This interview also appeared in Profiling literacy and numeracy specialists : Dale Pobega (June 2021) https://acal.edu.au/profiling-literacy-and-numeracy-specialists/
How did you start your career in LN?
I returned to Australia in 1990 after living and working overseas for most of the preceding decade. I taught English and worked in journalism and publishing mainly in Latin America. While I was completing a second degree in Melbourne I taught Adult Literacy night-classes at a local Community Centre. I knew straight away that this was the field for me as there was a very pressing demand in the community at the time for classes and a real need for dedicated teachers to work with adults. I then went to work at the Duke Street Community House in Melbourne’s West which was a very forward-thinking organisation at the time and where I taught for the next 25 years with a couple of interesting ”sabbaticals”. There was a stint with the Victorian Adult Literacy and Basic Education Council (VALBEC) in the mid-90s as editor of their journal “Fine Print” and as the writer/producer of “The World Times”, a VALBEC / Oxfam “simple-English” newspaper on development issues funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs. That work provided me with an entree into a new-fangled thing at the time called the “internet” and I immediately saw its potential for teaching and learning. I secured a position as Manager of an Online Learning Networking that operated out of the then TAFE Virtual Campus in the early 2000s. The rest is history – I continue to do work that straddles language teaching and E-learning. I currently teach EAL at Wyndham Community Education Centre for part of the week and do E-learning consultancy, teacher training and educational project work the rest of the time.
What motivates you to work in this profession?
The adult students I teach – they’re the ones who motivate and inspire me. Their struggles negotiating an increasingly complex world that demands a great deal in terms of a spoken additional language, literacy, numeracy and digital skill is very real to me. My own parents had very few opportunities to learn due to the dislocating factors associated with war, poverty, migration and disability. In my own students today I see reflections of them. That inspires me to stay where I am needed and do the best I possibly can as a teacher. I also find my work endless fascinating. There is a lot to learn about language. I’m a keen learner of languages other than English myself and have lived for a long period overseas so like my students, I have some idea what it is like to be at a linguistic and cultural disadvantage.
How have you developed your professional skills and knowledge over time?
I’ve kept a blog (on and off) for about the last ten years dedicated to documenting my work and I think that kind of reflection is important. It helps me to focus on what I could possibly do better and moves me in new directions. Stepping back and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t is important to me. I’ve always been an active member of language and literacy communities, particularly online ones, from the early days of subscribing to mailing lists to nowadays regularly contributing to Wyndham CEC’s Digital Learning Centre. I also joined LinkdIn last year. I’ve joined a range of ALLN and E Learning groups from across the globe. I always thought LinkdIn was just a type of Facebook for Corporates in search of greener pastures – I’m surprised at how useful it has been in terms of making contacts, discovering new networks and accessing resources.
Can you describe any key points in your career that have helped shape the way you work in delivering LLN or foundation skills?
I think my long engagement with technology to facilitate learning going right back to 1990 has been central to my approach. I have always incorporated some form of online learning into LLN classes. With the emergence of the Internet I immediately understood how crucial Digital literacies would become for all of us. And the pace of change in terms of key skills and literacies relating to technology shows no sign of abating. Many Adult Community providers – at least here in Victoria – were very well placed in the 90s to be leaders in the field of online and blended delivery but somehow did not manage to build upon that success – during the late 90s and early 2000s the few community based learning networks operating out of the TAFEVC were, in my opinion, the most outstanding.
It’s interesting that the health emergency prompted by COVID has forced us back into that online space through necessity and what I think the experience showed was that many of us were not really set up or adequately prepared to meet the challenge, though there were islands of great creativity and skill amongst some providers. I just hope we don’t drop the baton this time round and that we take the opportunity to re-think our traditional models of provision and develop some new ways of moving forward as a sector.
How do you renew your ideas and practices?
Last year I became a mentor in the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Professional Development Program (ALNPP) funded through the division of Adult Community and Further Education (ACFE). It is an ambitious program promoting ALLN practice within the preaccredited education sector and was delivered entirely online. It was interesting being the facilitator working with a range of participants – some new, many seasoned and highly skilled – who were drawn from across the field and the state. We met weekly online and worked through modules based on Theory, Frameworks, Practice and Reflection – it became a really valuable forum for learning and reassessing some of my own positions and assumptions about literacy, numeracy, teaching and learning in general. Being a facilitator or teacher always makes me realise what others can and do teach me. I’m always learning. I’m a student as much as I am a teacher.
I think too that as practitioners we all need to be aware of the changing demands of our work — ie. understanding there are new things to teach adults and new ways of teaching. The Digital world with its own sets of skills and literacies, are now a very important part of what we need to know as teachers of language, literacy and numeracy more generally. Knowing the potential and limitations of technology, being open but remaining critical of these advances – while always keeping the interests of adult students struggling with language in mind – is really important.
What professional development do you value?
Like everyone else I’m strapped for time. I am often too busy to attend formal, face to face PD and I actually don’t like losing time with my classes or having someone else substituting when there is so much work to cover. So the PD has to be online and preferably bite size. During the first phase of COVID using Zoom for meeting with colleagues to do required validation and moderation was very convenient and I found more tends to get done than if you meet face to face. My only regret is that a lot of PD – apart from participation in accredited course work of some kind – is not captured and recognised professionally. I’d like to see a system of micro-credentialling operating where all of the PD we do is officially recognised and becomes a part of a bigger whole that has actual currency. I also read a lot and keep abreast of developments through a range of online networks, including peak bodies like ACAL, ACTA and ALA.
How can vocational trainers prepare for LN needs in their classroom?
Mmm …”vocational trainers” – what are they? I’m not sure we should consider any teaching work as being something that can stand outside its obvious connection to language, literacy and numeracy. I don’t think you can separate content from the form of presentation or technique in anything you teach. By that I mean all teachers are, in a sense, LLN teachers because how can you facilitate learning if you aren’t able to assess your students’ English language, literacy and numeracy for yourself – in effect, to know who they are and what they are capable of as learners? How can you teach any subject unless you have knowledge of LLN and the skills to break it down and support learners ? This was something I discussed at length with the participants of the recent ALNNP program I taught for ACFE. It is all about breaking down complexity, recognising the particular literacy and numeracy difficulties of individuals in your classes and hopefully not throwing up your hands when you encounter problems.
During the first phase of COVID I was freed up to spend much more time than usual working with each student in my class on their individual learning plans. Rather than just eliciting glib responses from students about goals, challenges, needs and the like, I had a lot more time to genuinely find out about them and to assess in a meaningful way what they could and couldn’t do, to find out what their broader long term goals were and to set some tasks we could work on together – just me and that particular student. Students have particular goals and needs that have been articulated but then they are referred to LLN classes with a standardised curriculum and a standard set of assessments. It’s a systemic problem and it’s a contradiction of sorts. You wonder about issues of relevance for that individual and the time wasted – sometimes years – spent in classes where they don’t learn the particular literacies they actually need to realise those vocational goals.
Changing the current model would involve a lot more time being made available to teachers to work with individual students, many more resources – in fact, probably having more than one teacher – and it would also mean developing a more nuanced curricula approach that genuinely takes individually articulated goals, needs and facilitated learning into account. I don’t see that happening very easily, certainly not in the accredited education space.
Can you recommend a particular resource or professional reading to support vocational trainers meet these needs?
I designed a Digital Literacies Unit for my delivery of ALNPP and relied heavily on the ideas of Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis’ in the theory section. Their works “Literacies” (2016) and “E Learning Ecologies (2017)” are invaluable and have deeply resonated with me. In fact, they have established a very interesting space for learning communities on their CGScholar site https://cgscholar.com/ and on their own website, “Works and Days” have linked many extra resources and companion readings to their books that are freely available.
Kalantzis and Cope actually discuss the future of education and offer five theses about the ideal directions they feel school, tertiary and vocational education need to take including the most controversial thesis : #1 There will be no pedagogical differences between learning in person and learning online. It is a thesis I personally – to the surprise of some – do not accept when it comes to adult literacy and numeracy learners but is a part of a broader and timely discussion that ACAL has so bravely entered into about the advantages and disadvantages of online provision during the initial lockdown phases of COVID.
Literacies (2nd Edition) 2016
by Mary Kalantzis (Author), Bill Cope (Author), Eveline Chan (Author), Leanne Dalley-Trim (Author)
Cambridge University Press; 2 edition (5 July 2016)
E-Learning Ecologies: Principles for New Learning and Assessment
by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis | 17 February 2017
Routledge; 1st edition (17 February 2017)