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New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media

reviewed by Héctor J. Vila - 2005

coverTitle: New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media
Author(s): William Kist
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745405, Pages: 160, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

It is safe to say that we are at the birth of the information age. And we have quite fluidly become cyber citizens, that is, organisms that combine the natural and the artificial together in one system. Education, though, is conflicted, mired in a static model that prevents a systematic inquiry into new literacies, sophisticated uses of multimedia and technologies that challenge notions of linearity, interconnectedness, and collaboration. As we might expect, creative uses of new literacies in the classroom happen infrequently. In 2001, Larry Cuban asked a series of valuable questions: “How do these monies (spent on technology) help us achieve our larger social and civic goals? In what ways can teachers use technology to create better communities and build strong citizens?” (Cuban, 2001, p. 197, emphasis added). Cuban argues that we need to pay closer attention to the teacher’s workplace, that we need to develop a larger social vision as well, and that current uses of technology trivialize our nation’s core ideals.

Nothing has changed since Cuban wrote. The teacher is still constrained by the physical reality of her scholastic day, and there is little time and space for reflection on practice, the fostering of creative relationships with colleagues, and the venturing forth into new and interesting areas, such as new literacies. New literacies thus remain both foreign and challenging for most teachers. The problem, of course, is that students are immersed in media, the Internet, and complex video games: the tools of new literacies. Their worlds are distinctly different from the ones they face in their American classrooms. This is an obvious area of tension.

But if a teacher wishes to venture into new literacies, she faces great obstacles. The standards movement—No Child Left Behind—is perhaps the biggest impediment to creative uses of new literacies. Teachers who want to integrate multiple media into their teaching and learning must confront the homogenizing effects of No Child Left Behind. Using multiple media challenges the static school day; students engaged in project-based inquiries are involved in noisy collaboration. Students require more time—and class time or the time afforded a single unit is not enough. The old regimen is inadequate. Further, the work is difficult to assess—but no one is wondering whether our assessment methods are appropriate for this kind of work. Do new literacies require new assessment tools? A school’s infrastructure can be an obstacle as well. The Internet, for instance, can be working one day, down the next; computers may be slow, too slow for the deployment of new tools, such as Flash animation or Final Cut Pro for movie editing. The school may also have constricting rules about e-mail access, as is par for the course in New York City Public Schools, where students routinely step outside the system to access e-mails and share work.

The truth is that we have yet to come around to a dialogue about a systems approach to the uses of multiple media in K–12 education. Most creative uses of multiple media are still coming from energetic vanguard teachers working in isolation; creative use of these media is seldom, if at all, rewarded; and these teachers work amidst the dark clouds cast by the critical questions being asked about the efficacy of such work, particularly when placed against the ideals of No Child Left Behind. The more conservative old guard in education is waging a critical battle against new literacies, with criticism of these literacies made easier using the language of No Child Left Behind. Newer, younger, and untenured teachers and faculty, needing to survive in a medieval model of education, are reluctant to take a stand and challenge what should be by now obvious: We cannot fit a newer, networked environment that deploys multiple literacies into the old model of education. It is a wonder that we can find any models at all that will enable us to begin examining the potentials existing in new literacies.

William Kist, in New Literacies: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media, has done just that. In a carefully researched, clearly and effectively written study, Kist has labored long and hard to find several interesting models of multiple media use. (These models cover a range of practitioners: a teacher in an urban high school, one in a rural school, one who uses a “dot.com salsa” approach, a school librarian, a teacher of at-risk students, and a high school English teacher.) Consequently, what Kist has been able to do is to both ask the broad, inquiry-based questions we have all been hankering to know the answers to and provide us with examples of work that challenge our thinking about the uses of multiple media. It is through his teachers that Kist is able to paint a complex picture of the state-of-the-new-literacies­-art. This approach is exceptional because Kist allows us to form our own opinions by studying the cases presented in the book. Kist is also keen on describing how his investigative processes affected him:

This has, therefore, been a recursive process of continually going back and forth from reading and writing about new literacies to seeing instruction with new literacies in the field, all along continually redefining and reconceptualizing my own view of new literacies. (p. 5)

It is refreshing to see a self-conscious researcher, able to be affected by his subject in order to fine-tune his voice. In fact, this sort of “recursive practice” may be exactly what is missing from the cases Kist gives us. New multiple media uses require that we rethink our roles and that we reevaluate how we chronicle what we do, since what is currently the mode of assessment in these cases, as described by Kist, is generally anecdotal. We will not begin to gain the confidence of others until we turn the lenses of multiple media into evaluative tools that creatively describe our practice.

For instance, Kist writes, “proponents of the arts in education have always advocated for more media,” that is, “multiple ways of learning” (p. 9). But in this plea, such proponents have not inquired whether new media literacies—what is achieved in this practice, what we confront—are enabling a critical pedagogy of resistance (see, for instance, Freire, 1998; Shor, 1992; Simon, 1991; see Leistyna, Woodrum, & Sherblom, 1996, for a thorough overview)? How does work in multiple media allow us to reevaluate the constraints placed upon us by the continuing battle with modes of power? We are always working, in education, with some sort of struggle. New multiple media present another struggle. The language that describes work with these media is young, the practitioners few and far between, and the building of a learning community around new literacies a distant hope.

The case studies in the book offer insights for teachers already immersed in the practice or those teachers who are contemplating using multiple media. The lessons are clear—but most importantly, Kist works with his teachers honestly, with care and support. Kist begins by giving us a reading of the existing literature working to define new literacies. For anyone, veteran or new user, this is very valuable, as it is always helpful to understand the historical continuum. From this review, Kist extracts a cogent definition of new literacies. The definition has five parts: “The first characteristic on my list,” writes Kist, is “that these classrooms should feature daily work in multiple forms of representation.” And the second characteristic has to do with “talking about symbol systems or texts with students” (pp. 15–16). These are the key elements in Kist’s definition of new literacies, then: teachers using multiple media routinely, with such use contextualized by an analysis of symbol systems.

Teachers in Kist’s study conform to these two parts of the definition with varying degrees of success. The daily use of forms of multiple representation appears to be the easier part; however, a critical conversation about symbol systems is not as readily available to teachers, suggesting that teachers may need development in this area. I would argue that part of the problem is that we are failing to bring our students’ worlds into the classroom so as to engage it critically; that is, nowhere, really, is a full-blown media literacy program a part of any curriculum. We introduce iMovies, Powerpoint, and Flash, but we do not introduce students to a critical inquiry about how these symbol-generating tools affect us culturally—and they do. Historically, we have been a culture that privileges language: the word; now we find ourselves, cyber citizens, in a moment in time—which Kist also points out—in which the image is privileged over the word. And it is not only the image: It is the fast, animated image that wins over. How this works—and why—must be introduced into the curriculum, otherwise we may be doing students an injustice.

This is why the three remaining components of Kist’s definition of new literacies are so vital. A teacher must be involved in “metadialogues,” says Kist, because she is engaged in “working through problems using certain symbol systems” (p. 16). Likewise, “students take part in a mix of individual and collaborative activities” (p. 16), and “classrooms are places of student engagement in which students report achieving a ‘flow’ state” (p. 16). But in many of the case studies presented in this inquiry, the teachers’ projected goals—and ambitions—are lost on the students. The dominant response, by students, when questioned by Kist is that their multiple media learning experiences will help them later, in the workforce, in their futures. Students see themselves as better workers, more marketable in a global economy, as a result of their learning experiences involving multiple media.

In this respect, we see that teachers have yet to reach a point of even remotely understanding the relationship between a critical pedagogy and the uses of multiple media for teaching and learning. The real, reflective practice modeled by Kist in this study is absent in the practice of most of the teachers described in the case studies. It is not written into their lesson plans; success is assumed. Yes, students do report viewing some media, as in movies or television, with a newfound critical eye; however, as Kist reports, these same students rush out and buy the latest fashions pushed on screen. In essence, some students are learning to become stronger, not more critical, consumers, thus falling prey to the notion that our educational model is merely a tool to prepare soldiers for the industrial complex, nothing more. The teachers, however, clearly do not have this in mind, seeing their work as potentially transformative. Their instincts are right: It can be. But perhaps projects have to be smaller and the metadialogues, a critical part of Kist’s definition, more dominant, as should be an overall and ongoing examination of the problem of media. (Currently, the best critical approach to the subject is McChesney, 2004.)

As Kist says, he has offered us a

snapshot of what the evolving literacy classroom looks like at the beginning of the twenty-first century in North America, at a time when teachers themselves are grappling with the great digital revolution that has taken us in 25 years from the balcony of the Summit Mall Cinema to high-speed internet delivery of films. (p. 127)

Kist also suggests, correctly, that the “teachers profiled in this book may not be aware of all the pedagogical theory surrounding multiliteracies, but they are part of the vanguard of educators who are both creating and reflecting the evolution of literacy in education” (p. 127). Like Kist, these teachers are part of a continuum of educational change that suggests far greater implications of the conditions of teaching and learning in North America. The digital revolution is magnifying our needs and concerns in unprecedented ways. “There are tensions evident,” writes Kist, “between the freeing nature of these classrooms and the strain to exist in the current K–12 world of standardized tests and report cards” (p. 128). Thus we come full circle: Though the teachers profiled by Kist are struggling to journey with their students into fresh and exciting modes of learning, the institution is keen on obstruction, its historical positioning. Meanwhile, as teachers and students learn to work with multiple texts, collaborating in exciting ways, the lines between the old and the new begin to blur, as do the roles we all play. Kist leaves us with some strong questions, not least of which is whether new literacies can be taught in a traditional school environment (pp. 139–140). This question hints at another: Are we trying to place a new way of existing, seeing, and being into an old, tired, traditional model? William Kist’s New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media is a very strong beginning to this dramatic conversation that invites us to engage with our cyber-rich students in ways that will surely strengthen our teaching and learning.


Cuban, L. (2001). Oversold and underused: Computers in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Freire, P. (1998). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Leistyna, P., Woodrum, A., & Sherblom, S. A. (Eds.). (1996). Breaking free: The transformative power of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, Reprint Series No. 27.

McChesney, R. W. (2004). The problem of the media: U.S. communication politics in the 21st century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Shor, I. (1992). Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Simon, R. (1991). Against the grain: Essays toward a critical pedagogy. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2537-2542
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11806, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 8:00:38 AM

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About the Author
  • Héctor Vila
    Middlebury College
    E-mail Author
    HECTOR J. VILA, Assistant Professor in Writing and Teacher Education at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation (Heinemann, 2001). His current projects include the Community Digital Story Collaborative, a K-16 initiative, and The Future Communities First Year Seminar.
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