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The future for Ford workers: literacy will be key

Yesterday’s announcement that Ford will close its manufacturing operations in Geelong and Broadmeadows by 2016 at the cost of 1,200 jobs raises questions of what the workers' future employment options…

Nearly half of Australian adults are functionally illiterate, with manufacturing workers having some of the country’s lowest literacy levels, a significant issue as the industry continues to shed jobs. AAP Image/Julian Smith

Yesterday’s announcement that Ford will close its manufacturing operations in Geelong and Broadmeadows by 2016 at the cost of 1,200 jobs raises questions of what the workers' future employment options are.

But as these workers consider their futures, we need to understand that nearly half of Australian adults are considered functionally illiterate. And manufacturing workers in Victoria, which includes those in the firing line at Ford, were found to have even lower literacy skills, with 54% scoring at the lowest levels.

The data are alarming and there are now serious concerns about these levels of literacy and the impact they have on the employment, health and education opportunities for workers.

Given the strong links between increasing literacy and better employment opportunities, economic independence and social conditions including health and education, this is a serious issue not only for manufacturing workers, but for the rest of the Australian community.

What is functional illiteracy?

Functional literacy is broadly defined as having the literacy skills for everyday living. This includes reading and writing lists, interpreting medicine labels, understanding road signs, using maps, navigating the internet, using instruction manuals and other procedural texts that people encounter in their daily lives.

While complete illiteracy refers to a total inability to read or write, functional illiteracy is much more difficult to see, as functionally illiterate adults can generally read and write to a limited degree.

UNESCO defines functional illiteracy as being unable to productively engage with society due to poor reading and writing skills.

Data from a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) study, as part of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), assessing adult literacy and numeracy skills shows that about 44% of Australians aged 15 – 74 had literacy skills at levels that are considered to be functionally illiterate. Older Australians have lower literacy rates than younger Australians, with 65% scoring at the lowest literacy levels.

The impact on people’s lives

The impacts of functional illiteracy are generally well-hidden as people often do their best to “get by” and disguise issues they might have with literacy in order to not be noticed for fear of discrimination or other repercussions. In some cases, people are excluded from the workforce altogether due to their low levels of literacy.

The 40% of employed Australians who lack the basic literacy skills to participate effectively in the workforce, advance their careers or engage in further skill development acts as a significant economic dampener.

Just as there is a clear need for investment in schools in order to increase economic and social benefits across some of the country’s poorest neighbourhoods, the same is true for adult literacy levels. As little as a 1% improvement in adult literacy levels can lead to a 2.5% improvement in productivity.

As well as the socioeconomic factors, low literacy levels have been shown to link to poor health outcomes, cyclic poverty and welfare dependency, alongside higher crime rates. There are implications for participating in the democratic process, understanding policies, voting, as well as being able to interact with government agencies.

In his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire claimed:

to acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques… it is to understand what one reads and to write what one understands.

This includes being able to read the world through the daily activities of banking, using computers, doing the shopping and driving a car. It also means having the skills to engage in higher education and vocational training, help children with homework and understand the ways that advertising and media work to sell particular versions of the truth to people.

It is alarming that such functional illiteracy issues are not only prevalent in society, but that we are spending so little time looking at how to improve it.

While we obsess over NAPLAN testing of students’ literacy and numeracy and call for increased teacher quality and accountability, there are whole swathes of the population who are being completely left out of the discussion simply because they are unable to read and write to a level to participate.

What can be done about it?

There are several things that can be done to help improving adults’ functional literacy levels – like those adults soon to be laid off from the Victorian Ford plants.

Libraries are already doing excellent work in running tailored programs for adults. And there are other initiatives like the Reading Writing Hotline, as well as Vocational Employment and Training (VET) courses at TAFEs and other community colleges across the country.

Perhaps a relatively untapped resource however, is our schools and teachers. Our classrooms might be full of the noise and liveliness of children during the day, but come the last bell at 3 o’clock there are thousands of empty classrooms around the country. These spaces could be utilised for community-based programs that tap into the expertise of teachers and schools to provide meaningful, contextualised literacy and numeracy programs for adults.

Given the enormous social and economic benefits, it’s clearly time to invest in these kinds of initiatives – particularly when there’s soon to be a new batch of unemployed workers that need extra literacy support and training.

Join the conversation

52 Comments sorted by

  1. John Phillip
    John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grumpy Old Man

    G'day Stewart. I've been teaching in the primary and secondary spheres for 25 years and in that time there have been myriad initiatives designed to improve literacy and numeracy. You are seeing the results. Perhaps it's time to consider a restructuring of the syllabus such that the first few (up until grades 3 or 4) are set aside purely for literacy, numeracy and P.E.. Too often, the curriculum requires children to analyse and critically examine information without first possessing the literacy/numeracy skills to do so. The result is an increasing disengagement from the education system, increases in the incidence of poor behaviour ( with a resultant collapse in education outcomes for the students being disrupted) and a devaluing of the most important communication skills an individual can own.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to John Phillip

      That's a good thought John and if I stretch my mind back to primary classes nearly sixty years ago, I can recall topics of reading, writing and learning tables mainly in arithmetic with some PE, RI and maybe a bit of drawing/painting.

      There seems to be a lot more on offer these days and too ready an acceptance of young students being able to absorb more and more and just as no doubt there are some who may excell in that through having become good readers at a young age, that type of approach could also lead to bigger cracks through which slower developers could more easily fall.

      There could even be a transition from the basics into areas of reading and discussion for science, history and geography etc. before they became more separate studies and at the same time, greater initial focus on literacy and numeracy would or should likely give a far greater chance for those not doing so well to be identified and given greater help.

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    2. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to Greg North

      "Older Australians have lower literacy rates than younger Australians, with 65% scoring at the lowest literacy levels."

      This fact suggests that whatever they're doing now is better than what they were doing 60 years ago...

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    3. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to John Phillip

      John - as Luke pointed out below, if older Australians have lower literacy rates, then initiatives in the last 25 years, ie: experienced by those aged under about 40, are obviously having a positive effect.

      It's fashionable in Conservative politics (by definition) to talk about how much better education was in the days of slate and chalk. But, even if the evidence didn't contradict this assertion, we can't afford to consider going back to mid 20th century models of education in the 21st century…

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    4. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Lorna, I can only speak for my time in education and in that time results have declined. I am not talking from a conservative political perspective, rather, from a pedagogical one. I am not in any way shape or form advocating a return to chalk and talk. What I am suggesting is that a shift to literacy/numeracy teaching in the first few years of primary school will allow those skills to develop to the point where the more abstract skills involved in ctritical analysis and higher order thinking can be effectively accessed by the student.

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    5. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to John Phillip

      John,

      Do you have any objective evidence for the existence of this decline? If you're talking about your recollections, it's known that people tend to recall past events more faourably.

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    6. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Lorna, you could try aus gov "Decline in educational performance" . The url is <gov.au/decline-educational-performance> . In all honesty, although the link supports my claim, it really has been formed by a combination of anecdotal experience at a range of secondary and primary schools in both city and regional Qld and getting pummelled annually by admin quoting how bad the results for the state and/or country are (PISA results are often used to support the latter point.). Cheers

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    7. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Wonderful definition of irony:

      "Do you have any objective evidence for the existence..."

      "it's 'known' that..."

      Hoist, petard, and all that.

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    8. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to David Thompson

      Not really. I take "it's known" in this case to mean "scientific studies have shown it to be so". It's not the same thing as making a statement from personal perceptions and hearsay. A quick Scholar search should turn up plenty of empirical evidence. Of course you're free to ask Lorna for links to said papers if you doubt that they exist.

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    9. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Luke Barrett

      Luke, I think I have provided some objective empirical evidence for my views on the decline of literacy/numeracy standards. Interested to hear your views.

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    10. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to John Phillip

      John, your URL was a bit short, but if you mean www.betterschools.gov.au/decline-educational-performance, then I'm not seeing a whole lot... Is there more to it than the one paragraph talking about world rankings and NAPLAN?

      International rankings are meaningless when comparing the skills of past and present students within Australia, because they're largely dependent on what other countries are doing. It also says that some students are not meeting national minimum standards, but again, that says nothing about how kids today compare to kids in the past.

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    11. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to Luke Barrett

      To clarify, I don't really have a strong belief either way. However, if literacy rates are indeed lower in older Australians (and I'm inclined to believe the Australian Bureau of Statistics), then that constitutes strong evidence that education has improved over the last ~50 years. Of course, those stats are likely to be influenced by improved access to education and a higher proportion staying at school for the whole 12 years, but it's certainly not indicative of falling standards.

      Certainly the kids of today are less likely to have memorised the times tables, but if that simply reflects increased focus on concepts, rational thought and innovation, then I don't see a problem. Certainly the success or failure of my career in academia won't be influenced by my knowledge of the times tables, and it won't require perfect grammar (although it helps), it will depend on my ideas.

      However, if we can keep up with the rising standards in Asia and Europe, then I think of course we should.

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    12. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to Luke Barrett

      Luke, do a google for his article "Thomson: Challenges for Australian education" the url is 5 or 6 lines so I didnt include it. Luke, I think it's hard to argue that literacy/numeracy standards in Australia are in good shape.

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    13. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to John Phillip

      Well I think it's clear that literacy is in better shape than it was 50 years ago, because if not, older Australians would be more, not less, literate. As for more recent trends (i.e. within the last decade), your link does indeed shed some light:

      Australia is higher than the OECD average in every area (literacy, numeracy, scientific literacy), and the report summary says: "Overall, Australian students performed very well in PISA 2009."

      However:
      "Australia was the only high performing country…

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    14. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Luke Barrett

      'Not really. I take "it's known" in this case to mean "scientific studies have shown it to be so".'
      In which case, Luke, the discipline of Biology has changed since my day. In our very first Biology 101 lecture, the Professor explained the difference between Science and non-Science. Under the heading of "non-Science" he explored Astrology and ESP. It seems things have changed, and biology students now presume they have ESP.

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    15. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to David Thompson

      I have no idea where the comment about ESP came from. The way I see it, this is about what a reasonable person might infer from an admittedly ambiguous statement. I offered my interpretation, which happens to be at odds with your interpretation. Note how I said "I take ... to mean...". This phrasing is commonly used in this sense, and it tells the reader that this is merely my interpretation and they may beg to differ. I don't see how ESP comes into this. Anyway, as this is way off topic, I'm happy to leave it here.

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    16. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Luke Barrett

      "Well I think it's clear that literacy is in better shape than it was 50 years ago, because if not, older Australians would be more, not less, literate."
      This is a complete non sequitur. The logical fallacies are too many, so let's focus on just two.
      1. You are assuming that 'older Australians' in 2013 are from the exact same population as 'younger Australians' in the past. The assumption that today's older Australians are just the older 'younger Australians' from 1975 and earlier is bizarre.
      2. You are assuming that literacy remains constant regardless of age. I will tell you - and not just express my opinion - this assumption is empirically false.

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    17. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Luke Barrett

      "I have no idea where the comment about ESP came from."
      It came from your presumption to read Lorna's mind.

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    18. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to David Thompson

      You found more than two logical fallacies in one sentence? That's impressive.

      1. A large proportion of them are the same cohort. It's not a logical fallacy - it's an assumption, and one that I'm still prepared to make, unless you have any data on hand to quantify the effects of, for example, immigration? I have better things to do than spend my day researching this, but I apologise for being flippant. Calling it "clear" may have been optimistic.

      2. True, there is likely to be a *weak* decline in literacy with age (the direction and strength of the effect depends on one's career). I don't know if there's any evidence that this swamps trends in childhood education?
      e.g. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0927537112000991

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    19. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to David Thompson

      Or rather, it came from my presumption to interpret Lorna's comment differently to you. Sorry about that.

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    20. Luke Barrett

      Ecologist

      In reply to Luke Barrett

      A less-than-perfect assumption is a logical fallacy I suppose, but it's one that anyone living in the real world must commit on occasion.

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  2. Daniel Boon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Call me a sceptic (dyed in the wool) ... but is this just another 'education industry' grab for more funding?

    There is an over-abundance of over-educated unemployed people out there ... sure these about-to-be-unemployed will be taught new skill sets, but what is the relevence of a new skill-set that have no job vacancies?

    The very real fear of LNP and most current politicians is they know how bad Australia's financial position is, how increasingly dependent on other countries (for food imports) we have become, that in less than a decade, food security will be the number One issue.

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    1. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      Daniel -

      "There is an over-abundance of over-educated unemployed people out there" - so you don't care about the plight of those who can scarcely read?
      "The very real fear of LNP and most current politicians is they know how bad Australia's financial position is" - you are kidding, right?
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:GDP_Real_Growth.svg
      It might brighten your day up to realise just how good we've got it here.

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  3. Peter Smith

    (None)

    You'd be wrong to think that teachers aren't busy after 3pm. Even their weekends can be taken up with extra workloads.

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  4. David Leigh

    logged in via Facebook

    Whatever happened to Australian ingenuity and the positive attitude that saw this country through so many crises?
    Songs were written and poems recited over centuries of adversity and many great inventions given away to other countries because we just did not get it and we still don’t.
    A large US company, after eighty-eight years on Australian soil, has decided to move offshore and suddenly it is the end of the world. Well it’s not. Australians have had eighty-eight years of training on how to…

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    1. Colin MacGillivray

      Architect, retired, Sarawak

      In reply to David Leigh

      "If we can make these for our market we can make them for overseas markets." Wrong, I'm afraid. Anything they make will be too expensive to compete with SE Asia.
      The article points out that half the workers are illiterate. They are paid more for an hour's work than a literate Malaysian worker is paid for a day. The minimum wage here in Sarawak is about AUD300 per month and if both parents earn that, they will own a home and possibly a small car in Malaysia.

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    2. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to David Leigh

      It might all sound like a great idea David but if a company like Ford with their history of auto manufacturing has had their problems despite a billion or so $$$ of taxpayer support over the last decade, incurring a loss just this last financial year of $140M, what really makes you think a government with a history of poor decision making can step in and do any better, particularly if to be looking at futuristic development designs.

      Lotus in England do have a version of one of their vehicles using…

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    3. Horace Lim

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Colin MacGillivray

      Colin, you have identified a ROOT cause. Because 75% of Australians live in 4 cities, the cost of land and housing is 2-3 times that of US and Europe. Consequently, the cost of land and housing drives everything around the country: food, public transport, banking... and wages. Why would any sane car (foreign) company make cars in Australia for 5-10 times as much for the same quality?

      A work force which reads Shakespeare at home (instead of watching football) doesn't make customers want to buy our cars more or be willing to pay more for the same product they can get imported from Germany or vastly cheaper from Thailand. Even Malaysia is losing its industry to Thailand because the workforce are Buddhist and hardworking.

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    4. David Leigh

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Greg North

      If you watch the news on Sky Greg, you will see VW advertising a state of the art car for $16,000 "VW immer besser" Manufactured in Germany and imported to Australia and that's with on road costs and low finance. It is not the wages of Australians that holds us back, it is the avarice of corporations and the lack of inventiveness.Hemp was also used to build F250's in Canada and it gave better milage and fuel consumption as well as load capacity. Every vehicle manufacturer in the world has a hydrogen fuel cell car ready for production but the oil companies are pressurising governments and for what? There is no oils left so why not move on?

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  5. Zvyozdochka

    logged in via Twitter

    Would we have gotten a better return spending the $1.132b gifted to Ford since 2000 on educating people into other areas? That's a LOT of education.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Zvyozdochka

      Education can only educate many people to a particular knowledge level and then whatever skills people may have been able to develop, employment is another matter altogether.

      You also do not need too much education to find out just what the wages and conditions are like for the many poor of many countries.

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  6. Mat Ward

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    "Our classrooms might be full of the noise and liveliness of children during the day, but come the last bell at 3 o’clock there are thousands of empty classrooms around the county."

    Should that be "country"?

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  7. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    "... nearly half of Australian adults are considered functionally illiterate".

    What a damning (although hardly surprising) statistic.

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  8. Peter Hindrup

    consultant

    Devastated! ‘ This includes reading and writing . . . using maps . . .’ To one who is absolutely certain that cartographers who construct city maps have never set foot in, well in the country in which the city is situated, actually. GPS’s are THE greatest!

    Seriously, here lies an opportunity. No, of course not cars, Tata Motors, India have the Nano, designed from the ground up to take advantage of modern materials and construction methods, while the Volkswagen XL1 Concept, 2 seater will…

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  9. Leigh Burrell

    Trophy hunter

    Thought the loony green/left dream was to have people like this stroll out of coal mines, car plants, etc. and into factories making solar panels and wind mills. We've even got the carbon tax they said would make it happen. As usual, their grand plans are foiled by reality.

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    1. John Armour

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      "Living it up on a union slush fund - top hotels, fine dining, women, cash!"

      Shorter Leigh: keep your eyes on the union boss with his hands in the till. Ignore the CEO taking his shareholders for millions.

      Annually.

      Leigh, for me, this is personal.

      Duckhid.

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    2. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter

      In reply to John Armour

      How did you arrive at the conclusion that I would ignore it? Did it not occur to you that I might object to both?

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    3. John Armour

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      If somebody's walking around with Rabbitohs tattooed on their forehead I don't expect them to barrack for the Tigers.

      Or maybe it was something you said.

      My apologies if I have offended.

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    4. John Armour

      logged in via email @bigpond.com

      In reply to Leigh Burrell

      " As usual, their grand plans are foiled by reality."

      At the risk of pointing out the obvious, this is still 3 years away.

      A lot can happen in 3 years

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    5. Leigh Burrell

      Trophy hunter

      In reply to John Armour

      I have no tolerance or sympathy for cronyism or corruption in any situation, whether it be business, unions or elsewhere.

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  10. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    In all seriousness, if there were less crap being written then thre might be more incentive for adults to do more reading.
    It takes some stamina to undertake the "bog snorkelling" needed for regular reading.
    A triumph of hope over experience?
    And it is not as if adults have no words, they do converse with each other.
    They seem to have failed to be convinced that there is a conversation to be had via the written word.
    Over to you, Conversationalists, can you imagine those functionally illiterate workers consuming your output with relish?
    Or do they just view the majority of written communication as "crap", not worth the effort?

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  11. Trevor McGrath

    uneducated twit

    It’s more common than you think. In my job ,we regularly we get people who,” have left their glasses at home", I had to explain to one of the after school girls that in most cases it means that person is not able to read or write very well and can basically only sign their own name. Sad but true. Cheers

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  12. Alan John Hunter

    Retired

    These figures seem too general to be of any real use.
    i.e. many of these workers are immigrants who have worked at Ford or other similiar jobs and have never felt the need to be literate.
    Also people who can read very well but don't write very much have problems with spelling, writing and spelling are far more closely linked than reading and spelling.
    Personally I was very good at maths at school, but never had to use algreba as an adult, when my kids sarted secondary school I thought I could help them, wrong I didn't have a clue, I had through lack of use lost it.

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  13. Hardy Gosch
    Hardy Gosch is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Mr.

    Interesting subject. Some good commentary.

    Putting aside the various positions of individuals here in regards to the level of education in OZ, the question we should all be asking ourselves are we heading in the right direction.

    Everybody here seems to agree that the current system needs fixing or must be improved, true?

    What can we expect to happen after the 14 September.

    Consider this frightening scenario. Ask yourself:

    Are you sure you want to hand over control to the Institute…

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  14. ian cheong

    logged in via email @acm.org

    The reality is that not everyone has a literary brain. People with poor literacy skills may be born with poor verbal ability. That doesn't mean they can't learn or can't think. People can learn by seeing and doing rather than reading.

    So there are people out there with book smarts who aren't so good on practical skills or common sense, and there are people out there with great skills and common sense doing a great job without being able to read much.

    Are we going to complain if some top footy players score low on literacy tests?

    So what can be done about it - for decision makers to properly recognise that different people learn in different ways and that we need flexible education to accommodate all types of people. Literacy is definitely not the key if you missed out on the literacy genes.

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    1. Daniel Boon

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to ian cheong

      I agree Ian ... from my experience (47 years working in various spheres from blue to white collar), the ability to physically produce something usually requires a more connected person, whereas those who sit behind desks (particularly academics) and are better able to articulate themselves, have an assumptive air and are less connected.

      The main problem is that the decisions makers are not doers, they feel they're more directors ...

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    2. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to ian cheong

      Unless there is evidence for "literacy genes" then there is no reason to presume they exist. Assuming that some people are intrinsically illiterate lays the blame with their DNA and implies that nothing can be done, so nothing should be attempted.

      It's not the same as saying that people have different learning styles, and functionally illiterate people have been failed by the education system they went through, rather than by their DNA. The fact that literacy rates are higher among younger Australians suggests that pedagogies are better addressing the diversity of learning styles.

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    3. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to ian cheong

      It's also important to understand that this discussion is not about denigrating the functionally illiterate. These people use creativity and determination to cope in a literate society, but they do suffer social and economic consequences. We're not talking about cashed-up football players - we're talking mostly about older people who have worked in unskilled, often manual jobs. How are they to find new ways of earning a living in the 21st century, as their physical ability to do manual labour declines with age?
      This is not about feeling superior. This is about caring that people are suffering multiple disadvantages through no fault of their own, and wanting to do something about it.

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    4. Lorna Jarrett

      Former PhD candidate, physics teacher

      In reply to Daniel Boon

      You must know an awful lot of academics very well, in order to be able to make valid generalisations about their personal attributes. Or did you make use of the various standardised tests used to measure personality traits? Did you spend the same amount of time with people in the different groups, and make sure that your sample adequately represented the age, gender, nationality, racial and socioeconomic diversity of each group?
      Or were your comments based on your assumptions. Ironic.

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    5. ian cheong

      logged in via email @acm.org

      In reply to Lorna Jarrett

      Try reading about specific learning disabilities..... if there is a need to know, a neuropsychological assessment can be done at large expense.

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