Joel’s News Paper interview on Literacy in New Zealand

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(Extract from Rob Mitchell’s article 05:00, Jun 16 2018)

There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

It was Joel Young’s first literacy group as a facilitator. He won’t forget it in a hurry.

“There was this young guy, early to mid-20s,” he recalls. “He had a few tatts on him across his knuckles, a few other bits and pieces; he’d seen the inside of a jail cell at one point, maybe had some gang affiliations.”

This young man had been engaged in the work but otherwise kept pretty quiet during the workshops.

“Then on the very last day, everyone has to do a presentation, just a short one in front of the whole group and their managers, and it’s usually quite scary for them.

“He got up and talked about how . . . he’d been able to read a story to his daughter for the first time ever.”

Young’s first story of struggle and success, but not the last. The Learning Wave facilitator has worked with hundreds of other people in the 2-1/2 years since.

Clients include Carter Holt Harvey, Downer, Countdown, Sistema and Farmlands Co-op. The work is supported by the Tertiary Education Commission and its multi-billion-dollar budget for tertiary training and education.

Learners are as varied as the businesses employing Young’s services: “Māori, New Zealand European, Niuean, Tongan, Fijian, Fijian Indian and Indian, and that might have been in one room of eight people,” Young says. “I remember being able to say thank you in 20 different languages.”

In some workplaces, the room can be “full of middle-class white people, male and female”.

Many are in their 40s and older, with just enough literacy and numeracy skills to get by.

“People are great at adapting and making do, but there’s a cost to that, usually a cost to their confidence and their ability to progress in their careers,” he says, “and productivity – it slows things down when they get other people to write things for them . . . you’re taking two people to do the one job.”

Some learners are a great deal younger; they’ve done “well enough at school, but I find myself surprised at the bits that they don’t know when we come across some basic percentage work that you’d think they’d need in their role at work, or some basic words”.

The former school counsellor believes many of his clients have been “let down in the school system”.

“It’s a systemic exclusion of people because of the style of education that we’ve chosen . . . that’s why it fails so many people.

“Those of us who need to see things applied to make sense of them, struggle,” he says. “Also big class sizes, if anyone gets left behind.”

Unfortunately, plenty get left behind. They can read, they can write, but barely little else.

Young and most of his colleagues are not teachers but they work to pick up the pieces of their clients’ confidence, using workbooks, daily plans and appropriate props. He works with groups of between four and 10 people in a series of workshops lasting a total of 40 hours.

“It’s not sit down and let’s do some maths, sit down and let’s do some writing. We’d call it learner-centred, embedded literacy and numeracy.

“We might sit down with a topic like communication styles and it’s framed up around teamwork and personal leadership, and people will do a questionnaire . . . so they are sitting and practising it, and then as they go through that they might come across tricky words, which they might not understand, and there are dictionaries on the table.

“At the end of that questionnaire they might have to do some maths to add it up, then I’ll get them to divide it into percentages so it’s easier to understand the data that way, and we’ll have a chat about it and maybe present something of that back to the room.”

A good result is a rise in confidence and a keenness for more learning.

Young believes the work gives something back to the country’s bank balance, but also its well-being.

“Poor literacy hurts our productivity and I also think it’s really bad for your emotional wellbeing, to not be able to participate fully in society.”

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