A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures

A strong sense of citizenship seems to be giving way to local fragmentation, and communities are breaking into ever more diverse and subculturally defined groupings. The changing technological and organizational shape of working life provides some with access to lifestyles of unprecedented affluence, while excluding others in ways that are increasingly related to the outcomes of education and training.” In A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures

The central issue raised by The New London Group in A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies (published in the Harvard Educational Review in 1996) concerns the idea that teaching traditional literacy is no longer relevant in today’s world (even as far back as ’96) because of changing cultural, institutional, and global realities. Traditionally, a monolingual and monocultural pedagogy was taught based on canonical English. This sort of curricula was championed because it enforced the status quo. When The New London Group published their “programmatic manifesto,” there were no computerized networks spread across various levels of social strata (the middle class citizen was not yet a Granovetterian “node” interconnected with a widening social network). Individuals were taught a precise curriculum that was very limited in scope, breadth, and knowledge. This was done in order to prepare individuals for a disciplined work life, in which hierarchical structure predominated. It is easy to entertain here images of those one-room schoolhouses where kids were chastised by ruler-slapping pedagogues. But since the development of “fast capitalism,” the realm of the workplace has moderated, becoming more centered around the concept of “a workplace culture in which the members of an organization identify with its vision, mission, and corporate values.”

If we recall Benjamin Barber’s insights in his seminal article on Jihad vs. McWorld, this notion of “fast capitalism” has ballooned into the global marketplace. The very issues that The New London Group malign are reawakened in the commercial sphere. So, now we have a global capitalist model that is both monocultural and monolingual (through branding slogans, advertisements, etc.). I think this may be what the authors refer to as “new systems of mind control or exploitation” in the new workplace discourse. Therefore, the new school pedagogy of multiliteracy should be “authentically democratic” and focused on “meaningful success for all. . . success that is not defined exclusively in economic terms and that has embedded within it a critique of hierarchy and economic injustice.” This feeds into the twin goals of student participation and critical thinking.

On the subject of changing public and private lives: For one, the idea of The New London Group is that ever-increasing local diversity necessitates the need to diversify public education. It used to be that those children who were ethnic or multilingual would learn English at primary school, while speaking the native language at home. As far as I’m concerned, this worked fairly well, and it placed these children in a good position to be cultural mediators later in life. But this call for a pedagogy of multiliteracies seems problematic to me, simply because of the way it deconstructs the language-learning process. I can understand the desire to promote cultural pluralism, so as to reduce the likelihood and dangers of xenophobia in schools and society. But, this goal to create a pedagogy of multiliteracies will – in my estimation – create a linguistic hodge-podge that will end up destroying cultural and historical identities. The New London Group bring up this issue by saying that “differences [appear] as evidence of distressing fragmentation of the social fabric.” However, at least as far as I can tell, they fail to answer this crucial question. So I am having a hard time seeing how The New London Group planned to implement their strategy.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the post-structural aspect to literacy pedagogy is important. Indeed, literacy should not be a static discipline, because it is always changing based on differing realities in the social structure of communities, which engage with new literacy practices on social media that are often subcultural and diverse. In the past, literacy practices were characterized by strict grammar rules that every school child had to adhere to, and this is sort of a microcosm for what curriculum in general was traditionally designed for to achieve. Namely, enforcing monolingual and monocultural discourse. However, I still have trouble coming to terms with the thought that multiliteracy could morph into a linguistic potpourri of different cultures and diverse communities. I don’t think we should marginalize any ethnic groups in our communities, but I don’t think we should meld them into one single discourse either. I mean, I think Guillermo Gómez-Peña is great as a performance-artist, but his use of language, which is a mash-up of English-Spanish-chicano-whatever would be hard for me to accept as the standard lingua franca.

So, how do schools adapt to changing cultural, institutional, and global realities? That’s the main question here and, well… at a certain point I just gave up on the dense program that The New London Group was putting forward. Instead, I watched an old TED talk by Ken Robinson (probably the funniest TED talk ever), which may have been a better use of my time to begin with. But it is obvious that literacy pedagogy should no longer be a narrowly conceptualized exercise of learning a standardized language and applying it to the traditional mode of reading and writing. For instance, the textual now no longer means simply reading something and having a cognitive reaction to it. In this new pedagogy, the textual is related to the visual, the audio, the spatial, the behavioral, and so on. So it encompasses a lot more than it used to. That’s why design elements are necessary, and after a cursory reading of this part of the article on design, I felt relatively positive about this approach because it appeared to be multi-modal, which is more conducive to creativity. One of Robinson’s main points is that “we are educating people out of their creative capacities,” and what happens when students no longer feel like they have a creative or meaningful role in their educational process? They become disillusioned, apathetic, and cynical on the whole. The New London Group in 1996 determined that the disparities in educational outcomes did not seem to be improving, and they are certainly not improved today, as almost all evidence seems to suggest that the American educational system is mediocre at best.


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