Social literacy

5th January 2001 at 00:00
SOCIAL LITERACY, CITIZENSHIP EDUCATION AND THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM. By James Arthur, Jon Davison and William Stow. RoutledgeFalmer pound;16.99.

Do you promote social literacy in your lessons? This sort of question may draw blank looks. And yet, those who feel that school can provide much more than a narrow focus on academic subjects will welcome this challenging book. "Meaning", the authors argue, "is constructed socially through discussion, negotiation and reflection on social interaction."

They draw attention to a wide range of influences, looking back to David Hargreaves's Challenge for the Comprehensive School, to recent Demos pamphlets and developments in contemporary communitarianism, and forward to ideas that may emerge from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - now under the management of the very same David Hargreaves.

The book is placed in the context of the national curriculum, and citizenship education in particular, but it has wider ambitions. These can be seen in such phrases as: "Whereas citizenship education emphasises developing pupils with social and moral dispositions, social literacy broadens the issues." All this is thought-provoking and useful.

The first part of the book explores the qualities of social literacy and social virtues (such as honesty and dependability) necessary to sustain a lifetime of thought and good actions, and the value of acquiring a complex language to understand and reflect on citizenship.

The second section is more explicitly related to school contexts, with reflections on social content in the whole curriculum, and service learning, which involves students working with the community.

The authors show a willingness to grasp several rather dangerous looking nettles. They pose difficult questions such as: "What are essential virtues and who decides?" Assessment of social literacy is discussed in the complex areas of self-esteem, co-operation and empathy, rationality, social knowledge and critical thinking. elf- esteem can be enhanced, the authors argue, within the curriculum (for example, when pupils debate values in the humanities); across the curriculum (using circle time) and outside the curriculum (making sure that life in the playground is safe and secure).

They emphasise the relationship between teaching and learning and show a preference for a framework in which the progress of individuals is charted against their previous achievements. They also suggest proper and professional forms of service learning with worthwhile educational goals, beyond simply dispatching a class to dig someone's garden.

By the end of the book the many-headed monster of social literacy, while not created by the authors, has not been captured. In an attempt to make the arguments all-embracing, it is almost inevitable that the relevant debates have not been covered clearly or fully.

I was left with some questions: Is the argument for social literacy concerned with ends, means, or both? And, if both, what is the relationship between the two? If citizenship is too broad a topic for social literacy, what are the parameters beyond which the authors could not go? We can all be in favour of collaboration, but what are the practical and theoretical issues that need to be addressed if progress is to be made?

However, this book is a welcome corrective to the recent zeal of policy-makers for a narrowly focused version of educational achievement. It would be unhelpful to expect too much precision in an area that is new and, as the authors admit, "not strictly defined". But I wanted more breadth in the form of engagement with fundamental debates, and more depth in an exploration of what these issues might mean in daily practice.

This is a recommendation for others to read the book, but also suggests that more needs to be done before we have a clear understanding of social literacy.

Ian Davies is a senior lecturer in educational studies at the University of York

Ian Davies

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