Thoughts on Multimodality

Happy March everybody!

In a recent discussion about our upcoming podcast, the MASC Lab team discussed the importance of multimodality in education.  Multimodality, in a strictly denotative sense, is the understanding and approach to communication that utilizes sign systems across our five senses.  But it is also an acknowledgment that we have undergone a major shift in the way we make meaning, from a strict reliance on printed text to the inclusion of design, sound, rhythm, and kineticism.

One form of multimodal engagement MASC Lab is involved with is the teaching, learning, and practice of media production.  Podcasting, video production, social media, and even this blog are all examples of multimodal approaches to communication.  We’ve also been inspired by CASES Choices Alternative-to-Detention, an alternative program for court-involved youth, whose youth-initiated projects include collage making, role playing, and physical activities like boxing.  The work that CASES does has broadened our conceptual framework of multimodal literacy as embodied forms of expression.

Understanding, interpreting, and using these multimodal texts requires educating ourselves on how they operate.  As Frank Serafini (2015) argues, “More than simply asking what modes or multimodal texts are, we need to be asking what multimodal texts do.”  Part of that learning means being able to articulate the subtext of a multimodal texts (i.e. What is this image saying?  What is this sound communicating?).  But it also means applying a critical lens by interrogating the site of production, the purposes of representations, and asking who is included and who is excluded.

In advocating for multimodal approaches to education, we are advocating the self-empowerment of people to read and construct meaning of the world through sign systems including and beyond printed text.  We believe that this approach strengthens people’s opportunity to become active participants and citizens in a multimodal society.

Unfortunately, despite the expanding opportunities to take a participatory role in a multimodal world, schools in general have reified multimodality as a distraction to “real” learning.  Film, music, physical education, the arts–all are marginalized due to an obstinate commitment to traditional conceptions of literacy and text.  Multimodality insists upon an interdisciplinary approach to learning that reflects the reality young people inhabit and will be expected to navigate as they grow older.  And indeed, young folk are more aware than adults that the traditional ways of teaching—top-down, passively received knowledge, rigid and authoritative reifications of knowledge—do not work in this social paradigm of the post-industrial U.S. and globalizing understandings of culture.

As society globalizes and interactions across cultural difference become the norm, people are required to produce meaning through their engagement with various modes of meaning making.  Some of the tools of this meaning making are literally in the pockets (and more often the hands) of young people.  It is our responsibility as educators to invite young people to think critically about these tools and how they can be used in ways that move toward reshaping the world in humanizing ways.





Serafini, F. (2015). Multimodal literacy: From theories to practices. Language Arts 92(6), 412-423.

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