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Literacies, Part Three – Literacies and Beyond

November 18, 2019

David Baume, PhD, SFSEDA, SFHEA

Fellow, University of London Centre for Distance Education

This is part of a series.

Higher levels of literacy

There is something I don’t like about literacy, literacies. Literacy sounds – well, a bit low-level for higher education.

I am not against literacy! I am delighted when children in the primary schools of which I am a governor show how they can read, write, listen, talk, select and use information, make sense, solve problems using reasoning and numbers …

But surely higher education should mean, should require, more than such (vital and to be celebrated) basics? Something – higher?

What would make literacies higher level, more degree-worthy? Perhaps:

  • The upper three levels of Bloom (Bloom, Kratwohl and Masia, 1974) – analysis, evaluation and synthesis?
  • The upper levels of Biggs SOLO taxonomy (Biggs, n.d.) – the abilities to bring together, synthesize, maybe compare and contrast, and then go beyond, increasing quantities of information and numbers of concepts?

Or, as QAA suggests (QAA, 2008, Part A,  4.15), abilities to:

  • … devise and sustain arguments, and/or to solve problems, using ideas and techniques, some of which are at the forefront of a discipline
  • … critically evaluate arguments, assumptions, abstract concepts and data (that may be incomplete)
  • … make judgements, and to frame appropriate questions to achieve a solution – or identify a range of solutions – to a problem
  • … communicate information, ideas, problems and solutions to both specialist and non-specialist audiences. and
  • An appreciation of the uncertainty, ambiguity and limits of knowledge.

There are lots of ideas here about where level in capabilities, literacies, lies. Key ideas may be that higher levels lie in:

  • Complexity (of capabilities);
  • The ability to communicate accurately, clearly and effectively;
  • Taking an active approach;
  • Taking a critical approach;
  • Explaining, justifying, reviewing, improving, going beyond; and
  • Explaining how and why ‘beyond’ is actually ‘beyond’, and not simply different, or more of the same, or just painted green.

Beyond literacies

I like the idea of literacies, capabilities, as goals for education, for learning.

But I don’t think capabilities alone are enough.

What’ s missing?

I suggest, at least three things.

1          Values and principles

Alongside literacies / capabilities, surely values and principles are also essential parts of academic, disciplinary, professional, practice and identity?

The ‘know, do, be’ hierarchy described in Post One on Literacies helps us here. Values and principles need not figure much in knowing, except as propositional knowledge; knowing what the values and principles are. Values and principles can be more prominent in what we do – they can inform what we do, and also how and why we do what we do. Indeed, if they don’t inform what we do and how we do it, they remain dead propositional knowledge. But values and principles are, surely, an inextricable part of our academic, professional, disciplinary, indeed our personal, identity?

Values and principles have long figured in professional qualifications for those who teach in higher education. (SEDA, n.d.) (, n.d.).

Values and principles in professional standards

The story of the origin of values and principles in professional standards for those who teach in higher education is not well known. The story may illustrate the rather abstract account of values and principles given above.

The core capabilities for teaching in higher education can perhaps be summarised as Plan; Teach and support learning; Assess and give feedback; Review the effectiveness of what we do; and Develop, continue to develop, as a teacher.

The account became more complex. I still like this simple version.

But where was equality of opportunity in this? Where was scholarship? Where was the collaboration that is an essential feature of effective teaching?

We tried adding these as capabilities – Practice equality of opportunity. Practice in a scholarly way. Collaborate.

But there was a problem. Equality of opportunity, scholarship, collaboration are different kinds of things than plan, teach, etc. You can’t meaningfully do them in isolation. You have to plan, teach etc. in ways that assure quality of opportunity. You have to be scholarly about planning, teaching, assessing and giving feedback, etc.

(Knowledge came into the standards later. I’m still not sure that knowledge helps in professional standards. Of course teachers need to know things, about education as well as about what they teach. But knowledge easily separates off from practice. Part of the argument of this whole series of posts on literacies is that knowledge lives in action (action here includes thinking ). Alone, static, knowledge can die.)

We weren’t sure whether equality of opportunity, scholarship, etc. were principles or values – we settled on values. But, crucially, they weren’t part of the same list as plan, teach etc. There were a second dimension.

We had to convert the original list of capabilities to a table. If plan, teach etc., were the rows of the table, then equality of opportunity , scholarship, etc were the columns. They had to permeate each of the rows, each of the capabilities. Plan, teach etc, are what you do.  Equality of opportunity, scholarship etc. talk about how you do them.

Just as knowledge without action can be dead, so actions without values or principles can be – well, value-less, unprincipled. And thereby incomplete.

2          Embedded capabilities

Let’s stay with doing and being. It is rarely enough to be able to do things. If the things are important enough, we also need to do them, as essential and continuing parts of our practice, indeed of our identity.

Literacies, capabilities, learning outcomes, are things that we can do. But, when we shift from doing to being, then they become things that we always do. They become, in a deliberate double negative, things that we cannot not do.

Capabilities have, on this account, now become things that we must do – again, critically, reflectively, embodying our values and principles, embedded in our practice.

3          Fluency

When we exercise these capabilities often enough; when they become part of our practice and of our identity; we become fluent in their practice, exhibiting a certain grace.

Fluency feels a good quality; as long as we remain critical and reflective about what we do and how we do it. We need to get beyond unconscious competence, and get to what I have called reflective competence (, 2004).


With the addition of values and principles; a commitment to embed these in our practice; and at least the aspiration to a certain fluency; we can render the idea of literacies more appropriate as an organising principle for teaching and learning higher education.

Next time – Locating and teaching literacies


Biggs, J. (n.d.). SOLO Taxonomy. [online] John Biggs. Available at:  [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

Bloom, B., Kratwohl, D. and Masia, B. (1974). Taxonomy of educational objectives. 1st ed. New York: David McKay. (2004). Conscious Competence Model – [online] Available at:  [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019]. Search on Baume

QAA. (2008). The framework for higher education qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland August 2008. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 29 Apr. 2017].

SEDA. (n.d.). Further guidance on the seda values for members. [online] Available at:  [Accessed 17 Nov. 2019].

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