Literacy Vs. Critical Thinking: A Quick Distinction

The word literacy is sprinkled liberally throughout educational literature, in dozens of different forms. Beyond the good old reading and writing variety, there’s media literacy, health literacy, financial literacy, technological literacy…you get the picture.  There’s good reason for it being a key buzz word.  It may be the digital age, but this sometimes-analogue set of skills is still vital.  Even students who moan and groan about learning to handle language with care often grow up to admit they really do need to be able to express themselves clearly and accurately.

At times, critical thinking gets lumped in with literacy. It’s often assumed that if a learner is mastering skills in reading, writing and speaking, they’re also getting a handle on skills like analysis, evaluation, and argumentation.  This isn’t to say that literacy isn’t of the utmost importance, but one doesn’t necessarily entail the other.

Here are a few subtle differences between literacy and critical thinking:

  • Literacy is, in most of its forms, learning about things.  It’s about becoming familiar with and aware of the information presented to you.  It’s about parsing information, comprehending it, and explaining it.  Generally speaking, it deals with what.
  • Critical thinking, however, is about pulling this information apart, testing its validity, and adding one’s own thoughts to it.  It involves questioning, reformulating, and arguing.  It’s about why.

To dig a little deeper and ensure that students are both literate and critical of what they see, hear and say, try activities like:

  • Journal responses (in written, audio, video, or even artistic format).  Don’t let learners settle on comments like “I like it” or “It was nice.”  Challenge them to explain themselves, using examples from both literature studied, and from their own experiences.  Also encourage them to test their viewpoints with counterexamples and alternate viewpoints.
  • Case studies.  When testing out an idea, there’s nowhere better to turn than reality.  Ask students to apply their ideas to real life scenarios and see if they still float.
  • Debate. It may sound old-fashioned, but a well-structured, good-natured, logical debate can really force learners to see with a different set of eyes, and to find flaws in their own viewpoints.

What’s wrong with just being literate?  Well, for one thing, the many new forms of literacy call for a critical eye.  Media literacy isn’t just about being familiar with different types of media.  Global literacy entails more than basic geography.  Health literacy isn’t just simple physiology.  All of them push for understanding on a deeper level, of the impact ideas have on both individuals and societies.

More importantly, innovation and creativity, both of which are prized in our current, fast-paced lifestyle, hinge on going beneath the surface.  New stuff, more interesting stuff, and general change and improvement come from critical thinking.  If we expect our current batch of young thinkers to change the world, they’re going to need to know more than just what’s there.

Amy Leask is VP of Enable Education.