Literacy and pedagogical routines in the 21st century digital classroom

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This article is based on a number of theoretical and epistemological assumptions about literacies, new technologies and schooling in the 21st Century.


First, following the work of the New Literacy Studies (Street, 2005) literacy practices are assumed to be social practices that are always active and interactive and occur within particular social and cultural contexts. For more than 20 years, there has been significant and detailed research outlining the differences between the literacy practices of young people in their homes and outside lives, and those literacy practices valued and normalised in schools. There is a seemingly inevitable and wide gap between the literacy practices engaged with in a variety of homes and cultural and social contexts, and those practised in schools. There seems to be little purpose or reason for governments of any political persuasion with any kind of ideological approach to the purposes of schooling to enforce any kind of standardised and regimented approaches to literacy education including the use of national testing and reporting standards or the regulation of scientific evidence based teaching approaches unless there is serious and purposeful attention paid to the bridging of this gap.


Second, new technologies have now infiltrated all corners of our post-capitalist and globalised, 21st Century lives. Most people living in post-industrialized centres engage with texts via screens whether that screen is provided on a television, mobile phone, game console, or a computer. As well, despite the binaries supported, argued about, and discussed in many arenas, between countries with poor and excellent bandwidth, students with no computers at home and those with their own laptops, the young digital natives and the older generation immigrants, there is increasing evidence that these new binary constructs are artificially produced and easy to disrupt. Three research anecdotes from my own experiences begin this disruption. One research participant in the remote region of the East Sepik Province in Papua New Guinea is communicating with the research team in Port Moresby via mobile phone text messages. During focus group interviews students at schools in low socioeconomic areas of Brisbane, Queensland all claimed at least one computer in their homes, all owned game consoles, and most owned their own mobile phones. In the last two studies focusing on the use of digital texts in classrooms (Honan, 2008, 2009) there was no difference in usage, approaches, or pedagogical styles between teachers under or over the age of 30, while my undergraduate classes in 2009 included at least two young women who complained to me about my focus on integration of new technologies because of their lack of knowledge of computers. It seems to be most likely that our young students are engaging with literacies outside of schools via screens of all kinds (even these young women were using the screens on their mobile phones constantly). The digital divide dichotomy may however describe the differences between these digital literacy practices and those used inside classrooms as the gap increases between the kinds of technologies used (mobile phones versus desktop computers) and the kinds of texts engaged with when using these technologies (social networking sites versus word processing documents).


Third, as globalization changes the economies of the world, and as new technologies change the communications of the world, it is possible that the purposes of schooling must also change. Certainly it seems to be unfeasible that the ideals of the Enlightenment that led to the development of formal schools and the construction of the ideal humanist child who would develop into the industrial worker of the 18 th and 19th Century could be still those required in the 21st Century. Arguments about the use of particular texts including the retention of the canonical works of Shakespeare that are regurgitated within English teachers professional journals as well as in the daily press especially during the current Australian discussions about the new National Curriculum are illustrations of the unresolved tensions between traditional and postmodern purposes for schooling. Traditional arguments for the purposes of school seem to centre on the importance of young people learning the discourses of schooling including reading print texts, writing narratives, and studying and rehearsing the routines and procedures for examinations and standardized tests while a more postmodern understanding would emphasise the importance of equipping students with the skills, capabilities and dispositions required for informed and critical participation in contemporary societies.


Illustrations of the intersections between these three sets of ideas, about literacies, new technologies and the purposes of schooling in the 21st Century, can be found in many arenas of our daily lives, especially if we engage with young people on any kind of social level outside of school. For example, the 17 year old daughter of one friend draws comics and writes journal entries and posts both on her own website that she designs and maintains, as well as providing links to the entries on her Facebook page. Another link in her virtual world is the YouTube channel she has set up to broadcast her comedic routines ( In the section of her webpage About Us, Isobella writes, All comics on this site are done by Isobella, who was always told off in school for doodling while she should have been doing something school-related. Now that her oddness is being released on the internet in cartoon format, all that procrastination suddenly makes sense. Kathleen Yancey (2004, p. 298) comments insightfully on the tectonic change to writing practices illustrated here by Izzies use of literacies, and points out that: Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside. Never before have the technologies of writing contributed so quickly to the creation of new genres. Yancey also notes that current schooling and assessment practices are still print and paper based but are being directed at: Students who write words on paper, yes but who also compose words and images and create audio files on Web logs (blogs), in word processors, with video editors and Web editors and in e-mail and on presentation software and in instant messaging and on listservs and on bulletin boards and no doubt in whatever genre will emerge in the next ten minutes


These three sets of ideas about literacies, new technologies and the purposes of schooling have informed the analysis of a set of data collected in 2008 in Queensland, Australia, around the use of digital texts in classrooms. The analyses discussed in this paper focus on the pedagogical practices of the four teachers involved in the study, as it is here in the praxis of the classroom that the realisation of these ideas occur. Aims and focus of the study The impact of socioeconomic status on the use of digital literacies in schools was funded by the auDA Foundation in 2008 (au Domain Administration Ltd is the policy authority and industry self-regulatory body for the .au domain space). The aims of the study were to investigate teachers valuing of students knowledge of digital literacy practices in low and middle-SES (socioeconomic status) schools and to examine the differences and similarities in low and middle SES schools uses of digital literacies and how they relate these to academic literacies (see Honan, 2009). The strategies employed were to: Identify and compare the digital literacies (including their functions, applications and specific practices) used by students in low and middle SES schools; Examine teachers attitudes to the digital literacy skills and knowledge of students in low and middle SES schools; Identify the impact of students socioeconomic status on teachers understandings about the relationship between digital literacies and conventional academic literacies.


Four primary schools in Brisbane, Queensland participated, two schools located in low socioeconomic communities (named here as Hill and Valley) and two located in high to middle socioeconomic communities (named here as River and Mountain). I met with school principals and the teachers who expressed an interest in the study, and provided them with both verbal and written information about the projects aims. I explained that my use of the term digital texts referred to any kind of text designed to be read or produced on a screen, and those screens could be on a computer, a hand-held game, a gaming console, a digital camera, and so on. One Year 7 teacher from each school agreed that I could observe five literacy sessions in her class (Year 7 is the last year of primary school in Queensland). All teachers who agreed to participate were female. I am especially interested in the daily practices of primary school teachers, teachers doing business as usual, rather than investigating the exemplary, unusual or special. In my initial discussions with teachers and school principals I therefore emphasised that I wanted to capture their regular practices using digital texts, and that I did not expect them to plan anything new or different to cater for my presence. The classroom observations were videotaped using a small, lightweight, hand-held digital camera that allowed me to roam around the classrooms zooming in on particular students or activities. The focus of the observations was the use of digital technologies in literacy lessons, and so, wherever possible, I captured the work students were doing using these technologies. All the interactions observed involved students using a computer. At the completion of the series of five observations, I interviewed the classroom teachers and a focus group of five to six students. I audiotaped these interviews that focused on discussions about the context of the lessons observed, as well as teachers and students understandings of the connections between their home use of digital technologies and the observed practices in the classroom.


A Deleuzean philosophical framework applied within educational research contexts (Semetsky, 2004) has been used to develop the methodology for this study. Following Deleuze and Guattaris explanations of rhizomatics (1987), a rhizotextual analysis (Honan 2007) treats discourses as intersecting and overlapping, rather than linear or operating in planes. Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, social sciences, and social struggles (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 7).


For those of you who dont know Deleuze, he was a French philosopher, died in 1995, Guattari also he died in 1992, most famous for the two books they wrote together. A lot of their work is pretty difficult to read but if you are interested then i would urge you to at least read the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus. i should also point out that a lot of people think they are quite madFoucault famously said that the 20th C was deleuzian usually interpreted as a joke between colleagues but i think if either Foucault or Deleuze had lived to see the 21st C they would agree that this prediction was accurate although premature. The linguistic complexities of language learning in Finland, the permeation of global trends interpreted in local contexts, the rhizomatic of the internet, the impossibility of viewing politics, the economy, or education in simplistic binary terms, are all examples of the deleuzian nature of the 21 st C.


Deleuze and Guattari in a thousand plateaus use the figuration of a rhizome to counter structuralist representations of knowledge as fixed or linear. Rather than thinking about the tree of knowledge which has a linear structure of a trunk with fixed branches and a limited root system, rhizomatics allows us to think about knowledge as an unending series of interconnections and linkages with branches, shoots, and nodules merging and connecting in all kinds of ways. These are some images of the amazing flowers that come from rhizomatic plants the bird of paradise, bromeliads, heliconias, gingers, all grow rhizomatically.



This drawing by Warren Sellers is a diagrammatic representation of the rhizome there is no one particular starting place no final end or beginning, no host tree.


This is a diagrammatic representation of the internet an illustration of a rhizome most often used in media studies. The reference is to Marg Sellers phd thesis completed last year where she undertook a rhizomatic analysis of young childrens play in kindergarten settings.


Thinking rhizomatically helped me understand more fully the complexity of the poststructural notion of subjectivities the ways in which we as subjects take up at any moment in time a diverse and complex range of subjectivities within a range of contradictory discourses how do we deal with this complexity and these contradictions. If we think of discourses operating in lines or layers then we cant make sense of the contradictions but if we think of discourses as rhizomatic, then the discursive systems form a map of possible pathways. At any one moment, through any discursive moment, the ground shifts, the path alters, the plane of immanence and univocality (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987, p. 294) forms and unforms, and it is in this process of becoming that one deals pleasurably with contradictions.


Understanding texts as rhizomatic enables the production of an account of the linkages and connections between discursive plateaus operating within a text. A rhizotextual analysis involves mapping the connections between these plateaus and those operating within other texts, including the textual representations of stories told by researchers and research participants. Within and across any one text, discursive lines can be mapped, following pathways, identifying intersections and connections, finding the moments when an assemblage of discursive lines merge to make plausible and reasoned sense to the reader. Any one discursive pathway does not render another (im)plausible. Elizabeth Grosz describes this understanding of texts as rhizomatic: A text is not a repository of knowledges or truths, the site for storage of informationso much as a process of scattering thoughts, scrambling terms, concepts and practices, forging linkages, becoming a form of action (1995, p. 126) St.Pierre (2000, p. 279) explains that this goes beyond the layering of a palimpsest that relentlessly overwrites, but rather lines of flight are always in the middle, in flux, disrupt*ing+ dualisms with complementarity. Each discourse interweaves and...