Decide what to teach and test

Media literacy, reading and writing - what should be taught in the future?

The Hamburg Declaration rightly calls for better reading promotion for children, even if one cannot scientifically prove exactly how reading and writing skills have developed. Because the digital media offer us abbreviations and services that seductively simply take all tasks away from us - including reading and writing. Camps quickly form around the advocates of the digital classroom (“we have to prepare children for the world and teach media skills”) and around the keepers (“basic knowledge remains basic knowledge and reading, writing and arithmetic are part of it”) - from populist prejudices “Digital dementia” not to mention at all). This debate must not end in an either / or, but should aim at an both / and as well. Here is a suggestion.

Are digital media replacing reading and writing?

Reading is one of the most important cultural techniques. The one who can read is in advantage. It has always been like that, since the emergence of high cultures. The special role of writing in Egyptian culture as a sign of language and an otherworldly space shaped meaning through to the shaping of architecture (recommended: Jan Assmann “Egypt. A history of meaning”). And even if the “Holy Scriptures” are only used as a benchmark in a few places today, we are influenced right down to the fingertips of the Enlightenment by the imparting of knowledge through writing and reading.

In an advertising campaign this year, Google promises to solve almost all tasks with its assistant (as well as Alexa and Watson, Cortana and Siri). And the question from students is in the room why they should learn something that can be done better by digital helpers. The simple answer is because there can be a power outage too. But we've also got used to not washing by hand or walking miles to school, using the calculator and storing our groceries in the refrigerator. So we have to look more closely at our answer. Because we want to enable the next generations to ensure the survival of everyone.

Now Alexa, Siri or Cortana suggest to us that all you have to do is shout commands to them and whatever should happen. You don't even have to be able to read or write anymore. A simple command is enough. And an improved search function (attention, this of course needs as much user data as possible) leads us to a clear answer to our question, be it via Wikipedia, Amazon or on the pages of some influencer. This is, of course, "misleading advertising" because these services do not lead us to the best answer, but to the "best answer as defined by the company that makes the service possible". Because Google and Amazon, Apple and IBM are listed companies and will have to do everything to ensure their survival. Since the creation and acquisition of information is time-consuming, someone has to pay for it. This is currently what the customer is doing with their data (see e.g. one of the numerous critical studies on the collection of data without user permission by Google or Facebook and Amazon). And it is part of the stair joke of history that pioneers of the Internet today apologize for the current situation because they regard this exchange relationship of information for data as the fall of the Internet (see the interesting report by New York Magazine). Because they have recognized that the majority of users do not understand the complex exchange relationships when creating information and that media competence is a rare commodity that has to be learned.

The answer to the question asked above is no. Digital media do not replace the need to learn to read and write. On the contrary: digital media actually read more than ever before. Just different and different. So the one who can read and write has an advantage. Because the fact that there are tools that do this for me doesn't mean that these tools are used everywhere. In the long run there will be many more situations in which I have to read and write than situations in which a tool does it for me. (And for those who still believe that these “digital natives” would only pass and dumb their time with “binge watching”, this text by Melissa Chu on reading techniques in the digital age, which shows the discipline and commitment, is recommended which still absorbs knowledge.)
And: the tools that do the job of reading and writing can only be controlled by people who can read and write.
And: Digital helpers will make a lot of things easier, but neither now nor in five years. But we have to understand the changes now in order to be able to control them.
In doing so, we can avoid the common mistake of overestimating the new and disregarding the old. Or, to put it in the words of Bill Gate:

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten (Bill Gates, The Road Ahead).

It is always about self-assessment. Here, too, Bill Gates' variant of the saying helps:

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.

In relation to our topic, this means that digital tools such as speech recognition and automated searches for suitable content will change our society over the next ten years. But that shouldn't prevent us from placing reading at the forefront of education now. Because if you can't read, you are at the mercy of the algorithms far more than you want to. is preparing to teach children to read more easily. There are also separate reading texts that build on each other and were specially written by authors. In class, a teacher can only give a few students the opportunity to read their texts aloud. With this app, the students can study individually at home and are accompanied. In contrast to existing offers, the students receive a reading aid that reads the text with them in a suitable rhythm. Text for text thus builds up the competence. Areas of application are particularly useful in foreign language teaching and in promoting children for whom learning to read is not so easy. And if you think of the increasing number of commands via services such as Alexa, Google Home or Siri, then it will be important to accompany children intelligently in this environment and not to leave them alone.

The medium is the message

To speak with McLuhan, there has never been an independence of communication from its carrier media. In ancient Egypt, like the monks of the Middle Ages, scribes were a trained minority who had a formative effect. The pens, the choice of paper and the typewriters influenced the processing and dissemination of information just as much as the censorship and the people's receivers during the Nazi dictatorship. It would therefore be wrong to blame the big companies for imparting knowledge, because after all they have created technologies that state machines have never managed. There are no objective media. The slate only works that way because we as children have got used to it in every school and have accepted it as fate. And if we have retained something, it is because a good teacher knew how to deal with it. And that applies to tablets and smartphones as well today.

It is obvious that our tools influence the way we read and write. We look in amazement at the hieroglyphs and cannot imagine having to communicate in this way today. That seems too complicated to us. We want to understand quickly, we leave spoken messages that can be converted into texts and emojis, we have digital services for translations, summaries and ratings of the content and senders. We live in the flow of data.
The question is, what does the new media do better and what does worse than the previous ones? These are of course the usual well-known functions that we can all pray down in our sleep. As a reminder, here is an overview of why we are talking about a digital turnaround and why we have to teach different things than before. And that we always have to keep in mind that these media are developing at breakneck speed. Digital offers are “never finished” and our assessment today will be different next year. For example, Ferris Jabr's contribution to the development of reading with digital devices is worthwhile.

Digital offers have brought about fundamental changes in the media. This must be taken into account when teaching knowledge in schools in the future. The table shows that the basics of the respective formats are still the prerequisite for good teaching. That means that you have to be able to read, write, speak and know how to create and record texts. However, one also recognizes that knowledge of algorithms for evaluating the hit lists or the mechanisms for spreading messages on the Internet are just as important. Since the day still only has 24 hours, you have to set priorities. And that means that some in-depth lessons have to be deleted from the curriculum.

The new tools are changing our communication. And some are depressed, others feel comfortable in it. Why?

Reading and writing have two main functions: enabling togetherness and tracing meaning and purpose

With these two essential functions in mind, it becomes clear that when thinking about curricula, one needs to keep their purpose and purpose in mind. It would be negligent to withhold digital media from young people, because then they will not learn how the majority of adults communicate. Small children have never been forbidden to use a telephone per se. Over time you have learned to speak to someone you cannot see. But this process has never been associated with the same fears as the use of social networks and smartphones now accompanies. One reason is because the phone has only taken up a small portion of the time, while smartphones are very much in use. And this is where the second meaning of media comes into play: media should have a meaningful effect. They should help people to recognize themselves in their way of life. Media are a means of reflection. And this is where it gets exciting.
Because one reproach is that the reflection will be lost because the basics are no longer known and because too much time is used up for the “wrong” type of communication. And here things are often mixed up because reading is not synonymous with searching for meaning or reflecting.

A young person who drowns in fantasy books and spends most of his free time reading could be advised, with good arguments, to do a little sport and not to isolate himself from her friends. The same would apply to a student who sinks into Kant for a year and who is not socially acceptable, pruning others in conversations because of their stupid logic. Reading books is not a value here per se. To take the time to reflect, however, does.

WriteReader is a Danish start-up that supports teachers with language lessons. Teachers have their own dashboard where they can get support, download other templates, and edit and upload their own works. The cooperation with Sesame Street provides an example of content that is already made available. More importantly, students can also upload their own work and show it to others. It is her first book that she wrote herself. The teacher can quickly create his own book, as can the students. He can use his own recordings or choose from given examples. In the book given by the teacher, the students can write down the words for the pictures on the keyboard as they think. The little owl learns to write by “retyping” the images and sounds. She is allowed to make mistakes and the great owl then explains to her what the correct spelling is.

The accusation is that one no longer takes the time to reflect because everything can only be done quickly and without reflection. That's not true. We observe an acceleration of communication and exchange with others. We will no longer be able to slow this pace, due to the possibilities of the media itself. The train, the car, the telephone, the plane ... they all trained us to be faster in the same way as the storage capacity on our smartphones and the potential availability of millions of contact persons online. We no longer take the time to write a letter and then wait at least several days for an answer. And if we write a letter today, it has a different meaning today because it documents a special effort compared to fast email or chat.
But just as we jet to remote vacation spots to meditate there, we also become active on WhatsApp in seconds, so that a little later we can chill out with a board game. The contrasts become more frequent and can be felt by those who live in both worlds.

We cannot keep young people away from the forms of communication that shape the global world. It would be as if you wanted to educate them for years in the monastery with books and pens so that they can later master software programs that can read and write independently much faster than they themselves and are trained in interaction.
But we also have the task of making the most diverse forms of communication understandable and tangible. This means that it can make perfect sense to forbid the mobile phone in school sometimes (e.g. for skiing holidays, concerts, theater rehearsals ...) and sometimes to use it (e.g. for jointly commenting on texts, comparing hit lists or the different forms of presentation of Love ...). The comparison of the media leads to reflection and this leads to the correct use of the media.

How should reading and writing be taught in the future?

And now to the crucial question: How should the students learn in the future? Because you can learn to read and write with and without software support. Parvin Sadigh von der Zeit refers to the fact check of the Mercator Institute by Simone Jambor-Fahlen and its results from a scientific point of view:

  • The ability to read and write depends largely on the teacher and less on the method. Individual support is important.
  • Strictly speaking, there is no scientific evidence because none of the methods are in their pure form.
  • Individual support initially means conveying the value to the students and seriously accompanying them in their questions, fears and wishes.

This is in line with all previous experiences in the 2020 school trial: "Better a good educator with whatever analog or digital approach than a bad one who is driving the hip or prescribed pig through the village." In addition, there can understandably be no long-term studies on modern, purely digital methods.

The Stavanger Declaration is the first result of around 200 reading researchers in Europe who have come together in the Evolution of Reading in the Age of Digitization (E-READ) initiative to work in several research groups to shed light on: How does it work? does digitization affect our ability to read? In the first step there are framework conditions for “good research”. Because we mustn't fool ourselves: we cannot expect recipes from science and then draw simple conclusions such as “Reading only makes sense in print” or “Digitization is much better at promoting all possible skills”. How difficult it is to be scientifically exact and not jump to conclusions is shown by a look at a study on the advantages of handwritten notes compared to notes on a laptop. In their study, Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer come to the conclusion that there are differences in the way knowledge is absorbed when comparing students who take notes on laptops during lectures or who take notes by hand. In the case of purely knowledge-based questions, taking notes faster can bring advantages; in the case of conceptual questions, it depends on the ability to put the content in a new context. And here the handwritten note is an advantage. Because the pen is slower (unless you can do shorthand) and you have to concentrate on the summary while you are writing.
That means that it depends on the goal and the correct use of the medium for the respective goal. (See, for example, the method overview of the initiative # on promoting reading.)
And you can only learn that if you are taught as many methods as possible and can try them out yourself if possible.
And that means that it is important to encourage reflection in order to be able to determine the goal and then choose the right medium.
This is called media literacy.


An interim conclusion

  1. Training media skills means that we have to convey new topics and materials (see the table above). This is only possible if you save this time elsewhere.
  2. Reading and writing are basics.The canon for these basics will have to be smaller than before (as a reminder, see point 1 - we have to catch the time somewhere). Not all novels from the past 500 years and not all forms of handwriting need to be taught.
  3. Your own creation of media will play a major role. Doing it yourself is always better than just listening. This also takes time and can only be done using specific examples. But it's worth it.
  4. In concrete terms, this means that in the future less “material” will be put on the curriculum and more “do it yourself”. This must be accompanied by reflection on the respective action and method. This is then called “acquiring skills” (see our overview of the various approaches up to the six K of the Conference of Ministers of Education).
  5. Checking and accompanying competence is more difficult than asking for information. It means an upgrading of the educator as a companion and coach.
  6. Media competence has to be conveyed in the sense of: I know which medium is best suited for which message.



My focus is on the strategic development of companies, the design of suitable business models and customer analysis - that sounds like dry bread. But it can be very creative, stimulating, and fulfilling. From my experience as a product manager, publishing director and managing director at Carl Hanser Verlag and Haufe-Lexware, I know the media business and the challenges posed by digitization. With partners, I develop platforms such as flipintu or lectory and digital learning methods with the Goethe-Institut and various universities. You have to experience something yourself in order to be able to convey it. Not that I'm a fan of Steve Jobs, but his legendary Stanford speech is smart and the motto fits: Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Life is too short to waste on pointless meetings and phrases.