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Literacy in the Digital Age | What does it mean to be literate?

Published:Friday | September 8, 2017 | 12:00 AM

To be literate can be defined as the ability to read, write, and understand in order to consume knowledge. An expanded definition requires the ability to think, identify, assess, interpret, create, communicate, and compute the information being received.

Literacy allows access, access gives way to knowledge, and knowledge is the gate holder for producing children who are critical consumers and producers of information in and outside the classroom.

In fact, children are requesting that their own output be recorded and distributed for all to see. They want access to social media - one may recognise that instead of, "Mommy look at me" it has now become "Mommy tape me". It has become a norm to take charge of their creativity and quest for knowledge.

Literacy in the digital age rests on the phenomenon of the scout vs soldier mentality. In short, a soldier carries out orders regardless of the facts presented, or the information as he knows it to be true. A scout, however, investigates in spite of the facts presented or the information as he knows or perceives it to be true.

Our instruction to children has to be such that entertains the concept of more than "one right answer/way". The world our children are growing up in is one that makes unanswered questions into global conglomerates.




As the years have passed, new terms are being added to the vocabulary. Little did we know 10 years back, but this is, for example, the age of disruptive economy.

Airbnb boasts of the largest number of rooms in its inventory across the world but does not own a single property and answered the question, "Why are hotel rooms so expensive and prohibitive to travel?"

Uber is the number-one taxi service in the world without having a single car in its inventory but answered the question, "Why are cab rides so expensive?"

In essence, we are training children for opportunities that have not been created for industries that do not yet exist.

By encouraging our children to be scouts, it enables them to distinguish factual information from 'fake news'. To identify that the information may be factual but the manner in which it is presented implies otherwise.

As a prime example, young women are constantly bombarded with images of beauty, what a great face, hair or body should look like. If you were to examine the promotion of miracle skinny teas you can see the problem of the soldier mentality first hand.

The concept is this: Take a beautiful model, posing with her bare midriff holding a cup of tea, which she says has kept her from bloating and her stomach flat as a pancake. If you drink the same brand of tea, you can achieve the same results, and to sweeten the deal, here is a discount code. Is this factual? Possibly.

What we know to be true is that the tea may indeed possess ingredients that help with bloating and the appearance of a flatter tummy. What is not said is that that particular model has forgotten to mention the plastic surgery she has had to sculpt her waist to its current state, and, therefore, her stomach was likely to remain flat whether she consumed a teaspoon or a gallon.

What does clever marketing have to do with literacy? There have always been 'miracle' weight-loss products and there will always be. Also factual, however, not less than 15 years ago, you could ban TV from your home and that would be it. Your child would be protected with little to no access.

Now, children are learning in tandem with technology - iPad in class, one-to-one Macbook programmes, Makerspaces' in schools, and their own personal devices. The parent is no longer 100 per cent in control. To not equip them to handle the access to information is to leave them a soldier.

To place it in context for you: it is estimated that a week's worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century.




Literacy is not just the ability to read and write. It allows for children to decode, to question, to inquire, and to be invested in their own learning.

Instead of asking your child, what did you learn today? Ask them, how do you feel about what you learnt? Do you believe it? Did any one in class disagree?

Engage children with the idea that they are not just recipients of information, but allow them to see their learning as interdisciplinary and collaborative.

Empower children to explore the subject(s) they are learning, whether it is fractions in a classroom or a real-world application when baking brownies. Contextualise their learning for them.

There is no danger in encouraging the counter-argument in learning. The markers between inquiry and insolence are wide. As facilitators, we should count this style of learning as a measure of intelligence, adaptability, and the creation of true literacy in the digital age.

- Article courtesy of the American International School of Kingston (AISK). AISK is a global centre for excellence and education. Send feedback to: