Warm words, weak outcomes:  Are we about to fail adults a second time?

By Alan Tuckett, President of the International Council for Adult Education and Professor of Education, University of Wolverhampton

WEFThe World Education Forum in Incheon is now behind us, and the Addis Ababa event on financing the Sustainable Development Goals ahead. This blog celebrates the vision for adult education that was championed at Incheon, but warns that it will never be achieved without dramatic change at the Financing for Development Conference coming up at Addis.

The 2015 Global Monitoring Report has some key lessons for us.  It is at once an impressive and depressing read – at least for adult educators. It points to a dramatic failure to make significant progress on adult literacy since 2000.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The Report offers four major reasons for a lack of progress in adult literacy – the lack of political leaders who prioritize the value of adult literacy and the resultant failure to finance the work; weak capacity where there have been campaigns (noting Nepal as an exception); the widespread failure to use mother tongue for non-dominant languages, and the importance of a literate context, in which learners can practise, sustain and improve their literacy skills in everyday life. I would add to the GMR’s list:  the failure to extend gender equality to educational opportunities for adults: women account for 64% of the 781 million adults governments report as being without literacy, (the real total is perhaps half as big again), and this is a proportion that has not changed since 1990.

While the Report does present the available facts on progress towards the literacy goal, and adult skills within goal 3 are at least discussed in this GMR as opposed to some of its previous reports, it highlights that there is a lack of comparable data in most low and middle income countries enabling it to tell a proper story.  As a result, we know little about the learning needs of adults working outside the waged and taxed economy and how best to address those needs.  We know little, too, about the educational interventions that are most effective in enabling citizens to be informed and participative.

Report_cards_En 4What we do know is what is brought out in the GMR, notably that ‘contemporary society requires citizens with skills for civic engagement, living a healthy life and sustainable development’.  The Report clearly shows that we need better measures of formal, non-formal and informal lifelong learning, especially for adults, and the ability to disaggregate and analyse survey data to identify who isn’t participating, and what can be done about it.

To be fair, education ministers and policy makers at Incheon were alive to the lack of progress and monitoring restraints. The fourth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on education, which was endorsed at the World Education Forum, encompasses a holistic view, recognising the inter-connections of learning across the life span – just like the EFA vision did in 2000.  The new target recognises that literacy skills are contextual. And there is widespread agreement that a simpler, easily administered literacy assessment instrument needs development.  I was encouraged by the importance given to non-formal and family literacy for children and adults alike, as a complement to the more formal system, and the role lifelong learning more widely can give in stimulating and sustaining a literate environment.  Little of this can be achieved without the active engagement of civil society, or without enough resources.

However, just as the EFA vision was never backed by sufficient finance, we face exactly the same risk now. All the work that produced the international consensus on the SDG education targets risks being undermined by the narrow priorities for funding proposed in the zero draft of the Addis Financing for Development conference.  The current proposals stop with secondary schooling, investment in STEM, and funding scholarships.  Once again adult learning and education are invisible.

We have little hope of achieving the wider SDG agenda without adults understanding, adapting and helping to shape change – whether this be to reduce maternal mortality, to improve nutrition, to promote safe sex, or active citizenship, or to realise the health benefits of clean water and improved sanitation.

Adult learning, then, is not a luxury item to be added to the agenda in times of plenty, it is an integral part of the sustainable development goals. Real progress on the SDGs is impossible if adults are left out of the equation. But while educators understand this, how do we convince the financial planners?

This entry was posted in Adult education, Africa, Arab States, Asia, Learning, Literacy, Marginalization, Post-2015 development framework, Post-secondary education, Quality of education, Sustainable development and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Warm words, weak outcomes:  Are we about to fail adults a second time?

  1. Helen Abadzi says:

    The report failed to mention the most important reason for adult literacy failures: inability to attain reading automaticity. i.e. read effortlessly and fluently, around 45-60 words per minute.

    It seems that past age 18, we all become dyslexics for new scripts! This is a neuropsychological problem that urgently requires research and experimentation to resolve.

    I have written on this topic extensively, and about two years ago I corresponded with Dr. Alan Tuckett. But evidence apparently made no difference. Adult literacy academics don’t care to update their knowledge to the 21st century.

    It’s pointless therefore to complain. All the money and planning in the world cannot change our DNA and improve performance. Specific interventions are needed, which must first be researched.


  2. Alan Tuckett says:

    what I said to Helen then and now is that literacies are contextual. The full time students I taught started with no fluency at all, were far older than 18 and absolutely mastered the technical skills, and much more important the socio-political skills to use the literacy they gained. Literacy is not a quick sprint, it is easier in contexts where you have social uses for the skills you acquire. It is not a value free educational activity. Motivated and well-supported adults do learn


    • Helen Abadzi says:

      Dear Alan, It’s great to read your warm words about adult literacy.

      To clarify to readers, nearly ANYONE at any age can learn how to decode SINGLE letters in series. But letter-by-letter reading can only lead to single words or at best short sentences. Then people run out of working memory and find the task unpleasant. For complex reading, we all process letters automatically and in PARALLEL. Scores of practice hours are needed, and then recognition moves to the visual word form area that effortlessly recognizes words, as if they were faces (!)

      Mysteriously, people past age 18 cannot easily attain parallel processing. Data suggest that we all become dyslexics for new scripts!

      Alan, have you discovered a reasonable way to bring about parallel processing for adults? Please publicize the data. How many words per minute did they achieve, what % correct, in which languages and scripts? And did you get fluency data 1-2 years after training? You also mentioned adults’ motivation. Which measures did you use to assess their motivational states?

      In case you are merely offering your rich personal experience, please consider collecting neurocognitive data. Adult literacy has deep roots in 1960s philosophies, but to fulfill literacy goals, the 21st century science is necessary. Otherwise the literacy community will continue to speak warm words, get weak outcomes, and fail adults a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th time.

      P. S. anyone interested in science-based literacy for adults and children, please take a look at my free and very detailed e-course available on http://www.udemy.com/reading-essentials


  3. Manzoor Ahmed says:

    Agreeing with points made by Alan and Helen’s rejoinder about ignoring the science of learning to read, the GMR report as well as discussion about adult literacy continue to reflect a conceptual holdover from Dakar Framework. Failing to recognise and emphasize the integral link between goal 3 ” meeting learning needs of all young people and adults… through…learning and life skills programmes” and goal 4 ” achieving a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy” has led to persistence of a fatal dichotomy of literacy as an isolated activity of literacy programmes and a job for litercay campaigners separate from learning and life skills of youth and adults. The result has been predictable. The same thinking persists in the draft Education 2030 Framework for Action (discussed at WEF in Incheon, but to be finalised by November at UNESCO General confernce) in presenting two confusing targets about “technical, vocational and tertiary education” (target 4.3) and increasing “by x% number of youth and adults who have … technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs…(Target 4.4). Then there is Target 4.6 – “By 2030, ensure that all youth at least x% of adults… achieve literacy and numeracy.” Again a fragmented and narrow view of skills for life and work and adult literacy that fails to link these within a lifelong learning perspective – at least 50 years of experience and lessons on adult literacy to the contrary. This is a challenge for all who take adult learning and education and lifelong learning seriously.

    Manzoor Ahmed
    Professor Emeritus, BRAC University
    Vice Chair, Campaign for Popular Education, Bangladesh


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