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Improving the Print Literacy of Apprentices?

The next paper at ANZCA 2010 is by Frank Sligo, whose focus is on how apprentices develop print literacy. Modern Apprentices is a New Zealand government programme to help apprentices find places in various industries in the country. However, print literacy, language, and numeracy was identified as a key problem in apprenticeship training. This is why a new network of literacy support providers was set up across the country. Apprentices could access up to 30 hours of tuition time. The research project set out to evaluate this programme.

The aims of the project were to identify the policy and provision implications of the training programme, to examine apprentices', employers', tutors', and industry training coordinators' needs, and to determine the impact of the programme itself. This was studied through a qualitative analysis of a progress indicator database, as well as through 14 case studies; it was complicated by the fact that there was no common language of metrics by which the needs of incoming apprentices were assessed, so that quantitative cross-comparisons were difficult.

Key findings were that (obviously) print literacy issues were the greatest challenge to the completion of coursework, followed by issues around the disparate communities of practice in industry and literacy training. Learning was helped by collaboration amongst diverse support networks; one-to-one learning was very important, and nearly all the apprentices rejected the conventional school model in favour of direct tutoring.

Problems occurred when communication between the different stakeholders was poor, when texts were overly complex of outdated, when recruitment was delayed, or when merely instrumental approaches to learning did not focus on long-term literacy deveopment. Positive outcomes were increased confidence for apprentices, progress in completing workbooks, print literacy enhancements, and better independent learning skills.

There is relatively little research into apprentices, though this is slowly changing; apprentices (and their employers) are often reluctant to be interviewed; and there is also public criticism of the apparently poor success rates of apprenticeship support schemes which creates additional political pressure and confusion and ambiguity about appropriate schemes.

The notion of communities of practice has been challenged: it is said to rely on a largely normative and underoperationalised set of premises. Can print literacy be understood as a community of practice - a community of individuals with good literacy? Certainly those with low print literacy feel strongly that they are excluded from the community of the print-literate. Perhaps the idea of disparate communities of practice is useful here: there is a close association between moving into the sociocultural practices of any given community, and building the necessary skills; this is overlaid by tensions between older members of and newcomers to a community which are frequently observed across many communities.

Apprentices, of course, were attempting to enter two communities at once: that of their professional community (for which they often had a strong bodily literacy, being able to use the required tools of trade expertly), and that of print literacy (for which they had much poorer literacy). While literacy tutors were attempting to facilitate apprentices' entry into the print-literate world, apprentices were more determined to enter their chosen trade, and entering print literacy was simply an instrumental requirement along the way. Some tutors, too, saw this tension and agreed that print literacy should not be privileged over other workplace literacies; some older tradespeople recalled and glorified the 'good old times' when textbook knowledge (and thus, literacy) was not required to do the job at hand.

Print literacy - beyond a certain level - was seen in such cases as a liminal skill, and reading, writing, and arithmetic was valorised above higher-order concepts such as critical thinking and problem solving. Cognitive theory - which holds that print literacy enhances cognitive and reasoning ability - stands here against practice theorists - who claim that print literacy simply serves to allow people to better explain their reasoning. All of this also takes place against the backdrop of a crisis in the meaning of 'literacy' in the first place, given the move away from print as the dominant medium.

In other words, the literacy and the productivity world can actively undermine one another; apprentices face the challenge of being pulled in two different directions. Each side constructs the person who will be successful in their world as one who will not be successful in the other - and quite a few don't buy the idea that improvements in literacy will generate improvements in productivity.

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