|Functional Literacy, Workplace Literacy and Technical and Vocational Education: Interfaces and Policy Perspectives - Studies No. 5 (UNEVOC, 1995, 66 p.)|
Functional literacy (also called work-oriented literacy) was a child of development, born in the Third World. Its newest manifestation may be literacy integrated with income generation.
The process of decolonization that began soon after the end of the Second World War had quickened its pace during the 1950s. By mid-1960s, most of the erstwhile colonies had joined the community of independent nations. Political independence, however, had rarely accompanied economic independence. Economies of the newly independent nations remained dependent on the outside, and stagnant to the core. On the other hand, the rising tide of aspirations for the good life were engulfing all peoples on all continents. The launching of the United Nations Development Decade in 1960 was a global response to this developing crisis of development -- exploding needs, in the midst of acute scarcities.
Mass literacy vs selective and intensive approach
As the Conference of the World Ministers of Education gathered in Teheran in 1965 under the auspices of Unesco to discuss world education, the poverty of the millions of peoples left behind was foremost on the minds of Third World Ministers of Education. They all wanted development to liquidate poverty in their lands. Education was to be the instrument of all development. Education was considered to be the necessary vehicle for bringing new knowledge, attitudes and skills to the poor to enable them to help themselves. Since most of these poor in the Third World had been bypassed by the formal school systems, adult literacy was to be an important part of the educational plan for development. Those who favored mass literacy for a truly authentic transformations of their societies lost the battle to the economic utilitarians. The West would only support functional literacy or work-oriented literacy, directly tied to economic functions, selective and intensive, and clearly focussed on economic sectors that already showed signs of growth.
The argument embedded in the concept of functional literacy
The argument that was won by the economic utilitarians at the 1965 conference in Teheran went like this: The maps of illiteracy and poverty are congruent both within and across nations. Literacy was necessary for learning new skills for increased productivity both on the farm and in the factory and, therefore, should be central to any development strategy for alleviating poverty. Yet the poor did not see the need for literacy. Why not then make the literacy-productivity-income connection clearly articulated and completely visible? Why not combine literacy learning with the learning of economic skills and thereby make literacy motivational in and of itself? The poor are hungry and hunger was an acutely felt deprivation. Therefore, learning skills that would enable people to produce food or to earn money to buy the bare necessities of life would be extremely motivational.
Another Unesco document elaborated the concept of functional literacy thus:
"Briefly stated, the essential elements of the new approach to literacy are the following: (a) literacy programmes should be incorporated into and correlated with economic and social development plans; (b) the eradication of illiteracy should start within the categories of populations which are highly motivated and which need literacy for their own and their country's benefit; (c) literacy programmes should preferably be linked with economic priorities and carried out in areas undergoing rapid economic expansion; (d) literacy programmes must impart not only reading and writing, but also professional and technical knowledge, thereby leading to fuller participation of adults in economic and civic life; (e) literacy must be an integral part of over-all education plan and educational system of each country; (f) the financial needs of functional literacy should be met out of various resources, public and private, as well as provided for in economic investments; (g) the literacy programmes of this new kind should aid in achieving main economic objectives, i.e., the increase in labor productivity, food production, industrialization, social and professional mobility, creation of new manpower, diversification of the economy (Unesco, Asian Model 1966, p. 97)."
The preceding quotation has a significant ideological load as it seeks to promote not just economies of developing nations, but also a particular type of global political economy. It also has implications for overall planning, inter-departmental cooperation in programme development, curriculum development, organization of delivery, methodology of teaching and learning and assessment.
Context and constituencies
In the third world of the mid-1960s and later years, functional literacy came to have a predominantly farming bias because there was not much industrialization in the third world of those days. Also, functional literacy ended up serving subsistence farmers since there were not enough of agro-industries nor big agricultural estates in developing countries at that time. While functional literacy had sought to serve subsistence farmers working on small farms, in reality, it was privileged classes including small landowners who were able to capture the extension resources that did come to the rural areas ostensibly to serve the disadvantaged. To make matters worse, the learning needs and interests of women who were doing most of the food production, especially in Africa, were not directly addressed even though most of the classes on the ground were indeed filled with women and with children who could not make to the regular primary school. These children, like the women in literacy classes, were also made to follow a curriculum actually addressed to men and tailored for men who did no farm and rarely showed up in those functional literacy classes!
Content and curricular organization of functional literacy programmes; and their organizational structure
The concept of functional literacy required that literacy and economic skills be taught in complete integration. This was easier said than done. The hierarchies of economic knowledge and practical skills and that of the language of literacy that would carry that knowledge and skills as content were not congruent. Developing integrated curricular materials was a big and often unmet challenge.
In the world of practice, curriculum development typically began with focus on economic content. The discourse of economic production in a particular sector (cotton growing, for example) was analyzed to develop a list of words, some of which a small farmer would already know, and some of which the farmer must learn to be able to understand the message of innovation and to consider incorporating better techniques in farming.
Some of these words were taught through the specially written functional literacy primers (or equivalent reading sheets or posters). Some others were included in graded booklets, integrated audio-visual materials, and guide sheets for practical demonstrations and political discussions.
The two streams of teaching - literacy and economic skills - were taught more or less separately, intersecting and converging whenever possible. Other useful content such as health, population education, childcare, safety, food preservation, social forestry, environment, etc., were added to the program like ornaments are tied to a Christmas tree - using various media and materials.
Format of teaching
Ideally, each session of a learning group would begin with a discussion to cover issues both of productivity and awareness. There was, however, very little teaching of productivity and even less of social sensitization and political awareness. The discussion would be linked to the lesson of the day in the specially written functional literacy primer. These lessons could not carry too much substantive-technical knowledge related to the economic activity in which the group of learners was interested. Most of material in the primer was of a motivational nature. Usable economic knowledge and skills were supposedly learned later in a field demonstration on a separately maintained demonstration plot under the guidance of the FL teacher, but preferably under the guidance of an extension worker placed in the field by the ministry or department of agriculture. Health issues were also supposed to be covered in a similar fashion.
Delivery of functional literacy curriculum
Delivery of the curriculum was not easy. What was considered as ideal was seldom possible to actualize. There was no effective interdepartmental coordination. Agricultural and health extension workers, already serving impossibly vast areas and impossibly large numbers of clients, were unable to assume additional responsibilities in relation to functional literacy programmes. They seldom could visit functional literacy classes. Consequently, the under-educated and ill-trained literacy teacher volunteering to work on a very small stipend was obliged to carry the total burden of instruction - including literacy, functionality and awareness. These teachers were unable to deliver the knowledge, attitudes and skills that the program was supposed to deliver to farmers. Even when some farmers learned and understood the message, they were unable to adopt new skills because these subsistence farmers could not always pay for the new technological and scientific inputs that the new functional literacy programmes suggested to farmers to buy and use. Results were obviously not good at all. Outside political and economic structures did not change much. The poor subsistence farmer had been thrown a straw to catch and not drown.
Assessments and critiques
The functional literacy concept born in Teheran, was systematically tested within the Experimental World Literacy Programme. During 1966-74, UNESCO in cooperation with UNDP sponsored functional literacy and work-oriented programmes in eleven countries: Algeria, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guinea, India, Iran, Madagascar, Mali, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, and United Republic of Tanzania.
An assessment commissioned by UNESCO/UNDP and published in 1976 estimated the total expenditure of the international project at $27,184,973, 40.6 % of which was provided by UNDP and the rest by host governments. Learners served were 1,028,381 in number, 45% Male and 55% Female, whose average age was 25 years. They had been taught in 20,000 classes by 24,000 teachers. On average 24 per cent had completed the final stage. Most classes had agricultural content.
The most important consequences of the Unesco/UNDP Experimental Work-Oriented Adult Literacy Project may have been in providing international visibility to the concept and the programme of functional literacy, and in the training of a large cohort of literacy professionals from policy makers, planners, programmers, evaluators, to supervisors, and literacy teachers of adults.
Echoes of workplace literacy in functional literacy
Functional literacy as we have indicated was born in agrarian countries and had a bias toward farmers in subsistence farming or those with small landholding. Farmers with large landholding and agro-industrialists were supposed to take care of their own extension and educational needs.
But even in the late 1960s when functional literacy saw its heyday, urban populations were increasing in the so-called developing countries. Industrialization had begun and factories were beginning to be established. Some of the literacy projects under the UNESCO/UNDP overall project did come to be located in factories as in Iran and in mines as in Liberia. Perhaps we should have anticipated the birth of the urban counterpart of the functional literacy movement in the form of workplace literacy.
The present and future of functional literacy
There are still a billion illiterates on the globe. Ninety-eight percent of them live in the Third World, most of them in the rural areas. The correlation between illiteracy and poverty continues to be strong. With the ever expanding print culture, any hope for work for these non literates recedes farther and farther away, day by day . The situation for non-literates in urban areas is even more severe.
This being the case, functional literacy (or work-oriented literacy) of some sort has remained a great need. Most of the times, income generation has been added to literacy programmes investing literacy learning with the learning of economic skills and earning an income. It seems that this will continue to be the case well into the twenty-first century.
In concluding this section, it should he said that it is not functional literacy that should get the blame for having failed those in the policy making culture of development. On the other hand, it was policy makers, planners and practitioners all together who failed functional literacy. Functional literacy was never given the attention and resources it needed to succeed. Of course, we should not continue to make the same mistakes as we work on functional literacy programmes, old and new. Future projects, programmes and campaigns of functional literacy should be given the conceptual, institutional, material, and personnel resources necessary for their successful implementation. Literacy teachers should be carefully chosen, trained well both in the ideology and the pedagogy of functional literacy, and should be appropriately compensated. Teachers should not be expected to carry the whole burden of teaching the functional literacy curriculum all by themselves. Economic skills should be taught by extension workers who are themselves skilled. The political awareness component should be taught by a "Third Force" of community leaders who can challenge both the bureaucratic establishment and the local pyramids of social privilege. The educational content of awareness should include discussion of the nature and implications of the "natural lottery" - the accidents of birth and location that create conditions of relative advantage and disadvantage. The curriculum content should include the history of in-migrations and out-migrations under colonization and decolonization, the necessity of tolerance for the other person, other religion, other culture, and moral imperatives of distributive justice and peace. Institutions of extension and advice, credit, insurance, pricing and marketing should all be made congenial to the interests of the illiterate and poor so that functional literacy and accompanying income generating programmes can indeed succeed in lifting the poor out of their poverty.