In recent months I’ve been particularly intrigued by early literacy practices and how these are affected by ICTs, especially by some of our youngest learners. I’m the proud father of a six month old, and I’ve had the privilege of watching him interact with the signs, symbols and systems that make up the connections and communication systems in our household and community. My Wife and I are diligent in trying to use sign language to communicate with him to help him express himself…even as his speech only includes grunts, squeals, and cooing. At times we’ll watch television with him and pay attention to his facial expressions as he tries to mimic emotions he picks up from the broadcast. We’ll even watch the full spectrum of TV from baseball and football games…to Star Wars Clone Wars…to Baby Einstein. The sensory overload massaging his waiting brain and building the pathways he’ll use to continue his literate life.
Two days ago while sitting with him reading a book on my Nook Color, I realized that he did have a preference for certain stories, and even certain multimodal design styles over others (Sorry Richard Scarry…you were a favorite of mine…but not his). As I spend time with him and support his enculturation into our family and the role literacy plays in it, I wonder what this means as we raise a Digital Native.
Digital Natives was coined by Marc Prensky in 2001, and has been debated over the past decade. The term is the moniker for individuals of a certain age and having a greater predilection for the savvy use in the use of new and digital literacies. This term has been debated vigorously by esteemed colleagues of mine, which spawned a themed issue, and was accompanied by a PBS Frontline episode, a book linked to the episode…and countless other citations, retorts, and reviews. I have maintained in talks at PDs, workshops, and conferences that our students are “technologically savvy” but not “informationally savvy”. In looking at the evidence I’ve seen in classrooms I believe this to be true…but I don’t think we’re looking at all sides of the story.
Early in his career, my advisor Don Leu wrote a seminal piece, “Caity’s Question”, in which he examined the changing face of literacy as ICTs interact with our society. This was all brought about by discussions with his then four-year-old daughter Caity. I think in many ways I’m problematizing my own thinking about literacy, technology and how we address it with our students. In thinking about early literacy research, students build the roadmaps that will become their learning and literacy scaffolds that they will use their entire life. I can see parallels between the troubles we’ve had with the the fourth grade slump, and the inefficient critical thinking and tool use exhibited by our digital natives. I think as has happened in examining the fourth grade slump, in studies of New Literacies and digital natives…we need to go back.
I have no way of even beginning to imagine the digital or literate landscape that will embrace my son as he grows up. I even have no way of beginning to imagine the technology or literate culture that he will encounter as he enters school. I’ve worked in schools that have one-to-one laptop systems, and then the next day classrooms with one computer that may not even be online. Despite these inequalities, there is miraculous instruction that can happen, and is happening to prepare our digital natives for the future. In my own work, with the assistance of my colleague Greg McVerry we have begun to try and understand the dispositions, or habits of mind that are needed as students read online. This work will be expanded to later include the dispositions associated with online content construction as well. Currently we see these dispositions of reading online as reflective thinking, critical stance, collaboration, flexibility, and persistence. I think it is important to focus on building and understanding these in classroom instruction and pedagogy as we can’t begin to predict the literate or technological future our students will encounter. By having these (and other) dispositions, they will be well prepared for the landscape that they encounter. Additionally, as our schools run the gamut from buildings with one-to-one laptops to inadequate computer access, a focus on the dispositions or habits of mind that are needed as they build their literacy roadmaps prepares them for any eventuality.
As I play, learn, and communicate with my son, I am struck by how much he wants to learn and interact with the discourse systems and community of our family. At some point, this will gradually expand to a classroom in which I am sure his first teachers will continue this interaction and inspection of literacy, technology, and expression. In thinking about the future that he will live, read, and work in…I have to say that I am particularly envious. The work now comes as we prepare all of our students for the futures that they each will encounter.