Skills, practices and sustainable growth
In BIS’ strategy paper, ‘Skills for Sustainable Growth’, ALLN policy is entwined within a broader framework of vocational skills. In planning for a world-class skills base, ‘Skills for Sustainable Growth’ views the existence of adults with low-levels of literacy as evidence of school failure requiring an OfSTED led policy solution to innovate more effective teaching. The conceptualisation of language and literacy to be deployed by the new policy framework looks set to be an extension and elaboration of what has so far been developed within Skills for Life even if the discourse of ‘basic skills’ has been remobilised.
In Skills for Life ALLN are treated as clearly definable, abstract skills that adults need to lead functional lives. The core-curricular documents and the standards that underpin them detail precisely what adults are required to be able to do and while learners may bring the ‘context of their lives’ to vivify the skills, the document specifies community, employment and family as the imagined arena for skills for be deployed. When constructed by policy makers, ALLN is imagined as existing along a hierarchical ladder from Entry Level 1 to Level 2. Adults progress neatly through the designated stages with their skills emerging, consolidating or progressing with logical linearity. The narrative that drives policy constructions of ALLN asserts that functionally literate or numerate adults can then use their skills in any situation required as these basic skills are easily transferable from one context to another. This view of language and literacy has a reassuring back to basics common sense appeal. If ALLN is ‘autonomous’ the relationships between race, class and schooled educational inequality can be erased as non-existent.
This view of literacy stands in diametric opposition to a view of literacy as an ideological construct (Street, 1984, Street, 2003, Crowther et al., 2001, Hamilton, 2002, Appleby et al., 2006, Barton, 2007) a view that has taken considerable hold in the form of a paradigm shift that rejects psychological or cognitive approaches to literacy in favour of one that is informed by socio-cultural practices. Within this frame literacy is a relational concept, defined by who, what, when, where and why that surroundings people and their textual interactions. This is an approach that argues, there is no one way of being literate but several culturally and historically contingent literacies. This view of literacy represents a sustained critique of Skills for Life with its distilled insistence on literacy as skills. The pedagogic implications of this limitation have been explored by various commentators (Dennis, 2010, Ivanic 2009)and while a more holistic view of ALLN pedagogy has been deployed in Ireland, Wales and Scotland – the approach adopted in England is one that persists in erasing the socio-cultural dimensions of ALLN. In England, there is what Green and Howard (2007)refer to as a research, policy and practice impasse.
I situate my discussion from within this impasse. In as much over the 12 month period of an academic year I have explored with trainees registered on a University Diploma in Teaching Adult Language and Literacy the ways in which they conceptualised their pedagogic subject. That is, how they negotiate the reconciliations between literacy as skills and literacy as social practices.
The research, policy and practice impasse identified by Green and Howard (2007) has been the focus of considerable theorisation over the last 30 years (Haworth, 2006, Heath, 1983, Gee, 2008, Crowther et al., 2001, Kell, 2001, Barton and Hamilton, 1998, Wilson, 2000, Ivanic 2009) during which time policy prescribed notions of literacy have become increasingly more rigid. While in the context of the UK, Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland have each developed distinct approaches to framing literacy policy, England’s insistence on an exclusively skills based approach designed primarily to improve rankings on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) leagues tables is one shared by several industrialised economies (Hamilton and Barton, 2000).
Kell (2003) compares policy text literacy – such as contained in National Adult Core-Curricular documents – to the modular climbing frame found in a children’s playground. She suggests this autonomous, uni-dimensional structure persists within a discursive domain somewhat removed from the everyday literacies distributed through networks of unschooled people. She further suggests that a phenomenon, ‘literacy as sign’ (or simulacrum) interposes between the two domains, prohibiting other forms of literacy from emerging.
She makes use in this theorisation of Wilson’s work on prison literacies (Wilson, 2000). Wilson, echoing Bhabha’s (1994) notion of culture, locates a ‘third-space’ literacy. Between vertical policy text literacy and horizontal distributed network literacy this ‘third-space’ literacy is imbued with the potential for criticality, meta learning and reflectivity.
Kell (2003) and Wilson’s (2000) polarised literacy dis/connections can be re-explored to emphasise greater degrees of complexity (Rassool, 2009) but it is a useful construct here to illustrate the tensions I seek to explore. Professional teachers registered on a University Diploma course are required to deliver a curriculum based on policy text literacy, while they learn about and experience literacy in ways that undermine this construct. This study is an attempt to explore they ways in which they negotiate this contradiction. Read (n.d) frames this as a dilemma for teacher educators that involves challenging assumptions, values and beliefs. He suggests that professionals register on development courses wanting a toolkit of teaching tips and strategies that they can use immediately and may find it problematic to be confronted with esoteric theoretical discussions about the nature of language and literacy that may seem somewhat removed from their role as a professional: an implementer of government policy.
The tension touches upon professional aspirations, motivations and purposes but my primary focus is how trainees negotiate the different discourse to conceptualise language and literacy – the subject they teach. I veer away in this discussion from an examination of their preparedness to teach language or literacy ‘content’ (Van Driel and Berry, 2010). Instead my attention centres on what teachers talk about, when they talk about literacy and this shapes their teaching. More specifically for the professionals registered on this course – what are the contours along which they experience the contradictions and tensions between skills and social practices?
Entering a terrain in which I am already present and deeply implicated: research participants and site
All research participants were professionals registered on a University Diploma in Adult Language / Literacy over a one year period. This is a level 5 qualification for qualified teachers wishing to develop a specialism in language and literacy. Typically participants are already teaching the subject. Aspirations for registering on the programme vary and may include a desire to achieve career progression or career change. In the turbulent world of colleges amidst an crisis of austerity, teaching language or literacy was seen by some as a fall back position as existing sources of employment are becoming more scarce. Participants teach in varied contexts including a local further education college, prison, grant funded voluntary organisation and an adult education institute, and had completed their initial teacher education from two to 10 years ago.
All participants registered on the course are included in the data. Broadly, at the start of the course during induction, trainees were briefly introduced to the project as ‘research being undertaken by the course leader’ and asked for permission for their data to be used. There was not detailed research schedule in place and the sort of data analysed has unfolded in the course of implementation. At the end of the course a more detailed specification was provided for trainees who were then asked to state explicitly for permission to include their data in the project. Participants have been provided with a copy of the paper and invited to comment.
Data sources and collection
Sources of data collected included the personal profiles participants offered at the start of the programme, their language history, transcribed recordings of tutorials, an assignment that focussed on their teaching and learning and training sessions. At key points during the course participants complete a module evaluation, and a question – ‘What do you feel it means to be a literate adult’ was attached to this and included in data to be analysed. On some occasions teaching sessions were recorded and included in data is an analysis of teaching, the feedback and exchange between teacher and participant. Written into the approach was the desire to fit in with the ebb and flow of the programme and avoid trainees having any sense of participating in a research project – or at least to avid this placing any requirement on the over and above what the course requires. Data sources evolved to include assignments as in depth explorations and expressions of trainees’ views, but also to check and balance these with recordings of tutorials. The intention is to compare how participants think and talk about language and literacy in different spaces and connect these to the demands being placed upon them – to articulate and develop ideas of to meet the criteria for an assignment.
Data analysis is ongoing rather than complete and draws on grounded theory and situational analysis (Clarke, 2005). The advantage of situational analysis – ‘grounded theory pushed round the postmodern turn’ is that it acknowledges the presence of the researcher as part of the analytical unit.
Published as part of Learning and Skills Improvement Service support programme for teacher educators, Read’s paper on ‘Challenging Assumptions’ makes reference to the ways in which participants may resist the idea of language and literacy as anything other than the skills they are required to deliver. The struggle is framed as part of the learning process that requires trainees to go through a ‘trough of diminished competence’ as they are compelled to revise previously held in place and secure assumptions. He rightly points out that into this mix is the style of the training offered to trainees (Read, n.d). That a monotonous teaching style is likely to generate a situational resistance that is unrelated to the nature of what is being taught.
A situational analysis allows my as researcher to consider this possibility without reflexivity being overly central to the point and purpose of the study. The nature of the field excludes the proviso ‘all other things being equal’. In tutorials and transcribed exchanges my own contributions are transcribed and coded alongside that of research participants to as far as possible acknowledge the dialogic nature of the data. In this study then, I am positioned as researcher, not as researcher into my own practice: the question stands outside of my practice, though my practice is the source of data. As researcher I am also participant and my transcribed contributions are part of the data to be analysed.
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