Beyond the basics: Literacy in the 21st Century workplace

Communication keeps the world going. It has been the binding force between seen and unseen forces. More than that, it takes place at different levels—intrapersonal, interpersonal, group and mass.

Four basic communication skills have been identified; they are listening, speaking, reading and writing. The primary communication skills are the two oracy skills: listening and speaking. They are described as primary skills because they are naturally acquired.

Despite the primacy of these oracy skills, the complexity and interconnectedness of the modern world have made the literacy skills (reading and writing) essential preconditions for relevance in the 21st Century. Beyond these major literacy skills, scholars have somewhat advanced the notion of literacy in the 21st century. The mere ability to read and write is not sufficient to be a literate person in this age. That is to say, literacy in the 21st Century demands some special soft skills. This piece will, therefore, expose the readership to the concept of modern literacy, plus the dynamics and requirements of being a literate person in the modern age.

Literacy is no longer just a set of skills but also instruments of progressiveness. In the words of Deborah Brandt, literacy is a resource. She conceives of literacy as “an economic, political, intellectual, spiritual [resource], which, like wealth or education, or trade skill or social connections, is pursued for the opportunities and protections that it potentially grants its seekers” (Brandt 2001:5). Mastery of 21st Century literacy skills, hence, affords a person individual and social success.

Brandt argues further that literacy looms as one of the great engines of profit and competitive advantage. In the present age of information economy, reading and writing serve as input, output, and conduits for producing profit and winning economic advantage. Systematic information has replaced direct experience as the basis for knowledge making and decision-making, as well as turning texts into the principal tools and literacy into the principal craft of the information economy.

Unfortunately, in this age of information economy, many schools do not prepare students for this functional literacy required for upward mobility and functionality in the workplace. As a first step to foregrounding modern literacy, schools need to reappraise what they emphasise.

Jim Burke (2013) gave the report by the Conference Board on “basic knowledge and applied skills” for the twenty first century workforce, which says, “The universal complaint of employers and colleges is that our students cannot write well . . . [and] our schools are hostile to ideas, [as evidenced by] tests that ask students to come up with the one right answer . . . [and thus] penalize the creative student rather than rewarding him.” This quote tells that one major requirement for 21st Century literacy is for teachers to help build the ingenuity and creative minds of students rather than assuming that the mind of the child is an empty slate that has to be filled at all times. As such, there is the need to move away from what has been described as the “measure and polish curriculum.”

Read also: Advertising as a form of mass communication

As put forward by Ravitch (2010:13), there is the need for “a strong, coherent, explicit curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts and sciences with plenty of opportunities for children to engage in activities and projects . . . that ensure [they] gain the knowledge they need to understand scientific ideas, political debates, and the world they live in.”

In a bid to emphasise this 21st Century literacy, Pink (2006) submits that students need “a whole new mind.” Quoted in Burke (2013), Pink argues that all the work dependent on the left-brain capacities—logic, sequence, literalness and analysis—is increasingly sent abroad or, more frequently, done by computers, whereas the right-brain work—synthesis, emotional expression, creating context, and thinking about the big picture—is what should be our focus. These activities listed under the right-brain work are greatly dependent on the focus of this piece, which is modern or 21st Century literacy.

Results in the 21st Century workplace are greatly tied to activities within modern literacy. This modern literacy made Rose (2005) talk about old work order and new work order.

While talking on literacy in the workplace, Rose (2005) reveals a complex “occupational landscape” rich in “cognitive processes” that require workers to use a range of symbol systems, modes of expression, written and oral communication, cognitive collaboration, notetaking and visual representation in the course of the ongoing learning that most people experience over time, due to the rapidly evolving workplace.

With this clarity provided on the dimension of literacy in the 21st Century, my next treatise will identify and discuss aspects of this modern literacy and how they can be developed for individual and corporate advancement.

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