The OECD literature review on Adults with low literacy and numeracy skills refers to the dispositional barriers as one of the more prominent barriers for adults with low literacy skills to participate in learning. The dispositional barrier refers to in-person hesitations to start a learning trajectory, often related to dispositions such as “I failed in school once”, “I am not old to learn”, “I do not see the benefit of learning”.
The OECD review also point to the learning environment as one of the main features in the ‘mobilisation strategy’ to re-engage low-literate adults with learning: adults do not want to improve their literacy skills for the sake of it, but want to do so because they want to use their skills in a context. For this reason, embedded, contextualised literacy and basic skills programmes tend to work well for those people not involved in further education.
This conclusion has been around for some time, but still does not receive the (policy) attention it deserves. For instance, when it comes to providing opportunities for dropped out young people. Most initiatives try to get them back in the classroom, while this might not be the best opportunity for them to progress in life.
The report looked in detail at two examples of contextualised learning programmes:
- Family literacy programmes engage adults in their role as parents, enabling them to enhance their literacy and parenting skills, particularly in relation to their children’s emerging literacy.
- Literacy and numeracy provision in the workplace, which increase the outreach of literacy programmes as these courses reach people who are not normally involved in continuing education or training. Features of high impact workplace courses are (I know, it is a long list):
- All key stakeholders of the company have a clear understanding of the course purpose;
- Managers from senior level through to supervisors support the adult basic skills provision and create environments that allow the use of new skills;
- Course providers have a high level of experience of running literacy and numeracy courses in the workplace;
- Tutors are experienced in workplace programmes and have basic skills-related teaching qualifications;
- The course purpose and content are clearly outlined and not presented as addressing employees’ deficiencies;
- Participants participate voluntarily and are motivated and committed;
- The teaching content is aligned with learners needs and the company’s priorities;
- Courses are run in work time and are paid for;
- The course uses multiple teaching methods, tools and contexts;
- The course includes both on and off-job training for practice and reflection;
- Trained employees have the opportunity to exercise their (improved) skills in the workplace and to further improve their skills through further formal or informal learning
The report focuses on programmes that are embedded, but that explicitly focus on basic skills acquisition. Besides those, there are however many other examples of embedded, contextualised basic skills learning programmes that offer adults the opportunity to improve their basic skills through non-explicit programmes. For instance through programmes offered by sports clubs, socio-cultural work, libraries, and online providers. These programmes might not even be advertised as literacy programmes but focus on obtaining other skills, through which adults also improve their basic skills.
What we can learn from this and include in our own practices (be it policy making, programme development, programme delivery) is that to motivate people to learn basic skills ideally they should not be focusing on this at all. Rather, they should be focused on getting something done that really matters to their lives!
I hope the OECD report brings the issue of contextually embedded learning on the adult learning agenda once more.
Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.