Literacy

I rarely dip my toes into areas that I haven’t spent much time looking at but it’s a slow news day so I’ll take a quick stab at literacy. There’s a good op/ed today in the Victoria Star cheekily titled “Be literate in this place” (they had to know going in that this would be parodied more than any other possible slogan).  Here is the soup bone quote:

Premier Shawn Graham and his Liberal government swept into power in 2006 on a pledge to lead New Brunswick into self-sufficiency. But this goal will never be achieved when many New Brunswickers lack the ability to get a job in today’s complex market. Even our traditional industries of farming and forestry require workers to have increasingly specialized skills to succeed in these areas.

Now, let’s deconstruct this a bit.  I have always felt that if you want a more literate population, there needs to be a reason to read.  You can try to teach people how to read but if they don’t read – they won’t be literate.

Why do people need to read?  The op/ed piece rightly points out that an increasing number of jobs require literacy.  However, I think we can test the assumption that New Brunswick’s jobs require literacy.

We have over 100,000 people collecting EI each year. I don’t have the numbers in front of me but about 70,000 of them collect EI as a seasonal top up when they are not working at some point during the year.  How many seasonal jobs require serious literacy?  Fish plants?  Fishing?  Wood workers?  Most kinds of tourism-jobs?  Certainly literacy would help in many of these jobs but it is not a prerequisite.

The point is that I would test the assumption that you need to be ‘literate’ for many of New Brunswick’s jobs.  If that was the case, people would be more literate.    I realize this is a chicken and egg discussion but ultimately if you want a literate workforce we will need to have an overwhelming percentage of jobs that require literacy.

Of course, literacy is not only a work issue.  There are a wide variety of ways being literate helps us in broader society.  So if we assume that a workforce transformation is an evolutionary process, we could do more to encourage literacy because of its importance outside of work.  A long, long time ago when I was at NBTel, there was an idea floating around to bundle a small computer into the monthly payment for telephone service (like the telephone itself was bundled in).  I think there were some attempts but minimal to do this.  Old Camille Theriault gave people a tax break to buy a computer.  Those days are long gone.  Nowadays we build infrastructure and then cross our fingers.

New Brunswick has I think the lowest rate (or the second lowest rate of computer usage) in Canada.  We also have the highest rate of TV viewing in Canada.  In Restigouche almost 50% of adults watch TV more than 15 hours a week compared to 29% across the country.  You don’t need to be literate to watch “So you think you can dance, Canada?”.

Maybe we revise the old plan of a computer in every home (not subsidized by the taxpayer but maybe with a tax break) and then we build a few compelling apps. and provide the training for folks who need it.

I heard a podcast recently that old Chavez in Venezuela is giving away books for almost nothing – and huge numbers of Venezuelans are buying them.  Of course, Chavez is screening the books and providing an 80% reduction in price for books that he likes – which is a weird moment to be sure – but in the end hundreds of thousands of people are reading more books.

Give people a reason to read and they will read. 

Just a thought.

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17 Responses to Literacy

  1. Anonymous says:

    Literacy goes beyond whether it provides greater job opportunities for a person. What we ultimately are literate citizens. If people are unable to read a book, how can we expect them to be financially literate, or to be informed voters able to think critically about the issues and platforms proposed by political parties, or more importantly effectively present their own ideas and issues to politicians.

  2. I agree but I am talking about what motivates people to become more literate.

  3. Literacy is the result of aspirations. It is the result of the sort of person you expect to be in life, the sort of person you want to be.

    This happens long before you get a job, long before you even think about working. The path to literacy begins when you are very ypng, and grows (or not) through childhood depending on what sort of ideals or models you aspire to.

    If you celebrate a culture of hockey players and musicians and kitchen parties and TV and and cars and riding around on the ATV (which is basically the content of our televsion and news media) then you do not create an impage of success that involves reading, and you do not foster literacy as an aspiration.

    If, on the other hand, you celebrate the doctors and scientists and autors and artists in society, you foster an image of a person as articulate, intelligent and literate as an aspiration, and as children aspire to these models, they become literate.

    As long as you think of a society, and a culture, and indeed, an economy, as ‘getting jobs’, you bypass this much more essential aspect of society, and aspire to a life no more imaginative than that of ‘worker’. It’s no way to live, no way to build a society.

  4. Stephen has a good point, it’s about the culture. For example, even though the US has doubled educational spending since 1970 (in constant dollars), math & reading levels have remained the same.

    http://simplecomplexity.net/education-achievement-data/

    Foster a society that promotes curiosity and you just might get learners. Instead, politicians constantly talk about “jobs” (AKA indentured servitude) and test scores (AKA arbitrary standards not developed by students). No wonder there is a culture of victimization. Much of our collective sense of worth comes from external sources who tell us what we should want and do.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Majority of forestry work requires 2-years post-secondary education. GIS knowledge, rare plants, bird habitat understanding.

    The scary issue is that literacy in NB is not simply an older worker problem. Young people are entering workforce without these simple skills.

  6. Anonymous says:

    If I am allowed, I would like to make a cynic question: if literacy is such a problem in NB (and it is), why are there so many people crying for fast speed internet in remote areas of the province? Just food for thought.

  7. richard says:

    ” why are there so many people crying for fast speed internet in remote areas of the province”

    Porn. No literacy required.

  8. David says:

    Working with industries in this province I see over and over again low productivity, quality problems (rework) arising from errors in simple arithmetic: inability working with fractions, decimals etc because of low literacy and numeracy levels.

    Where there is the will there is the way.
    A true story: in 1960, less than a year after their victory, Castro’s government decided to wipe out illiteracy. They recruited 120,000 volunteer teachers, most of them young high school students. Armed only with books and Coleman-style gas lanterns, the volunteers entered the most remote areas, teaching peasants of all ages to read. The grim part of the story was that there were still counterrevolutionaries in the hills — and they received support from the CIA. They knew the literacy brigades were helping solidify Castro’s support among the peasantry, so the young volunteers were terrorized and at least one was murdered. But the campaign succeeded anyway. Practically overnight, Cuba’s literacy rate rose to 97%, and it’s now a little higher than that. By the way, the average Cuban’s knowledge of the U.S. and of world events is astonishing.

    The teachers moved on foot throughout the countryside and had to carry their own sources of illumination: Colemans; with peasant students working from dawn to dusk in the sugar cane plantations , there only free time was spent sleeping. They didn’t need any artificial light.

    We need a literacy revolution. Make use of schools idle in off hours, use volutary services of teachers and literate people in the community, volunteers from industries (they have an interest in literate and numerate employees). I think most people have a crying desire to improve literacy but don’t participate out of embarrassment; making Literacy program participation as a prerequisite for social assistance would be a motivator.

    We need radical ideas.

  9. John Doe says:

    To the poster who is interested in playing the cynic: People in rural areas want it because they don’t have it. With porn, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and a plethora of other useless social mediums and sexual indulgences even the illiterate are crying for a turn to play. If you have ever ventured onto Facebook you’ll quickly see just how unintelligent people are. The use of proper or functional grammar is virtually non-existent, and phonetic spelling is rampant. I’m not referring to the usage of “lol” and “w00t”, but rather the instance in which an individual is attempting to convey a meaningful message in a high school alumni group, or a missing girl information group.

    Some mornings I’m ashamed of my species.

  10. mikel says:

    For the above, its because the internet isn’t really ‘literate’ friendly. In fact, I remember a video podcast that talked about how we very well may be seeing the beginning of the end for the ‘printed word’. Why do we need David to write this stuff when he can say it in a podcast or vidcast? You don’t need to be literate to use the internet, when we talk about ‘literate’ we don’t necessarily mean completely unable to recognize letters, thats actually quite rare.

    But I agree that its a cultural issue, but also an educational one. There is simply no reason that a 40 hour ‘work week’ for students, for eight months of the year, is unable to teach basic literacy. My question is, what the heck is going on in schools all year long?

    Television viewing is quite similar to newspapers, I suspect a look at the numbers will show the age of the viewer, and I bet if Restigouche were checked, you’d see a lot in the older range.

    Venezuela has been a real success story in that, because its all been about empowerment. People are organized into grassroots political units and are actively taking part in the operation of the state. In that state politics is becoming ‘cool’, unlike the dance shows, music shows, sports shows, that are the norm up here.

  11. John Doe says:

    I have to admit that I spend an inordinate amount of time procrastinating by reading internet newspapers and this blog (in addition to a handful of others). The other day a colleague asked me how much time each day I spend reading the internet newspapers and I replied by telling him that I have a set pattern every morning as follows: Canada East(Miramichi, St. John, Moncton, and Fredericton – all in that order), Chronicle Herald (Halifax), Globe and Mail, and finally It’s the economy, stupid. Despite this, I continually find myself anguishing over the placement of commas, the use of brackets, and run-on sentences; even though I anguish over this, I still consider myself a poor writer. My point is that spelling is the last thing I think of because every time I make a typo, it gets underlined by a red line and I can correct it by right-clicking on the word and selecting the first option I’m presented with.

    Computers and technology have virtually eliminated the need to practice spelling in your youth in the same manner that the calculator eliminated the need to practice long division. There is no such thing as pen pals anymore and children are having their minds rotted out with MSN/Skype lingo and the beauty of T9 texting, but the level of creativity in children and youth has increased exponentially. They might not be able to string together a coherent sentence, but their creative horsepower is off the charts in comparison to youth in the 80’s. Flunkies are creating million dollar applications for the iPhone and marketing themselves on YouTube at a level that would put most small businesses to shame.

    Is literacy reaching a point of obsolescence? We have software that makes spelling a superfluous task, and grammar checks which will rid your term paper of passive voice despite your complete ignorance of its presence. Literacy is being outsourced to our computers and Blackberries in order to focus on creativity and ingenuity. The more attention you an get, the more successful you are. At least that seems to be the trend in today’s superficial economy.

  12. mikel says:

    An interesting post above, but I wonder if ‘superficial’ is really the right word. Is creating a new iphone app really superficial? Twenty years ago what kind of small business could a person start? A restaurant or a landscaping business. I have no problem with the idea that technology does much of the hard labour IF it were true that young people in NB (or Canada) were actively ‘creating’. We do see lots on Youtube, but we don’t see people going that one extra step of organizing a plot, a team of actors, and trying to make a ‘show’. We see a fair bit of music, but little effort in making an ‘industry’. And how many ipod apps are New Brunswickers really churning out? Literacy is simply the lowest stepping stone, IF you can’t do basic reading/writing, its doubtful you are really challenging your creativity (thats not always true though).

  13. mikel says:

    I’ll respond to Mr. Jarche’s blog here, but its worth the travel over. We’ve talked before about the ‘educational crisis’, but its a bit of a red herring. I think teachers are like journalists and are in a kind of ‘panic mode’. The reality is that LOTS of kids no doubt could learn everything they did in school right at home in front of the computer-probably more than they’d care to admit. The same goes for journalism, if Charles was a BIT less antagonistic (though his antagonism is understandable) then he’d easily be the best journalist in the province-certainly the most important.

    But the idea that ‘reading text is gone and who needs it’ is a HORRIBLE idea. A ‘knowledge economy’ is a scientific one-even in trades. You can’t learn and remember all you need to know about bacteria, hoyles law, the atomic weight of barium ‘experimentally’. That would take you forever to do experiments to ‘see’ what you can easily learn in a book. While people say they ‘learn visually’, they forget that even in a video form they are still ‘reading’ it. I haven’t seen the data, but I’ve never heard of anybody with a ‘digital memory’ from stuff they’ve heard. Maybe that will change, but it hasn’t changed so far.

    The problem doesn’t seem to be THAT kids learn, but HOW. I agree with the point made that its odd that we lock up kids in buildings less appealing than many prisons, have a system that acts like a prison and ‘demands’ they learn facts seemingly irrelevant to their lives, and then are surprised they aren’t learning them. There definitely needs to be more flexibility in the classroom, I know the system does TRY to respond, but I saw posted at a CBC story a year ago that in rural areas they were still using textbooks that had Yugoslavia as ONE country. So IF thats true, its pretty hard to sell the idea that the educational department is being in any way ‘progressive’.

  14. richard says:

    The research data on literacy show that there are significant differences from province to province. These are partly explained by income levels, but some provinces clearly do a better job of promoting literacy at early ages then NB does. In those provinces where literacy at early school age is promoted, there seem to be fewer differences among different income groups, i.e. an overall higher level of literacy across all income groups. So there are concrete things that can be done to improve literacy, and it does not seem to be rocket science.

    From living in some of those provinces where literacy rates are higher among low-income groups, I’d observe that this is also associated with a greater thirst for knowledge. I’d also add that in Gladwell’s book Outliers he reviews some quite old research that suggests we lose a huge amount of human potential in how we identify or select persons for various occupations. Clearly a lot of gain in overall human achievement can be made by investing more in education, especially early childhood education, and in social supports for low and middle income families.

  15. mikel says:

    Any insights on WHICH provinces do better at an early age? Where in NB are the worst areas? What provinces have a different ‘thirst for knowledge’? How is that quantified?

  16. Bill says:

    I’m a little late to this, but for what it’s worth … I just put this on Twitter: If you are not literate, you cede control over your life to those who are. If that’s not an argument for literacy, I don’t know what is.

    I don’t think people are really aware of how much of their every day life depends on what is written. Contracts, for one. If you can’t read, you have to trust someone else to explain what is in it. Laws, electoral platforms and so on – same thing. If the world is inclined to move toward something like video, how do you know what to say and shoot next on that video podcast without a script? Movies and TV use storyboards but what are they if not language?

    Letters are signs. Letters in a certain sequence are words, which are signs.

    Except for the hardware, everything on our computers is language: the text content we read but also all the coding we usually don’t see. That’s why they refer to programming “languages.”

    If people need a reason to learn to read, I think it should be explained to them how much control over their own lives they give up by NOT being able to read.

    My one question regarding Canada’s literacy rates (between provinces) is to what degree are they affected by worker migration? Would provinces like BC and Alberta appear to be performing better on the literacy front due to literate workers from out of province moving to them? And would NB appear worse due to losing skilled workers to other provinces thus making the degree of illiteracy higher? I’m sure, to a degree, it must though I don’t think it would sufficiently to erase the embarrassing rate we have.

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