The Challenges of Making Literacy and Numeracy Sexy: An In-depth Exploration

The Challenge of Making Literacy and Numeracy Engaging

Literacy and Numeracy (LN) are fundamental skills, essential in education and personal development. Despite their importance, the task of making LN appealing, especially to adult learners in trades and vocational fields, continues to be a formidable challenge.

Traditional teaching methods often portray LN as dry and tedious subjects. These perceptions make LN a tough sell for both educators and learners. Efforts to “sexy up” LN have mostly been unsuccessful, leading to a pressing and unresolved question:

  • How can we make literacy and numeracy engaging?

My perspective is that conventional strategies to make LN appealing have been inadequate, primarily because they haven’t addressed the core issue. Merely embellishing the subject or associating it with real-world examples hasn’t proven effective.

What we require instead is a novel approach, one rooted in values like manaakitanga (care, respect, hospitality), and balanced strategies that evade the pitfalls of previous methods.

This innovative approach aims to empower learners, transform the narrative from a deficit-focused mindset, and cultivate a human-centric educational environment where LN is not a problem to be fixed, but a valuable skill to be nurtured and embraced.

The Challenges of Making Literacy and Numeracy Sexy: An In-depth Exploration

The Challenges of “Sexy” LN

Deficit Thinking

A central dilemma in making Literacy and Numeracy (LLN) engaging stems from the pervasive deficit thinking that surrounds these subjects. The view of LN education as a means to fix what’s seen as broken has prevailed for too long.

This outlook positions learners as deficient, turning subjects into chores rather than empowering tools. The portrayal of LN as issues to rectify instead of avenues for growth has stymied their appeal.

Lack of Success with Real-world Relevance

Efforts to make LN resonate with real-world applications have met with limited success. The idea was that linking literacy and numeracy skills to real-life examples would make them more tangible and relevant.

Despite significant investments, this strategy hasn’t yielded the expected results despite massive investments of time and money. The emphasis on real-world relevance often misses the mark, lacking the spark to engage learners’ interest or motivation.

Past Attempts

The push to mainstream LN extends beyond the classroom, encompassing various ambitious strategies such as the substantial infrastructure build by the TEC from 2008 to 2018. Although well-intentioned, these efforts have fallen short. Requiring immense collaboration across multiple agencies and significant funding, they’ve often proven impractical, short-lived and failed to get to the heart of the issue.

Exploring the Extremes

Perhaps it’s worth considering what lies at the opposite extremes of approaches to Literacy and Numeracy (LLN). On one hand, we have the deficit-driven approach that tries to fix perceived inadequacies, and on the other, we have methods that focus solely on accelerating already proficient learners. Let’s explore the latter of these for a minute.

The Accelerated Learning Approach

One extreme strategy that gained prominence during the ’80s and ’90s was the accelerated learning approach. This method specifically targeted already proficient learners, aiming to take them to greater heights. The approach included teaching advanced reading comprehension strategies, enhancing writing skills, focusing on vocabulary expansion, and providing learners with specific techniques that could lead to academic success.

The philosophy behind accelerated learning was built around the idea that good learners could become even better with the right tools and strategies. It was not just about improvement but achieving excellence. Workshops, courses, and materials were designed to cater to the unique needs and potentials of those who were already thriving in their learning journey.

However, this approach had its shortcomings. By focusing solely on those who were already performing well, it created a divide, often bypassing those struggling with LN. The attention and resources were diverted to enhancing the abilities of a select few, leaving a significant portion of the population unattended. This led to an unintentional exclusion of those who needed help the most, widening the gap between different levels of learners.

Furthermore, the accelerated learning approach sometimes ventured into the territory of what some considered “quick fixes” or gimmicky techniques. This led to criticisms that it was more focused on superficial gains rather than fostering a deep understanding of the subjects.

Ultimately, while the accelerated learning approach had its successes and was seen as innovative during its time, its narrow focus and potential shortcomings have brought about a reconsideration of its effectiveness, especially in the broader context of LLN education where inclusivity and holistic growth are of paramount importance. However, perhaps there were some gems in the approach that we should reconsider.

The Deficit Approach

In stark contrast to the accelerated learning model with its focus on learning to learn, the traditional deficit view of LN sees learners as lacking and focuses on remediation, attempting to “fix” them within an also broken system. Such a stance can lead to disengagement and a lack of motivation among learners, perpetuating a cycle where LN remain unappealing subjects.

Finding the Middle Ground

Navigating between the extremes of the accelerated learning approach and the deficit lens necessitates a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of LLN education. It calls for a balanced approach that intentionally avoids the pitfalls found at both ends of the spectrum. Rather than concentrating solely on advancing those already skilled or viewing LLN through a one-dimensional, problem-solving lens, there’s a pressing need for a middle way.

This middle ground is not merely a compromise between two flawed extremes; it is an innovative pathway that considers the diverse needs of all learners. It includes a blend of strategies that both empowers the skilled and supports those who struggle, cultivating a learning environment that is inclusive and adaptive to varying skill levels.

Central to this balanced approach is the embracing of values like manaakitanga (upholding the mana of learners) and whanaungatanga (relationship), which helps to forge connections and create a more empathetic, learner-centric atmosphere. It’s an approach that shifts the focus away from mere skills development to a broader perspective that includes emotional and social aspects of learning.

By fostering a more holistic perspective and grounding education in these core values, the middle ground approach transcends traditional boundaries. It recognises that LN is not just about individual skills but about the empowerment, growth, and overall well-being of learners.

This has the potential to redefine LN education, making it not just a subject to be mastered but a transformative experience that is engaging and empowering for everyone, regardless of their starting point.

A New Approach: Values-led Teaching

Grounding in Values

Has the time come to look beyond traditional methods and to ground LN education in values that resonate with both educators and learners? Values like manaakitanga provide a solid foundation, shaping the way teachers interact with students and how they present the material.

This values-led approach emphasises the nurturing, protection, and upholding of the mana (prestige, power, self esteem) of learners, fostering a culture of respect, empathy, and inclusiveness. It goes beyond mere technique, requiring genuine commitment and authenticity, creating an environment where LN is not just a set of skills but a pathway to deeper understanding and connection.

Empowerment over Deficit

A critical component of this new approach is shifting the narrative away from the deficit thinking that has plagued LLN education. Instead of focusing on what learners lack, this model centres on empowerment and growth. It recognises the potential in every individual, viewing LN not as problems to be fixed but as tools that can unlock opportunities and enhance lives.

This positive framing already exists in neurodiversity education and can change the way learners perceive LN, transforming them from tedious chores into exciting opportunities for self-improvement and success.

Metacognition and Strategies

In line with this empowerment focus, values-led teaching also embraces metacognition and strategic learning. This involves teaching learners how to learn, equipping them with the tools to understand their thinking processes, and developing strategies that can lead to success. This is a nod to many of the tools in the accelerated learning toolbox, but updated for the 21st century.

It’s about giving learners the control and understanding to guide their own learning journey, whether they’re learning to increase vocabulary or apply numerical concepts in real-world situations.

By integrating these metacognitive strategies with values like manaakitanga, this new approach potentially transcends traditional teaching methods. This leads to a more engaging, meaningful, and human-centric learning environment.

This would be a fresh perspective that acknowledges the multifaceted nature of LN education, recognising the importance of emotional, social, and cognitive aspects and placing learners at the heart of the process. This values-led teaching has the potential to redefine LN, making it not just a subject to be taught but a lifelong journey that empowers and enriches the lives of all involved.

I feel like this has always been the goal, but we’ve lost sight of the holistic nature of things due to our obsession with technical solutions.

Practical Implementation

Tapatoru Programme Example

A tangible example of values-driven Literacy and Numeracy (LN) comes from the Tapatoru programme delivered by Ako Aotearoa. And here’s an important disclaimer: I deliver this programme. Rooted in principles such as manaakitanga and whanungatanga, this method transcends the conventional teaching of LN as mere isolated skills, weaving them into a more extensive, holistic educational context.

The Tapatoru approach intertwines LN and other content areas with core values, aligning the educational experience with deeper belief systems. Far from relying on quick fixes or rote memorisation, it nurtures an environment where developing educator capabilities in literacy, numeracy, cultural capability and understanding learning differences emerge as empowering avenues that can open doors and enrich lives. The programme signifies a progressive stance that sees education as a continuous journey, accentuating growth, connection, and sincerity.

Avoiding Extremes

The Tapatoru programme’s success underscores the essentiality of a well-rounded approach that navigates the polarities of both accelerated learning and deficit thinking. By anchoring the teaching experience in values and concentrating on genuine engagement and authenticity, it circumvents the common pitfalls found at either end of the spectrum.

This value-centric focus does not negate the importance of effective teaching strategies and the connection to real-world applicability but rather enhances them. It’s a conscious effort to understand the learners, resonate with their needs, and cultivate a nurturing environment where LN can thrive, embracing not only literacy and numeracy but also aspects like cultural capability and neurodiversity.

The result is the start of an approach to literacy and numeracy education that’s far from a relentless struggle; instead, it can be a rewarding and engaging pursuit, guided by empathy, insight, and thoughtful planning.

A Path Forward: Embracing a Values-Driven Approach

In a tertiary landscape where Literacy and Numeracy (LN) often come across as unsexy and uninviting, the search for an impactful solution continues to challenge us. Conventional methods that swing between the extremes of accelerated learning and deficit thinking have proven to be inadequate.

From our exploration here, I would love to see a refreshing, values-driven approach emerge that infuses teaching with principles like manaakitanga (caring) and whanaungatanga (relationship-building), balancing effective techniques underpinned by the latest science and research with empathy and relevance to the real world.

It’s time for educators, policymakers, and stakeholders to radically rethink our approach to LN. Moving beyond outdated models and a reliance on technological fixes, we must welcome a holistic philosophy. This approach views literacy and numeracy not as drab subjects, but empowering tools, turning education into something vivid and engaging.

The success of initiatives like the Tapatoru programme provides more than inspiration; it’s a roadmap to reimagine LN education, and possibly the entire spectrum of tertiary teacher education. Grounding teaching in core values, engaging both heart and mind, opens the door to transformative experiences that resonate with learners across the spectrum.

It may seem trite to say, but Literacy and Numeracy are not merely academic hurdles to overcome. They are the keys that unlock human potential, enrich lives, and broaden horizons. The future of LN education requires more than just technical solutions; it calls for a profound understanding of how values, culture, and the human experience intertwine.

A values-driven approach to LN, implemented with intention, foresight, and genuine connection, goes beyond traditional education. It elevates, enriches, and inspires a love for learning that transcends the traditional classroom environment.

This has perhaps always been our true aim, but we’ve become sidetracked by a fixation on technical solutions. It’s time to refocus our vision and dedicate ourselves to making literacy and numeracy a lively and indispensable part of every learner’s journey.

Let’s not lose sight of what really matters; let’s forge a path where education is not just about filling minds but also touching hearts.

Optional Further Reading and Resources

For those who are interested in delving deeper into the concepts and strategies discussed in this post, the following resources provide valuable insights and support:

  1. The Tapatoru Framework – Learn more about the innovative approach used in the Tapatoru programme by Ako Aotearoa. Visit the website.
  2. Manaakitanga in Education – A short video on the principle of manaakitanga and how it can be integrated into educational practices. Watch the clip.
  3. Neurodiversity in Education – Explore this post on neurodiversity and vocational education. Read the post.
  4. Cultural Capability in Teaching – A guide to incorporating Māori cultural safety considerations and values into teaching practices. Explore this brief guide.
  5. Real-World Relevance in LN Education – An analysis of the challenges and successes of connecting literacy and numeracy to real-world examples in a US college. Read the article.

These links just scratch the surface if you want to start understanding the complexities of literacy and numeracy education and the innovative approaches that can lead to more engaging and empowering learning experiences.

But you have to start somewhere… Whether you’re an educator, policy-maker, or interested reader, I hope that this discuss deepens your understanding and inspires you to think in new ways about LN education.

Author: Graeme Smith

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

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