What is 21st Century Literacy?


While traditional literacy and a liberal education are still important (Nussbaum, 1997; Delbanco, 2012; Ferrall, 2011), in the 21st century students need to know more and be able to do more than they did in the past.  Students need 21st century literacy.  This new literacy includes traditional literacy skills, such as reading, writing, and arguing.  But more importantly, it includes new literacy skills, such as critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and multi-cultural awareness (NCTE, 2008; Wagner, 2008; Grubb, 2003, p. 3; Sagan, 1996, p. 325). 

Like older forms of literacy, the new literacy requires both the "effective use" of language and "large amounts of specific information" about the world (Hirsch, 1988, pp. 2-3).  In addition to traditional literacy, students also need to learn about how knowledge is created, especially how the most reliable knowledge is made through scientific methods.  Science has become the primary tool of the 21st century knowledge economy; therefore, students should be exposed to all major scientific methodologies.  Students need an understanding of both qualitative (Cushman, Kintgen, Kroll, & Rose, 2001) and quantitative literacy (Paulos, 2001; Steen, 2001; Steen, 2004).  And while knowledge of most scientific methodology does require advanced mathematical literacy, students with only minimal mathematical knowledge can still be introduced to both qualitative and quantitative scientific methods through an understanding of key concepts, theories, and data (Wilson, 2013).  To fully understand scientific methodology, students need to know about the research university,  academic disciplines, and the specific work that scientists do within their disciplines.  Only then will students be able to concretely grasp how knowledge is created, debated, and refined through the scientific process. 


Handout:  Traditional Literacy & 21st Century Literacy


21st Century Literacy is more than just reading and writing.  It is knowing how to learn and know.  Utilizing scientific research on cognition and meta-cognition, students need to understand how the brain creates and uses subjective knowledge, and the different processes that create objective knowledge.  Students need to know how concepts work to define and categorize knowledge, and how concepts can be organized into conceptual frameworks that interconnect facts into larger fields of knowledge (Barber, 2012).  Students need to be able to understand concepts as tools, which can be used to solve real-world problems (Fish, 2011, p. 15, 29).  Most importantly, students need to recognize threshold concepts (Land, Meyer, & Smith, 2008), which enable new ways to see and know the world.  Two of the most important threshold concepts involve learning to see writing as two separate tools: It is both a tool for thinking and knowing, and it is a tool for communicating knowledge and persuading people to see the truth.  Students need to understand the theoretical purposes and the concrete practices of research, thinking, and writing.  Psychologists call this holistic understanding “meta-cognition,” which means "thinking-about-thinking" and "thinking-about-doing."  Such higher order thinking enables us to better understand ourselves ( both our strengths and limitations), which then enables us to know better and perform better (Dunn, Saville, Baker, & Marek, 2013).  Students need to be able to do, not just know (Wenger, 1999). 

This book will utilize these learning tools.  Threshold concepts will be explained as concrete writing and thinking practices, and these concepts will be interconnected into the following conceptual frameworks:  (1) The history of literacy, (2) How knowledge is created and how different forms of knowledge are used as tools to know, (3) and finally how knowledge is communicated through writing. These core concepts will be combined into a single concrete process, which is set within a specific social context.  This book is about constructing and debating knowledge in 21st Century multicultural societies.  This focus on process, rather than products, is based on the concept of social interaction through language as the fundamental basis for learning and knowledge creation (Vygotsky, 1981; Wertsch, 1991; Bakhtin 1981).

And as the specific social context of multiculturalism implies, 21st century literacy must also include political literacy (Gale, 1994; Gutmann, 1987; NTFCLDE, 2012).  Students need background knowledge and training to become engaged citizens capable of fostering the public good.  This important form of literacy will not be fully covered by this book, but the links between literacy, public schooling, democracy, and political freedom will be introduced and explained, especially in the first part of the book focused on the history of literacy. 

21st century literacy is a collection of many higher order skills.  Students need to be able to critically evaluate the reliability of diverse sources of knowledge in order to construct knowledge with scientific methods.  It also entails openly arguing with diverse groups of people in order to explain and prove the truth.  But we cannot forget that these 21st century skills are built on the foundation of traditional literacy: reading, writing, and basic mathematics.  Knowledge is the essential first step to good communication and effective action.  Truth has to be actively constructed by critical thinkers through meticulous and rigorous scientific methods.  And this truth needs to be effectively communicated to diverse audiences through arguments in order to direct collective action to solve real-world problems.



References & Further Reading

Arum, R., & Roska, J.  (2011).  Academically adrift: Limited learning on college campuses.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bakhtin, M. M.  (1981).  The dialogical imagination.  Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Barber, J. P.  (2012).  Integration of learning: A grounded theory analysis of college students' learning.  American Educational Research Journal 49(3): 590-617.

Bender, T., & Schorske, C. E.  (Eds.).  (1997).  American academic culture in transformation: Fifty years, four disciplines.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cole, J. R.  (2009).  The great American university: Its rise to preeminence, its indispensable national role, and why it must be protected.  New York: Public Affairs.

Crawford, M. B.  (2009).  Shop class as soulcraft: An inquiry into the value of work.  New York: Penguin.

Cushman, E., Kintgen, E. R., Kroll, B. M., & Rose, M. (Eds.).  (2001).  Literacy: A critical sourcebook.  New York: Bedford/St. Martin's.

Delbanco, A.  (2012).  College: What it was, is, and should be.  Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press.

Douglass, J. A., Thomson, G, & Zhao, C.M.  (2012, March 4) The holy grail of learning outcomes.  University World News Global Edition, 211.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from www.universityworldnews.com.

Dunn, D. S., Saville, B. K., Baker, S. C., & Marek, P.  ( 2013)  Evidence-based teaching: Tools and techniques that promote learning in the psychology classroom.  Australian Journal of Psychology 65: 5–13.

Ferrall Jr., V. E.  (2011). Liberal arts at the brink.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fish, S.  (2011).  How to write a sentence and how to read one.  New York: Harper.

Fish, S.  (1994).  Being interdisciplinary is so very hard to do.  In There's no such thing as free speech...and it's a good thing too (pp. 231-42).  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gale, F. G.  (1994).  Political literacy: Rhetoric, ideology, and the possibility of justice. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Graff, G., & Birkenstein, C.  (2006).  They say/I say: The moves that matter in academic writing.  New York: W.W. Norton.

Grubb, W. N.  (2003, June).  The roles of tertiary colleges and institutes: Trade-offs in restructuring postsecondary education.  Education and Training Policy Division, OECD.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from http://www.oecd.org/edu/ highereducationand adultlearning/35971977.pdf

Gutmann, A.  (1987).  Democratic education.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).  (2011, Feb).  Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century.

Haskell, T. L.  (1977).  The emergence of professional social science: The American social science association and the nineteenth-century crisis of authority.  Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Hirsch, Jr., E. D.  (1988).  Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know.  New York: Vintage Books.

Karantzas, G. C,  Avery, M. R., Macfarlane, S., Mussap, A., Tooley, G., Hazelwood, Z., & Fitness, J.  (2013). Enhancing critical analysis and problem-solving skills in undergraduate psychology: An evaluation of a collaborative learning and problem-based learning approach.  Australian Journal of Psychology 65: 38–45

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J., & Associates.  (2005).  Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Land, R., Meyer, J. & Smith, J.  (2009).  Threshold concepts within the disciplines.  Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Liu, L., Bridgeman, B., & Adler, R. M.  (2012).  Measuring learning outcomes in higher education: Motivation matters.  Educational Researcher, 41(9): 352-362.

Lucas, C. J.  (1994).  American higher education: A history.  New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

MacCulloch, D.  (2003).  The reformation: A history.  New York: Penguin.

Miller, J. E.  (2010).  Quantitative literacy across the curriculum: Integrating skills from English composition, mathematics, and the substantive disciplines.  The Educational Forum, 74(4): 334-346.

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).  (2008, Nov 19).  The NCTE definition of 21st century literacies.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/21stcentframework

National Science Board (NSB).  (2012).  Diminishing funding and rising expectations: Trends and challenges for public research universities.  National Science Foundation.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from http://www.nsf.gov/nsb.

National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (NTFCLDE). (2012). A crucible moment: College learning and democracy’s future. Washington, DC: Association of American Institutions of higher education.

Nowacek, R. S.  (2009, Feb).  Why is being interdisciplinary so very hard to do?  College Composition and Communication 60(3): 493-516.

Nussbaum, M. C.  (1997).  Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Paulos, J. A. (2001).  Innumeracy: Mathematical illiteracy and its consequences. New York: Hill and Wang.

Sagan, C.  (1996).  The demon-haunted world: Science as a candle in the dark.  New York: Random House.

Sennett, R.  (2008).  The craftsman.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Shenkman, R.  (2008).  Just how stupid are we? Facing the truth about the American voter.  New York: Basic Books.

Steen, L. A., ed. (2001). Mathematics and democracy: The case for quantitative literacy. Washington, DC: National Council on Education and the Disciplines.

Steen, L. A. (2004). Achieving quantitative literacy: An urgent challenge for higher education. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.

Steinmetz, G.  (Ed.).  (2005).  The politics of method in the human sciences: Positivism and its epistemological others.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Sztajn, P., Confrey, J., Wilson, P. H., & Edgington, C.  (2012, June/July).  Learning trajectory based instruction: Toward a theory of teaching.  Educational Researcher, 41(5): 147-156.

The college-cost calamity.  (2012, Aug 4).  The Economist.  Retrieved Dec. 3, 2012, from www.economist.com

Veysey, L. R.  (1965).  The emergence of the American university.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vygotsky, L. S.  (1981).  The genesis of higher mental functions.  In J. V. Wertsch (Ed.), The concept of activity in Soviet psychology (pp. 144-188).  Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Wagner, T.  (2008). The global achievement gap.  New York: Basic Books.

Wenger, E.  (1999).  Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wertsch, J. V.  (1991).  Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O.  (2013).  Great scientist ≠ good at math.  The Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved April 7, 2013 from www.wsj.com.


Additional Reading:

What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? (2013)



© J. M. Beach 2013, Revised 2016