The Privileging of Text Literacy in Education Must Stop and a Media-Agnostic Approach Embraced
Since the development of writing we have gradually privileged text literacy above other forms of communication. Even oratory, one of the pillars of Greek civilisation, has been subsumed in the march of text literacy above all else. In education we put so much emphasis on text literacy that children who have difficulty with text are labelled disabled and moved off into special education programs, suggesting that there is something wrong with them that needs to be fixed. Aside from humanitarian principles, the march of technology has made this fixation on text untenable.
The word literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. It seems that once we developed writing, probably in multiple places over a long period of time, writing set out to overthrow the importance of other forms of communication and transmission of ideas. It makes sense, writing is amazing and powerful.
Pre-writing we lived in oral tradition societies. The oral transmission of knowledge requires an immediate presence. It is intimate and personal. Even when a speaker is addressing a large crowd a good orator can draw you in, seduce you, make you feel that they are talking directly to you.
Oral traditions are inherently fluid. Due to the fallibility of human memory, the story changes and is embellished over time. Even memory systems, such as the Memory Palace, do not ensure an exact word for word reproduction.
The fluidity of oral transmission is perfect for big concepts, broad brush strokes and things like parables. You can’t treat it as the ‘gospel truth’ and argue of the meaning of a single word as you can with written constructions.
The Takeover of Text
Written text, on the other hand, is set in stone, as it were. It allows knowledge to be remembered and transmitted without a person present. It has an impersonal quality to it by this very fact.
Don’t get me wrong, a good writer can be as seductive as a good orator, drawing you into the world they present on paper. It is a different medium and so has different rules. But it still allows the artifice of a personal connection, even though the author and the reader may be separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.
The written text allows for a more fixed and set view of human knowledge. Because the words are set on paper, parchment or stone, they need never change. They can be argued over indefinitely and over the interpretation of a single word.
The Issues of Text
I would argue that the fixed nature of written text represents a fundamental rigidity that cannot be there in oral traditions. The rigidity of the text leads to a rigidity and inflexibility of thinking if one is not very careful.
The fact that the three religions of the book, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, rely on and are based on written texts has, I believe, led to so many ills and so much suffering in the world. But that’s a topic for another article.
But the ills of the emphasis on text goes beyond this. As I’ve covered elsewhere, we label children who struggle with text as disabled and have limited their access to advanced education as a result. With up to 20% of people having dyslexia by some estimates, this is amazingly wasteful as well as being discriminatory. As I said in that article, “A child being unable to learn to read at the ‘normal’ rate is only an issue in a literate society”. Perhaps I should have said that a child being unable to learn to read at the ‘normal’ rate is only an issue in an unbalanced society that unreasonably privileges text literacy.
The March of Technology
Written text is a technology. It is a technology of representation and communication. Before it we had the technology of speech and the technology of painting, drawing and sculpting, which we can learn.
Our technology has provided us with the photograph, the movie, the video, the audio recording and is starting to make the technologies of VR and AR mainstream. All these form alternatives to text as a media of choice.
But these technologies are also changing our relationship with old ones. The domination of text in our interaction with computers is changing. The rise and growing popularity of voice interfaces to talk to Siri, Alexa or Google Home is having implications for the design of websites and how they are found through voice search.
We talk to computers and have them transcribe our words into text. This is now quite common in certain professions, used by people struggling with repetitive strain injury (RSI) and is used by some with dyslexia or another disability. We have computers read back to us. Audio books are becoming very popular for the convenience of leaving our hands and eyes free to do other things. We learn and entertain ourselves by streaming shows onto many devices.
Putting Text in Its Place
Given all of the above, perhaps it is time that we lower the prominence of text and put it into its correct place as one of many forms of media.
There are significant implications of this for education. We know that individuals differ in their preferences for media. In my household if we have to acquire new knowledge I will reach for a book or a podcast, my wife will look for someone to talk to and our daughter will look for a video on YouTube.
The challenge for education is how to help people to explore all the forms of media that exist (and the new ones that will come) without being constrained to text unreasonably.
Firstly it means we have to introduce all the media forms and allow students to experiment and play in them equally. That does not mean we have a whole unit of English that focuses on the written word and another unit called Art that we lump everything else into. This division of ‘domains of knowledge’ is not helpful. Likewise it does not mean that those who do ‘art’ subjects at the end of high school have their results in them reduced in importance for university entry, as currently shamefully happens in Australia.
Treating the different media equally in education, while privileging none, requires a complete rethink of how we structure learning.
Some things could be easy, like allowing students to submit a report as text, as a video, as an event or happening, as a performance, as a speech, as a drawing or as a VR performance. I say could be, but it requires a major adjustment by the educators. Many educators prefer marking on paper and have little or no experience of marking digitally. Not everywhere has a suitable technology base to support the submission of media-based assignments. This means a widespread rollout of technology and training for educators. This also applies in workplace training and assessment.
Some aspects of media-agnostic teaching is obviously hard. How do we teach the use of the different technologies of media without allowing one to dominate? How do we provide exposure and sufficient training without making people who struggle with that media feel stupid? I don’t have the answers to these questions in full yet. But I am at least working on them and incorporating them into the edtech startup I cofounded, where this is an active topic of experimentation and a key part of our rollout.
A key part of a solution to the above issue is appropriate scaffolding. Firstly educators will need to start demonstrating this media-agnosticism in their own output, since learners often model their teachers. Teaching should embrace a rich diversity of media, at least some of which has been produced by the educator themselves to ensure true familiarity. Just-in-time learning resources should be available to students and they need to be introduced to it early and frequently.
I would like to see students from quite early experiencing the production of work in different media to address the same ‘topic’ so that they start early to feel the differences between media and finding their own sweet spots. This could be in primary school telling the same story in writing, Claymation animation and audio, for example. By high school the same approach could have students producing a science report as a poster, video and written report.
It is important is the ‘post-assignment’ reflection and discussion that space is made to cover the media used, discoveries of strengths and weaknesses, and such.
A Call to Action
My call to those who read this is to consider the above questions and how you can answer them in your own life. Also consider the following questions:
What are my preferences of media and why?
Are there inherent limitations in any forms of media that are not there in other forms?
If so, are there ways we could expand the more limited media to overcome those limitations?
What is the impact of combining multiple media representations on an audience?
I look forward to continuing this discussion in whatever forms of media you care to comment in and that Medium can cope with.