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In the OECD’s latest global Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, less than one in ten 15-year-olds across the industrialised world were able to distinguish between fact and opinion when cues were implicit. That’s up from 7% when PISA was first administered in 2000—but we now live in a totally different world.
Literacy in the 20th century was about extracting and processing pre-coded information; in the 21st, it is about constructing and validating knowledge. In the past, teachers could tell students to look up information in an encyclopaedia, and to rely on that information as accurate and true. Nowadays, Google presents them with millions of answers, and nobody tells them what’s right or wrong, true or not true. The more technology allows us to search and access knowledge, the more deep understanding and the capacity to navigate ambiguity, triangulate viewpoints and make sense out of content become important.
There is scarcity of attention, but an abundance of information. We are living in this digital bazaar where anything that is not built for the network age is cracking apart under its pressure.
The fact that advances in literacy skills have fallen sharply behind the evolution of the nature of information has profound consequences in a world where virality seems sometimes privileged over quality in the distribution of information. In the “post-truth” climate in which we now find ourselves, assertions that “feel right” but have no basis in fact become accepted as fact. Algorithms sort us into groups of like-minded individuals, creating social media echo chambers that amplify our views and leave us insulated from opposing arguments that may evolve our beliefs. These virtual bubbles homogenise opinions and polarise our societies; and they can have a significant—and adverse—impact on democratic processes. These algorithms are not a design flaw: they are how social media work. There is scarcity of attention, but an abundance of information. We are living in this digital bazaar where anything that is not built for the network age is cracking apart under its pressure.
This is the age of accelerations, a speeding-up of human experience through the compound impact of disruptive forces on every aspect of our lives. It is also a time of political contestation. The priority of the wider international community is to reconcile the needs and interests of individuals, communities and nations within an equitable framework based on open borders and markets and a sustainable future. But where disruption has brought a sense of dislocation, political forces emerge that are offering closed borders, the protection of traditional jobs and a promise to put the interests of today’s generation over those of the future. The fake news phenomenon can significantly amplify these forces.
This shows the need to strengthen the capacity of people to navigate the new world of information, and there are good examples for how schools can help. Students need to think for themselves, develop a strong sense of right and wrong, and gain a deep understanding of how others think and live whether as scientists or artists and across different cultures and traditions.
More on the Forum Network: Learning How to Learn: The future of education in a changing society by Marianne Sivertsen Næss, Member, Norwegian Parliament
From principal to politician: Marianne Sivertsen Næss share her views on how societal trends like COVID-19, technology and climate change shape the future of education.
The pandemic has increased both the urgency with which this must be addressed and the momentum among children, teachers and policymakers to pursue a new literacy for the digital world. If time and resources for teaching digital literacy were stretched before, they are even closer to breaking now. Teachers tackling hybrid formats of on-site and home-based teaching report being overwhelmed. Some are dropping out. Others struggle to engage children across differing levels of parental engagement and digital connectedness. When the news-literacy project Lie Detectors works to deploy journalists to classrooms these days, we often find teachers still furloughed, particularly if they teach anything other than core subjects.
Yet where the subject is given space, the interest of children—and, by extension, of teachers—is of an unusual intensity and focus. Disinformation in pre-pandemic times might have seemed to some school children and even teachers a remote and political concern with little relevance in the school yard and staff room. Today, the infodemic and the general unease and uncertainty it sows about basic scientific and health-related facts has captured the focus of children as young as 10—and kindled their desire for tools and solutions.
Being able to strike a balance between competing demands—equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, efficiency and democratic process—will all hinge on 21st-century literacy skills.
As international debate focuses on foreign internet trolls and conspiracy theorists, a moment is emerging to integrate a new digital literacy into learning and teaching in a way that guarantees its independence from partisan and commercial influence. To begin with, such an approach will have to be tested and the results measured as they emerge. In the medium term, “lateral” literacy—the act of stopping to look left and right before proceeding online, checking facts before basing opinions on them—must become integrated into school and teacher-training curricula, and rank in importance alongside basic literacies of reading and writing. Interrogating sources of information—Who wrote this? Who made this video? Is this a credible source, and does it even make sense? What are my biases?—belongs in all school and teacher training curricula. It has applications far beyond fake news and disinformation: it secures the act of making informed decisions and, with that, functioning democracies.
The growing complexity of modern living for individuals, communities and societies suggests that the solutions to our problems will be ever more complex. In a structurally imbalanced world, the imperative of reconciling diverse perspectives and interests, in local settings but with sometimes global implications, will require young people to become adept in handling tensions, dilemmas and trade-offs. Being able to strike a balance between competing demands—equity and freedom, autonomy and community, innovation and continuity, efficiency and democratic process—will all hinge on 21st-century literacy skills.
The good news is that the tools to develop these skills are ready. All around the world, they are being tried and tested by teachers who, rather than educate students for our past, have understood what it means to prepare them for their future.