rench philosopher Michel Foucault said, “Discourse is the power to be seized.” He wrote extensively about the role of discourse in every aspect of human interaction.

If you have any doubts about the power of language in our world, pick up today’s newspaper and read about the horrific impact of warmongers and the astounding power of those who speak out against them, as young women like Malala did.

It would be a little more dangerous than googling today’s headlines or posting on Facebook, but you could also test the power of words on a smaller audience: email your employer, your child’s teacher, your customer. Consider how careful we are with our words in such correspondences.

Hundreds of millions of people live their lives without even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills. Tweet This Quote

Just ask someone who supports multiple generations of families through a business where they communicate with customers via simple texts, often in other languages. Literacy is life.

Once our eyes start rolling over text, comprehending without struggle, and we begin putting our words to paper nearly as quickly as we think them, we start to forget what life is like without these super powers. Yet hundreds of millions of people live their lives without even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), proposed by the United Nations, represent a commitment to provide equitable access to education so everyone can seize the power of discourse. Specifically, Goal #4 states this: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. College, career, and civic readiness depend on it.

The Global State of Education

758 million people are illiterate. That’s 1 in every 10 people in the world. In fact, it might surprise many that these problems are widespread among adults in the United States and other developed countries. In the U.S., 32 million people can’t read and write.

While 91 percent of children in developing countries have been enrolled in schools, overcrowded, under equipped, and understaffed classrooms make it impossible to ensure every child can achieve even basic literacy skills. The kinds of literacy skills one needs to navigate the internet effectively or pursue a career or college are even further out of reach. This is as true on Chicago’s traumatized west side as it is in sub-Saharan Africa, where 50 percent of out-of-school children in the developing world live.

As a lifelong urban educator, I have witnessed the individual human power we unleash or deny through our education systems. The SDGs are more closely related to the everyday lives of citizens in both developing and developed countries than many understand. To achieve these goals across all nations, we need systems level approaches.

Technology Brings Solutions and New Challenges

Through scalable programs from Sesame Street to Ubongo (based in Tanzania) we have improved access to pre-primary readiness for some of the most under resourced families. Room to Read and other high quality programs tackle the critical years where education trajectories are most fragile, ensuring that more families can educate their children. Progress in basic literacy continues to be made.

More than ever before, turning the tide toward equity is possible on enormous scale if we make the commitment. Technology has the power to play a role in rapidly increasing literacy achievement. If we increase access to broadband, distributed power, devices, and local and international language content, we can see the incredible social, economic, and civic benefits of mass literacy.

Yet while technology delivers education solutions, it has also created a new urgency around more sophisticated literacy skills beyond the basics. Machine learning and automation will continue to decrease the number of viable careers available for low-skilled workers. High skilled jobs will require skills that are much harder to acquire and require a level of human interaction and feedback that have been available to few but the most highly educated throughout history.

21st Century Literacy for All

I saw this gap firsthand on a very large scale in Chicago, where I served over 100,000 students and was charged with improving instruction and college and career readiness outcomes. I learned three things:

  • The most important skills beyond basic literacy that students need today are the ability to consume information, think about it critically, and express their point of view effectively.
  • We need whole systems to focus on these skills – not just individual teachers or departments – as the literacy needs and goals cut across all content areas, including STEM.
  • When it comes to critical thinking, human interaction is required to develop sophisticated reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills and cannot be taught by machines alone.

ThinkCERCA’s platform is designed to help whole systems provide personalized instruction in these critical thinking skills through a focus on argumentative writing across English, Social Studies, Science, and Math in grades 3-12. When students are empowered with this instruction, they achieve gains in college, career, and civic readiness assessments. Chicago is a great case study of results. The New York Times recently highlighted the tremendous growth in reading and math that has come from these systemic approaches.

Technology has the power to play a role in rapidly increasing literacy achievement. Tweet This Quote

If we can commit globally to equipping systems with the resources needed to provide access to critical literacy instruction, we can solve almost every other problem. Perhaps that is the reason why entrepreneurship is specifically mentioned in SDG #4: “By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship.”

As an entrepreneur, I know my ability to consume information, think about it critically, and express my point of view effectively is directly tied to the success of my company. As we continue to work with great urgency to close the achievement gap in the U.S. and globally, the whole ThinkCERCA team strives to develop these abilities in others. Our contributions are paying off, with two years of reading growth per year and hundreds of thousands of more effective readers and writers.

But the real payoff will come from the human power this level of literacy unleashes.

About the author

Eileen Murphy

Eileen Murphy

Eileen is the Founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA. She taught English for 15 years and was the founding English Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep as well as the author of 360 Degrees of Text (NCTE, 2011). As the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for over 100 of Chicago’s highest performing schools, she became passionate about the role technology could play in education in the 21st century and left CPS in 2012 to develop ThinkCERCA to help all students achieve career and college readiness. ThinkCERCA is one of the top Literacy Courseware Challenge winners (Gates Foundation).