Jokes about literacy and numeracy: Or why I’d rather be a numeracy person.

I’m fortunate to work in what is possibly the least funny profession in the world. This is, of course, the field of adult literacy and numeracy education.

I know that literacy and numeracy education is the least funny profession in the world because when I asked google to search for “literacy” and “jokes” it came back with…

  • a definition for what a joke it.

Further proof supporting my hypothesis that literacy and numeracy education is the least funny profession in the world was confirmed today when I attended day one of the Literacy and Numeracy Symposium which is my industry’s annual event. I arrived late to catch part of the keynote speaker’s address.

Turns out he was being beamed in by YouTube clip from Canada. I’m afraid that he lost me on the first slide. It was  was projected 15 metres tall, and still had such small words that I could not read them.

Perhaps I should have Skyped in. Sorry, I had to leave. Life’s too short to listen to bad presentations.

Further proof of the fact that literacy and numeracy education is the least funny profession was evident later in the day, when I kicked off my presentation. Here was my first slide:

  • Literacy workshop in progress: Do not distrub

The room was packed. But no one got the joke. However, several people did laugh when I explained it to them.

Literacy and numeracy professional development with me for an hour. Yes. it’s the most legal fun you can have. And yes IASIA (I always speak in acronyms).

How to kill a conversation with anyone: Hi there! Working in literacy and numeracy isn’t nearly as dull as it sounds. Let me tell you in more detail about my work…

I’ve decided that literacy professionals are like customs officers. No jokes please: We’re working. At least custom officers have cute beagles. I didn’t see any cute Beagles at the conference.

Numeracy people on the other hand are much funnier. Evidence for this: the many websites of maths jokes. Just google “maths” and “jokes” My problem: can’t understand them.

But it’s possible that there are three kinds of literacy professionals. Those who can do numeracy and those who can’t.

Seriously though… Some of my best friends are literate and numerate. Well literate anyway.

It’s not that I’m not numerate it’s just that when I see all those numbers my brain just #^,*~>~e #@&$()?!…

How to lose friends and alienate people. Talk about your work in literacy and numeracy. That will terrify them for sure.

My parents don’t understand my work in literacy. I can’t explain what I do either. I tell them I work for the government. They think I’m a spy.

My clients don’t understand my work in literacy & numeracy. One recent group thought they were there to literacise. Another for numeracy. There you have it. Literacize and numberacy. Thanks guys.

How do you clear a room of literacy people? I asked this on Facebook. My brother suggested that I should run into the room and shout “Fire!” and run out. I had a better idea. I thought I’d run into the room and shout “there’s no funding for that”.

Or I could just open a maths book.

We need to make literacy and numeracy education sexy. I’ve been working on strategies for this. Try this one at home:
  • Honey, tell me again about decoding strategies for Latinate vocabulary such as botanical nomenclature (for e.g)? 

Ok. Literacy and numeracy may not be sexy but the adult learning progressions are quite explicit about oral text types

We literacy professionals. We do think we’re kind of special. It’s because we can read and write. We can’t explain how we do this but we’re happy to share our expertise anyway. You know what I mean.

I’m just thankful I don’t have a PhD. Having a PhD means you’re kind of autistic. If you know someone with a PhD you’ll know what I mean. Basically it’s like being retarded. I do speak NZQA as a second language though and that’s quite similar.

Anyway, I managed to get into the conference dinner for free tonight. Who ever said there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The literacy people have all gone home, but the maths and numeracy people are still there.

From what I can make out they’re all Irish. And drunk. Now they’re singing and they won’t stop.

Need a literacy professional? Phoneme on 0800-ALEC-1-2

Why I am afraid of email and what I did about it

I’m afraid of email. I had a bad experience. I couldn’t answer the nearly 10,000 emails that had accumulated in my inbox.

The year was 2010. Or was it 2011. I can’t actually remember now. But the thing that happened was that I had a baby. Well, what I mean is that my wife had a baby. Our third. We’ll actually our fourth. We lost one along the way you see, but that will have to wait for another blog post some other time.

Having babies is not something that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. It’s a process fraught with difficulties of every sort imaginable. And some you just can’t imagine unless you’ve been there and done that.

What this has to do with email is that the fallout from having a baby basically put me behind by at least a year. We spent a month in hospital with the new baby when the little tyke was born. He had complications and was born prematurely. He’s all good now. In fact, he’s just turned two.

It was a crappy time and I’m glad he’s much bigger. In fact, I can’t wait until he’s at least 4 or 7 or even 12.

But, by golly… it took me a year (or two) to recover from the emails. I just ignored the emails while all the drama was going on. And then I never caught up. And the emails just piled up.

As a result I grew to hate my inbox, hate Outlook, and generally fear emails because I knew that I would never be able to answer them. By Christmas 2011 I had nearly 10000 unread, unanswered emails in my inbox. Whoops… Some of them were probably important. Sorry if that was you…

It was making me depressed and I wasn’t enjoying my work. Here’s what I did to redeem the situation.  I had downloaded LifeHacker on Kindle and there was this great chapter on Gmail. There’s an online version you can read here. 


  • I bought a new computer. My old computer was due for replacement so I made the switch from being a windows guy to being a Mac guy. That’s another story too, but I’ve had my MacBook Air for 6 months now and I’ll never go back. I’m not sure it’s relevant but it seemed important at the time.
  • I switched to Gmail. I already had a Gmail but I wasn’t really using it and it had a stupid user name so I got a brand new Gmail account set up with a more sensible username.
  • I started again. I allowed myself to say goodbye to all the old emails in Outlook on my old computer. I’ve kept them around for six months and referred to a about a dozen of them. Soon I’m going to delete the hard drive and everything on that computer.
  • I did it at the start of the new year. I live in New Zealand in the Southern Hemisphere. That means we kind of start everything again in the new year every year  including the academic year. That’s perfect for me because I work in education.
  • I directed all my email addresses to the new Gmail. I don’t even know how I did this now, but it worked. There were some instructions in the Life Hacker chapter but I got some other help from Google. Now, the five email aliases that I use all point to Gmail. And I can send from Gmail using any of my other email aliases including the business domain email addresses.
  • I turned on Gmail’s Priority Inbox. I love this feature. Basically, it learns who I respond to. Anyone important goes to the top. All the other dross goes to the bottom. Basically, if you want to email me you have to be able to get into my priority inbox.
  • I unsubscribed to everything. It’s hard to do because people and robots keep subscribing me to stuff, but I keep unsubscribing as fast as I can.
Now, I don’t exactly love my email, but it’s a damn sight better than it used to be. Currently (today right now), I have no emails that are categorized as Important and Unread. There’s a bunch of unimportant ones that fall off the bottom but I don’t care about those.
Now, I’m not exactly a Gmail ninja, but the main thing is that I feel happy and sane because I’m in control of my freaking email.
Now the telephone, that’s a different story:

Email is fine… It’s the telephone that the harbinger of doom. What could be so terrifyingly urgent that could not be covered in a concise email or brief txt message.*

* Quote from my graphic designer, close friend, and younger brother…

How we let assessment drive our training

Here’s a snippet from the document I’ve been writing up over the weekend. Below is quite a good short summary of how the training is organized and how the assessment tasks pretty much shape the delivery and everything we do around this.

Our training curriculum for the National Certificate in Adult Literacy and Numeracy Education otherwise known as the NCALNE (Voc) is shaped by seven assessment tasks that connect with the seven elements of the compulsory Unit Standard 21204.

In our words, these are:

  • Task 1: The New Zealand Context. This is a 1500 word analytical report that brings together information from the training, study guide, and readings.
  • Task 2: Māori literacy and numeracy. This is a written summary of key initiatives, concepts and approaches from the world of Māori education.
  • Task 3: Mapping. This is a practical assessment where candidates use the framework provided by the Learning Progressions for adult literacy and numeracy to map their training demands for literacy and numeracy, both on a “big picture” global level, and for a number of specific samples. The results of the mapping are then written up in a template.
  • Task 4: Diagnostic. This is also a practical project where candidates have to find and use a number of different diagnostic tools and processs to identify the literacy and numeracy strengths and needs of their own learners. Results of the diagnostic tests and processes are written up in the form of individual learning plans with a literacy and numeracy focus.
  • Task 5: Deliver embedded literacy and numeracy outcomes. This task is the heart of the course and is where the participants have to design and then deliver a set of embedded literacy and numeracy outcomes. Again the focus is practical. The intention is for the candidates to use or create resources, strategies, activites, assessments etc based on the work they did previously around mapping skill demands and then diagnosing learners’ skill needs. Embedded training should ideally be pitched at the difference between the skill demands identified and the actual skill levels of the learners.
  • Task 6: Measure learner literacy and numeracy progress. Having designed and delivered embedded training focused on specific skill needs, candidates are required to assess learner progress in the specific literacy and numeracy skills they targeted with their interventions. The short time frame here often means that learning is still being consolidated. However, despite the time pressure candidates often see skill gains in the short term if the embedded training has been well targeted.
  • Task 7: Evaluate embedded literacy and numeracy. This is the final task. Candidates need to reflect critically on their practical project work and evaluate what worked, what further improvements could be made, and future directions. As well as a written summary, candidates need to give a short presentation on the highlights of their project work.

All facilitated delivery is tightly focused on setting participants up to achieve the outcomes outlined in the assessment tasks above. Live delivery takes place over five or six days as follows:

  • Workshop 1 (Days 1 – 3): Orientation to the NCALNE (Voc) and workshop content in relation to  Tasks 1 – 3. Usually day 2 is a special content area in our enhanced version of the live training and in the past has included numeracy content in relation to trades. We’ve also started to incorporate content around reading and vocabulary here as well.
  • Workshop 2 (Days 4 – 5): Workshop content in relation to Tasks 4 – 7 with a focus on Assessment (Task 4 & 6) and Embedding (Task 5). Our approach is prescriptive in that we offer a very straightforward way of writing up the embedded literacy and numeracy outcomes as well as structuring the kind of learning sequences that you would find in tutor lesson plans. Our approach to structuring teaching and learning sequences is in line with the approach used in the Learning Progressions resource books, although we’ve simplified it.

How to improve your literacy and numeracy if you live in Taupo (and win an iPad)

If you live in the Lake Taupo district you might know someone who needs to improve their literacy, numeracy, or basic computer skills. Or you might want to improve these skills yourself. And you could win an iPad.

Our local Taupo community education programme provides free training that can help you improve your reading, maths, and computer skills.

We offer:

  • Free literacy and numeracy assessments using the latest online computer adaptive testing software.
  • Free access to online training for literacy and numeracy skill development including Pathways Awarua
  • Free access to the International Computer Driving Licence (ICDL) for our learners who qualify.
  • Free one-to-one assistance with these programmes
  • A fee-paying option for the ICDL if you don’t want or need the literacy and numeracy help.

And we’re running a couple of competitions. One is a draw this month to win a $100 dinner voucher at Plateau. Have a look here to see last month’s lucky winner.

The big prize though is an iPad. Anyone who can improve their literacy and numeracy assessments between now and September could be in the draw to win an iPad. There’s a couple of other conditions.

If you know anyone that could benefit, let us know… SMART Learning Cafe 07-377-6200

Or at least like our Facebook page…


Where to start if you’re developing your awareness of literacy and numeracy initiatives

If you are in education you are also in the business of literacy and numeracy. And you should have an awareness of key adult literacy and numeracy initiatives that relate to learners in your programme.

Initiatives can refer to projects, programmes, and schemes that are designed to increase the literacy and numeracy levels of learners. These can be at a national, regional, or local level, and may include initiatives funded by government. In New Zealand our main funding agency for adult education is the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC).

One initiative that you need at least passing knowledge of is the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey or ALLS for short. While the data is aging now and is due to be superseded shortly, it has been influential in shaping major literacy and numeracy initiatives in the past few years.

In 2006 New Zealand participated in the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALLS). ALLS measured the prose literacy, document literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills of a representative sample of respondents aged 16-65 from participating countries. The definitions that the ALLS uses for literacy and numeracy are different to the ones that we use in our literacy and numeracy professional development, but the data is still useful. ALLS was built on a prior study – International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) which was undertaken in 24 countries – including New Zealand – in 1996.

The ALL Survey uses a five point scale with level 3 considered the benchmark, something like a level of functional numeracy and literacy equivalent to a good high school education. Here’s a quick breakdown of how the levels work.

  • Level 5 – Can make high-level inferences or syntheses, use specialised knowledge, filter out multiple distractors, and understand and use abstract mathematical ideas with justification.
  • Level 4 – Can integrate information from a long passage, perform more complex inferences and complete multiple-step calculations requiring some reasoning.
  • Level 3 – Can perform more complex information filtering, sometimes requiring inferences, and manipulate mathematical symbols, perhaps in several stages.
  • Level 2 – Can search a document and filter out some simple distracting information, make low-level inferences, and execute one or two-step calculations and estimations.
  • Level 1 – Can read simple documents, accomplish literal information matching with no distracting information, and perform simple one-step calculations.

Comparison data from the ALLS suggests that, on average, New Zealanders are about as literate and numerate as those from countries like Australia, Great Britain, and the United States. This is the good news. The bad news is that between 40 – 50% of New Zealanders could be described as having low literacy and numeracy levels.

For some people these findings are certainly no big surprise. For others they are shocking. Whatever your reaction, it’s important to remember that statistics are just statistics after all and we need to be careful about making broad generalisations about findings like this. However, you should also know that the data has been accepted by government departments including the TEC. And the received wisdom is that there are at least one million New Zealanders who need some kind of assistance in this area.

You are part of the solution in case you were wondering. Take some time to think about what these statistics might mean. Your opinion about these findings is important and may affect how you approach professional development in this area, as well as your future teaching and training.

5 areas to investigate if you want to understand literacy and numeracy in your country

If you want to know about the context for literacy and numeracy in New Zealand or any country there are 5 key areas you need to investigate. For my purposes these are in relation to our particular context in Aotearoa New Zealand, but you can generalize them to any country.

You need to investigate:

  • Historical and current initiatives for adult literacy and numeracy education.
  • Definitions for adult literacy and numeracy, including indigenous definitions.
  • Reasons for low literacy and numeracy rates in the adult population
  • The impacts of low literacy and numeracy. This means nationally, locally, for industry, for communities, and for families.
  • Resources available for teachers and others to address literacy and numeracy issues. This includes specialist literacy and numeracy organisations.

And a great way to get a big picture understanding of the situation in New Zealand is the publication Facing the Challenge: Foundation Learning for Adults in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Facing the Challenge is a New Zealand-focused book on adult literacy and numeracy education. The book’s scope covers different perspectives on the teaching of literacy and numeracy, different contexts for provision, and various issues including professional development, assessment, and information and communications technology (ICT).

Most useful though is Chapter One which is short and a great place to get the kind of overview you need if you want to get a handle on literacy and numeracy education in New Zealand.

Kids need teachers because teachers are essential to education

Kids need teachers, right? So do adult learners, right? Well… what if they didn’t…

In New Zealand, current budget reforms mean that schools and training providers are facing tough times due to reduced funding. That means some schools will lose teachers and will need to have larger classes.

And the teachers are revolting. I mean, don’t get me wrong – there are some wonderful teachers who really care about what they do. But there are some that ought to pack it up and go home.

But regardless of the budget cuts and austerity measures faced by schools and education providers there are some other questions we should be asking as well.

For example:

  • Do we actually need the teachers?
  • Or the schools for that matter?

Regardless of what you or I actually think, education is due for major disruption about now. The received wisdom goes something like this:

Teachers are essential, and in fact, indispensable to education. Kids and adults can’t possibly learn without teachers.

Right… Now consider these timeless words of wisdom (a paraphrase):

  • People want to read books printed on paper. No one wants to read books on a device, especially not a phone or a cold slab of steel and glass.
  • No one will buy something they haven’t seen from a company they don’t know thousands of miles away by credit card. It’s just another fad.
  • You can’t beat vinyl for sound quality. Or… DVDs are here to stay. And people will always have to pay for the music they want to listen to.

It’s an assumption that schools and training providers will always look and operate the same as they always have. Just because we currently have a system where one teacher stands in front of 25 or 30 kids all day does’t automatically mean that this is what we will always have.

It’s also an assumption that education requires teachers to teach people – kids or adults. Most of us learned stuff in spite of the education system rather than because of it.

20 years ago no one would have imagined a world of digital print (e.g. Kindle), online retail (e.g. Amazon, Shopify), and essentially free online music (Spotify), let alone such innovations created by companies like Apple and Google among many others.

What we have at the moment is an example of “lock in”. Governments and schools are locked in to a particular way of doing education. It’s inconceivable for them to start again with a blank sheet of paper. Yet this is what needs to happen.

Imagine a world where the industries of retail, print, and music were government funded. Imagine then what would happen when the inevitable budget cuts roll around. All the shop assistants; magazine, newspaper, and textbook publishers; and record labels would be out on the streets protesting.

Meanwhile, they blinked. And software ate their jobs.