A damning assessment of literacy and numeracy skills in the Australian workforce by the Australian Industry Group indicates 93% of employers are concerned about their workers’ literacy and numeracy skills.
Blame has quickly been assigned to the education system.
Are they right? Are literacy standards falling and are schools to blame?
The short answers are “no” and “no”.
Literacy for “new times”
In their report, the industry group rightly identify the need for 21st literacy skills. They note the rapidly evolving digital economy requires more complex literacy skills, and, more specifically, “high-level cognitive and interpersonal skills”.
Literacy educators have understood this challenge for decades. Twenty years ago a group of prominent international scholars wrote a manifesto outlining the need for “new literacies” for new times, partly in response to precisely the challenges raised in the 2016 Australian Industry Group report.
They called for a redefinition of literacy, beyond simply reading and writing print on a page, to being able to communicate in the complex visual, digital and cyber world that we were beginning to see glimpses of back in the 1990s.
Their work has been influential among teachers working at the coal face who can see the need to teach more than traditional reading and writing skills, but politicians have been much slower to understand the message.
School education is falling behind the times
If employers are frustrated by the lack of 21st century literacy skills in their employees then they might want to vent their frustration directly at successive education ministers who have instead been touting back to basics 19th-century literacy skills.
The political obsession with back to basics literacy is leaving schools behind. What is taught in school is becoming increasingly distant from what is required in the real world.
Basic literacy skills - reading, writing, grammar and spelling - are fundamentally important for learning but they are not pre-requisite to the new literacy skills of being able to read the messages in images, or navigate the complex mix of visuals and print on a website.
These skills can and should be learned together from the very first years of schooling, but increasingly narrow curricula and high stakes testing of basic literacy skills are pushing the teaching of a more expansive notion of literacy off the agenda.
Literacy for the workplace
The Australian Industry Group report was right about something else. Different workplaces require different reading and writing skills, and each workplace must provide literacy training for their workers.
Good basic literacy skills are often not enough in many workplaces. Workplaces and professions develop their own ways of communicating. Not only is the vocabulary very specific to the workplace, but so is the way those words are organised into sentences and full texts.
Mathematical and scientific writing, for example, is logical, precise and with very little redundancy. Miss one word and you miss the meaning of the entire sentence. This is very different from reading a novel, where you can grasp meaning even when you haven’t understood every word.
To be able to communicate successfully within your workplace you need to be initiated into the way the language works in that workplace. This is as true of becoming a plumber as it is of joining the legal profession.
Good basic literacy skills allow you to pay attention to the general idea and these are the skills students should leave school with. But schools can’t prepare students for the specialist literacy of the myriad of workplaces they will move into. That is the job of employers who must pass on their expertise not only in the substance of their work, but also in the language of that work.
The younger generation is outperforming the older generation
The Australia Industry group used the results of the 2011 international OECD Survey of Adult Skills to confirm their claim that adult illiteracy rates in Australia have reached alarming levels.
However a close look at those test results reveals more good news than bad news for Australian adult literacy - although the numeracy results certainly are concerning.
Australia ranked 5th on the literacy test, an improvement on previous results, and well ahead of the US (16th) and the UK (14th) - the two education systems upon which our politicians seem determined to model Australia’s education system.
Of particular interest is the performance of 16 - 24 year olds who outperformed the other age groups. The poorest performers were the 55 - 64 year olds, so perhaps the good old days of education weren’t that good after all.
Literacy standards aren’t falling, but they are changing
In 1997 academic Paul Brock gave an enlightening address to educators in which he carefully recounted the ways each generation has bemoaned the falling literacy standards of the younger generation whilst laying the blame at the feet of modern educational methods.
Apparently, we’ve been doing this since literacy first became a thing back with the Sumerians some 5,000 years ago.
The problem is not that literacy standards are falling, it is that literacy demands are changing - and we are not keeping up.
Schools have their role to play, and they can up their game in order to keep up with the times. But employers must also realise that workplace literacy is their core work, not a supplementary remedial program, and plan their businesses accordingly.