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Critical Literacies, Pragmatics and Education

June 17th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Yesterday, together with my colleague Jenny Hughes, I made a presentation to participants in the Critical Literacies course being run by Rita Kop and Stephen Downes as part of their ongoing research project on Personal Learning Environments.

The course blog says: “Technology has brought changes to the way people learn and some “critical literacies” are becoming increasingly important. This course is about these critical literacies. Critical, as the course is not just about finding out how to use the latest technologies for learning, but to look critically at the Web and its underlying structures. Literacies, as it is more about capabilities to be developed than about the acquisition of a set of skills. It is all about learning what is needed to develop confidence and competence, and to feel capable of negotiating an ever changing information and media landscape.”

Our presentation was on pragmatics. Pragmatics, we said is a sub field of linguistics which studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning.

Today we have made a short version of the presentation as a slidecast. In the presentation we explore different ideas about context in education. In the final part of the presentation we look at Personal Learning Environments and how they relate to issues of meaning and context.

The introductory and end music is from an album called Earth by zero-project. it can be downloaded from the excellent Jamendo web site.

8 Responses to “Critical Literacies, Pragmatics and Education”

  1. Hi Jenny and Graham,

    Thanks for posting the presentation. It was presented in a much more accessible way for me than reading through some of the texts on this subject. I still have some work to do to have a clear picture of the importance of pragmatics, but i shall review your presentation and read more and hopefully become more enlightened -).

    I’ll throw a couple of questions at you if i may.

    1. “Pragmatics, we said is a sub field of linguistics which studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning” – Can you give an example of what you would hope to learn/gain from a pragmatic study of a particular context – I may seem like a stupid question, but what tangible things can we get out of a pragmatic study.

    2. How do students know how to act in a Personal Learning Environment? What strategies do you propose to help learners to function in a PLE?


  2. jen hughes says:

    Hi Steve
    I guess in some ways I wouldn’t ever consciously do a ‘pragmatic study’ in education! For me, it’s more a particular ‘consciousness’ or awareness around some issues. As a linguist (albeit not a pragmatist!) I am interested in a ‘text’ and the way it is encoded and decoded and how that process is contextually determined. So, using a very simple example (from wikipedia), If you see / hear the comment “I have a green light” that could mean you are in a car at a set of traffic lights and about to move or it could mean that you have the go-ahead on project or it could mean you have a lamp of that colour etc. It is almost always obvious from the context which meaning is intended i.e the ‘meaning’ is context dependent.

    So firstly, we need to recognise that different educational contexts will shape the meaning of the educational content. As McLuhan talked about ‘the medium is the message’ so it’s a bit like saying ‘the context is the message’. This is quite a useful idea that I can work with in education in a practical way. For example, it could be something as simple as asking yourself what messages does my classroom or institution convey to learners? Is it accessible? user friendly? overpowering? confusing? dirty? What values does it convey in the way it treats students, rewards students, recognises their achievement etc etc. ?

    Because I work producing e-learning content, for me its also about making sure materials are not just translated but culturally localised and for the designer I work with making sure that colours/layouts/fonts etc work in other languages and cultures.

    Secondly, in the crit-lit course context, we took pragmatism as a sub discipline of linguitics. Why? Because the other sessions were called things like ‘syntax’ or ‘semantics’ which are also sub disciplines of liguistics. So I made an assumption that they were using a linguistic framework to provide coherence and were using the word pragmatics in a linguistic sense. (That, in itself, a pragmatic analysis!!!)

    However, pragmatism is also a philosophical tradition (the division between linguistics and philosophy being very fuzzy). It basically says that we do not necessarily have to have grand theories on which to build our practice but rather that certain contexts can generate ideas, activities, practices which are perfectly fit for purpose and no less valid for having no logical or philosophical basis. In fact, the validity of anything can only be through people accepting and using it. I think this is useful. It’s a sort of ‘proof of concept’ approach. We are in a period of rapid educational change and change is always messy and untidy. Institutions and systems hate mess. Ideally, they would like everything and every one changing in the same direction at the same speed. In reality, good ideas can spring up spontaneously from almost anywhere and, almost by definition, will break the mold. So I think there are big messages for research councils and institutional managers about recognizing and cultivating the good practices that don’t necessarily fit their frameworks but which appear to work.

    As for the question on PLE, I’ll leave Graham to deal with that!

  3. Many thanks for your thorough explanation Jenny. My understanding is this.

    1. Pragmatic Analysis – A definition:

    To interpret a text (or communicative element), recognize the context in which it was said, written or otherwise communicated, so that you can appropriately recognize the meaning of the communication.

    2. Being skilled in pragmatics means that you are aware of the different contexts you are communicating in and can tailor language (or other communicative elements) appropriately.

    3. Following on from 2 is it fair to deduce that if you are communicating in unfamiliar contexts and/or you are ignorant of working in particular contexts you may not be able to communicate appropriately or effectively and are therefore pragmatically illiterate 🙂

    4. Following on from 3 is it fair say that your Pragmatic literacy may vary in different contexts.

    Any feedback would be much appreciated

    PS: I did not refer to any other docs for my definition, just camt to this reasoning after reading your comment response.

  4. Kathy Shields says:

    I appreciated the way you two re-presented the material from the article using multimedia tools and linking the insights to educational applications.

  5. jen hughes says:

    Hi Steve
    I think your summary is spot on! I have never thought about the pragmatic literacy / illiteracy idea before and I don’t know anyone who has used that expression but I think it’s a useful idea. I used to do a fair amount of work in the Middle East and could fill a book with things I managed to get wrong!


  1. […] learning in the Elluminate Session today, 16.6. –  CritLit2010. I tried to concentrate and follow the presentations of Graham Atwell and Jenny  Hughes. I gather here the main issues I could […]

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