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Pedagogies and Literacies, Disentangling the Historical Threads: An Interview with Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis

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Pages 5-11 | Accepted author version posted online: 08 Dec 2017, Published online in Theory into Practice:
22 Jan 2018


In this discussion with educational researchers and New London Group conveners, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, we discuss the origins, life, and future of the New London Group‘s multiliteracies framework. We reflect on the initial goals the group had over 20 years ago for more equitable schooling opportunities, and what is yet to be done to reach these ideals. We consider how Cope and Kalantzis‘ work in schools since that time, and in the literacy field more generally, has been informed by multiliteracies, specifically how issues of equity, consequences of traditional views of language and literacy, and advancing technologies continue to necessitate shifts in educational policy and practice that will allow for teachers to engage in flexible, responsive, and transformative teaching.

In 1994, a group of 10 international scholars gathered together in New London, New Hampshire to discuss their shared concerns for the growing disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes for the minoritized populations with whom they worked. They met to converse across disciplines with the hope of articulating new ways forward for educational policy and practice. The result of this initial meeting—and subsequent conversations over the following year—was a pedagogical design called multiliteracies (New London Group, 1996).

In the following interview with Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, the conveners of what came to be known as the New London Group (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000), we look back on the educational landscape at the time of their first meetings, and discuss the group’s inception of multiliteracies as a pedagogical framework that called for responsive instructional design and active multimodal knowledge making. We consider how their work in schools since that time, and in the literacy field more generally, has been informed by multiliteracies, specifically how issues of equity, consequences of traditional views of language and literacy, and advancing technologies continue to necessitate shifts in educational policy and practice that will allow for teachers to engage in flexible, responsive, and transformative teaching. Finally, we consider what is yet to be done to reach the ideals the New London Group envisioned more than 20 years ago.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and focus. Citations have been added where Mary and Bill either referenced particular work or the citation provides context for the discussion.


Let’s start by looking at the way you came together. What educational questions were you responding to in coming together in New London? What did you hope to accomplish?


What we were seeing was that the gap was getting bigger between those who were succeeding and those who weren’t succeeding in literacy performance in schools. So here we were, theorists and educational practitioners in different domains, each one of us with a different theory about the world and how the situation of learner inequalities might improve. However, we all recognized the reality on the ground was that schools were reproducing the same kind of differences in academic performance for minority populations. So, that meant for us there was something that needed addressing about the way literacy was taught.


I will add on to this. Views of language always have implicit pedagogies that go with them. So, for example, if phonics is, indeed, a straightforward transliteration of speech into writing, before you can teach more complex forms of writing and reading, we teach a set of rules—44 sound/letter combinations—and it is assumed that off the learners should go with reading. The phonemic patterns become pedagogical kinds of devices. Such transmission approaches are often reserved for kid of in low income neighborhoods and under-resourced schools.

As another example, if you have a view that there’s a single canonical form of written language, which is the standard language of memos or the standard language of newspapers, you build a pedagogy, which teaches correct forms in a didactic kind of way. So, in other words, views of language produce pedagogical effects that reproduce existing inequalities. What we did with multiliteracies was try to build something which was more dynamic, and which built views of learning as agency, which recognized the variety of learner starting points.


And we wanted to focus on meaning making in a broader sense.


Right, exactly, and meaning making, active meaning making. We said, “Look, in fact there are these many different discursive forms, which are distinctive. And when we reach modern forms of textuality like the illustrated magazine or the Internet, they are as much visually designed as they are linguistic forms. So one of the multimodality arguments then is that we are building designs for these things where the rules are very complicated. They can’t just be taught as 44 sounds.”

So, we’ve built this notion of design, which is: Rather than learn the rules, you learn the processes of reapplication in every context where the learner is a transformative agent in the process. One of the consequences of that is that every text that is constructed is actually always new. And when text is always new, it expresses individual interest and identity. These views of language and meaning-making processes have profound effects on the kinds of pedagogies we design. They are more open to learner diversity.


Let’s consider that when a child is born they look, they touch, they feel. They are multimodal; that’s how they make meaning. And what do we do to them? We put them in school and as they go through the grades we strip all that out. We say read, write, read, write, test, read, don’t touch, don’t move, don’t scribble. The essay or the tick-a-box test for correct usage become the way of expressing knowledge. It is antihuman. It’s anti-meaning making in the sense that it is unable to recognize identity-defining expressive agency. And then there are the affordances of the new technologies—which have advanced even faster than we imagined—with one click, you can get a picture, a sound, an image. And little kids do that; little kids are making meaning in these multiple ways, with bodily gestures of swiping, selecting, navigating from image to image, screen to screen. So that reality that we predicted back in the 1990s when we named multimodality is very much a reality for children now.

So, these three things came together for us that couldn’t be separated: multimodal communication, diversity, and pedagogy. What we realized was that if we take seriously the fact that every classroom is diverse, you can’t have a single pedagogy. There is not a single pedagogical approach that will transform a learner or transform a class. This is when we came up with this notion of the repertoire—that a teacher had to be a deeply professional person, not just somebody following instructions, a content manager, just turning the page. The teacher needs to be a deeply professional person who has a repertoire and is able to draw on an appropriate pedagogy for a particular purpose of transformation with particular groups. So, that’s why pedagogy became key, but not a single pedagogy.

And meaning making and design, conceptually, are also key to us. They are not just arbitrary or accidental words. They carry a lot of weight for us because of what it means for the teacher. It puts the pressure on the teacher to be this professional, to understand every learner when they come into the classroom: What are they bringing with them? What are their meaning-making tools? What is the range of meaning-making resources, and how can they use that as a foundation? It is the role of the teacher to ensure that all learners experience transformative pedagogies, that they expand their repertoire of meaning-making resources. And this matters, too—the learner should know what they have learned and how their repertoires of meaning making have expanded.

The remaining problem for us, and Jim Gee pointed this out in the beginning, was that none of this will matter if high-stakes testing is still in place as it is. Standardized tests assess a very particular kind of skill and short-term memory. They are not about meaning making, and yet high-stakes testing drives curriculum and it drives pedagogical fashions. Pedagogical heritage practices, such as direct instruction—which was one failed response to trying to improve literacy for Indigenous youth in Australia, Canada, and the United States (Australian Council for Educational Research, 2013; Luke, 2014)—are driven by such testing regimes.


The first publication from the group described multiliteracies as a “new approach to literacy pedagogy,” (New London Group, 1996) but what you’re discussing here doesn’t sound limited to literacy instruction.


No, it isn’t.


So, I’m wondering if you can talk about the range of ways you have seen multiliteracies taken up over the last 20 years. Where do you see its applicability outside of literacy, per se?


Our work is taking on what has classically been framed as literacy, which is reading and writing, but in a way, more reading than writing. It’s taking on that domain of literacy research and redefining it. The word we use more commonly now is literacies, in the plural, to refer to the distinct discourses and multiple modes of communication of various disciplines (Kalantzis, Cope, Chan, & Dalley-Trim, 2016).


Yes, and the question of pedagogy applies to any discipline, whether it’s history or science. For the moment, here at the university, we are working across a range of disciplines, with engineers, healthcare professionals, people in veterinary medicine, and other areas, to rethink their traditional ways of addressing pedagogy. They’ve realized that frontloading information and remembering it for the test doesn’t seem to prepare learners for the kind of complex problems they’re going to have to solve in teams of people—whether it’s cancer or treating an animal.

With a literacies approach, they’re starting to do project-based learning, beginning with the passion of the students. Imagine that at the collegiate level. They’re now saying, “If you’re going to train somebody to be a doctor and they want to cure people, let’s start with their passion for curing some disease. Let’s connect them with other people who have that shared interest and let them discover, explore the problem of interest.” They’re using the Internet to connect them with people around the world to find solutions. With modern devices, we can access multimodal information from others quickly, apply it, and test it through recursive feedback (Cope & Kalantzis, 2017). This is learning through making meaning and distributed knowledge. This is what we always talked about as a multiliteracies pedagogy moving from experiential learning through conceptual learning, analytical learning, and applied learning (New London Group, 1996). With these students, there is a pedagogical imperative to stop the traditional ways of memorization and recitation for a test.


So I can put another spin on this. What we historically had in education is a focus on cognition as defined by and assessed as memory and the correct results of the implementation of operations such as formulae. Essentially, a focus on what happens inside an individual’s head, and only what’s inside an individual’s head, because it’s very hard to be able to measure social cognition. Now there are a few big shifts possible. First, the fact that the digital devices all around us are mnemonic devices means you don’t need to remember things anymore, and you don’t need to be particularly good at basic operations either because digital apps can do these. These are not only memory devices—where the memory is the whole of the world out there through the Internet—but they’re calculating devices. So those two fundamental things that we measured in education for cognition—memory and operations—are perhaps no longer relevant. And this gets us to the point about literacy.

Let’s take the case of these students in medicine. In the past, they went to the lectures. They read the textbook. They took the test. They received good marks. That’s what they did for their whole lives in schooling. Now, what we’re doing is we’re asking them to do clinical case studies, which are in fact forms of writing, multimodal writing. They create diagrams and select videos. They write text. They use data sets, which now can be easily manipulated within the infrastructure of e-learning environments (Cope & Kalantzis, 2017). This is a complex systemic process that results in an artifact as a piece of knowledge representation. With it, we can measure what was social, because we can see the peer review comments you received. We can see the feedback you got. We can see the social provenance of your own thinking. It’s not what you remember, because you put in a citation or you included a link. You’ve also been clear about which bits are your thinking in terms of design. You might frame a bit by saying, “I’ve come to a judgment, a clinical judgment about this particular case.” So multimodal writing then becomes an ideal form of knowledge representation in medicine, in engineering, and other classically STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] areas of learning. So our argument now is that, to assess these processes, you need to shift into writing as a predominant form of knowledge representation. Through writing we can capture what we call complex epistemic performance, not just memory and correct answers to operations in traditional assessments.


Speaking of looking at historical trends, multiliteracies was initially framed at a scale that’s not typical when we’re talking about pedagogical decisions. The New London Group framed it by a discussion of historical trends in economics, labor, citizenry, and learning. What was the impetus for using that macro lens to talk about pedagogies? What benefits do you see for thinking historically and globally when considering pedagogical decisions?


Having a historical perspective is a way to try to disentangle what’s new and what’s not new in this moment. People get overwhelmed by the remarkable pace of emerging technologies and think the entire social world has changed. The world has changed, but it might have been 500 years ago that some of what we claim is new had changed. With the arrival of print, for instance, this was the first large-scale, virtual, telepresent expression of meaning. So, this is not new. But some other things are genuinely new. Having a historical perspective explains the differences. Take, for example, the production and distribution of media (Kalantzis & Cope, 2015). In classical mass media, active cultural agents were limited to journalists, novelists, those with professional roles who were in positions of production. This was a one-to-many relationship, and the many were essentially positioned passively. The patterns of agency in the media since the 15th century have been ones of transmission. Now, largely, if you are a consumer, you are also a producer. Production and consumption are interweaved in about equal measures (Lessig, 2008; Smith & Hull, 2013). That’s a huge change. Now, let’s not think this is a democratizing nirvana. This is a big shift away from the authoritarianism of the 20th century with communism, fascism, or the welfare state, what have you. But these shifts also include a whole lot of other new evils like narcissism, fake news, and the propaganda craziness we are seeing now politically. It’s a very big shift that can be either politically progressive or politically regressive. It doesn’t mean that as human beings we are getting better.

This has huge pedagogical implications, not just about what we might do, but what we probably have to do. Learners come to school with a different set of sensibilities. The phrase that Mary and I used to describe that is a shift in the “balance of agency” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009, p. 172). But here’s the contradiction: What do we see in schools? Let’s take the flipped classroom. It’s using new multimodal technologies for yet another transmission from one to many. So, in some sense it’s not a change at all, because a real change would be to have the kids research the topic and make the video themselves or write the text themselves. At one level it reproduces an old form—a discursive relation that can be tracked back to Saint Benedict. Benedict (c.530, 1949), who founded Western monasticism as a system in the sixth century, said, “[It] belongeth to the master to speak and to teach; it becometh the disciple to be silent and to listen.” And in a way, this wasn’t true of other learning spaces at that time. It wasn’t true of the Academy of Athens; there were no didactic spaces that positioned people in these knowledge hierarchies. This didactic model comes from the monastic tradition where there are sages, and masters, and pupils who would be inducted. This becomes the Western university, starting with the first universities, Oxford and Cambridge, where the first colleges began as monasteries. So, in a way, for me, the video lecture outside of the classroom is just a reproduction of a form that was invented in medieval times, in very early modernity.


So, thinking about what’s actually new, you’ve also talked about new basics such as flexibility, autonomy, collaboration, and that there is a “need for new orientations to knowledge.” You have argued that, “Learning will increasingly be about creating a kind of person, with kinds of dispositions and orientations to the world, and not just persons who are in command of a body of knowledge. These persons will be able to navigate change and diversity, learn-as-they-go, solve problems, collaborate and be flexible and creative” (Kalantzis, Cope, & Harvey, 2003, p. 23). Can you speak to the changes in the regimes of pedagogy and assessment this will require?


It takes teams to teach differently, so we are not replicating the one teacher to 30 kids model. You really do need to have open classrooms and teams of teachers. You need to be human about it, not a technocrat. But it’s very hard for schools to change the classrooms, to change the ratio of teacher to children, to change the timetable to let’s say, Summerhill, if we go way back. Summerhill was suggesting that through active knowledge making in pursuit of interests is how people learn, and that flexibility would help instructors make pedagogy appropriate (Neill, 1962). But that level of flexibility and that level of expertise on the part of the teacher are very hard for policymakers to accept. It is really disappointing to see the degree to which policy making has not shifted. If you look at the way policies in all countries have expanded their notion of literacy—what it is and how it is assessed—they’ve included a bit of visual interpretation, but not much. It is not well understood at the policy level. Decades later, and we still haven’t seen the shifts we called for over 20 years ago, and why? Because it’s still dominated by the test. And if you look at the amount of instruction put into testing, such as PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and Smarter Balanced, policymakers prioritize high-stakes testing, and now they’ve mapped on periodic assessments along the way. So, we’re really stuck. Schools are reduced to being holding pens for children, and parents are trying to create learning opportunities outside of that. You’re getting a gap now between institutionalized learning and what happens outside of school in the other parts of a day. If we consider the amount of time kids are on devices outside of the classroom on phones or tablets making meaning and communicating, compared to their time engaged in content creation and communication in the classroom, the differential is huge. But teachers and schools are not prepared or supported for this ubiquitous learning. It is a more human way of engaging in meaning making, and it is what we argued was underpinning learning for everybody of different backgrounds when we first envisioned multiliteracies.

Additional Resources

  1. New Learning

    This is a website Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope maintain with up-to-date work and resources across a range of related topics, including new learning, literacies, multiliteracies, learning by design, e-learning, and Scholar (an online writing environment).

  2. Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). ‘Multiliteracies’: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 4, 164–195. doi:10.1080/15544800903076044

    Cope and Kalantzis revisited multiliteracies and the changes in social and communication technologies that had occurred 10 years from the New London Group‘s first meetings. They address literacy pedagogy, representation, and communication in schooling practices.

  3. Scholar and

    Scholar is an online writing environment and publishing suite designed by a team at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign led by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis. It employs principles of learning by design and multiliteracies to provide a space for multimodal creation and publication.


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DMU Timestamp: May 11, 2020 21:16

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