Implementing Flip: Why higher-order literacy is not just about text

Within the field of “instructional” EdTech, Ponder is often described as a “literacy” tool, which while accurate, encompasses a much broader spread of pedagogical challenges. We usually describe our focus as “higher-order” literacy – the ability to extract meaning and think critically about information sources.

A couple months ago we began our pilots of Ponder Video, bringing our patent-pending experience to the medium more often associated with the flipped classroom. From our experience with text over the past two and a half years, we knew this would be an iterative process, and as expected we are learning a lot from the pilots and the experimentation – see part 1 and part 2 of our interface studies.

During this process, some people have asked if Ponder Video is, in startup terminology, a “pivot”; a change of strategy and focus of our organization. The question: do we still consider Ponder a literacy tool?

After a bit of reflection the answer is a resounding YES! And the process of reflection helped us gain a deeper appreciation for what “literacy” actually means. This is not a change of strategy, it is an expansion of Ponder to match the true breadth of literacy.

Literacy > Text

The term literacy is most often thought of as the ability to decode words and sentences. That is, of course, the first level of literacy, but there is a shifting focus in many of the new pedagogical and assessment debates, from the Common Core to the SAT, a shift away from memorizing facts and vocabulary towards students developing a higher-order literacy. Still, higher-order literacy is a vague concept, and at Ponder we are always searching for ways of articulating our vision more clearly.

One line I like, from a now deprecated page of with no by-line, does a really nice job of concisely capturing the significance of a broad definition of literacy: “literacy is necessary for an individual to understand information that is out of context, whether written or verbal.”

The definition is so simple, you might miss its significance. So let me repeat it:

“literacy is necessary for an individual to understand information that is out of context, whether written or verbal”

I like it because “understand information” goes beyond mere sentence decoding, and “out of context” unassumingly captures the purpose of literacy – to communicate beyond our immediate surroundings. The “or verbal” I would interpret broadly to include the many forms that information comes in today – audio, video and graphical representations.

The 21st century, at least so far and for the foreseeable future, is the interconnected century, the communication century, the manipulated statistics century, the Photoshopped century, perhaps the misinformation/disinformation century, and I would posit that if there is one “21st century skill” that we can all agree on, it is literacy, in the broad sense:

Understanding information out of context.

A text or video is inherently out of context, so a student at home is not only one step removed from the creator of the content, but also removed from the classroom. So a question immediately jumps to mind:

Are your students ready to learn out of context?

The answer to this question varies dramatically, and is not easily delineated by grade level; defining that readiness to provide an appropriate scaffold requires care, and is something we have worked to understand empirically through student activity in Ponder.

The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the US Department of Education, has put a lot of effort into defining and measuring this skill, and have twice performed a survey they call the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), providing a useful jumping off point for thinking about your students.

This is not like one of those surveys you read about. It is a uniquely thorough survey that consists of a background questionaire and screening process, followed by an interview.

The NAAL is made up 100% of open-ended, short-answer responsesnot multiple choice – and focuses on the participants ability to apply what they have read to accomplish “everyday literacy goals”. You read something, then answer a question that depends on something you have to have extracted from the reading.

As you might imagine, this is not a quick process.

Administering the NAAL takes 89 minutes per person and in 2003 was administered to 18,000 adults sampled to represent the US population. That’s almost 26,700 person-hours or three person-years of interviewing.

This thoroughness is important given that they are trying to measure a broad definition of literacy.

The NAAL breaks literacy into three literacy skill types:

  • Prose
  • Document
  • Quantitative

You can read the details on their site, but given that it turns out American adults have roughly comparable prose and document literacy scores, I would lump them together under a general heading of “reading.” Examples of quantitative literacy tasks are reading math word problems, balancing a checkbook or calculating interest on a loan.

They delineate four literacy levels:

  • Below basic
  • Basic
  • Intermediate
  • Proficient

Again, they go into a lot of detail mapping scores on to these names, but I think what’s most useful are the “key abilities” that distinguish each level in their definitions.

My interest in higher-order literacy immediately takes my eye to the key distinction between “Basic” and Intermediate. An intermediate skill level means the individual is capable of:

“reading and understanding moderately dense, less commonplace prose texts as well as summarizing, making simple inferences, determining cause and effect, and recognizing the author’s purpose”
NAAL Overview of Literacy Levels

That list of skills captures the starting point of what we think of as higher order literacy. (If you’re curious, the highest level of literacy, modestly labeled “Proficient,” seems to mostly be distinguished by the ability to this sort of analysis across multiple documents.)

For me, the NAAL provides a useful framework for breaking down the literacy problems that instructional techniques (and technologies) are trying to address.

Ponder supports teachers who are trying to move their students from a level of basic literacy to being able to make inferences, determine cause and effect, recognize the author’s purpose.

…but our goal is to go an important step beyond even the NAAL’s definition of literacy.

Because what is the point really of making inferences and identifying cause and effect if ultimately you are unable to probe with your own questions and evaluate with your own conclusions?

In the end, the end-game of literacy is the so-called ability to “think for yourself.”

Flip is a great way to practice literacy. But you need literate students to flip.

The flipped classroom model is typically used for students to dig into and prepare for class discussion, and obviously presumes a basic student literacy level. But passively consuming a video or skimming a text isn’t enough to drive discussion back in class. As we all know from our own student days, technically meeting the requirements of having “done the reading” does not comprehension make.

Flipping, more so than traditional classroom lectures, requires students to be able to dig beneath the surface of the content, question its credibility, ask clarifying questions and make their own inferences.

Such are the makings of a classic Chicken and Egg conundrum. Flipping requires students to have the skills they are still trying to learn and master through…flipping.

I don’t think anyone has claimed to have answered this question yet, and neither have we, but the first step is realizing what you don’t know, and we do claim to have done that! We will continue to share the learnings from our video research as we iterate on Ponder Video, and welcome more ideas and discussion from teachers everywhere.

Population by Prose Literacy Level (Courtesy NAAL)

Population by Prose Literacy Level (Courtesy NAAL)

Curious about the numbers? The NAAL has been run twice – once in 1993, and a second time in 2003, and there wasn’t a big change in the scores in those ten years, except a slight increase in quantitative literacy. However, we have a pretty serious higher-order literacy problem. Between 34% and 43% of adult Americans lack the higher order literacy skills to be classified as “intermediate” or above by the NAAL.

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