Critical Literacy and Good Work in Scotland
In Scotland, our new Curriculum for Excellence is intended to enable all young people to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors to society. Initial guidelines for Literacy and English appeared in 2008, claiming that “the important skills of critical literacy” were being foregrounded in the new curriculum. Although critical literacy is a contested term, and definitions vary, I understand the two main elements of critical literacy to be deconstruction and reconstruction. David Wray (2006) makes this point succinctly, stating that “critical literacy is about transforming taken-for-granted social and language practices or assumptions for the good of as many people as possible.” I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of critical literacy, which creates exciting possibilities for discussing what it means to be a responsible citizen of the world, in both online and offline communities. Yet our problem in Scotland is this: as the government has issued more information to teachers, the “critical” element of critical literacy has been shifted to one side, and we now have “information and critical literacy” appearing. Issues of social justice are missing from the “official” constructions (for example, click here). But how can we have responsible citizens, participating in online and offline communities, who are not taught to think ethically and critically about the messages they encounter and to act to change what they think is unfair or unjust?
I don’t mean to suggest that critical literacy for social justice isn’t happening in Scotland. Many educators here are committed to these issues, and I was fortunate to meet some of them as part of my doctoral research. I have spent much of my time these past few years thinking about critical literacy, wondering why it has been deflated, or sidelined, in Scotland. One theory I have is that people might be afraid of the implications of a critical education which encourages and promotes challenge, critique, and action for transformation. Maybe it is lack of understanding about what “critical” really means in educational terms. I have wondered if we might be better talking about “literacy for responsible citizenship?” Is there more clarity in using that term? Is it less daunting, less intimidating? Other educational systems do not seem to have trouble using and understanding critical literacy, and changing terminology would bring Scotland out of alignment with them.
As Paulo Freire explained it, critical pedagogies enable “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” I am hopeful that the use of The GoodWork Toolkit here will create spaces for reflection, discussion and action. Many teachers in the United Kingdom believe that there is an urgent and widespread need for the development of digital fluency or critical literacy skills that will enable children to evaluate the information they encounter online. They have also identified the need for support in understanding how to teach critical digital skills (Bartlett and Miller, 2011). As part of my doctoral research, I interviewed teachers and librarians who similarly identified a lack of resources to help them understand how to teach critical skills. Participants spoke of the difficulties faced by children with handling the volume of information they find online and of the need for them to know how to help children deal with it, in order to prevent them from being manipulated or taken advantage of. The fact that they identified a dearth of resources to help them teach critical, evaluative skills, particularly as they relate to digital practices, highlights the need for such resources to be disseminated more widely. This is why materials such as The GoodWork Toolkit have such potential and value for educators. I have recommended its use to practitioners (in the online safety materials or here). Further, as part of a talk I gave at a recent conference workshop on the importance of critical skills in preparing children to use the internet safely, I informed conference delegates about GoodWork principles, and how to find the toolkit. At that workshop, while I was speaking with a group of multi-agency professionals about how we can prepare children and young people to become responsible digital citizens, it was clear that there is a real appetite to know more about how we can help foster ethical and critical thinking skills. I look forward to using the Toolkit to open up discussions about ethics, rights, and responsibilities, and reporting back on these experiences. It is, I believe, one key way to do good work as teachers, and to find how we can guide and support children in doing good work when they participate in communities, online and offline.
Bartlett, J. and Miller, C. (2011) Truth, Lies and the Internet: A report into young people’s digital fluency. London: Demos.
Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury.