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Calling for a more nuanced picture of adults’ basic skills

Basic skills are a prerequisite for coping in society. In the light of the PIAAC survey, Finnish adults’ basic skills are good. However, mass surveys can only produce a rough overview of the diverse reality of basic skills. The latest thematic blog of EPALE discusses the situation of adults’ basic skills in Finland.

The range of adults’ basic skills needs is often wider than what mass surveys let us understand. Photo: Chermiti MohamedAuthor: Markus Palmén. The blog post was originally published in Finnish. 

Basic skills are a prerequisite for coping in society. In the light of the PIAAC survey, Finnish adults’ basic skills are good. However, mass surveys only produce a rough overview of the diverse reality of basic skills. Researcher Maarit Mäkinen from the University of Tampere calls for a broader definition of basic skills, whereas Jyrki Sipilä, a veteran of basic skills instruction from the Institute of Adult Education in Helsinki, would like to see dedicated, differentiating instruction for those improving their basic skills.  

Basic skills are capabilities which enable adults to be full citizens and contribute to the national economy. The definitions of basic skills are not unambiguous, and while they can also be culturally determined, they are generally considered to consist of literacy, numeracy and digital skills. Literacy also includes text interpretation and critical reading skills. Numeracy skills are needed to tackle calculations and, additionally, interpret different charts and indicators. Digital skills, on the other hand, consist of not only an understanding of technology but also critical media literacy. Health competence and financial literacy comprise yet another group of basic skills.

In this article providing background on basic skills, which is EPALE’s special theme for July–September, we sharpen our focus on the following questions: what is the current status of Finnish adults’ basic skills? How are basic skills studied and what is the message the research community would like to send to education policy makers? What type of basic skills instruction would be the most productive from a pedagogical point of view? 

Finnish adults mainly have adequate basic skills

The OECD’s international basic skills survey, PIAAC, is one of the most prominent sources underpinning the discussion on basic skills. The basic skills classification at the beginning of this blog also follows the PIAAC definition.  

The latest PIAAC survey indicates that Finnish adults’ basic skills are excellent by European comparison. As risk groups in Finland, PIAAC highlights immigrants, older people and those excluded from education. In the European comparison, rather great disparity is found especially in digital and numeracy skills.  

Age and skill accumulation play a key role in skills levels 

Maarit Mäkinen from the University of Tampere has conducted research in basic skills. While she agrees with PIAAC's positive overview of Finnish adults' good skills level, she warns against drawing overly direct conclusions from the survey.

– Clear divisions into population groups are pointless, as the skills levels of immigrants, for example, vary greatly depending on their reasons for migrating. Age would appear to be the background factor which influences skills the most. In addition, those who already have a high level of education accumulate education and training.

Mäkinen uses the term accumulation to refer to a phenomenon in which those who have a high level of education are more likely to go for continuing education, and employers are more likely to offer training opportunities for those in a good position.

– Low-level workers are excluded from training in many cases, and they are left to their own devices when it comes to obtaining continuing education and additional training. This is a genuine problem that should be addressed, Mäkinen stresses.

As a solution to the skill accumulation, Mäkinen sees education policy initiatives which would also make it easier for ageing workers and those with a low level of education to update their skills. Mäkinen works in a project titled Taikoja II. It is a network dedicated to coordinating Taito, a Ministry of Education and Culture programme for improving basic skills. As an example, this network has featured projects providing digital training for trade and care sector workers who have never been offered similar opportunities. 

Basic skills instruction should be differentiated

Jyrki Sipilä is the Director of Basic Education at the Institute of Adult Education in Helsinki, which provides basic skills instruction for adults through liberal adult education courses, integration training and basic education instruction intended for immigrants. Similarly to Mäkinen, Sipilä talks about the importance of targeted education in improving basic skills. In practice, this means that dedicated groups must be offered to students practising basic skills, rather than simply integrating basic skills instruction into other studies. Sipilä gives an example:

– In connection with the central government’s Noste project, we organised training leading to a category A computer driving licence. Students with a poor initial level of ICT skills, most of whom had a low educational background, would not have been equally successful if they had been placed in groups consisting of employed clerical staff who were progressing at a standard speed. Without a group providing targeted basic skills instruction, they would not have received the support and encouragement they enjoyed in groups specifically intended for them.

In other words, the targeted projects and long-term targeted training programmes of the Taikoja network are central in basic skills instruction. Mäkinen and Sipilä point out that when planning these programmes, pedagogical professionals at the local level should be heard, as they are familiar with the practical challenges.  

Towards a broader definition of basic skills

The party who defines the basic skills needed in society exercises great political power. Such stakeholders as the research community have criticised the OECD's PIAAC survey for using the same standardised indicators for all countries and for prioritising skills that are the most important for the economy and working life. On the other hand, many basic skills researchers rely on PIAAC as a key source – few organisations have the resources to carry out similar mass surveys on this topic.  

Mäkinen would like to see more nuances in the basic skills discussion dominated by PIAAC, which the researcher sees as narrow in scope.

– It would be a good idea to highlight the preferences and goals defined by people themselves, making it possible to identify the basic skills which are the most important for them personally.

Mäkinen welcomes the reforms of the new PIAAC survey launched in spring 2020. The findings of this survey, which also includes Finland, are expected to be published in 2021–2022. In the new PIAAC survey, adaptive problem-solving skills have been introduced as the third basic skill. It is used to assess how well people are able to solve multiple problems in parallel or cope with changing problem situations, possibly in technology-rich environments.

– This welcome addition reflects complexity thinking in which the world is seen as a changing and unpredictable place. After all, such phenomena as the coronavirus pandemic have recently brought us face to face with the world’s complexity. Three basic skills are no longer enough to cope in today's society.




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The author, Markus Palmén (MSc/BA), is a freelance journalist, writer and producer working with online journalism and audiovisual content. In the field of adult learning, Markus has previously worked as Thematic Coordinator at EPALE and before that, as Editor-in-Chief of European Lifelong Learning Magazine (Elm) at the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation. In the world of learning, Markus's special interests include different learners and liberal adult education. Twitter: @MarkusPalmen 


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