Literacy for life: Some important questions

Written by: Kim Sung-woo (lecturer, Seoul National University)

One of the most commonly used definitions for literacy was created by UNESCO in 2004: “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.” (Eom and Kim, 2020, p. 18) According to UNESCO, literacy is more than reading and writing; it includes the acts of: collecting and “digesting” information in its original format, understanding such information from within the framework of one’s unique perspective, using such information as the foundation for creating new knowledge and sharing it with others, and developing basic calculation skills. It is a definition that effectively encompasses the school education system.

One part to which we should pay attention is “using printed and written materials.” It raises the question of whether we should maintain text-based literacy, which has remained in place for centuries since Gutenberg. How should we define literacy’s goals and standards amid today’s fast-changing media landscape, increase in digital communication, and deluge of new technologies? Given our era’s rapid increase in video platform-focused literacy activities, how should school education accommodate and merge these new aspects of literacy into its system?

Some will argue that, in order to discuss changes in literacy, we must first take a look at our current educational system. To be sure, the philosophy that has shaped Korea’s public education since 1945 and the notion of education as a knowledge production system are very much valid and important. I would like to suggest taking stock of our students, teachers, and the society in which we live before embarking on an exploration of the public education process, because changes in the literacy landscape are demanding that we reconsider what we believe “education” is at the most fundamental level. The changes in media that are occurring today mean a change in not only the content to be taught but the ways in which we constitute knowledge, and we must thus realize that now is the time for far-reaching changes in the fabric of our lives if we want to turn such change into an invaluable opportunity.

The changes in the intellectual environment that we are witnessing today require revolutionary change in the relationship between the subjects and practices of education. We cannot respond adequately to changes in literacy only by making partial revisions to the traditional education system. The discussion on what the new version of literacy should entail must be preceded by adequate introspection on the subjects of learning and teaching.


Students are human beings first, learners second

“A student goes to school to learn.”

This is one of the most basic assumptions of school education. School is a place where education takes place, and students go to school to receive this education. The teacher’s job is to teach these students, whose reason for attending school is very clear to all parties. What is important is how well the curriculum has been designed and the effectiveness with which it is taught. This, however, begs the question: how accurate are all of these premises?

This may sound contradictory, but many of the problems in education today are caused by trapping students within the confines of the traditional characteristics of the learner. We must remember that, while it is certainly true that students’ most important goal is to learn, they are human beings first, who think and have feelings. They feel hungry, desire acknowledgement/recognition, need rest when tired, get angry, feel bored, and want to lie down every once in a while. Students go to school to learn, but they also go because they are bored or may not have anywhere else to go. They go to school to meet their friends, because they do not want to stay at home, to find someone to share their thoughts with, or because they enjoy eating school lunches. In other words, students go to school for many other reasons than to learn, which in turn means that we need to change our foundational premise. We must understand that a school is a dynamic community of people who are at a particular stage of growth before thinking of it as a place for learners.

The next point we need to focus on is how students are experiencing and understanding their world. I am a member of Korea’s “textbook and workbook” generation. The vast majority of what was taught at school came from textbooks, and workbooks were simply expanded and reinforced versions of the textbooks. During my middle and high school years, few students read the newspaper; most gained their knowledge of the world from television news broadcasts. The most important extracurricular literacy resource was the “summary book,” which was a concise, well-filtered summary of a particular topic. Even in exceptional cases, my generation gained information textually. Students today, however, live in a very different world. Long before they become of school age, they come into contact with a much less filtered version of the world through video media (e.g. YouTube), search engines, and social media and its communities. There is no middleman—such as a textbook producer, editor, or media organization—to “edit” this world. Textbooks and workbooks are still important forms of media, but the initial source of knowledge and data is now outside of the school: the smartphone. In other words, the hierarchy/layout of knowledge and data has already changed.

This leads to several questions: How is the world in which our students live different from the world of the school textbook? How are the ways in which our students interpret their world and the ways in which school classes create a worldview for them similar and/or at odds? Are we aware of this situation, and are we doing enough research on this gap and taking adequate, substantive measures to close it?


The conveying of knowledge is only one aspect of the education process, not its entirety.

“A teacher teaches the content of the curriculum.”

This is what usually first comes to mind when thinking about the role of the teacher. By definition, a teacher is someone who designs a class based on the curriculum and effectively conveys the content of that curriculum. In this sense, a teacher is an expert on the information that he/she teaches. However, as many teachers already know, content expert is only one of the teacher’s many roles. As stated by Parker Palmer, “We teach who we are.” The teacher’s job is not limited to delivering the curriculum’s content and informing students of things that need to be memorized, the scope of the upcoming exam, and items of various student assessments. The teacher shows students, on a daily basis, the attitude one must adopt regarding the state-mandated curriculum, how to cooperate with others, and the importance of humbly acknowledging what one does not know. The teacher shows students how to navigate the vast sea of knowledge and serves as a role model for how to engage in discussion and negotiate with others. The teacher must know how to recognize his/her finiteness in the face of the world’s mysteries, feel profound joy at the moment he/she learns something new, and be genuinely happy for the successes and growth of others. The teacher is not someone who simply delivers the content of a pre-determined curriculum; he/she is someone who must constantly fine-tune how his/her life is linked to the curriculum while considering the needs of the students.

In a larger sense, teachers teach much more than the curriculum: they teach about themselves, their experiences, and the world. Teachers are not so much content deliverers but critical intellectuals. The teacher is someone who creates a world for his/her students rather than someone whose sole job is to cover as much of a textbook in a given day. Most of all, the teacher is someone who links his/her students to their current and future lives rather than only with the textbook.


Literacy for life: The direction that school-directed literacy education should take

Let us return to the topic I mentioned at the beginning: literacy. Text-based literacy is still the central focus of school education worldwide. While the use of diverse media and media literacy education are becoming more common, the closer students in Korea get to high school, the more the focus of education shifts to traditional text interpretation and assessments. This contrasts starkly with the lives of students in that age group, who rely almost entirely on online/video platforms. The culmination of this “two-track” universe is the university entrance exam, which creates many fissures in students’ lives and education. The gap between daily life and the world of the classroom is growing, and there are more students who, from the confines of the classroom, wish to be closer to the outside world. This results in misunderstandings among educational agents, with some feeling that the school is incapable of seeing beyond the information and formats of the past, and others thinking that the modern generation is lacking in literacy.

It is very clear who needs to be the first to take action in this situation. Teachers and the educational authorities must observe the changes in literacy trends more closely and educate themselves on students’ life goals and value systems. The classroom is not a place for a teacher to deliver a curriculum; rather, it is where the lives of the teacher and students come together through the medium of education. If the teacher’s job is to not merely convey information but to teach oneself, it is then the student’s job to not merely “absorb” the curriculum but to jump head first into the world of learning. Students not only learn literature, history, geography, and foreign languages; in a variation of Palmer’s words, “We learn who we are.”

According to these premises, Korea’s education system must prepare to adapt to the new horizons of literacy. We need to think about how to change the traditional focus on textual learning and its assessments. Instead of simply lamenting the fact that students’ literacy skills are deteriorating, we must journey deep into the world of non-textual media that our students have long explored and reflect on our past inability to understand the role that such media has played in students’ lives. We must take stock of the power of the older generation, which has the authority to decide what is to be included in school curricula and conduct assessments, and the direction in which this power is headed. In today’s COVID-19 situation, the teacher must go beyond transplanting the educational formats of the past into an online environment. We need to think about a different philosophy of education, in which teachers teach about their lives, while students learn about who they are. Above all, we need to realize that literacy starts and ends at the same place: our lives.

The crisis of literacy, if it exists, is not the “problem” of a new generation that “lacks” reading and writing skills. The crisis of literacy is the crisis of happiness, which is caused by the separation of learning and life. At the moment, the questions that countries need to ask themselves in order to guarantee the partnered growth of teachers and students in all places of learning are: Are schools teaching literacy for the “real world”? How well does our education system understand the lives of our teachers and students? There are no “right” answers. What is clear, however, is that there is no better time than now to reassess the status of literacy education.




Eom Ki-ho and Kim Sung-woo, Will YouTube Swallow Up Books?, Seoul: Tabi, 2020.

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