What I’m reading on World Book Day

It’s World Book Day, which seems a suitable time to reflect on your own reading habits, as well as to think about literacies and their uses across our planet. Unless you’re a kid, of course, in which case your mum and dad will dress you up and put your photo on Facebook.


I usually have two books on the go at any one time: one fiction, and one non-fiction. Ian Rankin is among my (many) favourite crime writers, so I’m currently catching up on the latest doings of his great anti-hero, Inspector John Rebus. Rather be the Devil has Rebus well into his retirement, though like me Rebus is treating retirement as a “phased transition”, and is constantly poking his nose into the dark corners of Edinburgh. Having given up smoking and cutting down on his drinking, Rebus is grumpier and more obsessive than ever. Scotland’s Capital is, as ever, a central character in the new novel, as are two other senior detectives and assorted Scottish ne’er-do-wells. Great fun.

I’m also reading Christine Krüger’s study of youth voluntary service in 20th century Britain and Germany. Krüger’s main focus is on the period after 1945, though she says enough that is interesting and new about the earlier decades for me to wish I’d read it before writing my own study of work camp movements. In particular, she traces the origins of contemporary youth voluntary service to female responses to male military service, arguing that female social service formed part of a repertoire of claims to legitimacy and recognition (a trend that she sees as rather conservative). She finds clear contrasts between the two countries, as well as some strong similarities; I’m finding it a fascinating study, and would like to see an English language edition soon.

After that what next? For non-fiction I am going to tackle a biography of the influental but largely forgotten write and political thinker Thomas Carlyle, which was recommended to me by a colleague at Dublin City University. And I’m finally going to read one of Sebastian Fitzek’s novels; he is more popular in Germany than Dan Brown, so at least I’ll find out what the fuss is about.

And what better day could there be to pay tribute to all those tutors and mentors who work so hard with adult literacy learners all year round? Hats off to them all!


The impoverished language of citizenship and adult learning

With colleagues here in Cologne, I’m currently looking at adult learning and active citizenship. Our starting assumption was that this was an area of decline, whether in policy, practice or research, but we have had to moderate that judgement at least in respect of research. So far as policy is concerned, the picture is extremely mixed, and I’ll blog about that later on. What I wanted to note today is an interesting linguistic shift.

Across much of Europe, and that includes the European Commission, governments often use the word ‘citizen’ in connection with adult learning. But when they do so, they usually use it as a synonym for ‘person’ or ‘individual’. Very seldom do they make a connection between adult learning and active citizenship, understood as full participation in civic and political activity.


Let me take one example, which comes from the Nordic region. It’s a good region to pick, because it is one where governments not only support adult education more generously than most other European regions, but they also take a broad and generous view of what sort of adult education they should support. It is typical of this view that the Nordic Council of Ministers also fund Nordplus, a lifelong learning programme that covers all stages of education and training in the Nordic and Baltic nations.

Nordplus sounds like a great programme, and you can read about its activities in adult education here. Nordplus Adult has recently published a report on its work to ‘strengthen adults’ key competences and recognition of adults’ informal and non-formal learning’.  It is well worth reading for anyone interested in basic essential skills, validation of prior learning, learning disabilities or older adults’ learning. We can learn much from the Nordic experiences.

The report also illustrates the way in which ‘citizen’ is widely used in policy discourses. The word appears twenty-three times in the report as a synonym for person/individual; the term ‘citizenship’ appears twice, both times in a list of the three Nordplus Adult programme objectives.

New Picture (1)

I wouldn’t make too much of this case alone. The report concerns Nordplus Adult’s activities in the field of competences and recognition; presumably a separate report will deal with adult learning for ‘modern citizenship’, and the Nordplus database lists 15 separate projects in this area. On the other hand, I – perhaps naively – would expect some cross-over between competences/recognition and ‘modern citizenship’, particularly in the Nordic context.

More importantly, the same use of ‘citizen’ as synonym for ‘person’ can be found in many other policy documents in Europe. The Nordplus handbook uses the term ‘citizenship’ once, in the list of objectives for Nordplus Adult, and offers no further elaboration of what ‘modern citizenship’ is. That also is typical.

CfP: International comparison of basic education policies

The Zeitschrift für Weiterbildungsforschung, or Journal for Research in Adult Education, is planning a special issue on the ways in which large scale surveys such as PIAAC are influencing the debate on the best policies for promoting basic adult skills. The editors asked members of the editorial board to circulate the call for papers, and I have pasted it it below.

The journal publishes in English and German, is refereed, and is open access. The deadline for submissions is May 1, 2016, and the issue will appear in August 2016. For further information on the journal see www.springer.com/journal/40955 („Submit Online“).

International comparison of basic education policies

Editors: Alexandra Ioannidou / Josef Schrader

Ever since the PIAAC data (OECD 2013) as well as the “leo. – Level One Study” in Germany
(Grotlüschen/Riekmann 2012) were published, the highly developed industrial and knowledge-based society’s failure of securing a minimum of basic competences for all members of society and stabilizing those competences throughout life can no longer be denied. In addition, these studies confirm the connection between social status, participation in continuing education and available competences. In this large scale study, competences were measured, which are classified as indispensable for cultural and social participation as well as employability in each society.

Within the German discussion, those skills are often referred to as basic education, whereas in an international context various different versions of the literacy concept prevail. Both concepts can be regarded as relative, contextual and dynamic terms, based on current social requirements and subject to constant change (Tröster, 2000). Due to the different perceptions of various stakeholders, this dynamic and relational term is difficult to determine.

In the light of the large scale study’s findings, over the last years the scientific debate of the basic education concept has gained in importance along with the education policy debate on compensatory functions of basic education and literacy as well as securing a minimum level of education and competences for all. As a result of the current immigration caused by flight and expulsion and the subsequent expectations of integrating these refugees, the challenges for research, politics and practice of continuing education are increasingly intensified.

During the United Nations Literacy Decade (2003–2012), a literacy and basic education
network was constituted in Germany with various stakeholders from federal government and states, continuing education organisation, social partners as well as the German Federal Employment Agency. In addition, a national strategy was developed, which was transferred into the National Decade for Adult Literacy and Basic Education proclaimed in September 2015.

As the interim results gained in the DIE project “EU-Alpha” indicate, several other European and non-European countries have observed similar developments. They point to the influence of  international and supranational organisations on national policy and practice in the field of basic education.

Until now, little research has been conducted on the national and international reaction of
education, labour, social and integration policy to the problems pointed out by empirical
education research and the resulting operational success. This requires multi-level analyses, which unite system and governance structures with micro data from relevant studies on adult competences (e.g. PIAAC) in an international comparative perspective.

It was often verified that processes of educational disadvantage have a cumulative effect during life, continuing education enforces social selectivity with “soft” and “hard” selection mechanisms, and regional contexts are also significant for educational chances (Tippelt/v. Hippel 2005; Bremer/Kleemann-Göhrig 2011; Schlögl et al. 2015; Martin et al 2015). Less information is provided on how precisely factors and constellations on the system and stakeholder level influence continuing education participation and programmes of basic education or the methods of successfully implementing the objective of “Literacy for All” (United Nations). Which constellation of stakeholders, governance structure, continuing education, labour and welfare systems copes most effectively with the challenges mentioned above?

So far, there is no systematic overview on the effects of governance, structure, education,
labour and welfare policy on the level and structure of adult basic skills. Current literature
research regarding this topic only revealed isolated studies on policy programmes in the field of literacy and basic education but few studies, which connect competence assessment to control mechanisms and governance structures.

Against this background, the planned issue of the Journal for Research on Adult Education
refers to the current research approach in the field of basic education policy but also looks at innovative research approaches. Basic theoretical or empirical research is to be presented, particularly research with an international comparative approach. In addition, case studies from various countries are requested.

Contributions are invited with emphasis on the following issues:
– theoretical articles which cover the dynamic and partly relational term of basic education
as well as its empirical registration/measuring (competence modelling and measuring in
basic education)
– theoretical or empirical research on the connection between basic education competences and continuing education, labour and welfare policy in the country
– empirical research which identifies successful political approaches and the integration in the specific national institutional system based on data and case studies in order to point out methods to strengthen basic skills successfully


Bremer, H., & Kleemann-Göhring, M. (2011). Weiterbildung und „Bildungsferne“. Forschungsbefunde, theoretische Einsichten und Möglichkeiten für die Praxis. Essen. http://www.uni-due.de/imperia/md/content/politische-bildung/arbeitshilfe_potenziale. [18.02.2016].

Grotlüschen, A., & Riekmann, W. (Hrsg.). (2012). Funktionaler Analphabetismus in Deutschland. Ergebnisse der ersten leo. – Level-One Studie. Münster: Waxmann.

OECD (2013), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD
Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264204256-en

Schlögl, P. Iller,C.& Gruber, E. (2015): Teilnahme und Teilnahmechancen an formaler und nicht-formaler Erwachsenen- bzw. Weiterbildung. In: Schlüsselkompetenzen von Erwachsenen. Vertiefende Analysen der PIAAC-Erhebung 2011/12, Publisher: Statistik Austria, Editors: Statistik Austria, S.81–97 [Available through ResearchGate, 18.02.2016]

Schrader, J. (2015): Large Scale Assessments und die Bildung Erwachsener. Erträge, Grenzen und Potenziale der Forschung. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 61 (2015) 3, S. 410-428

Tippelt, R./V. Hippel, A. (2005): Weiterbildung: Chancenausgleich und soziale Heterogenität. In: ApuZ, 37/2005. S. 38-45

Tröster, M./Schrader, J. (2016): Alphabetisierung, Grundbildung, Literalität: Begriffe, Konzepte, Perspektiven. Bonn

Tröster, Monika (2000). Grundbildung – Begriffe, Fakten, Orientierungen. In Monika Tröster (Hrsg.), Spannungsfeld Grundbildung (S. 12-27). Bielefeld: W. Bertelsmann Verlag. Available at: http://www.die-bonn.de/esprid/dokumente/doc-2000/troester00_01.pdf [17.02.2016].

Multiplying literacies

The Community Health & Learning Foundation has just published an interesting short briefing on health literacy. Their basic case is that there are huge inequalities in people’s access to and understanding of information about health, and they set out a number of ways in which to remedy this.

It’s an important argument, and forms part of a wider case for public investment in adult learning. But it also illustrates a trend that I’ve been thinking about recently, which is the proliferation of different literacies. As well as health literacy, we hear about financial literacy, digital literacy, civic or political literacy, and even emotional literacy.

What is this about? Well, one obvious reason for using the word ‘literacy’ is as a way of focussing attention. It is an arresting word, because it implies that some of us are ‘illiterate’ in the context of financial planning, or health, or information technology. Actually, all of us must be illiterate in some contexts, so it’s a kind of linguistic hook, a way of pulling us in to the discussion about this or that form of literacy.

But isn’t there also a risk of linguistic inflation in this multiplication of literacies? The more we use it to describe unequal access to different kinds of knowledge and information, the more we dilute its original, narrower meaning. And we know that we have massive inequalities in people’s abilities to grapple with and command the written word; and this in turn has huge consequences for people’s life chances.

In a modern information society, literacy as narrowly understood is a fundamental precondition of participation in the wider community. Weak literacy skills have clear material effects, which are measurable. The OECD’s recent adult skills survey showed just how far literacy is linked not just to higher incomes, but also to political efficacy, volunteering, trust and indeed health. And it also showed that these effects were larger in the two UK nations that participated in the survey than in most of the other nations involved.



So literacy in its narrowest sense – confident and competent reading and writing in real life settings – is among the most important fields of adult learning. Anything that reduces the focus on literacy, and allows policy makers to avoid their responsibilities for securing its improvement, is a concern.

On the other hand, the proliferation of literacies has a more positive effect in reducing stigma. Anyone who has worked in adult literacy knows that fears of being branded ‘illiterate’ can cause learners the most profound anxiety and distress. This is one of the reasons why Freire’s work became so influential in the 1970s among those working in the area, as his ideas of liberation pedagogy offered a constructive way of understanding literacy practices as having to do with power, and thus offering a possibility of empowerment.

The idea that we are all ‘illiterate’ in some contexts reduces the stigma attached to ‘illteracy’, and breaks down some of the barriers to participation. Of course, this in itself is only one step towards literacy learning as a force for civic empowerment and social change, but it is a start.

This also reminds me that I used to watch a lovely tv programme called ‘On the Move’ which starred the great Bob Hoskins, who died recently. The BBC still took its educational mission seriously in the mid-1970s, and this series – intended for adults with literacy difficulties – attracted an audience of millions. It is generally credited with breaking down some of the stigma attached to literacy learning; the fact that I am still discussing this issue now suggests that we still have some way to go.