Diversity, Uniformity, Contradictions

I ran into my MLA just before Christmas. He asked if I'd seen the new adult literacy strategy for New Brunswick, and what did I think?

Well... what I think is it's a hard thing to create a literacy strategy for this province.

First, there is no clear agreement, within the local field itself, about what it means to be "literate" or how "family literacy" and "workplace literacy" and "adult literacy" can be differentiated. Hence the vague references to people being assessed at an IALS Level 3 or being employable despite our shrinking manufacturing and primary-resource base. I think this lack of clarity is, um... sometimes convenient for some folks. But mostly, it's just confusing for well-meaning politicians and such. More about that elsewhere.

Second, there has been some serious elbow throwing by groups and organizations - small and large - for a place at that mythical table where funding gets handed out. Someone could be forgiven for supposing the whole lot of us need to be taken in hand. That's a mistaken idea - but it's understandable.

Third, this effort to create something fresh and new appears to have arisen from within those two most conservative of organizations: the career civil service and the university. Given their distance - physical as well as philosophical - from front-line facilitators, it's no surprise they focused on management tools like standards, testing, and quality control.

It's this last bit that really stands out when I read the document.

What I think I'm seeing is a document that knows diversity and innovation are key to delivering effective literacy support in New Brunswick, but which also "knows" just as firmly that if learners and facilitators will only do as they're told for once everything will be all right.

So, for example, the document promises to find out what barriers keep adults away from programs. That's good. There's a Literacies issue that would make a good starting point.

But, in the next breath, the report says it already knows what these barriers are, and what we need to do about them. That suggests the real planning has already happened, and "working together" simply means doing what the government wants.

I'll talk about the barriers section later. I want to go back to the tension between diversity (driven by local needs and wants) and uniformity (under centralized, civil-servant control).

I want to set out some quotes from the documents, compiled into two opposing columns. There isn't a one-to-one correspondence: I'm only trying to show the conflict in the two visions. Please note that the bolding is my own doing:

Diversity & Innovation

Uniformity & Control
- At present, we are not reaching the vast majority of our target client group, and demand for [existing] services does not reflect the reported need.

- One balanced and cohesive adult literacy system is the ultimate goal….
- …no one organization acting alone will be able to meet the magnitude of the challenge that New Brunswick faces.

- We will: establish provincial quality standards for adult literacy….
- This implies a commitment from all parties to the development of true partnerships based on mutual respect; to ongoing consultation and consideration of stakeholders’ input….

- [The government] is initiating a process to develop quality service and assurance standards relating to program design, content, delivery, and support systems to ensure uniform, quality and meaningful learner experiences….
- Innovation will be supported….

-This implies a provincial framework of measures and processes that cascade from the high-level targets. To be as effective as possible we need to be prepared to subject programs to objective review, and adopt, adapt or discontinue, as appropriate.
- Given the diversity of learners’ situations, goals and personal circumstances, a wider range of services and innovative solutions is required.

- We need to… focus on developing a cohesive adult literacy system….
- We need to find ways of working together more effectively at different levels - to set aside historical, cultural and philosophical differences….

- We need to find ways… to set aside… philosophical differences….

I'm sorry for being all negative and Fox news and stuff. I actually like the idea of working with the government, including being tightly accountable for how I spend tax dollars. I understand that politicians need to work within the confines of a budget and public expectations. I'm cool with that. My government says we're going to partner, and share, and respect each other, and be innovative and meet learners' many diverse needs and goals. Super! I love it. Can't wait.

'Cept, it also says it already has a plan about what to teach, how to teach it, and how to ensure people with the right kind of training do the teaching.

That isn't the way to support innovation, build partnerships, or deliver a diverse spectrum of programs and supports. It's how you create public school for adults.

Nor is it the way you build quality. We need to get away from the academic's belief that quality (as used in "the quality of the teaching instruction") arises from qualifications ("teacher and practitioner qualifications at different levels"). In practice, that fallacy leads to employing teachers - often retired public school teachers - certified in those same unhelpful "traditional teaching methods" that "have not resulted in positive outcomes."

(Where's the innovation when an adult with reading difficulties walks into a classroom and is met by his Grade 5 teacher and a bookshelf of Grade 5 Steck-Vaughn math and English literature textbooks?)

Let me repeat that: the report states, "Adult literacy learners have not generally had positive experiences of formal education, and traditional teaching methods have not resulted in positive outcomes for them."

In that case, more of the same is hardly going to help.

"There is a lack of understanding of the literacy challenges that we face in New Brunswick," the report says.

In fact, there is a lack of understanding of "literacy" itself.

That could change.

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