Sunday, February 27, 2011

Understanding Multiliteracies & Why Educators Should Care

What is Multiliteracy?

The aim of this blog is to challenge the notion that literacy, or at least valuable literacy, is confined to only reading and writing (textual) skills.  This challenge to dominant literacy is implicit in the theory of "multiliteracies", a theory pioneered by the influential New London Group. Multiliteracy refers to the myriad (and often extra-textual) ways that people make meaning.  Kathy Mills, in her new book The Multiliteracies Classroom, states that the aim of multiliteracies pedagogy is to "be more responsive to the diversity of cultures, including subcultures, such as communities and affiliations, and the variety of languages within societies" (Mills, 2011).  The homogeneous classroom of the past is no more- diversity is a staple of an increasing number of classrooms today.  Multiliteracy provides teachers with the pedagogy to teach to all learners without alienating them from their unique social contexts.

What Does Multiliteracy Look Like?

Conceptualizing multiliteracy requires an expansive understanding of meaning making and the various sign systems that individuals employ in the process of generating that meaning.  In the old paradigm, meaning  was only valued if it was contained in static, written artifacts (books, papers, etc.).  The primary mode for interpreting that meaning was reading, and that interpretation was turned into knowledge through the writing of another textual artifact. (See a pattern emerging?)  Multiliteracies pedagogy encourages the valuation and use of other extra-textual literacies: visual, auditory, physical, and spatial.  (And yes, this does share some ground with Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, but that's a matter for another post...)

In Mill's book she describes a classroom with a focus on multiliteracy.  In the class students made clay animations movies for a PSA campaign to be shown to primary school "buddies".  This learning is situated in an authentic real world context, keeping students engaged with the work.  The students employed a variety of textual and extra-textual literacies in crafting their films: script writing, sound recording, filming with digital cameras, and set designing.  This project fostered real learning and growth of language skills without centering on text based work and assessment.

Why Focus on Multiliteracy in the Classroom?

Multiliteracy study and pedagogy can provide the educator with many benefits in the classroom.  A pedagogy of multiliteracy provides a way for working with the diversity found in the modern classroom.  Multiliteracy allows for recognition and valuation of students' unique cultural, social, and intellectual literacy.

Multiliteracy pedagogy also allows for integration of technology in the classroom.  The aforementioned clay animation project was replete with technology: digital cameras, sound recording and editing equipment.  The multiliteracy classroom, by valuing extra-textual literacy, can better prepare students to negotiate a world that demands they be able to express themselves in a multitude of ways on many different platforms.  The multiliteracy classroom is analogous with the new world of digital work.

That brings us to the final benefit of the multiliteracy classroom- its capacity for authentic assessment.  Since much of the work of the multiliteracy class is project based there are ample opportunities to engage in real meaningful work.  This is the difference between writing a paper that only a teacher will see and crafting a blog on environmental policy that will reach an infinite number of online readers.  These classroom events can never be dismissed as "busy work" because they have application far beyond the four walls of the classroom.  Authentic work and assessment also puts students into contact with their community on a local, national, and even international level, providing a level of student engagement that cannot be compared with other pedagogical techniques.