Literacy, Numeracy, unfilled vacancies and classroom realities

There is a burst of interest in the number of Australians lacking the degree of literacy/numeracy required for understanding the training they require.  There is also the suggestion that unemployment benefits might be stopped in areas where unskilled vacancies exist.

Primary Education
From my children’s primary school years, I know that – for a class of thirty – there will be three who have some specific learning disability or are severely academically limited.  The latter have difficulty remembering new work the next week, and usually cannot find or remember patterns in information, or  generalise from one situation to another.  This means they find it difficult to use a method learned for one situation in another situation – even to the extent of understanding that the place value relationship from units to tens is the same as the patterns from tens to hundreds and from hundreds to thousands,  They have to learn these groups separately, and may never get beyond just doing them the way they are shown,  Similarly, they struggle with the pattern recognition tasks needed for reading beyond the basics, and the idea-pattern making needed for understanding science and society/environment lessons after age 9.

In addition, there will be somewhere between three and twenty who are not interested in school-learning, or who have some difficulty with the way the school system requires them to work.  Depending on the families and local culture they may merely do the minimum to keep the teacher quiet, and gossip or daydream as much as they can without being disciplined;  some are actively disruptive.  Some of them have chemical difficulties – undiagnosed attention or psychiatric disorders or frequent use of marijuana, for example.  Some of them may be classed with the first group, but shine academically in very small group environments.

These are the ones who could follow instructions, and might even excel, if the teacher has the gifts to capture their attention or if they find their own passion and follow it.  Or if the medical system gets the treatment right.

The former group will not all always struggle. Many will find ways to work to their strengths, or may suddenly “get it” as they mature, but chances are that one in each kindergarten class will be chronically unemployed because they are so hard to train.

The latter group has a larger proportion who learn what they want to when they need to, and can really benefit from adult access to primary school content.  However, it also includes the subset who will damage their brains through licit or illicit drugs, ending up unable to learn when they choose, and those who have deep emotional scars blocking formal learning.

A group not covered in thinking of the primary class is the normal or gifted who have later damage from illness or accident which reduces their memory, judgement, emotional control and/or ability to learn.

According to Centrelink contacts, there is a pool of adults, not officially unfit to work, not officially intellectually impaired, needing extensive one-on-one training to be fit for even theoretically “unskilled” work.  It’s not that they won’t do the jobs, or that they can’t work.  It’s just that there are very few of the undemanding jobs left, and even fewer who are willing to train people for them. This is inevitable in this age of high productivity (= use machines / dangerous chemicals = need to learn safety routines; also = less supervision time per worker = desire to employ quick learners).  Centrelink workers (anonymous for obvious reasons)  figure that, between congenital limitations and later damage, about 3% of the workforce will always struggle to get and keep an unskilled job.  In some areas, the percentage is higher. For a workforce of 10 million , that is about 300 000 people.

These would-be workers also have more difficulty meeting bureaucratic requirements – filling in forms, getting to appointments, understanding the written or verbal advice, and so take up more of the agency worker’s time per client.  Unfortunately, at the time of the peak in unemployment the funding for Centrelink’s unemployment workers was based  on the number of clients, so that when the easy customers got jobs the staff hours were cut, even though the number of time-consuming clients had not reduced much.  Please be patient with them.

Back to the chronically  unemployed and stopping benefits.

Remembering the employers who have “jobs no-one will take” which are so badly paid or harshly run that only the brain-damaged would take them (see the underpayment of Toys-R-Us employees), there will always be doubt as to the wisdom of stopping benefits purely because there are vacant positions.  Adding to this the well-recognised percentage of effectively unemployable, the doubt becomes stronger.  Adding to this the vision of a sympathetic but overworked Centrelink officer seeing a client who doesn’t understand the forms* for a special exemption from loss of benefits, and who doesn’t see verself as “unemployable” – the matter is certain.

Well, that deals with the learning side of chronic unemployment.

Learning in employment.

Now, looking at the expected distribution of abilities, consider those who can get work. We can expect that the normal distribution of abilities will apply – so that if 3% don’t meet the bottom limit, another 10% will be very close to it – and there you have over a million who will have difficulty with the training required to meet changes to their work.  Add to this those who are employed at their functional limit (inevitable: The Peter Principle,, and you get easily one-fifth of the workforce restricted in their ability to benefit from the training they require.

The scary part is that improving educational outcomes as measured by tests probably won’t change this much: the limit factor is really capacity to learn new stuff, and improved outcomes in tests are most easily reached by training in taking the type of tests used.   Consider the New York  experience  as reported by Radio National :  improved performance did not generalise.

Time to go away and consider our options.

Maybe it is time to explore  “the physical sensation of learning new stuff”, and condition more  children to find that sensation enjoyable.   Maybe it is time to use the asessment tools from Special Needs areas and apply them to the “at Benchmark” students, so that their limitations can be recognised by the Unemployment specialists.  (Unfortunately, that would take expensive staff, and have the emotional weight of labelling.)  Maybe it’s time to rename “Benchmarks” as “At Risk Levels”, so parents aren’t surprised when the child who made the benchmark struggles in high school, and so they encourage their children to work harder “to be more safe”.  Maybe it’s time to insist the schools help these children learn the skills to live on the dole when they have to.   Maybe it’s time to give cash incentives for additional  offspring to families whose children learn rapidly.  (Imagine the ads:  Don’t be an elderly primagravida  – Have your first child before you are 24,  so you have more time to prove your child’s gifted and thus get a bonus for your later children.)

If society wants to have a smaller proportion of the workforce struggling with the learning demands of their chosen employment, something must be changed.

*I made that up, I think they’d have to be invented.


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