Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Serious Literacy Crisis

Early Childhood Learning at UPNG on a bus tour.
“Where psychological and depoliticised “social” and “cultural” approaches to instruction alike lack an explicit analysis of contemporary material conditions and social relations of power, issues of “transfer of training” tend to be treated as educational anomalies to be solved by better and more precise instructional technologies and “methods,” when they may be curricular artefacts and products of selective cultural traditions that are less than optimally connected in practice with these conditions.”
I like this citation from Luke and Freebody’s book on constructing critical literacy because of the thoughts I had right throughout the National Literacy Week in the first week of September 2012.
Apart from closing the Literacy Week at Waigani Primary School I also attended a conference on literacy at the National Library site between Wednesday and Thursday of the same week. What stood out for me in both events was that the importance of literacy in this country is often down-played, undermined, and delegated to others. Who are these others? Obvious answers are churches, NGOs, CBOs, and other development partners. So the question that begs the answer is: So what is the National Government’s role in dealing with the issue of literacy or illiteracy?
The cooordinating agency of the government is the National Literacy and Awareness Secretariat (NLAS). This agency is struggling to deliver the government vision and realize the full potential it was envisioned and created for. The NLAS was moved around and housed in many different locations without having a home of its own. Right now the NLAS is adopted into the Office of National Library and Archives, a perilous position, which many of us question its logic and output strategies.
I think, and I am blunt about it, the NLAS needs to be reinvented under a new organizational structure known as the PNG Institute of Language and Literacy. It should have a statutory function with its own budgetary allocation and sufficient resources to carry out its roles and functions. With such an establishment it will have a more fully developed organizational structure, core staff, researchers, student interns, and inter-institutional capacity to train, offer worshops, and advance government policies on literacy and language preservation.
Papua New Guinea must have the PNG Institute of Language and Literacy because many literacy programs and instructional approaches attempt to provide generic textual tools and practices for what are emerging as definitely nongeneric heterogenous learners, places, conditions, and times. The point here is that the establishment of such an institute will enable the government to tae control of the issues and challenges of literacy or illiteracy, instead of passing the buck to non-govenmental organizations and churches.
How much control is there, for example, of early childhood learning and high cost private tuitions and schools where issues of literacy are taken head on by providers of literacy education?
The contrast seems more to do with promotion of literacy, but at the cost of ignoring the prevailing tendencies, conditions, and difficulties of learners. The development of a National Institute of Language and Literacy would make the social and economically marginalized communities to participate in the national and political economy in the same way as those in the social and economically well-off bracket of society.

Is there a neutral playing field in the debate on literacy? Many scholars of literacy and cultural diversity have pointed out that the environment in which literacy is taught is never a neutral playing field. The social nature of literacy is “constitutive of and by material relations of discourse, power, and knowledge” (Luke and Freebody 1997: 3).

The inequality in learning environments and the conditions that are present for literacy activities are themselves the manifestation of the power relations that determine the outcome of literacy. Luke and Freebody (1997: 3) point out: “By arguing that the context of literacy instruction are not “neutral,” we argue that in contemporary conditions the contexts of literacy events are not necessarily “level playing fields” where all learners have comparable access to resources, whether construed as access to representation systems and mediational means, linguistic knowledge, and cultural artefacts, or in terms of access to actual financial capital, institutional entry, and status.”

Given this view, our perspectives of literacy or the practice of it are influenced by how we see what literacy is. Literacy is a socially constituted human activity and thereby in dealing with literacy we must keep in mind that the social “is defined as a practical site characterized by contestations over resources, representation, and difference. These disputes over material and discourse resources are disputes over how and which forms of life are to be represented, and whose representations of whom are to “count” with what material consequences for literacy learners” (Luke and Freebody 1997: 3).

The debates over the provision of literacy have become the unresolvable challenges that practitioners and theorists face.  Luke and Freebody (1997: 3) point out that these are “the basis of many of the political arguments in education, and, not surprisingly, they are at the heart of flare ups of “literacy crisis” in popular press, from debates over phonics and basic skills to debates over censorship and literary content, or, to take a current example, debates over the relationship between school literacy and the practice of new workplaces and technologies.”

The discussions I have constructed here are also non-neutral in the sense that we have a serious crisis at hand in Papua New Guinea. Ignoring it only increases the impossibility of decreasing illiteracy as the ultimate goal. Every few years insteading of being comforted by the knowledge of a reduced illiteracy rate we hear about another goal set to reach.

Right now the priority for the government should be to set up the PNG Institute of Language and Literacy as a constructive way forward. The current government could take on board the proposals and suggestions of the NLAS Taskforce to begin with.

We need to get serious about what we are doing or not doing to address the problem of illiteracy and dying languages in Papua New Guinea.

1 comment:

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