New chapters for adult literacy

Being able to read fluently is much more than a ‘functional’ skill, essential as it is for employability, health, democracy and everyday life.

As avid readers ourselves, Ruth Spellman and I really enjoyed getting together with Cathy Rentzenbrink ‎and Jo Dawson of Quick Reads this week. We met to explore how WEA students could benefit from their short books. Big name authors have written them and they are designed to be easy to read. We ended up wanting to read some of them ourselves – because they are appealing and not because we think they might be ‘good for us’.

Hopefully the days when adults learnt to read or improve their understanding of written English using ‘Janet and John’-type children’s books are long gone and there are many imaginative adult literacy programmes and resources. As Sam Shepherd reminds us in his blog here, ESOL students might have studied to a high academic level in their first language. Adults should have learning resources that respect their maturity and don’t patronise them.

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Cathy and Jo promote Quick Reads with a gusto that comes from an obvious love of their work. It’s a mission for them. Cathy captured the mood of our discussion when she said, “We don’t want to suck the joy out of reading.”

For Cathy and Jo – and the WEA – books are part of a rich mix of experience that shapes people’s lives. A lack of accessible books – and art, music, drama and humanities education – can make ‘culture’ exclusive but it is an important part of education and one of the WEA’s four educational themes. (The others are employability, health and wellbeing and community engagement.) Books trigger all sorts of feelings and can help us to experience life in other places, times and cultures. They let us see the world from other people’s points of view and enrich our experience.

Spreading a message about the delight of getting engrossed in a good book is a positive way of encouraging some reticent readers to improve their literacy skills. Popularising reading for entertainment as a regular part of life is a good way of hooking people to become book lovers. Television’s Richard and Judy have introduced many people to contemporary fiction through their Book Club and it’s interesting to see that BBC Radio 2 has a book club too.

The Quick Read books and the Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge can be used to enhance ESOL or adult literacy courses to improve reading skills. They can also be used as the basis of book clubs that can include people who are building up their confidence in reading. Group discussion of a book gives readers a chance to practise self-expression and to exchange views. They can learn the important messages that readers interpret books in different ways and that it’s OK not to like a book, even if it’s written by a well-known author.

Adults developing their expertise and self-assurance though reading books that grip them can apply their improving skills in work, community and family settings. They can also learn about other people’s lives and thoughts to broaden their own understanding.

Book

 

Do you use Quick Reads or the Six Book Challenge in adult education? Have you read any or taken part in the challenge? It would be good to hear your views.

Learning from crime fiction – means, motive and opportunity

Most readers of crime fiction and viewers of detective dramas know about the concepts of means, motive and opportunity that the writers use to establish criminals’ guilt. The MMO checklist is memorable and highly relevant to adult and community learning as well. MMO Understanding that adults need the means, motive and opportunity to benefit from education can help us to engage people into relevant courses in their communities. It’s not enough to provide courses and hope that people will turn up and join them or to set up digital learning activities and hope that people will find them.

Local resources and specialist tuition led to success for these WEA students interested in digital media.

Local resources and specialist tuition led to success for these WEA students who wanted to learn about digital media.

Do people have the means: the money for fees, equipment, bus fares, tea and coffee breaks, the initial skills, digital literacy, internet access, childcare….?

What might give them a motive to learn? Is it the real prospect of a proper job, better chances for their children, improving their health, gaining confidence, meeting new people, learning more about an interest, campaigning for something…..?

The flip side of this is just as important: “What type of learning demotivates someone?”

Is there an accessible opportunity to learn? Where can people go to learn? How will they know where to go and what’s available? Are there community networks, role models and venues where people feel secure? Is there access to digital learning with appropriate support?

Too many people will remain “hard to reach” unless policy makers and planners of adult and community learning try to understand the concepts of means, motive and opportunity.

Of course, engagement is only part of successful adult education. Once we have hooked people by negotiating the MMO, we have to make sure we move on to another three-letter acronym – with top quality TLA: teaching, learning and assessment.

Informal and non-formal learning: a smart investment

This article was first published in the current edition of NIACE’s Adults Learning journal. It’s a bumper edition and well worth reading for news and opinions about different aspects of adult education.

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Everyone learns throughout their life but everyone has their own personal experience of learning. The most badly off people in our society are very often the people who have benefitted the least from formal education.

Research shows that less formal learning can be a key for adults to improve their health and wellbeing, confidence, self-esteem, relationships in their communities and readiness for work. Access to good quality informal and non-formal learning is a powerful tool to address various types of inequality. It contributes to society by reducing pressure on other support services. It makes economic sense and is a matter of social justice.

A ‘one size fits all’ model of linear educational progression through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood is not enough to support a population with longer average life expectancy. Adults need to adjust to technological, social and economic change. Formal education is not enough to deal with skills gaps in adult literacy and numeracy and the impact of poverty on individuals, families and communities. It is not enough to create a vibrant national culture of lifelong learning and an active democracy. We need flexible, negotiable, high quality, locally accessible and affordable options for adult learning.

Formal education or ‘more school’ is a daunting prospect for people who feel alienated from learning. Many messages reinforce their anxiety and deter them from education. Ideas such as punishing parents who have poor literacy levels for not reading to their own children add insult to injustice and perpetuate educational inequality. We need the alternative, complementary and proven models that community and family learning can provide.

People who are labelled as ‘hard to reach’ often see formal education as hard to enter and pointless for them. Community networks can create supported pathways to make sure that no-one is written off without chances to return to learning. Research into the wider benefits of community learning shows that it improves the lives of people who might otherwise be excluded from education, including people who have not been in recent employment, education or training, people with disabilities, ex-offenders and people from marginalised groups. It can also top up education for people who have learnt successfully in the past.

WEA students learning together

WEA students learning together

A non-formal approach in a compassionate, negotiated learning environment can – and does – lead hesitant adults back into more formal education by building their confidence, self-belief and motivation. Such approaches are especially important at a time when people have difficulty in finding secure and sustainable jobs, when there are concerns about health inequalities and when portrayals of extremism threaten community cohesion.

The potency of informal and non-formal learning can be overlooked in policy debates on education.

In practice there is a spectrum of learning activity from the informal to the formal, with individual learning pathways. Non-formal and informal community learning are essential parts of the mix and complement formal schooling, further education, higher education and training.  Community learning’s agility and responsiveness can provide links between the different educational sectors and also between many policy areas, agencies and the communities that they serve. Informal and non-formal adult learning can create local solutions to neighbourhood problems and can introduce people into taking a full and positive role in their community.

Community education and family learning contribute to a learning society that spans different generations. The recent Family Learning Works report arising from a NIACE-led Inquiry into Family Learning provides powerful evidence of intergenerational learning’s impact. Parents, carers and grandparents who are active learners improve school children’s attainment, while non-formal learning also helps people to remain more active and independent into old age. Impact research from Community Learning Trusts, projects supported by the Community Learning Innovation Fund and the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) provides statistical evidence to back up many individual case studies and stories of achievement.

Many of those who work in non-formal and community learning are skilled at seeing connections, linking the curriculum to community priorities and interests, linking learners to opportunities for progression, linking volunteers to local activities, linking partners who can make things happen by working together and linking adult learning to policy areas such health, justice, employment, arts, communities, local government, culture and the media.

WEA Manifesto

WEA Manifesto

Community learning is a diverse sector. Organisations of all sizes, including many in the third sector and trade unions, offer informal and non-formal education. The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and other adult learning organisations locate their work in the wider policy, social and economic environment, as shown in a separate, complementary manifesto that the WEA has launched. It makes nine specific recommendations to promote connections between different types of learning and policy areas, including:

  • Auto-enrolling workers at all levels into ‘Training and Development Accounts’
  • Making the Living Wage and universal training and development minimum requirements in all public sector contract procurement and tender specifications (including subcontractors)
  • Requiring Health & Wellbeing Boards to include health education in their strategic plans to reduce health inequality
  • Introducing education/training vouchers for parents in receipt of child benefit when their first child starts Year 7
  • A Minister with lead responsibility for family learning in England
  • A requirement that  all universities, colleges and schools publish Community Access Policies to make education assets and infrastructure accessible through partnerships to all adults

The cost-benefits of community learning are substantial for a relatively modest investment. The NIACE and WEA manifestos are timely.

Ann Walker,

Director for Education, WEA

Lev Vygotsky – in tweets

Twitter isn’t all about what people had for their lunch. This week Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) tweeted his summary of a book on Lev Vygotsky’s work. Although the focus is on children’s education, the Russian psychologist and educational thinker’s work is relevant in adult learning too.

Vygotsky suggests that the experience of learning on an individual basis is not as rich or deep as learning alongside someone who is more knowledgeable about a subject and that learning should have a social context. It’s interesting to think about how online learning might be designed in response to this and how children’s experience of school-based education might affect their later attitude towards learning as adults.

Summarising a book in fewer than 20 tweets is quite a challenge but Tim conveys some quick basics about Vygotsky, giving a brief but useful taster. For non-tweeters and members of TLATLA (The League Against Three Letter Acronyms), the abbreviations are:

ATM = at the moment

ch = children

Ed = education (obviously!)

ZPD = Zone of Proximal Development

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky

Thanks to Tim for his generosity in sharing the notes from his reading and for introducing others to Vygotsky’s work or providing a refresher.

There is a range of opinion about Vytgotsky’s views and his theoretical work is often compared and contrasted to that of Jean Piaget.

Do you have any further thoughts about Vygotsky’s ideas or links to other resources?

Persuasion, politics and adult education

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Building on more than a century of adult education for community engagement, the WEA is running  ‘Why Vote‘ and ‘Deciding Locallyinitiatives to boost voter registration. Dr Henry Tam from the University of Cambridge led a Twitter chat about it last week. There’s a Storify summary of tweets here.

Ballot_Box_web_3

The WEA doesn’t promote any individual political party but has a long tradition of encouraging people to vote and to go further by becoming active in politics, especially at local levels.

Practical political education aims to stimulate critical thinking about how democracy and politics work. It is important that people can make informed decisions and can develop the skills and confidence to get involved in shaping policies that affect them directly.

Critical questioning plays a key role in political judgments and in daily life. Information bombards us from several sources every day, but can we trust it? Are we being informed or manipulated – deliberately or inadvertently? Do we notice the difference between indoctrination, persuasion and education?

Indoctrination trains people to accept a set of beliefs without opportunities for questioning so that they conform to particular ideas, opinions and principles without considering alternatives.

Persuasion is more subtle. It relies on the assumption that most people will not sift through the range of relevant information even when they are free to do so. A persuader can impose their opinion by highlighting specific ‘information’ or by appealing to emotions.

In theory, education presents facts and logical arguments, encouraging students to think for themselves, assess all the relevant information and come to their own conclusions. In practice, education does not take place in a vacuum. Teachers are likely to bring their own perspectives and can be powerful persuaders, while students apply their own filters based on their personal experiences. Some adult students are very eloquent and informed before they begin a course. Others are more likely to accept ideas without questioning. These issues raise various practical and ethical questions.

As an adult education organisation, the WEA respects tutors and students as equals who share and learn from their differing experiences. Being able to understand and to apply principles of persuasion might be a useful part of the teaching and learning process.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric defined these principles many centuries ago, identifying the three elements of logos, ethos and pathos.

  • Logos – logic, facts, evidence, reason
  • Ethos – ethics, credibility, dependability
  • Pathos – emotion, appeal to people’s feelings

aristotle's rhetoric

 

Watching a news bulletin on television can be a good opportunity to look for the three elements of rhetoric. We can assess how much of what we are told is based on facts and evidence and can think about whether we trust the source. We can decide whether we are being swayed because of substance, spin or charisma.

There are some good free resources to help with analysis of political parties’ policies and statements of fact, including:

  • Vote for Policies at http://voteforpolicies.org.uk/ which provides a test of what policies you might agree with if bias towards a particular political party is removed.
  • Full Fact at https://fullfact.org/ which is an independent fact checking organisation which provides free tools, information and advice, so that anyone can check the claims we hear from politicians and the media.

Anyone who thinks that politics has no place in education or vice versa should think about how many cabinet ministers of different political parties have studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics degrees at the University of Oxford

Recognising the elements of rhetoric is a tiny step in comparison but can give people some tools to assess information and more skills in getting messages across for themselves.

Any other useful websites, resources or comments?

Ofsted listens some more

There’s been a lot of interest in the schools sector about a meeting between bloggers and Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s national director for schools.

With much less fanfare, a very constructive meeting has taken place this week between Gill Reay of Ofsted, officials from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and representatives from local government, the learning and skills sector and the third sector.

Organised by NIACE, the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, the seminar was prompted by recent changes of emphasis arising from community learning reform and the localism agenda. The meeting focused on how the inspection regime could recognise and assess providers’ responsiveness.

The event was interactive and practical with productive exchanges of information and views.

Colleagues from Ofsted and BIS showed knowledge and  understanding of community learning principles and practice and a commitment to working with providers.

The nature of the dialogue was reassuring and it’s good to see efforts to make sure that inspection processes reflect the specific nature, challenges and important role of community learning.

Teaching for Understanding

Learning facts can be a crucial backdrop to learning for understanding, but learning facts is not learning for understanding.

From ‘What is Understanding’ 

Teaching for knowledge or teaching for understanding? This is a hot topic for some educators who use social media. It can become a rather abstract and artificial debate at times but it’s important to think about how ideas of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ influence curriculum design and day-to-day practice in teaching, learning and assessment.

Is the curriculum relevant to the students?

Can students use the knowledge being taught?

Do students understand the knowledge being learnt?

‘If you can’t actually take an idea outside the classroom and use it, you don’t really get it. But once you use it on your own, its yours forever.’

Robert H Frank, economist

Teachers and researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education, including Howard Gardner*, David Perkins, Vito Perrone, Rebecca Simmons and Martha Stone Wiske, have put some of their thinking into action and worked collaboratively for several years to develop a “Teaching for Understanding Framework” based on four main ideas:
  1. Generative Topics: These topics are connected to students’ interests and experiences. They can be learned in many different ways and build on previous topics.
  2. Understanding Goals: These are statements or questions describing what students should aim to understand during a course.
  3. Performances of Understanding: These are activities that require students to apply their knowledge in new ways to show their progress and their grasp of the Understanding Goals.
  4. Ongoing Assessment: This is the process of continual feedback to students about their Performances of Understanding in order to improve them.

The framework goes beyond “show and tell” and encourages students to “grow and show” their understanding and application of knowledge.

There’s more information about the Teaching for Understanding project here and you can find some practical workshop resources here.

How does this framework fit with practice in adult learning? Where does ‘knowledge’ fit in? Thoughts?

(* There’s more on Howard Gardner in an earlier guest blog by Mary Hunter here.)