Skip to content

Literacies, Part One

October 30, 2019

David Baume, Fellow, University of London Centre for Distance Education

New meanings of ‘literacy’

The meaning of ‘literacy’ seems to have expanded, while I wasn’t looking.

It used to mean something like:

‘Being able to read and write, maybe also listen and speak’.

Now literacy (sometimes, literacies) caries a much broader meaning, something like ‘being competent or capable’, at – pretty much anything.

So we have several (often overlapping) literacies – digital literacy, information literacy, library literacy, cultural literacy, academic literacies, research literacy, even numerical literacy – numeracy, surely? And perhaps others to come. Employability can be recast as careers literacy.

This isn’t a moan about the changing meanings of words. It isn’t a moan at all. It’s a reflection on a change, a change that goes off in several interesting directions. Let’s try to follow some of these changes, here and in subsequent posts.

Literacies considered as capabilities

Literacies, whatever else they are, are capabilities. They are things that people can do. People who are, in these various senses, literate, can – read, write, listen, speak, be academic, manage information, work with numbers, plan and manage a career …

I like this. I find it productive to consider learning as the gaining, the development, of capabilities.  (You will see a predilection for verbs over nouns throughout this article. Not to the exclusion of nouns. But, as a metaphor, sentences generally need both a noun and a verb, and some indication of how they relate. In education, learning outcomes generally need both nouns and verbs, and, again, some indication of how nouns and verbs relate.

Generally, “Students will be able to (verb) to, or with, about (noun).


Of course, I also value the acquisition of knowledge. We enjoy learning new things, and knowing things. But my inclination always is to value what we can do with and to and about knowledge, rather than simply the possession and recall of knowledge. Higher-level capabilities build on, test, analyze, draw connections between, and show the need for, items of knowledge. 

To emphasize: I am not against knowledge, against knowing. The more knowledge that we in some sense have; or that we can readily access, or of whose existence we know, or can reasonably surmise; then the more connections, relationships, we can suggest and make and test among these items of knowledge. (This previous sentence is intended to suggest a technology-aided increasingly porous boundary between what we know in our heads and what is increasingly readily accessible to us.)

And the number of these connections between items of knowledge, whatever form these items of knowledge take, rises exponentially in relation to the number of nodes, in this case the number of items of knowledge. This is an individual version of the network effect.

But knowledge, knowing, become increasingly problematic, certainly until we are clear about the status of what we know. And we often are not clear about this, certainly not explicit about the status of our knowledge, not always readily able to say how confident or provisional we are in our knowing, and why. And even when we are currently clear about the status of our knowledge, of our knowing, then some knowledge still becomes wrong and /or irrelevant, more and more rapidly. New knowledge is being created at an increasing rate, faster than we can know it. And old knowledge is becoming wrong or redundant faster than we can forget it.

Anyway, there is more to a satisfying and productive life than being good at answering quiz questions, fun though that can be. (See the extract from the LSE Magazine ca. 1968 below. I’m the one on the left. Summary: LSE won. Notice the epically sexist 1968 prizes. Men drink – hence, tankard. Women need help to remember who they are – hence, identity bracelet. Amazing.)

Knowing includes finding or making, and then testing and explaining and using, shapes, patterns, structures, explanations, out of bits, bricks, facts.

Knowing, doing, being

A useful hierarchy of goals for learning starts with knowing – knowing physics, social science, literature, any discipline.

It progresses to doing – again, doing physics, social science, literature, any discipline.

At the top of this hierarchy may lie being – being a physicist, a social scientist, a writer or critic or scholar of literature, any disciplinary or professional identity. (Not excluding our many other identities, personal, political, and as citizens of the world. If not of Europe. Sorry. No, not sorry, enraged.)

I do not offer this as a developmental sequence. I have reservations about developmental sequences, particularly if they are used to plan education. There is no necessary, let alone automatic, progression from knowing to doing to being. But the hierarchy may usefully describe extents or qualities of engagement with a discipline. I value being over (just) doing and knowing. I value doing over (just) knowing. Although of course I recognize that a piece of knowledge can prompt a question, an action, and even offer a glimpse of an identity.

This series of posts will suggest a shift in our balance of attention away from just knowledge and towards action and then identity. Not a rejection of knowledge; rather an increased caution about it, and, again, putting knowledge in its place.

Conclusion (for now)

So: I like literacies, because they shift attention from just knowing, and towards doing, and potentially towards being. Much more useful than just knowing.

David is working on information literacies, and on literacies more broadly, for the University of London Centre for Distance Education. 

Next time – Knowing and Action

From → Literacies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: