Friday, 16 December 2011

Thinking about Literacy… and learning

 

I’m just reading through a research project about adult literacy (Muth, B., Integrating Social-Humanist and Cognitive Approaches to Adult Literacy, Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal Spring 20011, Vol.5, Issue1, p26-37, in case you care) in which the author discusses what he calls ‘social humanist’ styles of teaching. What most people would call ‘whole-language’ or ‘real’ learning. He says this:

Boudin's project focused on the experiences of female prisoners and their use of literacy to confront fear. It shifted the focus of instruction from a "collection of skills outside of any meaningful context" to a "meaning-driven, whole-language orientation" to learning (Boudin, 1993, pp.  214 - 215). There are many examples of social-humanist oriented adult literacy programs in the literature (e.g., Auerbach, 1990; Duguid & Hoekema, 1986; Fingeret & Drennon, 1997; Friere, 1972; Lyde, 2001). Stirring as these accounts are, one might wonder how they register with educators who are charged to teach standardized sets of skills and knowledge, such as those required to pass the GED or to advance from developmental education to college credit-bearing courses.

And I think to myself… hmmmm. [Shall we mention the additional ‘to’ in the second sentence? In a periodical dedicated to the study of literacy? Again…. hmmmmm.]

Outside of the GED, in what context (real life, educational, professional, or, I dunno… medical?) is any person going to find themselves, wherein they need to know a specific word and can’t look it up, figure it out, use a different one. Or rather, wherefrom comes the strange notion that Literacy=Complete Vocabulary.

The process of context-based learning may very well give the learners a ‘different’ vocabulary than the one that is curriculum-based. So?

Playing baseball gives people a different vocabulary than playing pool. Does it mean only baseball players learn ‘the right’ English, while pool player are left on the sidelines with a ‘poor education’?

That’s the implication in tests such as the GED, that focus on knowing a very, very specific tiny fraction of the English language, while happily ignoring the other, much greater (and generally more complicated, gleefully contradictory) part of it.

Example (sample GED question):

Sentence 2: My work experience and education combined with your need for an experienced landscape supervisor have resulted in a relationship that would profit both parties.

Which correction should be made to sentence 2?

1. insert a comma after education

2. change combined to combine

3. change have resulted to would result

4. replace profit with prophet

5. replace parties with party's

Now, I happen to be exceedingly literate –to the point that I make up my own words fairly often (humbility is a favourite). So I actually know the answer…and expect most people reading this to know the answer… but suppose in the run of the time the test victim has read English –perhaps many years– they haven’t come across the written homonyms profit and prophet…. or the written plural of party… So?

Does getting this question wrong, because a tiny, tiny amount of written English’s bazillion rules are cherry-picked and determined, by virtue of being on the test, the be ‘most vital’ when compared to the rest, have anything at all to do with genuine language skills of the testee? Does getting it right mean anything at all?

What About Research Skills?

imageWhile the Google Machine is near-ubiquitous, we remain stuck in an inane vortex of ‘knowledge’ tests.

Do you know how long it takes on the average, generic search engine to find out whether profit or prophet is the right choice? According to Google… if you can figure it out from the hits on the first page, 0.18 seconds, not including the time it takes to type it or scan the results. Call it half a minute.

Not fast enough to suggest the testee has any aptitude at all?

I read with either a dictionary or a laptop beside me. Whenever I find a word or phrase I don’t understand, I look it up. If I happen to be near the computer, I’ll even look up unfamiliar punctuation usage. Did I mention that I’m extremely literate? Someone attempting to prove their literacy in a standardized test is not allowed to use the resource materials that literate people use every day?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to hand out the page of Shrunk and White, and the relevant page of the Oxford Concise English… and then ask questions that suggest that any literate test victim was either capable of comprehending and applying sufficiently to answer correctly… or not.

Why is there so much testing that has to do with ‘learning this arbitrary piece of information long enough to barf it onto a test’ rather than ‘use this to show you can do this’?

Anyhow… the research paper made me think: are the educators really so lacking in creativity that they can’t think of any way of examining knowledge or ability while incorporating authentic contexts?

Without authentic contexts, how meaningful can the tests pretend to be?

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