Literacy, achievement and success: Reading the world in order to read the word

Publication Details

This project was a collaboration between Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi (TWWoA) and the Ministry of Education (the Ministry). The aim of the project was to identify the transforming thinking, actions and practices that contributed to improved literacy and educational achievement. The project focused on the Hei Manaaki: National Certificate of Tourism Māori programme.

Author(s): Vaughan Bidois, Pania Te Maro, David Earle and Chris Lane, Tertiary Sector Performance Analysis, Ministry of Education.

Date Published: August 2017


What the research was about

This project was a collaboration between Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi (TWWoA) and the Ministry of Education (the Ministry). The project focused on the Hei Manaaki: National Certificate of Tourism Māori programme. The aim of the project was to identify the transforming thinking, actions and practices that contributed to improved literacy and educational achievement. In doing so, the project has applied a broader understanding of improved literacy that includes:

  • student engagement
  • positive teacher-student relationships
  • cultural relevance (place and people)
  • social support networks
  • raising student expectations and self-efficacy.

How we went about the research

The study was supported by kaupapa Māori theory, and used appreciative inquiry (Preskill, 2006). A kaupapa Māori perspective recognises that student success in one area must be understood in light of success in other areas. It considers the many elements that work together to contribute to improved outcomes. Both kaupapa Māori and appreciative inquiry consider improving the learning system as a whole, rather than focusing on problem finding, deficit thinking and "fixing" individuals.

At the start of the project, the research team developed a conceptual framework with the help of the programme leaders and teachers. A key assumption of the framework is that teaching and learning (including research) needs to be thought about as holistic, happening within a context and as political in nature. The production of knowledge is never neutral. It is, instead, a complex negotiation of knowledge, power and particular 'regimes of truth' which are constructed over time.

The framework set out the guiding principles for the research team, our relationships and behaviour toward each other as a research community, the research design, the data analysis and the knowledge produced from it.

At the time of the research, Hei Manaaki was delivered in a number of sites and contexts across Aotearoa. The project involved four case studies covering different areas and ways in which the programme was delivered. An analysis of the course work folder given to students provided further insights into the programme.

What we found out

From the education data

We conducted an analysis of the Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool (the Assessment Tool) and other education data to support this study. Learners were assessed in reading using the standard adult option of the Assessment Tool. When analysing quantitative data from the 2011 - 2014 Assessment Tool and student achievement results, we found that:

  • Hei Manaaki students are less likely to have school qualifications than students in other Level 3 and 4 certificates
  • A higher proportion of Hei Manaaki students were assessed as having higher reading skills than in other Level 3 and 4 certificates. This may be a result of the Assessment Tool being administered later in the programme and as part the course.
  • Reassessment in Hei Manaaki was targeted to those students who had lower levels of skill in their initial assessment. At each initial step level, a higher proportion of Hei Manaaki students who were reassessed made statistically significant gain, compared with other Level 3 and 4 certificates.
  • The proportion of Hei Manaaki students passing most of their courses was uniformly high across all levels of reading skill. This contrasts with other Level 3 and 4 certificates where students with lower reading skill were less likely to pass most of their courses than students with higher reading skill.

From the qualitative research

At the initial research hui, teachers identified that to understand the literacy assessment results of their students, the research project would need to recognise that they were not focussing on literacy in their course. Their focus was on developing Māori tourism. This meant students being grounded in their place and having the essence of manaakitanga modelled to them in everything they did.

We found three main themes about how the programme contributed to student success:

  • working together
  • pedagogy
  • knowledge development that links to purpose for study.

It was the combination of all three themes that was important, rather than an emphasis purely on any one of them.

Teachers emphasised that success in literacy is part of embedding literacy into the programme that is relevant to the students, and working from a base of strength and potential, which recognises and values the skills and knowledge that students bring with them. Manaakitanga, kaitiakitanga, whanaungatanga were values that were collectively shared and practiced. Literacy, numeracy and language acquisition were embedded aspects of the teaching and learning process, but students did not recognise that it was part of the programme. Assessments were treated as learning activities.

The work folder played a key role in supporting student success. The content was personalised using an icon of manaakitanga, someone who appeared throughout the folder called nanny Kui. Students were asked to connect the content and jargon of tourism with who they are, what they know and where they live. The work folder supported students through levels of literacy demands, starting quite light and getting progressively more complex. The literacy assessment was presented as another activity from the work folder.  It was not treated as a separate piece of work, even when it was not contextually related to the course material.

Teaching and learning, including reading and comprehension, was a shared process (as opposed to individual) of making meaning, where teachers saw themselves as partners in learning with students. Individuals' strengths were acknowledged and used in the process of working together to make and share sense. This supportive environment fostered high self-efficacy, and was essential to enabling this shared approach to teaching and learning.

Reflecting on previous research

The findings in this research are consistent with research from the past seven or more years. This previous research identified Māori community leadership and the authentic inclusion of Māori knowledge in the design, training and implementation of programmes as essential to success and achievement.

Conventional understandings of literacy are products of our times, legitimised by those authorised to name the world. The discussion created around literacy over the past few decades in Aotearoa New Zealand, whether globally or nationally focussed, identifies literacy as a conventional issue, and informs what constitutes literacy, its definition, its purpose and significance according to current constructs. If there is to be any real and positive change in the way we understand literacy, language and numeracy achievement, we must firstly be aware of the prevailing ideologies, attitudes and values that normalise everyday thinking and practice, and how these have been harmful to the achievement and success of many students in education.

A system of literacy and numeracy devoid of cultural diversity has the potential to silence other cultural literacies. Language, learning and literacy are not neutral processes of acquisition, in fact, they are culturally biased in the context of mainstream education. There are multiple literacies that need to be considered in the context of raising conventional, standard dominant language literacy levels.

Discussion: 'Read the world in order to read the word'

If it is in speaking their word that people, by naming the world, transform it, dialogue imposes itself as the way by which they achieve significance as human beings. (Freire, 2005: 88)

Education is not a neutral process; it is a cultural one. Problems can occur when teaching and learning draws mainly from, and therefore implies more value for, one dominant cultural perspective. This is more so where students have limited access to the cultural capital of the dominant group, and/or have had bad experiences that have made them resistant to the dominant culture (such as discrimination at school).

It is common in education to focus on measuring levels of achievement of single literacies, such as reading and comprehension, and writing. In doing so there is a risk that teaching these literacies for the purpose of assessment is reduced to developing technical skills divorced from the social context of the learner. In this report, we refer to this approach as convergent literacy, as the teaching converges on acquiring the specific literacy. While acquiring these literacies is important, including developing technical proficiency, a sole focus on them in teaching, learning and assessment, can actually undermine the outcome of improving literacy and fail to engage the students.

The Literacy and Numeracy for Adults Assessment Tool examined in this research measures reading and comprehension. It is related to particular cultural understandings and contexts, largely those of the dominant cultural group. Those who have access to the cultural capital of the dominant group, are more likely to manage the tool as a decontextualised event.

An important finding of this project is that educators should acknowledge the value of, and make use of, the existing multiple literacies of the students alongside the literacies being assessed by the tool. In this report, we refer to this approach as divergent literacy, as the teaching and learning recognises the full range of areas in which learners are developing their literacies, and the mutually reinforcing nature of these literacies. This approach is consistent with broadly recognised principles of adult learning (TEC, 2008). It means that educators and policymakers need to take a broader, more critical understanding of literacy. They need to acknowledge and include the many ways in which students make sense and meaning of the world. In doing so, they can help improve single, or convergent, literacies, as well as continue to develop broader, or divergent, literacies.

…students are to find their own voice so that they may speak or write their reading of the world… The student's own language is the means of developing a positive sense of self-worth, 'fundamental in the development of emancipatory literacy'
(Meek cited in Freire and Macedo, 2005, p Vİİ)

This report argues that an approach that uses the multiple literacies of the students as a starting point is most effective in improving a singular or convergent literacy. Existing multiple literacies and divergent approaches need to be considered in raising conventional literacy levels of students. The findings from Hei Manaaki suggest three key and interrelated considerations for policy makers and educators.

Creating dialogues of meaning

Using the multiple literacies of students helps improve single literacies, such as reading and writing. This approach acknowledges that students have different ways of bringing meaning to their world.

Using social and cultural capital

Learning environments need to use the social and cultural capital of the students when seeking to improve a particular literacy. Social capital acknowledges the social networks of students and the sharing of resources, ideas and experiences. Cultural capital acknowledges the cultural literacies, practices and experiences of students and their value in bringing meaning to other literacies. In Hei Manaaki, this also means the context of place, and the understanding that students bring to tourism because of their in-depth knowledge of the history and stories of their place and how to care for visitors to their place.

Students as partners in teaching and learning

Teaching and learning becomes a negotiated space where meaning is constructed and agreed by students and teachers. As partners in teaching and learning, students and teachers contribute equally to the production of knowledge.

Reflecting on the findings

The findings from Hei Manaaki suggest three interrelated considerations for policy makers.  The following critical questions are posed to help think about literacy, teaching and learning as a holistic process. That is a process that requires teachers and educators to not only be more reflective of the political, social and cultural nature of the schools/institutions in which they are a part of, but also to create change and transform the thinking, actions and practices that contribute to improved literacy and educational achievement. Answering these questions requires conversations between the organisations, teachers and students in which students are treated as partners in the learning process and their social and cultural capital is valued.

Creating dialogues of meaning

How well do your teaching strategies allow for different types of literacies to be used in learning?

How could you use the multiple literacies of students to improve a single literacy?

Using social and cultural capital

What can you do to support those students who do not have the social or cultural capital of the dominant group to develop their skills in the prevailing language?

What do you do to include the cultural experience of students in developing reading and comprehension literacy?

Students as partners in teaching and learning

How do you understand your relationship with your students in terms of how knowledge is both taught and learnt in the classroom?

How do you create conversations with your students that acknowledge their voice and reading of their world?

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