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What do we mean by critical? Implications and opportunities presented by the New SACE Literacy Strategy

Paul Sommer
Paul Sommer worked as the Literacy Project Officer in the Senior Secondary Assessment Board of South Australia (SSABSA) during the first half of 2005.

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.  

Whatever literacy is, it must have something to do with reading. And reading is always reading something. Furthermore, if one has not understood what one has read then one has not read it. So reading is always reading something with understanding. Now, this something that one reads with understanding is always a text of a certain type which one reads in a certain way… furthermore any text can be read in different ways. (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996: 1  their italics)

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 [1] 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:

Health Education is informed by a view of health in which supportive environments are created by community action and public health policy. Students have opportunities to develop a critical awareness of these supportive environments, and to respond to challenges that affect the health of individuals, families, groups and communities in a changing world. (Health Education, p.1) [2]

‘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’.

By critically engaging with texts constructed by themselves and others, students are able to confirm and challenge their own experience. By examining texts created in a range of modes, and by making their own texts, students gain skills that help them in understanding, communicating, and making meaning. They come to understand that texts reflect the values and beliefs of the culture from which they arise, and that interpretations are dependent on the explicit and implicit ideologies in the text, and on the experience and understanding of the audience. Texts can represent how people have made meaning of their lives in the past and how they see the world in the present. Creators of texts can give shape to personal or collective ideas, concerns, and hopes. (English, p.1)

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.

Teachers are encouraged to teach students critical literacy skills when dealing with all resources, including those that involve information and communication technologies. (Physics, p.13)

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:

Skills of critical analysis  If you are asked to critically analyse something, it will not be enough to simply present and summarise information and arguments. You will need to ask deeper questions and examine the arguments and assumptions on which the topic is based, to be open to new information and ideas. Ask why? how? and to what extent? Critical analysis includes problem-solving and creative thinking. (SSABSA Support 2005, p.1)

Universities often pick up this sense in advice for improving students’ essay-writing skills.[3] 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.

This critical approach has a place. It emphasises rigour, clarity and intentionality. It encourages the taking up of positions. But if this is all that is done with the term ‘critical’, opportunities would have been missed. Indeed, it would be a misreading of the term in some curriculum statements.

One can certainly read the New SACE Literacy Strategy’s definition of literacy entirely from this perspective. 

Literacy in the SACE is defined as the ability to understand, analyse, critically respond to, and create spoken, written, and visual communications, and use information communication technologies in different contexts. (SSABSA Literacy p.1)

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’[4], 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

We are what we say and do. The way we speak and are spoken to helps shape us into the people we become. Through words and other actions, we build ourselves in a world that is building us. That world addresses us to produce the different identities we carry forward in life: men are addressed differently to women, people of colour differently to whites, elite students differently to those from working families. Yet though language is fateful in teaching us what kind of people to become and what kind of society to make, discourse is not destiny. We can redefine ourselves and remake society if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses and identities in a world that is not yet finished, just, or humane. (Shor 1997, p.1)

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.

SSABSA’s curriculum statements are sometimes clearly critical in this sense:

Aboriginal Studies promotes critical thinking about the terms ‘race’ and ‘racism’, and suggests strategies for identifying and countering racism. Students identify and share ideas about possible and preferred futures (Aboriginal Studies, p.1)

By critically engaging with texts constructed by themselves and others, students are able to confirm and challenge their own experience. (English, p.1)

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).

9. have the skills and capabilities required for effective local and global citizenship, including a concern for others (citizenship, interdependence, responsibility towards the environment, responsibility towards others).

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:

To be effective participants in society, students should be able to assess and deal with change, look at issues from different points of view, and consider the consequences of a range of actions before deciding on the most appropriate in a particular situation. Studies of Societies aims to develop students’ power to influence their future by developing skills, values, and understandings appropriate to effective participation in contemporary society. Students have the opportunity to identify, reflect on, and modify their views, and to compare them with the views and values of other people. They can also explore and evaluate strategies to effect social change for sustainable futures by actively engaging in the democratic process. (Studies of Society)

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:

  • having students take a stance on issues
  • providing students with opportunities to consider and clarify their own attitudes and values
  • providing students with opportunities to take social action  
    (Department of Education Tasmania, 2005, p.1).

The basis of this is not a call to arms as conservative voices often claim [5] but a way of seeing the world that includes the student. The South African Qualifications Authority [6] has developed a set of critical outcomes including:

Demonstrat(ing) an understanding of the world as a set of related systems by recognising that problem-solving contexts do not exist in isolation. (SAQA 2005 p7)

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:

How can we ensure that all kids, particularly those from groups that historically and culturally are most at risk in new economies and culture, can achieve social and intellectual outcomes that will enable them to lead meaningful and productive lives… I want to argue that inequality has taken on new forms and new configurations. Different kids and communities are at risk. (Luke 1999, p1)

The second and concluding part of this article will appear next week in Curriculum Leadership Vol 5 No 21, 29 June 2007


[1] 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.

[2] 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)

[3] 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

[4] Fat: from MyRead; Fertile from the Australian Science and Mathematics School, Adelaide.

[5] 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.

[6]  From a visit to SSABSA in 2005 by Estelle Nell:

  • Cervetti, G., Pardales, M.J., & Damico, J.S. (2001, April). 'A tale of differences: Comparing the traditions, perspectives, and educational goals of critical reading and critical literacy', Reading Online, 4(9). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/cervetti/index.html
  • Department of Education, Tasmania, School Education Division 2004, English Learning Area: Critical literacy, viewed 20 June 2005
  • Gee J., Hull G. & Lankshear C., 1996, 'The new work order: behind the language of the new capitalism', Allen & Unwin: Sydney
  • Luke, A. & Freebody, P., 1999, ‘A Map of Possible Practices: Further notes on the four resources model’, Practically Primary, Volume 4, Number 2, June 1999, in McKenzie, J., ‘From Now On’, The Educational Technology Journal, Vol 7 No 8, viewed 14 April 2005
  • Shor I., 1997, ‘What is Critical Literacy?’, an edited version of the introduction to Shor, I. & Pari, C. (ed.), 1999, Critical Literacy in Action, Heinemann Press, viewed 30 May 2005
  • SSABSA Online 2005, viewed 20 June 2005
  • SSABSA Support, 2005, viewed 20 June 2005 ttp://www.ssabsa.sa.edu.au/res-advice/index.htm
  • SSABSA Literacy, The new SACE Literacy Strategy 2005, viewed 20 June 2005

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Senior secondary education
South Australia
Curriculum planning