Re-Visioning Literacy Education


The core purpose of this book is to define the new 21st century literacy, explain its fundamental components, and introduce students to a basic research and writing process.  Institutions of higher education across the globe need to educate well-rounded and fully literate students ready to face the future.  But creating a coherent, interdisciplinary 21st century literacy across the university curriculum will not be easy.  While institutions of higher education teach 21st century knowledge and methods, they are still circumscribed by a mix of medieval and modern traditions (Lucas, 1994; Veysey, 1965). 

It is essential to recognize that the 21st century university curriculum is not coherently organized.  It was politically carved into overlapping and arbitrarily defined intellectual fiefdoms, what we call academic disciplines, most of which were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but some of which stem back to the middle ages (Bender & Schorske, 1997; Haskell, 1977; Steinmetz, 2005).  These traditional academic boundaries are guarded by restricted guilds, whose authority rests on the exclusive knowledge and the specialized skills found within the professional domains of these disciplines.  In order to create the institutional space for a 21st century literacy, it will be imperative to re-negotiate these institutional orthodoxies and redraw the boundaries of the college curriculum along interdisciplinary lines in order to rethink how knowledge should be defined and used in this rapidly changing world (Miller, 2010). 

While reforming the higher education curriculum is very important, it will be difficult to get beyond the traditions on which the university was built (Cole, 2009, pp. 494-95; Fish, 1994, p. 232; Nowacek, 2009).  However, various new forms of higher education around the world point to diverse ways of restructuring (Grubb, 2003).  Globally, a large and increasing percentage of students are attending non-university institutions of higher education, such as colleges, community colleges, polytechnics, and trade schools (Grubb, 2003, p. 8-9).  This book presents a coherent, interdisciplinary framework that represents just one possible way to rethink literacy to meet the diverse demands of higher education in the 21st century.

Re-visioning institutions of higher education is not the only obstacle to a 21st century literacy.  College students around the world are "academically adrift" (Arum & Roksa, 2011). In the United States in particular, young adults are frighteningly ignorant of the world around them (Shenkman, 2008, p. 27).  Many college graduates don’t have the skills needed to compete in the global labor market.  Thus, The U.S. has been "increasingly dependent on the flow of foreign talent" (Cole, 2009, p. 453) to remain economically competitive in this globalized world.  A recent longitudinal empirical study of American universities found that "individual and institutional interests and incentives are not closely aligned with a focus on undergraduate academic learning" (Arum & Roksa, 2011, p. 2).  Post-secondary students are spending less time on academic activities, especially studying, in part due to an institutional environment that does not expect much of students, nor challenge them to perform at high levels. 

While institutions of higher education acknowledge the importance of instituting 21st century literacy, many schools are not doing much about it (Arum & Roksa, 2011).  Nearly all professors and administrators praise critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, and writing, but "more as a matter of principle than practice" (p. 35; Karantzas, Avery, Macfarlane, Mussap, Tooley, Hazelwood, & Fitness, 2013).  Students are not getting the higher education they deserve – the education they need.  The cost of higher education in the United States has increased dramatically, but institutions of higher education have not "delivered extra value to match the extra costs...indeed, the average student is studying for fewer hours and learning less than in the past" ("The college-cost," 2012, p. 57). 

Many students are not learning much, and there is evidence that institutions of higher education are exacerbating social and economic inequality.  One study in the United States found that around 45 percent of university students had no statistically significant gains in core learning areas over the first two years in college (Arum & Roksa, 2011, p. 36), albeit the validity of these measurements are debated (Douglass, et. al., 2012; Liu, Bridgeman, & Adler, 2012), largely because it is not clear how seriously students take low-stakes assessment tests used by researchers to measure learning.  Based on one study (Arum & Roksa, 2011), not only did many students not learn much, but students with individual advantages, like high socio-economic status, demonstrate much more learning in college than less advantaged students (pp. 38-57). 

Thus, higher education seems to not only preserve academic inequalities, but also intensify them.  Arum and Roksa (2011) concluded: "We can expect higher-education experiences to contribute to - or even exacerbate, as opposed to eliminate - the observed patterns of social inequality" (p. 53).  Their report recommends that universities "transform student's curricular experiences" (p. 131) in order to promote a "culture of learning" (p. 127).  Institutions of higher education, especially the faculty, "need to take greater responsibility for shaping the developmental trajectories of students" (p. 127).  Such work begins and ends with individual professors and academic advisers, but must be enhanced and sustained by adequate institutional resources and support.

In Student Success in College: Creating Conditions that Matter, Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates (2005) researched effective educational practices found at innovative universities.  They found that effective education requires five basic components (p. 174):

                   (1) level of academic challenge

                   (2) active and collaborative learning

                   (3) student-faculty interaction

                   (4) supportive campus environment

                   (5) enriching educational experiences

Institutions of higher education need to more consciously design not only accurate, relevant and engaging curriculum, but instructional strategies, learning activities, and assessments also need to be more thoughtfully designed around the learning path of individual students (Sztajn, Confrey, Wilson, & Edginton, 2012).  Lectures based on a state-of-the-art curriculum are not enough to teach students how to read, write, and critically think. 

This book is one step towards the future of literacy education and innovative educational practice.  But it is merely a textbook, so it cannot dictate what actually happens in the classroom.  Globally, most institutions of higher education have failed to fully assess and reform the quality of teaching (Grubb, 2003).  Traditional methods of poor teaching is one of the most "persistent attacks" on these institutions (Grubb, 2003, p. 30).   Faculty need to realize that the "logic of the discipline" is very different from the "logic of the learner" (Sztajn, Confrey, Wilson, & Edginton, 2012, p. 147).  More must be done about teaching and learning in the specific context of college classrooms to meet the specific learning trajectories of individual students. 

Faculty need to structure teaching and learning activities that promote student engagement and active student learning experiences.  Faculty need to combine traditional theory with practical “craftsmanship” so that students can learn by doing (Sennett, 2008, p. 133).  Students need to become more proactive and engaged.  A curriculum focused on foundational concepts and skills must be combined with motivational teaching and active learning experiences, both in and outside of college classrooms (Kuh et. al., 2005).  This academic work necessarily involves going beyond traditional instructional practices of lecture and standardized tests.  Quality instructional strategies should include carefully planned course readings with reading comprehension activities, written reports and papers of varying length, and classroom activities that engage students actively in "analyzing, synthesizing, applying theories, and making judgments" (p. 177). 

Finally, faculty need to create conditions of "academic challenge" and "rigor" that will push students to engage with the curriculum more dynamically (Kuh et. al., 2005, p. 177).  As Kuh et. al. (2005) state near the end of their study, "simply offering various programs and services does not foster student success.  Programs and practices must be tailored to and resonate with the students they are intended to reach, be of reasonably high quality, and actually touch large numbers of students in a meaningful way [author's emphasis]" (p. 264).  This book seeks to help learners and instructors by offering a high quality, active, and meaningful approach to teaching literacy, which I believe is the foundation of all other higher order skills.  Unlike most other textbooks on the subject, this book embodies a pedagogy of “thinking as doing” by attending to both “knowing that” (information) and also “knowing how” (process) (Crawford, 2009, p. 161).

Instituting 21st century literacy will require restructuring the traditional university curriculum, and this book can play only a small part towards that end.  Students need to be exposed to a wide range of epistemological methods and disciplinary knowledge within an interdisciplinary framework grounded upon learning trajectory based instruction (Sztajn, Confrey, Wilson, & Edginton, 2012).  It will also require rethinking how to teach students to become active learners through self-directed problem solving and collaborative group work with diverse participants.  To ensure that these core skills are equally available to all students across the curriculum, there will also need to be an organizational mechanism to consult with faculty about 21st century literacy and to teach faculty about new teaching methods.  Some of this work is currently going on in special teaching and learning programs across the country. 

21st century universities will need a new emphasis on teaching and learning.  Institutions of higher education will need to develop, institute, monitor, and evaluate new curriculum and teaching methods across the university.  This is a tall order, especially in a time of diminished budgets.  21st century universities and colleges are in a tough spot.  They face "diminishing funding and rising expectations" (NSB, 2012, p. 1).  Instituting 21st century literacy in higher education will be a challenge, but I am confident that it can be accomplished.


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

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 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

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

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

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



© J. M. Beach 2013, Revised 2016