Gene Editing Literacy

The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 provided a copy of the genetic book of life; CRISPR offers a way to purportedly erase and “correct” certain words in that book.

[ACC] Should Gene Editing Technologies Be Used In Humans?

This article is an easy to read introduction to the current state of gene editing, and the ethical questions surrounding it. Notable is the description of the a ‘range of potential vs expression of actual’ paradigm. A model useful for thinking about the education process, and maybe as easy to forget about considering people’s tendency to focus on either ‘this’ or ‘that’ and nothing in between.

There are fascinating details in here about linked genes, balanced evolution, the prospects of eliminating disease, and of course designer babies.

As a complete aside, shortly into the article the above “book/word” metaphor is used. It made me think of how readily language is used as a metaphor. When symbols of meaning are interpreted and construed, it is easy to think of language and literacy.

Maybe, at some point in the future (now?) people will be able to develop a proficiency at reading & writing genes for the purpose of some intentional expression of thought. Even the phrase “gene editing” seems to presuppose this proficiency. Maybe a term like “elegant” will be used (as in “an elegant coder”) to describe someone at the top of their profession as a gene editor.

It makes me wonder how much the concepts of literacy and agency could be said to overlap, especially in cases of gene editing where one may actually infringe on the other.

Literacy is Recognizing Patterns

Literacy, of any type, is about pattern recognition, about seeing how art is like physics is like literature is like dance is like architecture is like …Literacy is not about knowing where the dots are. Literacy is not about finding dots about which you may not know. Literacy is about connecting the dots and seeing the big picture that emerges.

This quote about literacy got me thinking. I love the connection to patterns. I do think that literacy is about knowing where the dots are, except that it is not limited to that. There are two sides to a literacy, the reading and the writing (in the grand sense of each). But this idea about patterns is great, I wonder if staying in the realm of “patterns” is too abstract to be practical though.

Last week my students came across the word “pattern” and to my slight surprise many of them asked me what the word means. A slightly bigger surprise, is that I had immediate difficulty explaining it to them. Usually I’m very good at providing examples on the spot. However, I found that “pattern” just has too many apt examples to make it an easy concept to quickly grasp. Any example would highlight the example, not the concept. Maybe this is why it fits well with “literacy”, a concept that stretches across differing landscapes.

Unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any way to find the original source for this quote. Imagine that, a resource not out on the web somewhere.

Rob Wall. What You Really Need to Learn: Some Thoughts. Stigmergic Web (weblog). June 3, 2007.


More: The quote is taken from a series of posts following Jenny through Stephen Downes’ eLearning 3.0 class. They are a great read if you didn’t take the class, but were still interested in it peripherally. Stephen is always thought provoking.

The intro video is a good overview. I don’t know if the Q&A is included in the video, but at one point Stephen uses the phrases “You can always go more fundamental”, which I think undermines his emphasis on experiential learning, because it’s the more fundamental stuff that is great for classroom and structured learning. Like I said though, thought provoking.

Link to the first post (includes the video):

Emergent Literacy

“For 3- to 5-year-olds, the imagery and default mode networks mature late, and take practice to integrate with the rest of the brain,” Hutton explains. “With animation you may be missing an opportunity to develop them.”

When we read to our children, they are doing more work than meets the eye. “It’s that muscle they’re developing bringing the images to life in their minds.”

Hutton’s concern is that in the longer term, “kids who are exposed to too much animation are going to be at risk for developing not enough integration.”

The other day I posted about “emergent propaganda” in which the idea of propaganda that emerges from a particular environment. Now, this about “emergent literacies” in which skills to read and write technology emerges from the environments that we provide for kids.

As an educator, this makes me think of scaffolding, yet there seems to be a difference – in the example here, kids are going to grow and advance regardless of the scaffolding present or not. There’s a larger context here apart from any given learning goal.

Anyway, the takeaways in this paper, for me at least, is that books (especially children’s books) will never go away completely, and that in rushing kids too much into digital environments at a young age parents might miss opportunities to develop robust literacy skills in their children.

Literacy Ataxia: Overwhelmed by the demands of processing language, without enough practice, they may also be less skilled at forming mental pictures based on what they read, much less reflecting on the content of a story.


The story about this paper is worth a read (via the Katexic newsletter):


Invisible Literacies

They use ‘invisible’ and important literacies that go beyond traditional writing text, spelling, punctuation and other conventional literacies. These include other modes (such as collaboration or demonstration) or semiotics (signs, marks) present in different subject areas.

I continue my quest to discover what the word “literacy”  means in this day and age. In this article, I read the term “invisible literacy” for the first time.

The quote above is followed by more description in the article, and seems to push the meaning of the phrase towards “skills” or “discipline specific skills”. The definition described in this article is broad, although it does seem to focus on concepts like ‘signs’ and ‘translation’. Which is interesting because of the emphasis on communication over mere language.

Later on the article describes the importance of doing and making, for teaching these invisible literacies.

I wonder if these are like some of the grammar rules that I need to teach my students at time, the rules that no native English speaker would ever learn but they would instinctively follow and understand. For English language students, these invisible grammar rules often need to be made visible.

This is a good read.

Long Tail Literacy

“English teachers need to understand that skill in English is based on knowledge. The ability to read is composed of many thousands of individual pieces of knowledge which organise into schemas which allow us to automatise a hugely complex process. As reading becomes increasingly automatic it becomes effortless, and children are likely to read more. The more they read the more they learn about the world. The more they learn about the world the easier it is to connect new ideas to things we already know about and so inferences are made and analysis becomes possible.”

I love this description of reading, and all its complexity, and its application at the control center of our ability to connect ideas.

The article itself creates an unnecessary dichotomy, skills or knowledge, when there’s no reason not to cultivate both.

But the more remarkable part of this article is how it illustrates the breadth of literacy to include a grandeur application of reading and writing. I read and write not only words on a paper, but I read and write the world around me. Especially now, because the world around me is often a digital environment that affords so much of my own control.

The concept of literacy has expanded over the past few decades. I think what educators need to comes to term with is that (expanded) literacy is also still one of the basics of education. Long tail literacy development never stops.


More: Literacy and Fluency

Literacy and Fluency

“My concern with Clark’s argument is that she puts ‘digital literacy’ to the sword, replacing it with ‘fluency’. This is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, the concept of literacy is not fixed. Secondly, we are better considering the plurality of digital literacies.”

Literacy is one of those words that has changed meaning during my lifetime. Or, to be more exact, it has taken on new meanings and even a dominant new meaning in Western culture.

Literacy is not fixed, but it does originate with being able to understand and use language. For language learning, fluency is one of the skills (along with developing language inputs, outputs, and things like vocabulary, grammar, syntax) that make up what it means to be literate. Nation calls it one of the four strands.

I probably wouldn’t replace literacy with fluency either, as literacy encases fluency. In it’s very basic sense, fluency is about speed.

The plurality of literacies is happening based on how the word is used all over the place. And with Belshaw’s list, I still wonder if this is a list of literacies, elements, incidences, competencies, skills, themes, or something else.

It’s worth thinking if there’s now very specific literacties, such as Adobe CC literacy, LMS Literacy, Browser Literacy, Media Literacy, Riding the Train in Tokyo Literacy. All of these are systems that require knowledge of meaning inputs and outputs, elements of function and position, and at a certain speed.

Is this what literacy means now? To understand, know and be able to use a specific culture or system?

If this is the case, the idea of fluency become very interesting. Fluency may be desired within one literacy (except when it’s too big of a system, see facebook), and between literacies it may not be desired. We need perplexity to learn, to apply knowledge in ways that are not conventional, not prescriptive, and below the surface of fluency.

More: Dana Boyd on Media Literacy

Choosing Consolidations and Detachments

From time-to-time I log into my daughter’s facebook account, with her at my side, and we cruise through some of the features as I help her use it to communicate with the few people that have friended her. When we moved across the globe last year, I thought it was a good opportunity for her to use a site like facebook to keep in touch with people who have been a major part of our daily life, but would now be too far away. I also thought it would be a good opportunity to teach her about things like facebook, and more importantly, digital communication.

Here’s an excerpt from our last facebook session:

Me: What do you want to say to everyone?

Her: I dunno, just “how are you?”

Me: ok, well, you tell me what to say and I’ll type it as you tell me. go.

Her: How are you? Write me back if you want.

Me: Good. Now I’ll type this in here, hit enter, then all of your friends can read it….er…I mean “facebook friends”….uh…

Her: …

Me: You see, on facebook they use the word “friend” but it doesn’t actually mean friend, well, it’s kind of a friend but it’s just someone who can see your…well, some might be friends, but some might just be people you’ve met…or people me and mommy know. It’s…the word “friend” can mean many things…

…and I probably babbled on like this for a few more minutes, trying to explain a definition of “friend” that is different from what she already knows – a definition of the word that brings a wider range of trust that what she is used to….dangerous to her, because she might assume that the term “friend” carries with it a certain level of trust, rather than the other way around.

One thing that jumped out at me from this exchange is the changing definition of the word “friend”, or even better, the expanding meaning of relationships that exist in the world. What was once “friend” now needs to be qualified maybe as “close friend” or “information feed friend”. Curse you Facebook for hijacking the word – couldn’t you have used something better suited, like “follower”.

Upon deeper reflection, something else jumped out at me in this exchange with my lovely daughter. She instinctively wanted to include the statement to “Write me back if you want” in her message – a message not necessary, since the way facebook works carries with it this message in itself.

I once had a friend, new to facebook, who would sign his status updates and wall writings, unaware that his profile made this signature unnecessary. It’s the same sort of thing with my daughter, except she’s only 6…apparently growing up with this technology, a digital native, unlike my real-life-friend using facebook who was around the same age as myself.

Do we distinguish between print natives and nomads? Yes we do, but the distinction comes when someone somehow has reached adulthood without learning how to read or write. Because print literacy is so embedded in many of our cultures, to mature without a strong sense of it seems unnatural.

And, in one sense, this distinction is unfortunate – it shows the bias of print language and the privilege that we place on it: if you don’t have print literacy encoded into you, then there’s something wrong with you…you are defected. If you come from an oral society into our own western one, it’s going to be difficult.

Children aren’t born with print literacy, they learn it. And for centuries, they have learned it at such a young age that the bias of language and especially printed language has been very difficult to understand in our selves. It helps communicating, for sure, but embedding print literacy at so young an age also hinders other types of non-linear communication…

…anyway, I don’t mean to argue against print literacy here, that’s not my point – there are enough ways to continue to teach children all types of literacy, or an open mindset on literacies, at the young age that we do. This is my point, that there seems to be a push for digital literacies to be the new bias that we embed into our culture – that we need to rush to “prepare children for their future, not the one we grew up in”. That instead of realizing our biases (which our western society has actually done a lot of over the past century) we are now ready to just trade old biases for new ones.

It’s a liberation of communication tools our society in undergoing in recent times, not a shift. Hopefully.

I love the fact that my daughter wanted to include “Write back if you want” in her social media message. I don’t like how the edtech world seems pointed to a future where we have digital illiterates who ‘have something wrong with them’. Life is a continuous process of consolidation and detachment…and the greatest separation feat of all is when someone manages to gradually free oneself from the grip of unconscious culture.

That ability to control our consolidations and detachments, my blog-post-reading-friends, is the more essential skill that we need to embed into our children. The skills of choice.

*The consolidation and detachment line is adapted from: Hall, E. T. (1989). Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books.