The Five Basic Literacies

I was thinking recently about what exactly goes into learning, and what kings of skills we should be teaching people, especially children, as the world changes. I feel like I can distil it into 5 main categories. I feel the best way to describe them is a “literacy” – the ability to understand and manipulate:

  1. Numeric Literacy
  2. Language Literacy
  3. Philosophical Literacy
  4. Technical Literacy
  5. Creative Literacy

Numeric Literacy

Numeric Literacy is important to make sense of the world. Much of our adult lives involves balancing numbers, from picking out the best deal when shopping, to planning for a mortgage on a house, or weighing up what kind of job or training to seek. The basic ability to manipulate numbers, and to know when and where particular kinds of manipulation are important, is more key than being able to do everything mentally.

A lot of the “toy maths” I was taught in school isn’t really all that useful. I haven’t once solved a differential equation, nor integrated through calculus, or recited a times table since I left school. But I routinely use basics like percentages, divisions, ratios. It’s less important that I can do these in my head, but knowing when to apply them, and even knowing that these exist as tools I can use to help me, is vital. Without that literacy, I simply wouldn’t be able to tell which was a better deal between a pack of vegetables at 1.99 / kg or individually priced items at 0.50 each.

Certain concepts in maths are also important for getting a better understanding of scale in the world. Understanding the basic ideas behind logarithms, exponentials, how complex data is condensed to be plotted on a chart is really important. You need not know exactly how to manipulate them, but knowing that they are used is a good start. Knowing that some processes tend to a maximum, and others rise without end, that presentation by necessity has to omit certain details is important when looking at the news. So often the way statistics are reported can change the framing of a whole issue. I frequently hear people discuss climate change, and that it is not an issue because earth has historically gone through cold and hot patches. Which is true, but depending on which timescale and sample you look at, you can reveal just how quickly and abruptly global average temperatures have spiked.

Language Literacy

Language Literacy is important for communication, but also learning. Within a language, the better you are at understanding and manipulating the language, the better you get at being able to express your thoughts in more complex ways. The internet and all the teaching resources available to us should make it easier than ever to learn, but if we don’t understand the basic vocabulary of what we want to research, it is all for naught.

There are many times when I catch myself feeling like there is some thought I want to express, but I just don’t have the words, and that annoys me. It reminds me a lot of the story 1984 where the control of words themselves helps a powerful force to control others. I don’t like feeling helpless, even if it is just not being able to remember the right word or expression. Having a good grounding in language literacy helps to reduce these feelings, because you can expose people from a young age to lots of different writing styles and vocabulary (I read a lot of books when I was younger… I cannot comment on what vocabulary kids growing up watching tiktoks are learning).

In addition to one’s native language, I also think it is important to expose people to other languages. I grew up in a bilingual household, and I do feel that this has not just widened my understanding of the world, and opened up easy access to many other countries, but it changes how I view language as a whole. I think it has also helped make it easier to learn other languages as I grew up, because my brain is less set in stone that everything applies to a specific English concept. Recently I was reading a Japanese comic and found the word 三段論法 (san-dan-ron-pō). My dictionary translated this as “syllogism”. I did not know this English word, but from the context the Japanese word was in, and its literal Japanese meaning (3 step logic), I could figure out what it meant. A syllogism is a series of reasoning across 3 logical arguments. If I didn’t have that experience of different languages, I would have a much harder time remembering this word just in English.

Philosophical Literacy

Philosophical literacy is a nice bridge from language literacy. Being able to think and assess not just what is said, but to ask why it was said. To guess at what was not said, and to wonder what was the intent behind even saying it in the first place. I never studied philosophy in school, the closest we ever came was to superficially discuss religions. (Never really giving a lot of focus to atheism or other humanist ideas, and all in a school system that at the time still gave Christian sermons every few weeks. Thankfully that is no longer the case.)

But as I have expanded my horizons, I can see that philosophy is about so much more than just discussing theology, and rather pointless little “toy philosophy” exercises that only ever served to infuriate me (You will never convince me otherwise, the whole “what sound does a falling tree make if no-one is there to hear it” is a stupid discussion that won’t lead you anywhere). It’s about questioning how you think and why you think certain ways. It can also be used to help people build up their own unique ethical and moral framework to live their life, rather than simply being told what is right and wrong.

I think philosophical literacy neatly encapsulates scientific thinking and critical thinking. These are very important when we face misinformation as adults, but also for kids who may face gossip and other social squabbling. Scientific thinking is important for building skills that help you find ways of working more efficiently and to balance risks when experimenting in life. Critical thinking is important for building up a good understanding of trust, and determining whether things really are as they seem.

One danger to exposing myself to philosophy is that if I go in too deep, I feel like I can start to go a bit mad, and everything can stop seeming real. Would exposing children to this from a younger age help? Or make things worse? And what are the ethical implications of running such an experiment to test that…

Technical Literacy

Technical literacy has always been important, but possibly more so in an increasingly technical world. To fully understand technology you need expertise in so many fields, from programming to electrical engineering. But at a basic level, I think it is important to encourage kids to hack (verb – to tinker with, to manipulate) their technology, and to not treat it like a magic black box that does everything for them.

Technical literacy doesn’t just refer to electronics. Being able to manipulate things and to have a model for how the world works applies to so many different aspects. If you want to do your own plumbing, or to cook a meal, or to build something in the garden, all of this requires some basic level of technical proficiency. The more you can expose children at a young age to a wide variety of different skills, the better their innate understanding of how the physical world works. They will also be more likely to find some skill that resonates well with them.

At its core, technical literacy really involves letting people know they can use instructions, processes, physical things, and that they can open them up, and tinker, adapt and change to suit their needs. It helps to let people make better use of their tools, and to be more self sufficient. When I was at school, there were lots of different courses that offered technical work, from cooking to wood and metal work. But they were always constrained in some way around the curriculum, rather than just letting me play. Which leads me nicely into:

Creative Literacy

Creative literacy is special, because it’s the opposite to everything I have listed above. Being creative isn’t so much a skill of understanding and manipulation, as it is being able to bring brand new ideas into the world. And as I’ve grown up I realise just how difficult that is.

When I was in school I did feel like so much of the effort being put in was to pass an exam. Except for the early years, the focus is on attainment. As I grew older, I had less structure around which to be imaginative and creative. Proverbially, creativity is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

I think that children are naturally very creative, and we should be redesigning our whole society, not just education, to ensure that people can carry creativity in an unbounded way throughout their lives. I don’t mean for social media, where you post nebulous content for engagement. I mean creativity and the appeal of doing new things in a way that benefits people as individuals.

A lot of the time as an adult it feels like I am constrained, there are many barriers, social, and time pressures to overcome before I can even begin to start doing something creative. But when I eventually do find the momentum, and can start to bring in all the other literacies I listed above with something new, that is the most incredibly fulfilling experience.

Bringing it Together

Thinking about what I did at school, I think the education system as it currently is (or was, in Scotland) could be better. The fact that we have a formal free universal education system at all is amazing, and I don’t wish to diminish that immense societal achievement, but I do think it could be improved.

Children are great at learning, they are adaptive, and I think the sooner we can expose kids to these 5 kinds of ideas at a young age, the sooner they will be able to put them to use when the time comes to actually learn things.

I also think less of a focus needs to be put on exams and rote learning. The times when I learn best are when I am in a flow state, balancing my interest and productivity in a task. That only happens when I am stress free and working on something I genuinely care about. I don’t think school ever really offered that for me.

Build schools that can give kids the basic exposure to, and later training, for the literacies described above. And after that give kids and even adults the time and space to learn whatever they want. Let teachers act as guides for when learners are stuck, rather than as machines managing other machines to pass an exam.

If everyone were more free to learn, I think that would be a nicer world to live in.

Join the Conversation

  1. That’s a good post. In my view arguably the most important two from that list are Philosophical and Technological: with the challenges we are all facing with climate change and so on, it’s never been more important to understand the burgeoning changes to new technology in all areas, and have a mind open enough to consider, understand and make changes to our life priorities if the cliff edge we rushing toward in 2050 – or less! – is be avoided.

    Dinosaurs like me are probably beyond help (though I do try….) – but for my kids and especially grandkids: it’s their future. I’m not sure educations systems the world over are doing enough.


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