systematic and relevant knowledge and the means to reshape it.
Hence, Barnes argued for the establishment of classroom contexts that offered students opportunities to learn as they looked always for the relationship between new and existing knowledge. Language for Barnes was a vehicle for learning that required teachers to think carefully about how classrooms and teaching and learning activities were structured.

There isn't time to consider Vygotsky, Bruner, Briton, Rosen, Freire, Cazden, Bernstein, Cook-Gumperz, Harste, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Cambourne, Margaret Meek and others, but all have wisdom to offer on the relationship of learning to language and curriculum; perhaps in another post. Or perhaps via the TLN discussion.

Reflecting on the above

My recent post on handwriting (HERE) and this current post, both in their own way, pose a similar question: how can we maintain a right relationship between language and learning?  Crayons like keyboards are examples of technology (remember that technology can be defined as the use and knowledge of tools, techniques, crafts, systems or products) that can be used to learn and deepen our understanding and knowledge of many things. In my handwriting post I argued that we have neglected the use of a simple form of technology, failing to see its role as a tool for learning.  In this post, I warn against the dangers of a blindly embracing technology. It is important to understand the potential, limitations and dangers of all forms of technology.  Technology is good if used well; servants to learning and useful for life.

Some questions to ponder:
  • What does a curriculum look like that manages to locate learning at the centre of the literacy curriculum in elementary or primary schools?
  • What might a secondary school curriculum look like that doesn't artificially separate learning language, learning through language and learning about language?
  • How do we harness the richness of new media and digital literacy without shifting the focus from meaning and learning to simply the celebration and use of the tool?
  • What place do textual forms like narrative play in this age of new communication technology, media and digital literacy?
I look forward to hearing from members of the TLN network or from other regular readers of this blog. 

Related posts and references

The following posts are some of those on this blog that have some relevance to the topic of the current post.

'Handwriting: The servant of language, learning and development' (HERE)
'A search for meaning: The heart of literacy' (HERE)
'Children as bloggers' (HERE)
'Improving Comprehension: Sketch to Stretch' (HERE)
'Firsthand experience and literacy learning' (HERE)
'Making history come alive with literature' (HERE)
'Reading to learn: Using text sets' (HERE)
'Improving comprehension series' (HERE)
'The power of literature series' (HERE)
'Online reading is different' (HERE)

References cited above

Barnes, D. (1976). From communication to curriculum. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1975) Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward Arnold.
Moffett, J. (1968). Teaching the universe of discourse. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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