Learning literacy with ‘Both Sides of the Brain’


Department of Teaching Education professor and Canada Research Chair of Multiliteracies Dr. Jennifer Rowsell has been elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists and is one of the newest members of the Royal Canada Society. With Dr. Elizabeth Sauer from the English Language and Literature Department having also been elected into this prestigious society on September 6, Rowsell’s election came only a week later, demonstrating that Brock’s faculty members are truly remarkable and no doubt a force to be reckoned with.

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Specifically with Rowsell’s research and prior to coming to Brock, she received her PhD in England and worked with two individuals, when a theory was developed by her colleague that explained when students learn to be literate, they learn though a variety of models.

“Little kids, before they go to school, might try to read books, draw pictures, play with blocks, watch moving images, or play Minecraft and they use these modes equally. When they go to school, there is a dominance of words, which over the past two decades, the world has been inundated with. The digital world especially, has been taking over and we do much of our thinking, reading, and composing through screens. In light of this, we need to start re-thinking educational practices when digital worlds start to become dominant.”

From that line of research, Rowsell looked into how people build literacy outside of the classroom.  Studies that looked into how individuals mediate their identity through visual texts, short movies and drawing as well as virtually, through Facebook and Twitter, demonstrated that literacy was no longer a linear movement, but a combination of different modes of learning. This multimodality is what is at the forefront of Rowsell’s continued research at the University.  Over the span of four years she performed a research study on a group of students who were not doing well in English and had no interest in writing. While these individuals had many related interests, it failed to translate into the traditional modes of building literacy. In this study, she found that what these students were interested in were video games, making graphic stories, and filming documentaries, which are rich literary experiences that are not traditionally found within the classroom.

After taking up the position as the CRC at Brock, Rowsell wrote a book about media producers which discusses literacy and education, and how learning needs to take more of a studio model.  It focuses on the different ways of learning that children and teenagers are offered, whether it is through iPads, smaller groups, video games, new practices of communication, children analysing a film, or producing short trailers.

She works closely with other faculty members that specialized in drama and theatre, photography, music, art and from there has worked on digital epistemologies and learning through artistic spaces. Multimodality is something that is not new to these faculties – other faculties have a lot to learn from the arts department’s pedagogical integration. This embodiment of body and text opens up the relationship between arts and literacy, which speaks highly of how Brock prides itself in encouraging interdisciplinary studies.  In light of last week’s article about the possibility of Brock being the first paperless university in Ontario, Rowsell believes that in order for this transition from paper to technology to be successful, there needs to be an ideological shift within the university.  “We need to start thinking about alternative formats. For example, in August, Dr. Zach defended a multimodal PhD. It was done through a documentary that was broken apart into chapters, using animation, words, sounds, angles and framed images to get the point across. These were affordances of different modes to create what used to be a very print-bound thing and Brock could really leverage itself by truly trying to get into 21st century pedagogy. We need to consider alternative formats and we need to keep in mind that if we are to teach in digital spaces, this calls for a different mode of teaching. There is a lot of work in this digital field and it is a field that is definitely escalating.”

However, this does not mean that students have to change the way that they engage with their work. It is the way in which thinking and modes of teaching are aligned with digital spaces that will lead to the success of a paperless university, and does not necessarily call for the use of more iPads or laptops.

“I’m a print-centric person myself and printed words are a very important, and still dominant mode. However, what we read from a screen is different from paper, and the ways we engage with technology is very idiosyncratic in the fact that we develop our own relationship with it. For example, I prefer iPads over e-readers, but at the same time I’d rather print something out and write on it than read it off of a screen. In this way, students don’t need to change to meet the needs and demands of the information age and technology. We develop our own practices that help us learn in a better way. It’s about what compels and motivates you and how you respond to it.” Rowsell owes much of her own motivation to Steve Jobs and his ten principles of learning, citing that modern children’s brains are developing differently than children from her generation. There now exists a way of thinking that people didn’t have in the 20th century, and multimodality is the way that we can begin to explore and think differently about literacy and education.

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