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Down with the written word!

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By Shoo Raynerchildren’s author and illustrator

What are the literacy skills that children need to survive in a modern world, and are we preparing children well enough for life in and beyond the school? Shoo Rayner raises some challenging questions.

Why do we teach children to read and write? What is it all for? Why would they want to waste their time on such an old-fashioned system of communication as reading and writing?

I’ve heard rumours that Literacy is about to be re-designated as English. About time too! English can go the same way as Latin, then Literacy can get on with teaching the real skills of communication.

I prefer to call these skills Modern Literacy. They include video editing, animation, camera skills, presentation skills, sound recording, image manipulation, web programming, drama and talking. These skills are not extramural fun – they are core skills of the future.

But how can these skills be taught?

To start with, how about teaching children how to use Adobe® Photoshop® in preference to Microsoft® Word™? If a picture says a thousand words, why bother writing an essay when all you need is a couple of well-chosen pictures? Let children learn how to search stock photo collections and choose the right picture for the job.

Why would you want to read about the Romans when you can watch a video and peruse the collections of online museums, with audio commentaries from eminent experts in the field?

As an author and illustrator of children’s books who has been interested in computers for a very long time, this subject nags away at me daily. Basically I’m an old fuddy-duddy, who likes to draw with a pencil and enjoys curling up in bed with a good book. But I’m also a bit of a technology geek. I’ve spent thousands of hours playing with programs and building websites.

Think back ten years. My website was already one year old. I wonder how many of you had even heard of the internet – or if you had, whether you ever thought it had anything to do with you? Internet banking… buying books from Amazon… eBay™! They were all far-fetched dreams. Google™ had only just been invented – yet look how it rules your life today. Some people think Google™ is the internet!

The next ten years

The internet is now ubiquitous. But its evolutionary change is nothing compared to what will happen in the next ten years.

We won’t need keyboards. Our computers will understand what we tell them to do. We may even have ‘thinking caps’ by then—no need to talk, just think your thoughts into the internet!

Children accept all this as given. They don’t question the fact that computers can present to them all that’s been written before – and can search for the relevant bits. But words are just data. Why load the digital generation with the syntactical burden of the written word? Why shackle them with pre-millennium communication technology?

Come out of the cave

We oldies think books and writing are sacrosanct because they are what we were brought up on. Our ancestors thought the same about cave paintings, heiroglyphic carvings and quill pens.

Modern Literacy is the bedrock of our future prosperity. That’s where the future is, not in funny old squiggles on paper.

This Modern Literacy comes with mother’s milk. It is the fabric of children’s society. Children don’t sleepover any more, they instant message. They text, they watch BBC iPlayer, More4, DVDs and YouTube™. Grown-ups didn’t teach them how to do it: grown-ups don’t understand. Children discovered these technologies and adopted them. Even the television can sit in the corner unused: soon it will be just an old-fashioned medium for grown-ups.

From museums to computer games

I’m intrigued, when I visit museums. When I was young, museums had buttons to press and handles to turn. They were analogue exhibits. As you turned the handle, things happened. There was a cause and effect. You learned something.

Now, museums are filled with touch screens. Children ignore the static exhibits and race from screen to screen, pressing buttons for pressing’s sake. The screens jump about from one piece of information to another. There’s barely time to gain knowledge. Young visitors are like point and click junkies looking for a fix. But museum screens aren’t games, so they skip to the next screen in search of a hit they are not going to find.

Modern Literacy could teach the difference between games and information. It could explain that information takes time to absorb. It’s not a race. There isn’t a laser-wielding alien hiding behind that Roman statue!

Do you agree with Shoo? Share your views in our online forum.

But if games are what children are after, then why not go all the way and teach through games? Not those sad, worthy educational games – I mean proper, big budget Playstation® games. Already the Nintendo Wii® is fast becoming a virtual sport and exercise machine. Why can’t a race game, like a non-violent version of Grand Theft Auto™, teach geography and motion physics while racing round the world?

Games can be compelling and totally immersive. Wouldn’t it be great to be in the wood with the Gruffalo? At Trafalgar with Nelson? It’s just another way of imparting experience.

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