As I continue to see the term “multimodal” float around in books, articles, and on social media, I find it hard not to join this conversation. The past six years, I have done research on multimodal assessments and multimodal portfolios with elementary students. I have found that by expanding our communicative landscapes in classrooms, we afford children diverse opportunities to make meaning and communicate (Lawrence, 2017; Lawrence & Mathis, 2018). Multimodal approaches to literacies assist in expanding the communicative landscape and setting conditions that foster an inclusive community that empowers all its agents.
The American public-school system has generally accepted the belief that traditional and normalized approaches to communication will meet the needs of our linguistically and culturally diverse children. This notion is legitimized and reinforced through traditional and/or behavioristic approaches to teaching and learning, “non-negotiable” demands placed on teachers by states and districts, and standardized methods of assessment. Unfortunately, the literacies privileged in schools do not reflect the literacies privileged in the world.
Figure 1 Disconnect Between School Literacies and World Literacies.
Literacies privileged in schools assume that reading and writing are the means in which children interpret and create texts, demonstrate their learning and knowledge, and make meaning in society. A central issue with this narrow perspective is that it overlooks the reality of contemporary communication and assumes learning is a linguistic achievement. I am not suggesting that school literacies and world literacies are dichotomous. It is obvious that in many of the world literacies, you will need school literacies. But, I am hoping to point out that we are sending our children into the world without important thinking patterns and skills to engage in world literacies. Empathy. Creativity. Flexibility. Innovative thinking. Compassion. Problem-solving skills. Responsibility. Leadership. Collaboration. Adaptability. Global awareness. And the list could go on.
This fixed and outdated approach suggests that communication is unchanging and language is the only means of communication. Despite social, cultural, and technological changes in our society, curricula and assessments that drive classrooms continue to posit “linguistic adherence” at the center (Kress, 2010, p. 7). In an attempt to maintain a standard language that adheres to the social norms valued by those in power, American public education continues to push off practices that reduce communication to language. Sadly as we can see, such approaches do not prepare our children for the demands of the the many literacies they face in the world.
What is multimodality?
Multimodality has become quite the buzz word lately, even making its way into the new Texas literacy standards. In some cases, multimodality has been reduced to integrating a photograph or Infographic into a lesson without any discussion of the modes utilized. While photographs and Infographics are multimodal texts, we have to consider the way the composer has orchestrated the color, font, positioning, words, etc. to create a larger meaning. Utilizing a multimodal framework requires a deconstruction of modes to make meaning or a construction of modes to communicate a larger meaning.
Multimodality brings together communication, representation, and power and recognizes that language is "no longer the carrier of all meaning" (Kress, 2000, p. 339). Multimodality expands the communicative landscape beyond language and
assumes that representation and communication are shaped by a multitude of modes. A mode refers to the channel of communication for a single unit of meaning. Each mode is a channel of communication and/or meaning making and is valued differently across social and cultural contexts. Examples of modes are colors, fonts, positioning, sizing, gestures, etc. Take this student's painting as an example.
Figure 2 Rinna's Great Migration Series Painting.
Rinna uses a river to divide the two girls. The girls do not have faces, a technique that Jacob Lawrence utilized. The girls are reaching for one another, almost as if they want to be together but cannot. She uses positioning to show this racial divide that's prevalent past and present. Though there are no eyes on the young girls, they both appear to be gazing at one another. Positioning, color, and layout share a story of societal and political lines drawn between racial groups. No words were needed.
Modes are organized and prioritized to meet the demands of the context. All factors, including “generation, class, region, and maybe in a newly unstable manner, gender” have effects on the modes chosen and the manner in which they are orchestrated (Kress, 2010, p. 23). Orchestration of modes is an important facet of multimodality. When an individual intentionally organizes modes, she or he considers the interactions among the modes and how they work together to create a larger meaning, like Rinna did in her painting.
If we as educators are to utilize a multimodal instructional framework, the opportunities for meaning making and communicating have to be grounded in social semiotics. “From the point of view of social semiotics, truth is a construct of semiosis, and as such the truth of a particular social group, arising from the values and beliefs of that group” (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996, p. 159). In other words, truths are dependent on the social context in which they are created and accepted. This opens a space for us to explore all the ways in which we interact, experience, and negotiate meaning-- an open system rather than as a closed system.
Figure 3 A graphic that highlights the social and cultural influences on signs in our world.
This graphic does not just say “multimodality”. Each letter shares its own story, and that story differs from individual to individual dependent on her or his cultural upbringing, lived experiences, and socioeconomic influences. These representations differ across communities and have been socially shaped over time. Fifteen years ago, the fourth letter would have been considered by most a blue T. Over time, it has been socially and culturally shaped. Take any of the other letters and considered how it has been socially shaped, how its stories differ from person to person, and how the color, font, and positioning all contribute the meaning each carries.
Why is multimodality important?
The world is becoming more diverse, plural, and connected, yet current literacy practices privileged in schools continue to utilize a single mode to validate meaning-making and communicative practices (Johnson & Kress, 2003). Not only do these practices focus on a single mode of meaning-making (reading and writing, whether oral or written), but they also assume that literacy and language are “fixed systems”-- comprised of discrete skills that can be taught and measured in isolation (Blommaert, 2010; Gibb, 2015, Pennycook, 2007). This validation of a single mode of “literacy” and the privileging of fixed meaning-making systems, with no attempt to assess other modes or meaning-making potentials, has resulted in children not being prepared for the world outside of school, children not feeling a part of the system, and literacies being reduced to a short set of objectives written on the board.
Our children face a world where global citizenship is going to require them to reach a global consciousness that “integrates spiritual and environmental awareness into the recognition of deeper socio-economic and technological forces” (Horesh, 2014, p. 9). Reaching such a consciousness requires students to receive and communicate a wide range of information in a variety of forms, and instruction and assessments should reflect this. Despite informative and inspiring steps toward multimodal pedagogy, instructional, assessment, and curricular practices that reflect the majority continue to overtake classrooms, privileging the mainstream and reinforcing dominant ideologies. As educators of our future citizens, we can no longer wait for policies to change, mandates and accountability to slow down, or district curriculum writers to posit children at the heart of teaching, learning, and assessments. We must take it upon ourselves to make sure that the literacies we are privileging in our classrooms reflect the literacies our children face in the world.