Digital literacy across the curriculum

It’s not about the tools and the testing, it’s about the learning and the thinking.

Digital literacy is an important entitlement for all young people in an increasingly digital culture.

Every school should have an organized policy for language across the curriculum…

Two documents, two eras. The first from FutureLab (UK) – a wonderful introduction to, and handbook for, digital technology and learning.

The second from the influential  UK government report – “A language for life” – the Bullock Report HMSO 1975.

I was a teacher in London when the Bullock Report was published – an orange-mustard colored compendium of review, research and government recommendations for schools. Word came down from on high that we were to develop a school-wide language policy.

Bullock gave the official push that launched the “language across the curriculum” (LAC) movement in the English speaking world.  In retrospect, it and the work it engendered are beacons of enlightenment.

It was, and is still, a movement with intellectual roots in a wide range of disciplines – psychology, anthropology, linguistics and philosophy.

These disciplines lent perspectives on learning as a set of complex and personal interactions by means of which the individual makes sense of the world.

But teachers were the real heart and origins of LAC. Secondary English teachers were the prime movers but soon teachers from all disciplines were involved.

They grappled with the issues of language, thought and learning and the implications for teaching, language assessment  and school.

James Britton’s Language and Learning was the influential founding text. It was followed by the groundbreaking research of Britton and his colleagues at the London University Institute of Education: The Development of Writing Abilities 11-18 (1975) and a focus on the role of talk in constructing understanding and making meaning.

With that intellectual framework and research in hand, teachers of all subjects saw the connections between language, thinking and learning. If talk and writing were heuristic – meaning that children used them to uncover meaning and make knowledge their own – then the implications were enormous.

Children’s language – writing and talk – was not something to be policed and corrected, taught and tested,  but an all-powerful intellectual tool for thinking and learning.

This was about language as a means of thinking. It placed learning at the center, not the teaching of  discrete skills and functions of writing. Correct use and mastery of certain language forms are not the goal; learning is the goal and language is the tool.

When the emphasis shifted to “writing the curriculum” – rather than the broader context of learning and thinking – the movement shrank in scope. And writing across the curriculum sometimes became grammar and spelling across the curriculum.

Talk and writing in math and science became opportunities for assigning word problems and essay tests rather than a means to understanding concepts. And  everyone got back into the act of being judge, jury and executioner of children s language.

LAC is essentially a set of principles focused on how children think and learn. It is not a set of teaching practices that lead to easily measurable language outcomes.

With the theoretical understanding in place it is left to actual practitioners i.e. teachers to create the environment within which learning and thinking can flourish.

So this is the personal context within which I read Digital Teaching across the Curriculum.

It doesn’t have Bullock’s heft and stamp of officialdom (My copy  cost £5 from the HMSO – it’s now available free online) It is not a government document and arrived free, weightless and digital.

It is however, a wonderfully helpful introduction to the world of digital media and education.

It begins with the cultural context and the why. And while it focuses on the learning not the tools it contains many useful starting points for professional discussion, training and development. There’s a really helpful digital literacy planning tool.

It is not prescriptive and does not pre-empt the role of the teacher in determining how to harness the technology in the service of what actually matters – learning.

It is teachers that are expert in their own school context, in the needs of their students and in the pedagogical techniques required to support learning.

This is a complicated area for schools and professional development. Many teachers feel fearful or inadequate in the face of rapidly shifting technology. But learners need their teachers. And they need their teachers to be learners.

The handbook does not shy from this issue and nor does it scold or become prescriptive. In fact, it includes important thinking on just why – for all their apparent confidence – the digital generation needs its teachers.

Rather – it begins with the context and makes suggestions for ways forward.

It starts – like the thinkers who gave us LAC – with the why, not the how and the what.

But read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

Let’s start with the why.  (Nicely captured in the graphic below.)  And let the rest follow from that.

Digital literacy is an important entitlement for all young people in an increasingly digital culture. It furnishes children and young people with the skills, knowledge and understanding that will help them to take a full and active part in social, cultural, economic, civic and intellectual life now and in the future.

from the introduction

Education systems need to help young people to understand and benefit from their engagement with digital technology and digital cultures. Fostering digital literacy in the classroom provides one way in which to make subject learning relevant to a society in which growing technology use is changing the way that both adults and children represent and communicate information and meaning and participate in cultural life.

Developing digital literacy in subjects of the curriculum is not about being fashionable or simply about trying to engage students in learning. It is about addressing the changing nature of subject knowledge and acknowledging that young people will need different kinds of skills, knowledge and understanding in order to develop their expertise in subjects. Developing digital literacy in subject teaching supports young people to be effective, competent, critical students of that subject in the digital age.

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