Teaching students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, is teaching literacy

“Literacy is about learning, and learning is about unlearning and relearning” (Spencer & Juliani, 2017, p. 19). Spencer and Juliani, authors of Empower: What happens when students own their learning, devised six truths that support a principle for empowering our learners. Truth numbers one and five from their book, focus on learning. Learning is how we perceive experiences that we are in, and how we process those experiences (McCarthy, 2000). Hence, “Truth #1: Every child deserves to own their learning. Teachers can empower student ownership of lifelong learning.

Students are born natural learners. Their sense of perception (how they take in the things they learn) and their processing ability (what they do with what they take in) enable students to naturally be self-directed learners (McCarthy, 2000).  Hence, from birth, students once owned their learning; but something happened along the way that caused many students to lose ownership of their learning.  Providing students with choices is the first step teachers can take to support students with reclaiming their learning territory.

Spencer and Juliani’s fifth truth about learning calls into question, our current definition of literacy. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearned, and relearn” (p. 19). Thus, teaching students how to learn, unlearn, and relearn, is teaching literacy.

In the US, there are currently four ideologies that define literacy instruction in significantly contrasting ways. They are: Functional Literacy, Cultural Literacy, Progressive Literacy, and Critical Literacy. Functional Literacy defines literacy as a tool needed to function in school and in the workforce. Cultural Literacy defines literacy as a mechanism for instilling morals, values, and a common background of knowledge. Progressive Literacy defines literacy as “personal discovery”(Cadiero-Kaplan, 2002, p.376). Finally, Critical Literacy defines literacy as an approach to “social transformation” (Cadiero-Kaplan, 2002, p. 377). Of the four, functional literacy is the most stagnant and limiting. Perhaps because it is linked with the social mores of the industrial age. However, progressive literacy is the most active and free flowing of all the literacy ideologies, which meshes well with the principles of personalized learning and learning itself, because it is linked to progressive education, a byproduct of industrialization.

Children’s interests, needs, and inclinations are natural sources of self-directed learning and self-regulated learning. They are also natural sources for empowering learning. As students are taught concepts, facts, procedures, processes, and principles, they should not only be learning, but unlearning and relearning from the experience. Moreover, true learning includes failure. Failure is necessary for learning, unlearning, and relearning. Hence, if failure is not an option, then neither is literacy.


Cadiero-Kaplan, Karen (2002). Literacy Ideologies: Critically Engaging the Language Arts Curriculum. Language Arts, v79 n5 p372-81

McCarthy, B. (2000). About learning. Wauconda, Ill: About Learning.

Spencer, J., & Juliani, A. J. (2017). Empower: What happens when students own their learning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2024 The Literacy Butler . Powered by WordPress. Theme by Viva Themes.