Think Globally, Teach Locally

25 Sep

When I Googled “map of world literacy” the first site the search yielded was World Illiteracy Map. Not only had Google given me the exact opposite of what I asked for (illiteracy rather than literacy), but I was suspicious of the resulting website’s motto: “Maps of World: We do magic to maps.” Do I trust a supposedly research-based website that claims to “do magic”? I pushed my suspicions aside for the moment, and read what it had to say: The US, along with virtually every other country residing above the Tropic of Cancer had an illiteracy rate of “less than 5%.” With the exception of the southern countries in Africa, the same was true for all countries south of the Tropic of Capricorn. In other words, this map displays a belt of illiteracy between approximately 23 degrees north and south of the equator.


In an effort to gather a second opinion, I called upon Wolfram Alpha and searched “literacy rate by country.” The results were similar, though more thorough to say the least. Whereas Maps of World did not define literacy, nor the population it polled (Adults? Children? Everyone?), Wolfram Alpha did both: for the purposes of their measurements, Literacy is, “[t]he percentage of people ages 15 and above who can, with understanding, read and write a short, simple statement on their everyday life.” While we could critique the phrase “with understanding,” (Who measures it? What does it mean?), at least it offers us something more specific than the Maps of World map which described its map as showing “the countries in the world that are highly affected by the problem of illiteracy.”


If you’re wondering how the US ranks, the answer is (according to Wolfram Alpha), 27th. With a literacy rate of 99%, we are outranked by Scandanavia/Northern Europe, China, and North Korea, to name a few. Clearly, if we want to be “the best,” 99% just won’t do.


But before we take too much stock in either of these maps or global rankings, we should stop and ask ourselves, “is modern literacy really the ability to ‘read and write a short, simple statement’”? According to the National Council of Teachers of English’s (NCTE) definition of 21st Century Literacies (note the pluralization) the answer is a resounding “no.” The NCTE’s definition, revised and updated in February 2013, proposes that literacies are in fact, “multiple, dynamic, and malleable,” and should include “proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology … [the ability to] design and share information for global communities … manage, analyse, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information … create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts.” This brings in the issue of the so-called digital divide, or, “an economic inequality between groups … in terms of access to, use of, or knowledge of information and communication technologies.” Suddenly, the question of reading and writing becomes a question of economics and technology. The International Center for Theoretical Physics’ (ICTP) explanation and map of The Digital Divide is perhaps unsurprising: the countries with the highest rate of internet usage are, in general, those counties with high literacy rates. Some notable exceptions are South Africa, Egypt (both with higher technology usage than I expected, based on their literacy rates), and Argentina (with lower).

ImageScreen Shot 2013-09-25 at 2.34.54 PM

So what of the original question: How does the US fare in adult literacy compared to other industrialized and/or developing nations? Are we 27th? 2nd? Or is it impossible to say? It seems odd that, in our world of mass information, we might not have enough information to answer this question—but perhaps this is not a bad thing. Perhaps the answer is simply: it depends. It depends on how we define “literacy,” how we define “industrialized,” and of course, it depends on which information source we ask. For the purposes of our careers in education, I propose that we all but ignore our global rank, and instead, act locally. Rather than simply teaching our students how to read and write, we must engage them in literate behavior, from reading to researching to filtering information to writing to blogging to thinking critically. By helping our students take in, process, and produce information, we not only create “literate” human beings, we help them to contribute to the world around them.

2 Responses to “Think Globally, Teach Locally”

  1. taplatt September 26, 2013 at 4:19 am #

    Another interesting and thought-provoking post, as usual! I love your last paragraph and totally agree; the definition of literacy is inherently vague and constantly changing in today’s tech-saturated world. I like your notion of “teach local” to engage those around us.


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