Trouble Reading A Newspaper (Part 2)

Remember this post? Well, the folks down under are back in the news. A recent NALD@Work headline read Millions of Australian workers have poor language, literacy, numeracy skills: Industry Group CEO.

Judging by my DVD collection, I'd add they're also bad-ass drivers, exhibit poor social skills, and have questionable fashion sense.

But, hey. Maybe I'm being misled. It's noteworthy that this latest continent-wide smear is being delivered by Rupert Murdoch's Harold Sun newspaper, a rightwing source almost as trust-worthy as, well, this guy:

Still, I want to take a look at Phillip Hudson's April 6th story titled "Millions of workers have poor language, literacy and numeracy skills." I don't mean to poke Australia's adult literacy field with a sharp stick: I'm well aware of the good work they do. What I want to look at is where a newspaper story like this leads. Or, rather, where it does not lead.

An astonishing four million Australian workers have poor language, literacy and numeracy skills and cannot understand the meaning of some everyday words.

And their inability to following basic instructions and warnings is causing a safety and productivity nightmare.

Astonishing and nightmarish indeed! The author goes on to say, "Most are in labour-intensive and low-level service jobs" which is a kind way of saying they're the working poor. The tale continues,

Among the terms that are too difficult for some workers are "hearing protection" and "personal protective equipment is required", according to a report by Skills Australia for the Rudd Government.

The words that many do not understand include: immediately, authorised, procedure, deliberate, isolation, mandatory, recommended, experience, required and optional.

Australian Industry Group chief executive Heather Ridout told the Herald Sun 46 per cent of workers had substandard literacy skills and 53 per cent had numeracy below the expected benchmark.

Ah... now we're getting somewhere. "'It's really worrying when people can't read or write,' Ms Ridout said." But what she meant was it's worrying when people fall below expected benchmarks.

But maybe they don't like reading authorised, isolation, mandatory, required. Maybe they're choosy about the words they read.

Maybe they're especially good at words like freedom, equality, justice, union, or together, gentle, natural, calm and 'take your time.' Not good enough, says Ms. Ridout:

"It contributes to workplace safety problems. You've got to have a lot of pictures to promote safety and it contributes to inefficient practices and mistakes. That means time is wasted and work has to be repeated."

The story next tells us that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd "has nominated improving productivity as a crucial plank towards coping with the pressures of an ageing population" and has "recently provided $50 million to create more training places for businesses to increase skills that are in high demand."

But Ms Ridout said it did not help workers who had trouble with the basics.

"We can't lift skills if some workers don't have the basic skills to build on," she said.

"All these people should be given a chance to participate but if they can't read and write and add up, it's going to be very tough for them."
H'oky. Well, this looks a bit like a basic literacy vs workplace essential skills argument; or maybe an in-house argument over who gets control of any adult literacy / adult training funds available.

Again, what I'm interested in here is how the public airing of these issues plays out. Presumably, Australians can have a serious, informed debate about it, right? Right. Indeed, you can see the debate beginning right in the comments:

Tim of Melbourne asks, "How many of these illiterate and innumerate people are in Parliament?"

John of Colac asks, "How do they get through the school system?" He points out, "Every kid has different learning needs but they all need at least the same basic education." He suggests "We would be better of [sic] leaving computer and calculators out of primary schools and start teaching the basic essentials like we have for decades with good results." [Like many of us, John is now old enough to have blissfully forgotten what education was like in decades past.]

Rhys of Wangaratta shouts out, "Yes, you can see them all on FaceBook" which she seems to feel is too dominated by people whose "IQ must be very low" and seem only to think about football.

Dee of Geelong retorts, "It's not caused by education or lack of's caused by bad parental attitudes" adding "most of this lot are just plain stupid to begin with...they're all going to be as useful as a chocolate teapot no matter what you do with them!" [You know, I could probably sell chocolate teapots; but never mind.]

Paul of Werribee recalls "Successive governments have stopped teachers properly disciplining kids" and says the "consequence is they don't learn and a lost generation educationally." [Hopefully, no one will cuff him about the head for such loose grammar.] He says, "This is particularly true in low socio-economic areas. Until kids are forced to do boring old Maths and English instead of playing with their phones and MP3 players, things will only get worse (if that's possible)." He then adds a personal note: "I've been trying to teach for nearly thirty years and can tell you if it wasn't for the "stress leave" (holidays) I'd be long gone." [Ah... a man who loves his job.]

So, there you have it. The astonishing and nightmarishly poor testing performance of, well, poor people working low end jobs, wastes time, harms productivity and maybe the workers themselves, and forces the use of too many pictures. The Prime Minister and Ms. Ridout think there needs to be some sort of worker-improvement program, though they're divided on the details. Ah... but the man-on-the-street knows that it starts with schooling and (therefore?) quickly concerns himself with children's learning. Different kids need different modes of instruction. Poor, stupid kids - you can spot them by their Facebook profiles - need lots of drill and discipline to overcome parents with poor attitudes, and an overabundance of technology. Meanwhile, disempowered and stressed-out teachers are just hanging on.

Dalton Camp liked to say that letters to the editor only reflect the views of the sort of people who would write letters to the editor. Even so, I can't help myself.

I said I wanted to see if this newstory would lead anywhere. It did - right back to the 60 year old argument over whether teachers or parents are more to blame for poor child test scores, with familiar side-references to IQ, cultural background and the claim that some folks is just plain dumb.

There's nothing very Australian in this. We hear the same things in Canada. Don't believe me? Go back and look at the comments under those Carol Goar columns from last year. What you'll see is that a) the public continues to confuse humane and effective teaching strategies with the way we train dogs, and b) the public thinks any talk of reading and writing education is, at its heart, about children's schooling.

We've had, both here in Canada and in Australia, nearly two decades worth of public information campaigns designed to bring the issue of low adult literacy to the fore. Two decades - and all they want to talk about is them lousy kids and who's to blame.

Makes me wonder why we bothered.

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