I recently debated with a colleague about the importance of understanding 21st century literacy. Most opposition to the idea of a "new" literacy stems from a belief that literacy hasn't changed, it's only what we're asked to read that has changed. Example: Rather than reading an article in a newspaper with ink smudging our fingers we're reading that same article on a glaring screen. Yet, unlike literacy (and public schooling) of the past, the availability and instant nature of information seems to be the main reason that literacy looks different now--everyone is an expert (rather than the elite or highly-educated) and everyone can comment.
And yet, some people are hesitant to equip their children with the necessary thinking skills to piece through this information, even going so far as to say that "higher-order thinking skills" are detrimental to a child's belief system and will only cause him or her to question the very nature of what they believe to be true and false, right and wrong. This belief and misunderstanding of modern literacy will be harmful to our children in the future and is why, now more than ever, we must communicate the importance of modern literacy.
Unlike the past, where it was rare for something to make it into print that hadn't been vetted and approved by many involved parties, kids (and adults) can read anything on the 'net posted by anyone (like this blog post). Because of this accessibility and influx of opinion, students need to be taught how to pick through bias, fallacy, propaganda and even just the basic elements of an argument when confronted with a written idea. Schooling, prior to this century, seemed to consist of telling students what to think, what they needed to know and the steps they should take to understand it. Now, the main focus of schooling (and thus 21st century literacy) is to empower students with the ability to analyze and evaluate why they think what they think, to provide a platform for students to create and produce their understanding as well as a place for them to explore, question and research ideas. We should be, in the words of Ken Robinson, "waking them up" to the world around them---not telling them what it consists of, but showing them how to explore it.
This is why 21st Century literacy looks different. It may be the same basic idea (reading a piece, responding to a piece), but the stakes are higher because the voices are many and are louder. Our jobs as teachers require us to teach our students how to listen, really listen, to what is being said.