Te Arapiki Ako
"Towards better teaching & learning"

1. How adults develop their literacy and numeracy expertise

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Last updated 26 October 2012 15:30 by NZTecAdmin

Here are the detailed descriptions for the four key understandings in this area:

Key understanding 1.1

Research findings

Children attend school because of legal mandates and strong social and cultural forces that view school as the “work of childhood” (Comings, Parrella, & Soricone, 2000, p. 1). In contrast, adults generally make an active choice to participate in educational programmes and they do so in order to achieve broad purposes in their lives.

We undertake cognitive tasks not merely as ends in themselves but as a means for achieving larger objectives and goals that have meaning in the community (Scribner, 1988).

Adults seek to develop their literacy and numeracy skills in order to gain access to information, give voice to their opinions and ideas, take action to solve problems and create future opportunities in the form of further qualifications. Achieving the purposes they set for themselves enables adults to effectively fulfil their roles in society as workers, family members and community members.

Adults are more likely to engage in learning programmes for sustained periods and achieve success when it is clear to them how their learning is linked to their own particular purposes. Transparent learning programmes acknowledge and support learners by helping them to establish specific learning goals in line with their purposes. In addition, where learners are involved in monitoring their progress towards learning goals they are more likely to persist and achieve success in learning programmes.

Motivation is a key factor in engagement and achievement. Learners are motivated when they can see the value of learning for their own goals. Adults are more likely to be motivated to engage with literacy and numeracy learning when it is embedded within a vocational or leisure course which is their primary motivation.

Implications for practice

Adult learners are more likely to be engaged and achieve success when:

  • Learning programmes clearly articulate course content and outcomes to enable adults to be clear about how the learning links with their own particular purposes.
  • Course information is clear, unambiguous and accessible. Specific examples of content can be useful in communicating with potential learners.
  • Adult learners are involved in setting learning goals and monitoring their progress towards these.
  • Learning activities incorporate clearly specified outcomes.

Embedding literacy and numeracy learning within vocational courses will increase adults’ motivation for developing their knowledge and skills in literacy and numeracy.

References: Bingman & Stein, 2001; Coben, 2003; Comings, Parrella, & Soricone, 2000; Gillespie, 2002; Gunnarsson, 1997; Roberts, et al., 2005; Scribner, 1988; Swain, et al., 2005.

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Key understanding 1.2

Research findings

Learners actively construct knowledge as they make sense of new information and experiences by extending or changing their current ideas and understandings (schema). A constructivist approach to teaching and learning focuses on supporting learners to develop expertise through meaningful learning experiences that build on their existing knowledge. (This is in contrast to a behaviourist approach where skills and knowledge are developed through reinforcement.)

Within this approach, the role of the tutor is to support individuals to actively construct meaning for themselves.

… taking a constructivist approach to building knowledge and skills focuses on helping students develop their understanding and make sense of the world (Bingman & Stein, 2001, p. 19).

Instruction is aimed at developing a “richly structured knowledge base” (Gillespie, 2002, p. 2) by activating prior knowledge and building on the schema learners have. The connections between areas of learning are valued and emphasis is given to the ways in which different areas of content are related.

Teaching is deliberately focused on supporting learners to develop control over strategies by ensuring they have a sound and secure knowledge base. As learners develop expertise in a field they become increasingly aware of the key concepts and/or strategies that help them to structure and utilise their knowledge.

As they develop expertise, learners can be supported to develop metacognitive strategies similar to those used by experts to monitor and control their own thinking processes. Assisting learners to develop and measure their success by reflecting on what they have learnt helps them to take responsibility for their learning and develop independent learning and study skills. It also assists them to adapt their knowledge and skills for different contexts or problems (transfer).

To support adults to learn by building on their existing knowledge and experiences, tutors require a sound conceptual understanding of their subject area and an appreciation of the ways in which different aspects of learning within their area are related. Effective teachers of literacy and/or numeracy possess deep knowledge of the ways in which expertise in these areas is developed and, in particular, of how learners build metacognition that enables them to become independent and to transfer their skills to new contexts.

Implications for practice

Teaching and learning approaches that effectively build on adults’ existing knowledge and skills:

  • acknowledge and value learners’ existing knowledge by supporting them to identify their current understandings and investigate these in the process of building their expertise
  • are focused on the development of conceptual understandings and flexible strategy use rather than the memorisation of facts, rules or procedures
  • develop reflective and critical thinking and reasoning
  • utilise teaching and learning activities that are relevant and meaningful to learners
  • articulate key ideas or strategies and organise learning around these
  • make explicit links between areas of learning
  • support learners to reflect on their own learning in order to gain increased control over their own thinking processes and develop independent study skills, and
  • promote the development of conceptual knowledge among tutors.

References: Anderson, 2004; Askew, et al., 1997; Bingman & Stein, 2001; Cobb, 1994; Coben, 2003; Fosnot, 1996; Gillespie, 2002; Ma, 1999; Piaget, 1978; Swain, et al., 2005; von Glasersfeld, 1995.

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Key understanding 1.3

Research findings

A large body of literature has demonstrated that adults’ thinking is influenced by the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs. Learning is optimised when it is made as relevant as possible to learners’ lives (including their chosen and required roles as adults), the problems they face and the contexts in which these arise.

Adult learning is recognised as a form of participation in social practices: learning is enhanced by social interaction. Vygotsky and other researchers working in the socio-cultural tradition highlight the importance of social interaction in teaching and learning programmes. These researchers outline how learning is enhanced through interaction with more knowledgeable individuals who can scaffold developing understandings. Where adults work collaboratively to develop knowledge and skills in a social context a learning community is developed and new understandings are generated.

Several factors have been found to influence the transfer of learning from instructional contexts to work or other everyday situations. Learning is more easily transferred where learners are aware of the “underlying principles, patterns and relationships” (Gillespie, 2002, p. 1) within content; where instruction is linked to larger ideas that can be translated across contexts, learners are more likely to make this translation. Learners are also more likely to gain transferable knowledge when the instruction is meaningful. Instruction is meaningful for learners when it is engaging and the tasks enable learners to see that their learning will be of use to them in their everyday lives. Such tasks do not necessarily need to mirror an authentic everyday situation. In addition, approaches that acknowledge students’ own use of problem-solving strategies and that encourage them to articulate these have also been found to enable transfer.

Implications for practice

Learners will develop literacy and numeracy skills, and are most likely to transfer their learning to new contexts, where teaching and learning programmes:

  • clearly convey the key principles and larger ideas within the subject area
  • engage learners in meaningful contexts and authentic tasks, and
  • support students to articulate their own use of strategies for problem solving.

Learning is increased where learners are part of a collaborative learning community and are given opportunities to:

  • be supported by more knowledgeable individuals
  • support each other’s learning by giving and receiving assistance and advice, and
  • engage in group work.

References: Bingman & Stein, 2001; Bruner, 1985; Carraher & Schliemann, 2002; Cobb, 1994; Coben, 2003; Evans, 2000; Gillespie, 2002; Lave, 1988; Saxe, 1988; Swain, et al., 2005; Vygotsky, 1987.

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Key understanding 1.4

Research findings

Where teaching approaches focus exclusively on correct answers and provide little cognitive support, learners who have experienced repeated failure may develop negative perceptions of their own ability. For some adults attempting numeracy learning, this can contribute to the development of “mathematics anxiety”. Although mathematics anxiety generally develops in childhood, its effects are still felt in adulthood and it is widespread throughout the population.

Math anxiety is a bona fide anxiety reaction, a phobia with both immediate cognitive and long-term educational implications (Ashcraft, 2002, p. 184).

Mathematics anxiety decreases the efficiency of an individual’s working memory because intrusive thoughts and worries take the focus away from the mathematics task at hand. This makes it difficult for individuals to think logically and results in increased errors and longer processing times when solving problems mentally. In the long term, mathematics anxiety leads to decreased competence and reduced course completion rates, which may restrict the career options available to adults.

Adults who have not learned to read and write may have similar problems. Previous educational experience is likely to have been difficult and unsuccessful. Learners may see themselves as unable to master basic literacy skills. Some adults will have become disaffected with, and afraid of, learning in traditional education contexts.

Educators who model positive attitudes towards literacy and/or numeracy learning have been found to positively influence the attitudes of anxious learners and mitigate the effects of anxiety on learning. Where learning programmes are focused on relevant content in meaningful contexts and learners are involved in open-ended activities with extended opportunities for problem solving and discussion, anxiety is also reduced.

Adult learners who aspire to a particular job or career will experience a socialisation process as they train for that position. Where literacy and numeracy skills are integral to vocational training, learners accept these as part of their new professional identity, leading to increased motivation and confidence for learning literacy and numeracy, and decreased anxiety.

Implications for practice

Adult literacy and numeracy educators need to be aware that anxiety will be affecting the learning of some course participants.
The effects of anxiety on learning can be mitigated by:

  • tutors who model positive attitudes towards literacy and numeracy
  • instructional programmes focused on relevant content in meaningful contexts
  • teaching and learning programmes that provide learners with extended opportunities for problem solving and discussion, and
  • vocational programmes that include literacy and numeracy skills as an integral part of vocational training.

References: Ashcraft, 2002; Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001; Coben, 2003; Evans, 2000; Roberts, et al., 2005; Swain, et al., 2005; Torgerson, et al., 2004.


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