Being able to distinguish between skills, literacy and fluency is a perennial part of my job as an educational developer. This is most visible in thinking about how to communicate and engage people in conversations to do with digital capabilities, as is the case for me again now. However, it is more fundamental than that – it comes down to how we think about educational development, learning, employability, professional development, and the academic ecosystem in its entirety.
In this post I explain why ‘fluency’ is the right discourse for framing any educational or professional development conversation. Skills and literacies have their rightful places within that discourse, but attention to fluency means attention is given to the agility and agency of the subject, whether academic or student, or the organisation itself. Let us begin by breaking things down. What do we mean by skills, literacy and fluency?
Skills, literacy, and fluency – what do we want?
A skills discourse is the most straightforward – a skill describes the ability to perform a given task. To perform a function. As such, we can see what we have achieved if we have learnt a skill, and it is easy to evaluate whether we can successfully perform that skill at a point in time and in a specific context. It is easy to certificate skills therefore, and this is gratifying for all concerned, especially people who we do not know yet but who, in the future, will seek proof of our abilities. There’s a lot going for a skills discourse, but that’s not with a higher education is about. Graduates and academics need to be more than that. Skills are limited and, after a while, their values diminishes as specific context change and new contexts become apparent. Still, certification also demonstrates that we are capable of acquiring skills and there is some value in that.
Literacy, or being literate, is a good term, especially in the academic world. Being literate suggests we are knowledgeable and well-read. It implies a degree of critical and creative engagement with the subject. It suggests we can interpret and apply some knowledge to what we have to do. However, there is a lot of implication and ambiguity in all that – the literate person is certainly aware of a knowledge domain, but there is no real sense that this awareness will cause the individual think through the implications of what having that knowledge means for their practice or that how it will help them to respond to contexts that are not yet clear. There is still too much suggestion that the knowledge is received rather than something to be considered and owned. Literacy promotes a laisse-faire attitude – we are allowed to engage with the knowledge, but the knowledge is not presented as having significant consequences that must be addressed. Knowledge exists within the intellectual domain.
Fluency, on the other hand, presents knowledge as something that is defined by its ambiguity. The knowledge exists within a complexity that can’t, and mustn’t, be defined or contained. It demands that strategies (e.g. skills) and critical lens is applied to the subject matter. However, what really matters is having a depth of personal knowledge that leads to the individual being able to respond wisely, almost without having to think. Fluency is about self-efficacy therefore.
What do we want? – We (in my case ‘education’) want people who are fluent and therefore relatively autonomous; people who are more than (‘more than’ is important) capable of making wise decisions in a given situation.
As noted, developing digital fluency is an important focus for me in my work at the moment. However, this agenda exists within the context of the postdigital world (Fawns, 2019). This helps and adds to the complexity of how to address this.
The postdigital context refers to ‘the digital’ as being ubiquitous, pervasive, and integral to the lived experience. If we stop talking now about ‘the digital age’ and instead pay attention to our reality of ‘everyware’ ubiquitous technology (Greenfield, 2006), then a skills-led discourse shows itself to be a hinderance to what we really need to develop. It represents a pretence that we are equipping staff or students for the foreseeable future. Whereas the future can’t be foreseen, but we do know it will be significantly different.
Look back 10 years – how has your digital landscape changed since then? What are the implications of this to your life, then, now and the future? We cannot be satisfied simply if someone (academic, student or other) has learnt a new skill. That skill only has meaning and value now and if its acquisition is understood as evidence of a habitual engagement with a fluid context.
Any development activity needs to be labelled: “Use with Caution!” (and criticality).
In terms of complexity, then, an educational discourse requires the development of spatial fluency – that is, each of us must be able to critically and creatively assess the situations in which we exist and respond wisely, as though we have not had to analyse the situation, before participating effectively. Our attention, as developers must be given, therefore to positive ‘agency’ and ‘placemaking’.
Before moving on, spatial fluency allows us to think about other big, bold questions of our times too (Sparrow, 2018).
Dancing is the answer!
I don’t mind writing and thinking here if it sometimes means me tying myself up in knots! This is what this space is primarily for in many ways. However, top of my mind is how to communicate a shift towards fluency, and beyond skills and literacy. How can we all grasp and deal with a university experience as being a space in time to develop complexity strategies? How can I frame this discussion with academics, students and managers in a straightforward way that makes sense to anyone?
My immediate thoughts are to visualise the ideas and to use metaphors. I must acknowledge the excellent podcast Philosophize This! and the second episode on the philosopher John Locke in which the idea of dancing, not standing, was discussed.
Digital fluency reflects the innate agency at the heart of learning – especially in an active learning paradigm in which we have respect for the learner and their own motivations.
While we might be able to teach someone how to stand up straight, that is all we are teaching. Being able to stand up straight is a specific skill. It is a function that can be performed and checked. We can use that skill, but it is difficult to apply it with any versatility or confidence to any other situation that we may encounter. If we learn to stand up from a chair, or on a slope, for example, to what extent can we confidently say we can also stand up in a moving vehicle, or when the slope is down instead of up, when there is or isn’t something to hold on to? A particular skill, and its value, are necessarily limited. We can always teach those other skills, but when do we stop? As parents, we know that standing up is not the ‘be all and end all’ to a small child – they have greater purpose and curiosity that gives them resilience. Focusing on developing curiosity is a clue to how we teach in complex situations and, in fact, an individual’s own, unique context (their part of the ecosystem) is critical to their sense making.
So clearly, thinking about teaching the different skill of walking, rather than standing, would be a better idea. There’s more in it. But what are we teaching the nascent walker? We are still teaching them to stand, but we are also teaching them how to move their legs in the the ‘right’ order so as to move forward, or even backwards. And necessarily we are teaching them to balance and to stop. Of course, we must teach the walker some other basics including how to decide on what direction to travel in and for how long. And to not run before you can walk! Then, we need to consider when to introduce ideas about travelling. Travelling causes their sensory context to change because of the actions they are taking, so that they must be able to respond to that change. It goes without saying that the walker must begin to interpret their context and respond to it. As parents, we know that we don’t sit our child down with a script and go through the ‘how to walk’ manual ‘step by step’ (though this is an interesting thought -there may be a book opportunity there for the unscrupulous teacher!). No, we allow for a few scrapes and bruises and try to put reasonable safeguards in place, but also create a supportive and constructive learning experience. The teacher parent helps the learner walker to reflect on the decisions they made – and then we quickly move on.
Let us now consider dancing and why learning to dance might be more useful than learning to walk or stand up! It is about context, motivation, and agility. Fundamentally it is about agency though.
Dancing is such a joyous act. It is about life itself. It is about who we want to be and how we want to feel. It is that bigger, bolder picture of memorable moments. It is about the freedom, even in or especially in, a social situation that we desire. [nb. anyone who knows me may be surprised to hear me effuse about dancing – just enjoy the moment! ;-)]
Dancing conveys a fluency that is not necessarily so obvious in the functional act of walking. Walking is an intellectual act (usually – but also see ideas of wandering and psychogeography). We tend to approach walking as a perfunctory act that enables us to get things done. We have focus and purpose and, for most of us, we know how to do it and we don’t pay too much attention to it. We know its limitations and will turn to other forms of being ambulant when walking is not going to achieve what we need to do. We have walking literacy.
Dancing, on the other hand, is us at our joyous best – when we are able to respond to any situation with utter confidence and fluidity. We have a sense of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) and being. Dancing, as an enactment of fluency, involves us in self-demonstrations of exuberance and deep engagement with life. Physically, this dancing fluency is a matter of audacious balance, especially when this involves dancing with a partner.
Balance as a dimension of dancing and movement, perhaps epitomises fluency. Our bodies are dynamic containers of energy in motion and the physical space around us is in a continual ‘split second’ flux. It only goes wrong when we stop to think – when we become too literate and so too conscious of the world around us: I heard the athlete Kelly Holmes on the radio yesterday describe how she lost a podium place by looking up to check her timing as she approached the winning line. Fluency would have carried her over – and later in her career it did.
Balance and fluency, underpinned by technique and a sure knowledge of one’s skills and ability to deploy them, mean that the dancer, the skater, the artist, the musician, the athlete, the theoretician, indeed any of us, all excel when we ‘know’ without having to stop and think.
I argue, then, we should aspire to fluency by focusing on the agency we desire within our learning ecosystem. This takes skills, awareness, and opportunities in which to positively apply ourselves as we explore our worlds being driven by our respective curiosities.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. London: Rider.
Fawns, T. (2019). Postdigital education in design and practice. Postdigital Science and Education, 1,
Greenfield, A. (2006). Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing. ‘Voices that matter’, CA: New Riders.
Sparrow, J. (2018). Digital fluency: preparing student to create big, bold problems. New Horizons: EDUCAUSE. Online at: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/3/digital-fluency-preparing-students-to-create-big-bold-problems, 132–145. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-018-0021-8