What do I need to do next to transform my professional development course into something with wider appeal?

I work in what is possibly the most boring profession in the world. This is not just the world of adult literacy and numeracy education, but adult literacy and numeracy professional development. Need I say more…

Is your job more boring?

Ok, great… you’re still reading. Actually, I’ve given up explaining to people what I do. To avoid the glazed over eyes I usually just mumble that I “work in education”. That seems to be enough for most people. The conversation moves on pretty quickly. It pretty much stops if I mention the ‘L” word.

Despite all of this, what I teach has the potential to transform teaching and training, especially trades and vocational training – and any context where the focus is on some specialised content area. And I see the successes of my students – who are all experienced tutors and trainers – all the time.

The wider problem then is something like this:

  • Literacy and numeracy aren’t particularly sexy.
  • As content and skill development areas they sound boring to do let alone teach.
  • Even the words “literacy” and “numeracy” conjure up every kind of anxiety everyone ever had about any kind of failure they had in the school system.
  • And even for people with some awareness that they need to do something to strengthen literacy and numeracy skills in their students the task appears daunting if not impossible given the extent of the problem. It’s like a pandora’s box… luckily, there really is hope at the bottom of it all.

We are fortunate to have worked with a couple of hundred educators since since 2007 to help them develop a basic toolkit of skills and strategies to embed literacy and numeracy into their areas of expertise. This means we’ve worked with trades and industry trainers, educators in companies, and tutors in more traditional teaching and training roles. And we know that when they implement our approach they see results.

Sometimes these results are dramatic. Often, tutors will see dramatic results in short timeframes as well. This is especially true for tutors who listen to what we say and really narrow the focus of their literacy and numeracy interventions down to highly specific and tightly defined areas within their courses.

My current problem is as follows:

  • Why isn’t this approach more widely adopted, particularly by mainstream adult educators?
  • How can I make my content around embedding literacy and numeracy into other training contexts more palatable to a wider audience of adult educators and trainers?

If you think you know the answers to these questions please let me know in the comments. For now, I think the answers are as follows. But I’m happy to be wrong about this.

  1. Ignorance. Many people involved in adult education and training are not actually well trained themselves in general principles of adult teaching and learning, let alone the specifics of how to embed literacy and numeracy into their delivery. Many trades and vocational trainers, for instance, fall into training by accident – if you listen to their stories. They are not typically academically minded and are largely suspicious of anything that looks too academic.
  2. Laziness. Some tutors and trainers are used to delivering training that does not require any or much thinking on their parts. I’m referring to tutors who just hand out photocopied workbooks to their learners, fill in time in various ways, then mark them according to teacher workbooks, for example. They’re not the only ones. In any industry, there are trainers who do something similar with lock-step delivery and death-by-powerpoint of their specific training material. Both of these approaches are lazy and fail to take into account something of critical importance. This is the learner. Learning won’t happen if the gap between where the learner is at and where the trainer wants them to be is too big. It should be the job of the trainer or facilitator to work out what kind of gap exists between learners and the intended learning outcome, and then do their damnedest to bridge that gap.
  3. Over-complication. As a sector, literacy and numeracy professionals are guilty of over-complicating literacy and numeracy. We’ve turned it into rocket science (It’s actually not). But we’ve made is sound like something you need an advanced postgrad education degree to do (you don’t). We’ve turned it into some kind of secret knowledge (it’s not). We need to work hard to change perceptions about this.

In terms of doing something about my course for next year, I can address the ignorance issue by making the right information available. I can also make it accessible. That deals with the third issue.

The second issues is the thornier one. Not sure I can do much about that. Positive peer pressure seems to work. But what it often takes is a conversion experience much like a religious conversion experience. The tutor has to “see the light” when it comes to embedding literacy and numeracy. It’s not enough just to hear the “gospel and good news” of literacy and numeracy. They actually have to experiment with it themselves and see the results and benefits. Experience trumps pretty much everything else.

And for all that to happen, I think I need some new angle to hook in a broader and more mainstream audience. I don’t know how to do this yet. But I think it needs to touch on these areas:

  1. Professional development as personal development: This is the educator’s journey, the idea of working to serve others, of making a difference in the world through education and educational change. I’ve always steered away from including anything that sounds too much like personal development. However, this tends to lead the content toward feeling a bit academic sometimes, and make it dry at other times. People like the self development stuff as airport bookshop best seller shelves seem to indicate.
  2. A connection to “lean thinking”: Lean thinking, which comes from lean manufacturing, seems to be quite a natural partner for education and for literacy and numeracy development. It connects with trades and vocational work in it’s desire for efficiency. Plus there is a really rich literature here to mine for interesting content that is not part of normal education reading and research.
  3. A set of broadly applicable principles: The principles and approach need to have wide appeal and application across a wide spectrum of education activities, from work inside companies, to online and edtech, to traditional education and training organisations. This part is important so that I can sell the training across sectors, industries, and even countries.
  4. A set of instantly useable and easy-to-adapt templates for activities and strategies: These need to work for all kinds of trainers in all kinds of situations. Or at least be easily adaptable to different contexts. This shouldn’t be too difficult as we’re talking about foundational and underpinning skills here – the kinds of skills that underpin any trade or vocational training. The part is important so that users feel they are getting a genuine instant fix for something – something they can apply immediately.
  5. A minimalist approach to professional development: This refers to how I want to package it. What I’m interested in here is not teaching everything that someone needs to know, but more like the least that they need to know to do this. I’m talking about a kind of minimally viable set of skills and related knowledge accompanied by a minimally viable set of templates for strategies and activities to use and apply to the training context.


Author: Graeme Smith

Education, technology, design. Also making cool stuff...

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