Successful Learning Environments

What are the characteristics of learning environments that have succeeded in engaging all students in an expanded range of literacy practices?

In discussing the issue of characteristics of learning environments that have been successful in their endeavors to utilize multiliteracy approaches in the classroom or multimodal forms of communication it would be easy to fall into the trap of searching for a predetermined set of standards and/or practices.  It is important to remember that such a search would “bypass the philosophical orientation of multiliteracies and reduce it to yet another effort to fix surface literacy problems without addressing underlying limitations of the current transmission model.” (Engaging Students in Literacy)  The needs surrounding multiliteracies are more than a mere need for curriculum reform. 

Viewing the implementation of multiliteracies as a reform movement would likely result with educators feeling like this is on more “thing” to add to the classroom as opposed to a dynamic shift in the process of learning.  Working closely with teachers and school staff is essential in creating rich classroom environments that encompass all that a multiliteracies approach has to offer the learning process. Absent a clear understanding of the purpose or necessity of multiliteracies creates fear or frustration rather than excitement and integration.

“According to the New London Group, a multiliteracy approach to literacy teaching broadens a traditional notion of literacy to include a multiplicity of discourses that are a realistic reflection of a rapidly changing cultural and social order.” (ACTF, 2005)  That is to say that the learning environment is being required to more accurately reflect the lived experiences of the students. “Many instances can be cited from the professional literature and from everyday experience of children intensely involved in multimodal textual practices outside their school experience, which are rarely reflected or acknowledged as part of school literacies.” (Unsworth, 2001) Students are regularly involved in a variety of communication styles and learning contexts that meet their needs that never appear in the classroom. 

“Students must be challenged in the classroom to harness and develop skills that enable them to understand, negotiate, analyze, sort and navigate the breadth of communication, information, media and text options that they are presented with now, and in the future.” (ACTF, 2005)  While students are exposed to an ever increasing body of information through a variety of media formats there is still a significant need to help them navigate the meanings and value of what is presented.  Take for example this video:

All of the information that is presented in this video are ideas and/or messages that are presented in some of our favorite and most coveted children’s stories.  However, when put together in the context of this movie, it is understood that there are some unintended consequences to the messages that have been sent to our students.  Students need to be able to be critical of what it is that they are reading or viewing in order to make future decisions. Given the sheer amount of information that they are exposed to students should have the ability to question and analyze.  Lynde Tan (2006, extracted from Curriculum Standards and Support, School Education Division, Department of Education, Tasmania Literacy, 2004) offers some critical questions that students can utilize when coming into contact with new information.  These questions are applicable across a variety of communication forms.  

Textual purpose(s)

What is this text about?  How do we know?

Who would be most likely to read and/or view this text and why?

Why are we reading and/or viewing this text?

What does the composer of the text want us to know?

Textual structures and features

What are the structures and features of the text?

What sort of genre does the text belong to?

What do the images suggest?

What do the words suggest? 

What kind of language is used in the text?

Construction of characters

How are children, teenagers or young adults constructed in this text?

How are adults constructed in this text?

Why has the composer of the text represented the characters in a particular way?    

Gaps and silences

Are there ‘gaps’ and ‘silences’ in the text?

Who is missing from the text?

What has been left out of the text?

What questions about itself does the text not raise?

Power and interest

In whose interest is the text?

Who benefits from the text? 

Is the text fair?

What knowledge does the reader/viewer need to bring to this text in order to understand it?

Which positions, voices and interests are at play in the text?

How is the reader or viewer positioned in relation to the composer of the text?

How does the text depict age, gender and/or cultural groups?

Whose views are excluded or privileged in the text?

Who is allowed to speak?  Who is quoted?

Why is the text written the way it is?

Whose view: whose reality?

What view of the world is the text presenting?

What kinds of social realities does the text portray?

How does the text construct a version of reality?

What is real in the text?

How would the text be different if it were told in another time, place or culture?

Interrogating the composer

What kind of person, and with what interests and values, composed the text?

What view of the world and values does the composer of the text assume that the reader/viewer

holds? How do we know?

Multiple meanings

What different interpretations of the text are possible?

How do contextual factors influence how the text is interpreted?

How does the text mean?

How else could the text have been written?

How does the text rely on inter-textuality to create its meaning?

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills states that “education depends on an integrative approach to curriculum – one that unites core academic subjects, interdisciplinary themes, and essential skills – with an integrative approach to instruction in which modern pedagogies, technologies, resources, and contexts work together to prepare students for modern life.”  Likewise, the New London Group states that a “multiliteracies approach to literacy teaching, broadens a traditional notion of literacy to include a multiplicity of discourses, that are a realistic reflection of a rapidly changing cultural and social order.”  It is not about teaching “more”, it is about teaching and learning differently.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills offers a framework on how to begin our thinking of what the new dynamic learning environment should include.  This framework is not meant to be all-inclusive, but rather an pedagogy through which we can start the investigative process of how we should best meet the needs of our students for their future learning.  The framework includes:

1. Core Subjects. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, identifies the core subjects as English, reading or language arts; mathematics; science; foreign languages; civics; government; economics; arts; history; and geography.

2. 21st Century Content. Several significant, emerging content areas are critical to success in communities and workplaces. These content areas typically are not emphasized in schools today:

    * Global awareness

    * Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy

    * Civic literacy

    * Health and wellness awareness

3. Learning and Thinking Skills. As much as students need to learn academic content, they also need to know how to keep learning — and make effective and innovative use of what they know — throughout their lives. Learning and Thinking Skills are comprised of:

    * Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

    * Communication Skills

    * Creativity and Innovation Skills

    * Collaboration Skills

    * Information and Media Literacy Skills

    * Contextual Learning Skills

4. ICT Literacy. Information and communications technology (ICT) literacy is the ability to use technology to develop 21st century content knowledge and skills, in support of 21st century teaching and learning

5. Life Skills. Good teachers have always incorporated life skills into their pedagogy. The challenge today is to incorporate these essential skills into schools deliberately, strategically and broadly. Life skills include:

    * Leadership

    * Ethics

    * Accountability

    * Adaptability

    * Personal Productivity

    * Personal Responsibility

    * People Skills

    * Self Direction

    * Social Responsibility

6. 21st Century Assessments. Authentic 21st century assessments are the essential foundation of a 21st century education. Assessments must measure all five results that matter — core subjects; 21st century content; learning skills; ICT literacy; and life skills. To be effective, sustainable and affordable, assessments must use modern technologies to increase efficiency and timeliness. Standardized tests alone can measure only a few of the important skills and knowledge students should learn. A balance of assessments, including high-quality standardized testing along with effective classroom assessments, offers students a powerful way to master the content and skills central to success. is the Framework for Learning in the 21st Century?

Social Justice

The current technological age has provided education the opportunity to open the doors of dialogue. No longer are schools or classrooms limited to the learning that is available through the textbooks or staff that are immediately available.  Students have the opportunity to reach beyond the physical walls of their classroom to the world that surrounds them.

In order to reach the goals of social justice or a democratic school environment, it is necessary to allow all students to view, hear, and experience the thoughts, perspectives, and insights of our global community.  Teaching our students in a classroom that integrates a multiliteracies framework gives students the opportunity to reach out to see the world around them through the use of a variety of technology.  Beyond the technology, the use of the multiliteracies framework also teaches our students how to be informed decision makers about the world they experience around them.  By including skills that are part of critique, students are more apt to make informed decisions about the world and less likely to accept information without question.

It is this type of questioning that creates dialogue, which is at the heart of creating schools that are focused on social justice and a democratic education.  As students no longer feel the need to accept the status quo and feel empowered to question and dialogue they will see themselves as agents of change.

Australian Children’s Television Foundation. (2005). Submission to Department of Education, Science and Training National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Retrieved from

Engaging students in literacy: A multiliteracies Approach. Retrieved from

New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review.

O’Rourke, M. (2005) Engaging students through ICTs: A multiliteracies approach. TechKnowLogia. Retrieved from