New Learning’s Updates

Vale Gunther Kress

We have lost a dear friend and colleague, Gunther Kress. We first started with him on "genre" approaches to literacy back in Sydney, then on the idea of "muliliteracies" in what would become the New London Group.

Gunther Kress in a "garden conversation" session at The Learner Conferenfce, Institute of Education, University of London, 2003

Following is a 2009 reminiscence by Gunther of our New London days and the broad shape of his subsequent work, from Pedagogies: An International Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 205-12.


I’ll start by recounting my astonishment, even now, at one major achievements of that meeting in New London, New Hampshire, some 12 years ago now: and that is that it happened at all; and even more, that it worked. The 10 people there didn’t just ‘come together’, they were brought together, they were assembled as much for their distinctly different views as for their broadly shared pedagogical and political outlook. If things were going to go well they might generate a new conception out of their positions, shared and still distinct. The energy to maintain that focus for a whole week – from 9 in the morning till 6 or 7 at night - to sustain a constantly productive affect in the group, with all the differences, came from Bill and Mary. They drew on their seemingly boundless intellectual energy to record, to co-ordinate, shape, to keep the talk together. At the end of the day, they still had the energy to radiate a warm sociality and keep it going, each day. Looking back on that time, that is an astonishing feat; never mind the minor problem of managing to fund such a meeting for people from around the globe…

For me it was a totally exhilarating week. I began to see things I had not noticed before (I was entirely new to ‘education’); I began to integrate things newly; at times I saw with sharp clarity connections which had been in a haze before. One instance has stayed with me: a response by Jim Gee, casually made, kind of – in between shooting some baskets with young Phillip, in the parking area behind the hotel - to my puzzlement about the relation between neo-liberal economics and their effects on schooling. All on a warm evening after one of our long days.

The people who spent that week there came each with their distinct positions; they listened and they made their contributions; all of us were serious about shaping a new conception. The place was only New London and New Damascus (though a New Jerusalem was maybe in everyone’s mind); and so after that week we took all that with us and continued with our agendas in our work; and yet not quite the same as before. The compromise, and entirely serious, term ‘Multiliteracies’ has been used by each of us - and then by many others - in ways that reflected both our path before and our interests since. The places where we had been before and where we have moved since meant that it would and indeed should not be otherwise.

In any case, there were two distinct concerns embedded in the project and in the term Multiliteracies: one focussed on theoretical frames and one focussed on domains of application. One such frame – for instance - was that of the pedagogic approaches brought by Courtney Cazden, Alan Luke, Bill Cope, Mary Kalantzis, Jim Gee – all different and yet compatible. In my case the theoretical frame was that of Social Semiotics, with its central focus on sign-making rather than sign-use; on design rather than on critique; and on the multiplicity of resources for representation – modes - drawn on by those who make meaning. The multi- of multiliteracies lay and lies for me in the multiplicity of modes; for others that multi- lay in the multiplicities of socially distinct uses of language – whether seen as discourses or as a multiplicity of socially shaped differences in what might be seen as one language. Or it might have lain in the multiplicities of factors that constitute the social domain itself – culturally, linguistically, in terms of class, of gender, of age as generation and so on.

I’ll say something briefly about how I have carried some of the ideas forward. The field of application in which I have continued to work, has been that of education: not just in the narrow sense of ‘the school’ or of other institutional sites of teaching and learning, but in learning much more broadly, in any site. There is nothing novel in that...; it is the translation - or maybe better, the articulation - of current social conditions into a domain seen through the lens of ‘learning’ or maybe the lens of ‘education’. Teaching and learning are instances of communication, and so from one perspective my focus is on a theory of communication apt for contemporary social conditions (or maybe, when I think more ambitiously, which would always have been apt at all times for all social conditions, though shaped differently depending on the regimes of power) which happens to be articulated in a specific social field and is seen through a specific lens, that of learning.

Learning and communication are aspects of the same process, differently focussed. It would be odd to say: “We were communicating really well, though I learned nothing”; or the other way around: “I really learned a lot there, though I have to say, there was little communication.” In a social semiotic theory, communication is a process in which I respond to a ‘prompt’; my interest engages with an aspect of that prompt (never with all of the prompt) and that directs and shapes my attention. My attention frames aspects of the prompt with which I engage – a serious, sustained bringing to bear of my semiotic resources as principles that shape my transformation of the framed aspect of the prompt. That transformation constitutes my interpretation of the prompt. So a social semiotic theory of communication makes two fundamental assumptions: communication is always a response to a prompt; and communication happens when there is interpretation. This turns conventional notions of communication inside out – though this was of course foreshadowed (among others in Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” 1968): something becomes a prompt by virtue of my interest becoming engaged; what is framed as prompt depends on my interest; and above all, it is my interpretation which constitutes an event as communication.

When that sketch of a theory of communication is turned into an approach to education, to teaching and learning, the learner is central; the learner’s interest (re-)shapes the materials presented by a teacher as the (curricular) prompt and transforms them in line with the learner’s interests. Here lies a profound problem and clash in contemporary notions of schooling, of learning, and of evaluation as assessment. In relation to assessment – a major device for social / pedagogic regulation – the question has become starkly simple: does assessment use metrics aligned to power and convention or does it attempt to understand the principles inherent in the learner’s making of signs of learning, the learner’s making of meaning?

This leaves to one side the characteristics of the environments of learning: what do these environments offer? Are they shaped to be engaging for the kinds of learners imagined? Here two terms are, for me, central: the term design, and prior to it, the term rhetoric. In the unstable social environments described in the lead paper, the older frames which had provided the grooves of conventionalized communication (never mind that that conception too was a myth sustained by power) and which shaped – or at least gave strong indications for – forms of interaction. One of the ironies in this respect is that the enormous amount of work done in many different fields – education included (myself not an exception) – around the notion of genre, started just about at the time when that term had become highly problematic as a means of describing social practices. In the absence of these grooves – or of the naturalization of a belief in these grooves – each occasion of communication becomes inherently problematic. In a situation of insecurity, of instability, of flux, of intense diversity..., it becomes essential to take each occasion of communication as new and to ask: what are my purposes? Who is my audience? What are its characteristics? What are the resources I have to shape my representation and communicate it? and by what means of dissemination? In other words, there is now a permanent need for a rhetorical stance.

With the need for this rhetorical stance comes the need for design. Design is ‘prospective’ in the way needed: it asks how my interests in this issue can best be put to this audience given its characteristic and my access to these resources. Design makes the agency of the designer central. In relation to learning it does this in two ways: both for the teacher and for the learner. The teacher asks how she or he can shape the learning environment aptly for these ‘learners’; and asks how she or he can shape the prompt in the manner that makes it both the ‘ground’ for the curriculum which a community still wishes learners to engage with, and the ground for the learner to be useable, interesting, engaging.

That maintains a central purpose for institutional sites of learning such as the school: to propose, to establish a ground of culturally salient and significant knowledge seen as essential and desired by a community, and to do so with the interests of the learner firmly in mind. It also provides a frame for thinking about sites of learning of any kind. The focus on design (and rhetoric) also naturalizes the notion: ‘I design for my interlocutor and she or he makes their design following their ‘interested’ and transformative engagement with my design’. The attention is on design, whoever the designer may be. However, in as far as I am interested in valuing / evaluating – in whatever way – the learners’ designs, I need to be able to recognize signs of learning.

Recognition becomes of central importance: the learners’ signs of their learning may not be in the mode(s) in which I have presented the curricular materials at issue; and the learners’ signs in any case will be more or less heavily transformed from the shape of my message. More, the learners’ signs may appear in a medium or in media which I am not used to recognize as appropriate sites of learning. In this way design, as a concept becomes a means for recognition of sites and signs of learning.

As I have suggested, a theory of communication is at the same time a theory of learning. So my interests move between an emphasis on communication – in a general social semiotic theory of communication, applicable in all instances of communication - and an emphasis on learning, on environments and conditions of learning. Increasingly, I see teaching as best thought about under the two categories of environments of learning – the question being: ‘what resources are there and in what arrangements?’ – and conditions of learning - with the question being: ‘what are the social relations, the relations of power, which obtain in these conditions?’ ‘Whose interests count?’ ‘Whose interests shape the curriculum?’ ‘What are the metrics of assessments or the principles of evaluation?’

These are central issues for me: both the attempt to formulate and elaborate a theory of communication which is apt and adequate to contemporary conditions; and the attempt to translate this into or derive it from the environments of learning and teaching which I encounter in the kinds of research that my professional position makes available to me.

There are many issues that flow from that, which I cannot elaborate here. Some are mentioned in the lead paper: for instance the issue of modes and ontology. If it is the case that image representation is profoundly different to representation in speech – as I think it is possible to show – what follows socially when one mode begins to displace the other? What follows for students, for students from different cultures, for me personally? And if it is the case that the materiality of modes has, inevitably, specific relations to the physiology of our bodies, then what are the consequences of profound changes in the uses of modes? What follows for culturally diverse societies from the fact that different cultures have privileged and do privilege different modes and ensembles of modes? What effects for classrooms in which these diversities meet in one spatially confined and at least potentially vastly expanded space?

And a somewhat more marginal issue, perhaps: that of naming. To me it is becoming clearer by the day that we simply do not have the terms, the labels, the concepts to deal with the new questions. Two examples: for me sign-making equals meaning-making; meaning-making equals learning. If meaning-making equals learning, why have different terms for these? My emphasis is on sign-making rather than sign-use; and I say that the newly made sign – a motivated connection of form and meaning is always a metaphor. So why should I use two terms: sign and metaphor. A new term coming into use is that of ‘lived experience’ What is the difference between experience and learning?

At a more serious level, ...the ideas of the original statement were taken up with great vigour in quite different places in the world. In the ‘new’ South Africa, newly formed and hugely optimistic, teachers and scholars who had struggled in the ‘old’ South Africa found the ideas in the Multiliteracies project provocative and productive. In their application of their selection of ideas from that proposal, they both found means of translating their ideas for an education which might be productive for all in all classrooms and in doing that, they much furthered the ideas of the original project. The descriptions and analyses made by Pippa Stein and by Denise Newfield in particular, together with their teacher-colleagues with whom they had long been working in classrooms there; their joint presentations of that material at conferences outside of South Africa, brought by their transformations of these ideas into the international domain. There they were both hugely convincing and even more, they served as inspirational models for teachers and academics in very many very different places in the world.

I have wanted to end on that example. In its way it demonstrates the same social concern, the same generous affect, the energy which marked the bringing together of the initial group: work founded on an overwhelming generosity of the mind and of the heart. ... [T]his... is written out of a feeling of utter loss at the death of Pippa Stein, a great friend to me, a great teacher for me, profound in her thinking and unbounded in her generosity to those whom she encountered.

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