What do we mean by critical? Implications and opportunities presented by the New SACE Literacy Strategy
This week Curriculum Leadership publishes the first part of the article 'What do we mean by critical? Implications and opportunities presented by the New SACE Literacy Strategy'. This article first appeared in Opinion, the journal of the South Australian English Teachers' Association (SAETA), Summer 2006.
With these simple points, Gee, Hull and Lankshear remind us that reading (and, by extension, other elements of literacy) is not an abstract quality or skill practised independently of the text at hand. It is about purposes, types of texts and ways of readings.
Literacy is understood as inextricable from purposes and contexts, and embraces a wide range of texts. The New SACE Literacy Strategy  is not a Critical Literacy strategy by name, but I’ll argue that a contemporary definition of literacy includes the critical. It might be in terms of the understandings above or it might draw on more complex critical theory, but the common result is an understanding of literacy that is profoundly contextual and active, in contrast with notions of literacy as simply or exclusively rule-learning.
The New SACE Literacy Strategy foregrounds critical elements through reference to a range of modes, including visual and (multimodal) ICT, through direct reference to ‘critical responses’ and through reference to contexts.
What is meant when the term ‘critical’ is used or implied and how does it frame curriculum statements and pedagogy? 'Critical inquiry', 'critical analysis', 'critical literacy': what does the word ‘critical’ do to qualify each of these terms? How is critical reflection different from reflection, critical inquiry from inquiry?
Use of the term ‘critical’ is not uniform throughout SSABSA’s Curriculum Statements. This is not presented as a criticism. It recognises that different learning areas will have their own interpretations and purposes – their own contexts. Assuming that the use is deliberate, it suggests that it will be more productive to explore the range of meanings based on context and use, rather than attempt a sufficient definition.
Especially in learning areas with a more practical focus, the meaning of the word ‘critical’ is defined contextually:
‘Critical awareness’ is defined by the concepts around it: responding to a range of groups; the importance of community and policy in defining health; challenges; and the concept of health in a changing world. This gives direction to teachers and students on how they might focus this 'critical awareness'.
The word critical, then, acts as a marker to flag a particular discourse or way of discussing, understanding and critiquing a field. Even in English, a subject arguably more comfortable with the notion (there are 75 occurrences in 56 pages of the word ‘critical’), it is the rich description rather than the term itself that provides an understanding of what it means. In the learning outcomes, students are directed to ‘critically analyse a range of texts’.
The italics are mine and indicate explicit critical approaches. The whole paragraph is a useful statement of critical literacy, down to a preference for describing writers/authors/filmmakers as ‘creators of texts’ and seeing texts as ‘constructed’ rather than written. In this case, the word ‘critical’ is superfluous because of the richness and detail in the context.
In Physics, on the other hand, the term ‘critical literacy skills’ is used explicitly to suggest something more systematic than a generic call to ‘think critically’. Here, the reference to critical literacy points to, without clarifying, a method of critiquing information.
Other subjects also specifically mention critical literacy (eg English, Philosophy and Aboriginal Studies). In Aboriginal Studies, sentences like 'Students’ skills of critical analysis and critical literacy are developed, equipping them to deal with issues that may confront them in their own lives' suggest a subtle distinction between critical literacy and critical analysis.
While ‘critical’ can mean a range of things, it can’t just mean whatever anyone wants it to mean, and nor can it be ignored. It is scattered throughout all SSABSA curriculum statements. It is worth considering this range of purposes.
There are three main uses of the word ‘critical’ that are significant in this discussion. The first identifies a particular disposition. The second proposes social action or change as a necessary outcome of a critical approach. The third develops a context for learning. They are not mutually exclusive, but will be considered separately for the sake of clarity. Each has implications for the way a senior secondary course might be constructed and taught.
Critical as a disposition
‘Critical’ as a disposition is comfortably contained within traditional learning and teaching. SSABSA has advice in supporting material:
Universities often pick up this sense in advice for improving students’ essay-writing skills. It is an intensely rational attribute, a determination to sort through and develop an argument. It is described by Cervetti, Pardales & Daminco (2005) as 'liberal-humanist' critical reading, as distinct from critical literacy. Such reading 'verges on social critique', but it is primarily concerned with authorial intention and clarity in transmitting messages from author to reader (both of which are seen as unproblematic). They suggest that, in the liberal-humanist tradition, reality is knowable and ‘out there’, to be engaged through the senses and through rational thought. Again, this is not presented as problematic.
One can certainly read the New SACE Literacy Strategy’s definition of literacy entirely from this perspective.
As I have indicated, however, the curriculum statements demand a more complex understanding of critical approaches. The definition should be read in the context of the statements and practice. The clearest demonstration of this is the fact that teachers are being asked in assessment plans, from 2006, to show how the definition (including the multimodal and critical elements) is picked up in their programs.
The critical disposition is useful in directing students and teachers to ask the tough, open-ended questions, the kind that Jamie McKenzie (1998) calls ‘essential questions’ and others call ‘fat’, ‘fertile’, and productive. (Presumably as opposed to thin, barren and unproductive questions – the kind that encourage plagiarism.) And it encourages a curious and tenacious approach. It does not necessarily explore contexts or cultural understandings in a dynamic way.
Critical as a social purpose
Shor gives a lucid introduction to a difficult topic. The most significant element is the understanding that identity is shaped by language and that it is not fixed. It highlights the fact that there is a social purpose, often a transformative one, to critical literacy and it is this that distinguishes it most clearly from ‘critical’ as a disposition.
The expectation of some transformative social action might be argued (at least superficially) to be outside of SSABSA brief, but the SACE Student Qualities suggest otherwise.
While it might be impractical to expect students to be taking social action, it is not unreasonable for them to be considering it. It might be as rehearsal or at an analytical (hypothetical) distance. The understanding that their studies might lead students to consider a place in the world rather than, exclusively, in the classroom underpins three of the ten generic SACE Student Qualities which inform all curriculum statements:
It is intended that a student who completes the SACE will:
4. work and learn individually and with others in and beyond school to achieve personal or team goals (independence, collaboration, identity).
10. have positive attitudes towards further education and training, employment, and lifelong learning (lifelong learning).
Further, the perception of the need for social change is a clear element of some courses:
Some definitions of critical literacy specifically encourage active engagement or implied action. The Tasmanian Education Department sees critical literacy as necessarily involving action (or readiness for action). Three dot points in a definition of critical literacy reinforce the position:
The basis of this is not a call to arms as conservative voices often claim  but a way of seeing the world that includes the student. The South African Qualifications Authority  has developed a set of critical outcomes including:
Hilary Janks (2004), following Friere (1972), calls it 'reading the world'. The phrase suggests engagement, as the world is cast as a text to be read by the student. A critical discourse understands text, the reader and the act of reading as profoundly problematic (which is to say, at the very least, not fixed) and so, to take Shor’s point that discourse is not destiny, the reader is empowered, or (minimally) power to change is presented as one of a number of responses or readings.
However softly we want to tread, for whatever reasons, Allan Luke suggest that at its core, a critical approach is a social justice one, and that it is constantly being reframed:
The second and concluding part of this article will appear next week in Curriculum Leadership Vol 5 No 21, 29 June 2007
 It is referred to as the new strategy in its implementation phase to distinguish it from past practices in literacy, even though commissioned research by Phil Cormack and Sue Nichols began in 2002. 2004 and 2005 was an introduction/information phase in preparation for implementation in 2006. It is not aligned with the terms 'New Times' and 'New Basics' in recent literacy research.
 Throughout, quotations from SSABSA Learning Area Curriculum Statements are referenced according to the Learning Area. They are available on the website: SSABSA Online (accessed June 2005)
 Eg: 'The mark of a good academic or investigator is in the questioning approach taken to the area under investigation. The approach will be both analytical and critical - "analytical" in pulling apart the elements of the ideas and examining how they operate on each other, and "critical" in always looking for what is not obvious or for different points of view.' Commerce Communication Skills Guide
 Fat: from MyRead; Fertile from the Australian Science and Mathematics School, Adelaide.
 Kevin Donnelly, ‘Cannon fodder of the culture wars’, The Australian, February 9 2005 & ‘Teachers should not be permitted to spread propaganda in the classroom’, The Age, 28 March 2003.
 From a visit to SSABSA in 2005 by Estelle Nell:
Key Learning AreasEnglish
Senior secondary education