Hunting the Tree Octopus

So it’s time for some important counterbalance!  I have been a major advocate in this blog in support of the “digital literacy” that students will need to be competitive in the 21st Century.  However, I can’t emphasize strongly enough that this must be a “both-and” situation, not “either-or.”  Digital literacy and other 21st Century skills will never replace more traditional educational practices.  This should be augmentation in most cases, and an adaptation in many others.  Collaborative grouping is not going to be an effective strategy without having some baseline knowledge in place to use as a springboard.  Certain basic concepts will always need to be taught in our schools through tried-and-true best practice.  Annie Murphy Paul throws the baby out with the bathwater here a little bit in her article for TIME, but her points are broadly valid:

Annie Murphy Paul on Why ‘Digital Literacy’ Can’t Replace The Traditional Kind.

Have you heard about the octopus who lives in a tree? In 2005, researchers at the University of Connecticut asked a group of seventh graders to read a website full of information about the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, or Octopus paxarbolis. The Web page described the creature’s mating rituals, preferred diet, and leafy habitat in precise detail. Applying an analytical model they’d learned, the students evaluated the trustworthiness of the site and the information it offered. Their judgment? The tree octopus was legit. All but one of the pupils rated the website as “very credible.” The headline of the university’s press release read, “Researchers Find Kids Need Better Online Academic Skills,” and it quoted Don Leu, professor of education at UConn and co-director of its New Literacies Research Lab, lamenting that classroom instruction in online reading is “woefully lacking.”

There’s something wrong with this picture, and it’s not just that the arboreal octopus is, of course, a fiction, presented by Leu and his colleagues to probe their subjects’ Internet savvy. The other fable here is the notion that what these kids need — what all our kids need — is to learn online skills in school. It would seem clear that what Leu’s seventh graders really require is knowledge: some basic familiarity with the biology of sea-dwelling creatures that would have tipped them off that the website was a whopper (say, when it explained that the tree octopus’s natural predator is the sasquatch). But that’s not how an increasingly powerful faction within education sees the matter. They are the champions of “new literacies” — or “21st century skills” or “digital literacy” or a number of other faddish-sounding concepts. In their view, skills trump knowledge, developing “literacies” is more important than learning mere content, and all facts are now Googleable and therefore unworthy of committing to memory.

For the record, here’s the fake website.  As I said, the criticism of those who go overboard on digital literacy is valid.  It would be wrong to completely pivot 180 degrees and ignore the beneficial aspects of our existing systems – and yes, there are many!  Anyone reading Annie Murphy Paul, however, who might want to engage in knee-jerk reactionary rejection of the new literacy would do our students just as great a disservice!

A balance will certainly have to be struck between old and new literacies that provides our students with all of the skills, knowledge, and abilities that they will need to achieve success.  How could any of us settle for anything less?

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2 Comments

Filed under Educational Technology, School Leadership

2 responses to “Hunting the Tree Octopus

  1. I agree- we do need to strike a balance. Leaving behind old systems that have worked for ages seems abrupt and unnecessary.

  2. There will always be a need for sound instruction based on traditional pedagogy. What will change is the delivery mechanism and the ways in which we empower our students to demonstrate the level of their achievement! Thanks for your insights!

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