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FINE PRINT Vol. 20 No. 4  December 1997  (journal of VALBEC: Victorian Adult Literacy & Basic Education Council, Australia)


 Apprentice Literacy:


Designs for a Bonfire of the Vanities


Thor May, 1997 


Abstract: This is a review of the levels of literacy amongst apprentices in Victoria, Australia in 1997. The topic is not an historical curiosity: the same issues exist today, as well as the same lack of political will to deal with them.

The context of the review was the pending introduction of the New Apprenticeship Scheme by Australian state governments at the time of writing. This reform was essentially politically driven, and designed to redistribute much apprentice training away from purpose built institutions (TAFEs) into workplaces. Since the scheme would inevitably place a greater burden on apprentices' personal learning resources, especially their literacy, it was important to analyze the existing situation. It was noted that apprenticeship was a diverse category of skills studies that required varying levels of literacy. In heavily male dominated apprenticeship fields, the majority, there had always been severe weaknesses in general literacy. These weaknesses had been compensated by various stratagems, especially direct demonstration, which might not be easily available on many work sites.  The newly favoured pedagogical approaches of CBT (competency based training) and "self paced learning", had translated in many TAFEs into tick-box answer booklets, rampant copying from classmates, and a severe degradation of integrated skills learning. These trends were likely to accelerate as students moved away from an environment where remedial assistance with literacy or trade skills was no longer easily available.


Table of contents : 


1. Introduction2. Different trades, different apprentices  /  3. How literate are apprentices?  / 4. General coping strategies  / 5. Coping with CBT and "self-paced" learning  / 6. Formal literacy assistance within TAFEs  / 7. Trends & Outcomes: Portents for the New Apprenticeship Scheme  /  8. Designs for a bonfire of the vanities



1. Introduction


The brief for this study was to examine the likely effects of the impending New Apprenticeship Scheme on the literacy of apprentices. This is a topic not well studied, especially by literacy teachers, so it was felt useful to create a context for understanding what concerns apprentices themselves. Literacy is not their big thrill in life. It is especially important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of present training before trying to assess changes. The paper therefore pays attention to processes which might not normally find space in a journal like Fine Print. Some views expressed are controversial, and of course purely my own. Kick me in the head if it feels good. Here are some propositions:

a) Casually ask many an employer or teacher about the literacy standards of apprentices and there will be a pause while his brow furrows. A little black cloud of doom will gather in the clear blue sky over the elder's head, and with that certainty known to farmers who talk about the weather, he will pronounce "we'll all be ru'ned".

b) The entry level for an apprenticeship is a Year 9 education. It is a truism that your average apprentice mechanic or bricklayer is not likely to write novels in his lunch hour or read legal texts going home in the train. The world has always been thus, although of course there are apprentices who happen to do just those things. Nor can the average lawyer dismantle a carburetor. The reality of  "Two Cultures" bears heavily on technical training, with consequences for literacy that will be explored a little later.

c) Coopers are not much in demand at the moment, but their are still carpenters and the black arts of electronics technicians elaborate by the day. The business of TAFEs embrace old, mostly male occupations as well as a miscellany of skills ranging from tourism to the narrowly defined needs of particular employers.  Very clearly the amount and quality of reading or writing demanded of trainees may vary hugely. In these terms, gross judgements about "the literacy of apprentices" don't amount to much. A few, more specific occupations will be commented on in the paper.

d) If apprentices and trainees are a mixed bunch, so are their teachers. Most TAFE institutes will harbour an undervalued handful of refugees:  poets, frustrated Leonardo da Vinci's, or geniuses with string & chewing gum. On any objective assessment though, you would have to say that the average TAFE teacher is not a great writer. Since the bulk of documentation found in TAFEs is written or plagiarized by TAFE teachers, this particular lack of writing genius has serious outcomes for all apprentices and other students. There is absolutely no encouragement or reward for TAFE teachers to write with passion. Passion, so critical in learning, could certainly not be attributed to many of the training packages now being sponsored by ANTA. Nor will most TAFEs willingly pay for class sets of well written technical material by professional writers. One move to quality could be to buy "site licences" for outstanding material, as with software. Remedying the problem of readability is definitely a key to helping the most students in the most productive way.

e) Finally, the contexts of learning are changing. The great experiment in technical education which began over one hundred years ago is buckling at the knees and beginning to stagger. At one level Australian governments now encourage many young people into technical education as a substitute for "impractical" university courses. In the institutions themselves however, notions of education have been substituted by a dubious hype of corporate training. Now much of the training is to be moved back to industry. The latest vehicle for this process is the New Apprenticeship Scheme, to commence in 1998. TAFEs will no longer have profile funding for apprentices who previously spent every fifth week "on block" in the institutions. In reality, large parts of the technical education system are in danger of being dismantled. The consequences of this for apprentice success or failure are yet to be worked through; (although evidence from the UK, which has led this process by a decade, is worrying: see Evans 1995).


2. Different trades, different apprentices


Individuals choose different occupations for a wide variety of reasons: passion, fashion, family expectation, employment opportunity, money ... and so on. However at some point sheer aptitude usually enters into the calculation. This can be very clear where a family of trades coexist, as in an automotive college. There most trainees will share an element of passion, be "petrol heads". However, closer study will show a hierarchy of academic ability with auto electrical at the head of the league, ranging down through mechanics, to panel beating, automotive paint and trimming. Although such an alignment is not directly related to literacy, it emerges in fact that the abstract conceptual demands of, say, auto electrics correlate quite well with the need to handle more difficult documentation. Fancy equipment aside, an automotive spray painter must achieve mastery which is remarkably similar to that of a medieval artisan (and no less valuable for that). Unless he is running a business, the spray painter can get away with minimal attention to written material.

Since the departments in TAFE institutes have grown organically, their individual strategies for handling the needs of weaker students have varied with their particular cultures. Much that is incomprehensible in writing can be explained by a good technical teacher with physical reference to equipment in the workshop. A student who has trouble with calculation might relocate to another specialization, and so on. So where does literacy rate? Most trade teachers and apprentices would not put it on their list of priority problems without prompting.


3. How literate are apprentices?


The short answer to that question is that the majority apprentices are a bit less literate that they should be in an ideal world, but probably competent enough for now to survive in the particular niche where they come to rest.

From time to time there are political announcements that apprenticeships are going begging because all the possible applicants have enrolled for PhDs instead. The facts are that in the automotive field at least, 60% of aspirants are unable to obtain apprenticeships. It is likely to be similar in many other trades. Apprenticeships on offer are at an historic low. The pervasive uncertainty that has grown out of "economic rationalism" does not help, and more immediately, anecdotal evidence suggests that many employers are utterly confused by the impending New Apprenticeships Scheme.

As in any market situation, the competition for apprenticeships means that those aspirants without connections who do get an employer commitment are likely to be the most able in their cohort, not simply in a trades aptitude, but also with reference to more general skills like literacy. Because many trades lead to family businesses, a good number of apprentices are also in the system through nepotism rather than talent. Real trouble mostly occurs where extraneous factors intervene, such as a history of delinquency, the need to operate in a second language, or the demand to cross major cultural barriers.

Those who have worked with overseas trained tradesmen and semi-skilled immigrant workers will know that there is a quantum difference in the language needs (and often literacy needs) of these folk compared with a typical nineteen year-old Australian apprentice. Whatever their trade skills or aptitudes, every aspiration may be short-circuited by both employers and trades teachers who lack the linguistic flexibility, or empathy, to handle language learners. A handful of TAFE courses make efforts to bridge the gap (e.g. English for Occupational Purposes), but are always in danger of being ambushed by the CBT jargon of national curriculum writers. Few of these overseas clients obtain apprenticeships, especially men and women past their mid-twenties, and in the end the only option for many is to find a place in the so-called informal economy.

The cultural divide, and sheer lack of opportunity, also translate into training problems for indigenous citizens in some parts of Australia. Jeremy Audas, an executive officer for Queensland Adult English Language, Literacy & Numeracy Policy, reports (personal communication) that "the evidence I have relating to literacy levels is anecdotal but very consistent; e.g. about 80% - 90% of apprentices from indigenous communities around the gulf [of Carpentaria] and [Cape York] peninsula, and in Torres Strait communities have difficulties with literacy and language".

4. Literacy Coping Strategies


Human beings are often inflexible, even cowardly, in their public institutional behaviour (as every survivor of the corporate world knows). In private survival mode though, the range of coping strategies we develop is remarkable. Literacy teachers, for example, are familiar with the ingenuity and sheer front of the many illiterate or quasi-literate individuals who navigate the booby traps of modern living.

Tradesmen, who often become small businessmen, have always been amongst the more canny survivors of documentary civilization. One stratagem which I suspect is very widespread, is a form of gender symbiosis. My father, a carpenter, scarcely wrote a word in his life. That was woman's work. My mother wrote all letters, personal and official, filled in the forms, decoded the new regulations that appeared from time to time like unwelcome decrees from a distant kingdom. It wasn't that she actually controlled decisions, but she was the clerk. It has astounded me over the years to find how common such partnerships are. Nor is it the echo of a past era. I have heard youths be quite explicit that "reading and writing stuff" are amongst the skills they expect to find in a mate. There is a rich topic for some thesis research here.


5. Coping with CBT and "Self-Paced" Learning


Competency Based Training and Self-Paced Learning have already been briefly mentioned. They are the official paradigm about which most teaching in TAFEs is built, and in some cases has been for many years. These types of programs impose their own adaptive demands upon both staff and students, with outcomes that are not always ideal. To understand why, it will be necessary to say a little about CBT concepts.

CBT claims to evaluate outcomes rather than processes. Existing CBT curricula depend upon explicitly stating what has to be learned. This notion is easy to grasp but often difficult to implement usefully. Some procedures do lend themselves to reasonably discrete, atomized description. Elements of jobs which involve dismantling and assembling might be a good example. In other contexts the curriculum may reduce to a fairly arbitrary checklist. That checklist in a true manual craft skill can be almost trivial, and contribute little to acquiring the new art. Nor are tasks involving diagnosis, judgement or creativity very well suited to CBT programming; (see The Automotive Engineer 1992 Vol.56 No.6 for some tart comments on this). In the case of language and literacy, CBT becomes a game of smoke and mirrors. Relative to the awesomely complex cognitive mastery underpinning language use, curriculum "competency" specifications are a rather pathetic and arbitrary list of behavioral outcomes that linguists have trouble taking seriously.

Teachers however are asked to take CBT seriously, and this translates into a forest of handouts, booklets, manuals and workbooks. Much of this stuff is jargon-ridden, humourless, passionless and coheres poorly. It can only be given temporary life by the intervention of a knowledgeable human agent, notably a teacher. Checkmate for the quasi-literate.

For apprentices and trainees, salvation from poorly prepared CBT designs comes in the form of "self-paced" learning (an entirely separate concept). The physical realization of self-paced learning in apprentice environments are sets of fill-in booklets, or computer programmed responses. The questions, by and large, are crudely factual, rarely probing for insight. More importantly, the trades teacher only has time to give cursory attention to large numbers of identical answers.

My inquiries around TAFEs yield a pretty consistent evaluation of the performance outcomes for self-paced learning: hasty work and copying is endemic. Since students must "self-pace" within a time band, the weaker ones survive by cribbing the work of their faster mates, who themselves have poor retention of half-learned material (see Booth 1993). There seems to be little testing of a trainee's overall integrated mastery. That is, each dance step is ticked off, but ten separate steps don't make a dancer. As one of the apprentices in John Booth's 1993 study complained: he could now dismantle an air conditioning unit but still didn't understand how it worked. It is a system which offers no rewards for excellence, and little objective check on failure. So much for competence.

A 1991 unpublished report on Learning Assistance in TAFEs, also provided by Jeremy Audas (quoted above) predicted that "100% of [Queensland] TAFEs expect that Competency Based Training and Self-Paced Programs will create a greatly increased demand for learning assistance to students".  To the extent that student learning is genuinely attempted, that was prophetic. As we have just noted, a common adaptive response has been to abandon real learning, and hence the need for literacy.

6. Formal literacy assistance within TAFEs


Apprentices and other trades students are not selected for their literacy, but for their predicted competence in a technical field. A proportion of students approach counselors with all kinds of problems. Much of their grief stems from failing to keep up with "self-paced" work, and sometimes a counselor will decide that the failure is based in a literacy problem. The client will then be referred to a learning support person. It has to be said that most counselors and a fair few learning support people have only a limited professional understanding of literacy development. The benefit to students will largely be in terms of a bit of extra personal attention. My information from learning support staff (e.g. Anna Brunken; private communication) is that only a tiny proportion of students are referred  directly from trades teachers, or in diversified TAFEs, from traditional trades areas. Nor  have trades teachers shown interest in being in-serviced on the subject.

The National Competency Curriculum requires that all trades students pass a core of "communications skills" type modules. These range from job-seeking skills to OH&S to writing skills etc. All TAFEs therefore have a support staff of "communications skills" teachers to present this part of the curriculum. On the whole these teachers do not have trades skills, and are part of the "other culture" where we find English teachers, lawyers, radio announcers and the like. Their curriculum role is not much relished by many trades students or trades teachers, but it might be expected that they would be more alert than most to language learning difficulties within the institution. In practice their contribution has become confined to a rather rigid presentation of CBT-designed communications modules. Only a small number of communications skills teachers have specialized training in literacy, and I find that few are really interested in current developments in the field. 

The odd couple in basic education are, of course, literacy and numeracy. It is worth mentioning that numeracy support is increasingly catered for in TAFEs. Unlike literacy, basic numeracy needs are fairly easy to define, can be  taught in an ordered way and have clearly marked criteria for success. There is the added bonus that trades students and teachers can see that numeracy skills have "real" application.


7. Trends and Outcomes: Portents for the New Apprenticeship Scheme


The tone of this paper has been rather downbeat. I have observed that most trades students, as well as trades teachers, have apparently survived in TAFEs with adequate literacy skills for their needs. It is recognized that their aptitudes tend to lie in other directions, and that a variety of adaptive behaviours are brought into play. On the other hand, the fairly undemanding literacy standards are often a reflection of fairly undemanding training standards in the trades themselves.  An unbiased observer would have to say that TAFEs are in serious need of reform.

Influential reports recommending TAFE reform have been The Finn Report (1991), The Mayer Report (1992), The Carmichael Report (1992) and the Deveson Report (1992). They proposed many apparently attractive ideas, most notably mastery learning and self-paced learning to allow almost all students to achieve competence. A complex mix of human motivations and incentives (trainee, teacher and managerial) has subverted these hopes, as it was bound to. For example,  "... it was observed that ... changes to the form of automotive mechanic training ... appeared to result in significant variation in, and lessening of, the depth and breadth of knowledge and skill of students" (Booth 1993:11).

Thus, ironically, so-called competency based training and self-paced learning have given rise to a situation where objective checks on standards of holistic learning are almost absent. This is in spite of, or perhaps concealed by, an unending publicity blitz about productivity goals, quality achievements, ISO9000 standards awards, and so on.

Australian governments have been on a recent track of rendering much TAFE teaching redundant by moving training back into the workplace. The process is to receive a boost in 1998 when the New Apprenticeship Scheme comes on line. We have to ask whether this will improve training standards. Further, will the literacy coping strategies already found in TAFEs migrate to the workplace? Existing outcomes with New Traineeships (begun in 1997) give some strong indicators. Where the employer is large, with a self-funded training program some of the outcomes can be good. The reality of actual industrial demand can be an excellent focusing mechanism for young trainees.

Where an industry has a large number of small employers, industry-based training has serious problems. It is simply not possible for trades trainees from such industries to obtain comprehensive training in the workplace. Further, a significant proportion of employers accept federal training allowances with no intention of providing adequate training. Many simply do not understand what is required. Currently, after engaging a trainee from a CES referral, many  thousands of businesses have received no further official contact. When the services of TAFEs are engaged, training documentation sent to the workplace is frequently of very uneven quality and may be difficult to read. We can be sure that trainees, when they can't ignore the stuff (as they often do), engage the help of girlfriends, foremen, or anyone else at hand. There is nothing wrong with that initially, but there is simply no assurance that those filled-in booklets convey anything about the real knowledge of trainees.


8. Designs for a Bonfire of the Vanities


If Australia is serious about its technical training standards, then sooner or later there will have to be a bonfire of the vanities. Marketing culture (as opposed to educational culture) has encouraged an inflation of public self-congratulation by institutions, and a diminishing capacity to judge real success or failure in learning.

TAFEs or whoever comes to do the training, need to find a way to give real trades tests of accumulated knowledge where trainees are graded on performance and can receive high honours, as well as actually fail. "Fail" has been a no-no word for a generation. The system has to be decent about retesting, but the testing incentive needs to be there: knowing you are about to be shot at dawn concentrates the mind wonderfully. Every educator is aware that examinations create their own distortions, but so do the alternatives. These proposals will be controversial. However the present psychology  --  compassion without challenge -- undervalues the human spirit.  

As for final outcomes, well if I am paying somebody $60 a hour to fix my car, or $140,000 to build a house, then I expect them to be genuinely competent. 

Note however that there are types of students, such as those in adult basic literacy classes (already perceived as "life's failures") for whom such testing would be utterly inappropriate. For them, we need to seek more graduated solutions.

There are other consequences of comprehensive testing. Training standards themselves then acquire a credible benchmark, so that we would have a much better chance of seeing if Australia truly is operating at "world best practice" standards year by year. Even more importantly, the community acquires a measure that it thinks it can understand, a kind of medium of exchange. In our educational institutions money has become the only respected medium of exchange, teachers devalued, and managers rewarded on supposedly financial outcomes. A healthy counterpoint to these dollar outcomes could be movements in educational success measured in grades that had popular, hence political authority.

The present system, for all its sound and fury, provides no bullet-proof credibility, so both the bean-counters and poor teachers can go unchallenged. Impending developments look much worse. There is every indication that the incoming New Apprenticeship Scheme will lead to a gross corruption of standards. Workplace Assessor practices are wide open to abuse. Without the impartial judgement of thorough trade testing it may be difficult to head off a downward spiral before low quality becomes part of normal expectations.

Does any of this have consequences for the provision of literacy support? Well yes. With greater literacy skills, no doubt my father would have been a richer man as well as a good carpenter. But he got by with mother's help. His successors will always find coping strategies, as we all do for our weaknesses. The society itself is changing though, and the literacy bar for survival in the real world is changing with it. Apprentices, trades teachers, and employers all need clear signals at the training stage of any trouble ahead. I have suggested comprehensive testing. One of those signals for some trainees is going to  be a limitation on literacy. In a TAFE we may still have time to do something about it.



9. References


Not a great deal seems to have been written about the literacy of apprentices or trades students in Australia. Maybe that is another reflection of the cultural divide between the "arts oriented" types and "techies". The following may be of some interest to researchers:


Anonymous, 1991  "How long is a piece of string? : Review of Learning Assistance Provided to TAFE Students"  .. a study conducted jointly by the Access Education Branch, Division of Adult Education, Queensland, and the Division of Vocational Education, Queensland; unpublished photocopy from Jeremy Audas.


Australian Education Council Review Committee Report (chair: Brian Finn), 1991 "Young People's Participation in Post-Compulsory Education and Training"; Australian Government Publishing Service. [Finn Report]


Australian Education Council: Mayer Committee (chair: Eric Mayer), 1992  "Key Competencies: Report of the committees to advise the Australian Education Council and Ministers of Vocational Education, Employment and Training on employment-related key competencies for post-compulsory education and training", Australian Education Council and Ministers of Vocational Education, Employment and Training, Melbourne. [Mayer Report]


Australian National Training Authority, 1997, "Guidelines for Training Package Developers", Brisbane.


Booth, John  1993  "Long Term Knowledge Retention Among Automotive Apprentices Undertaking a Competency-Based Curriculum". unpublished M.A. thesis, La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia


Department of School Education, 1992, "Taskforce on Pathways in Education and Training", Ministry of Employment, Post-Secondary Education and Training, Melbourne, Victoria. [Deveson Report]


Employment and Skills Formation Council (ESFC), National Board of Employment, Education and Training (NBEET) (chair: Laurie Carmichael), 1992, "The Australian Vocational Certificate Training System", Canberra. [Carmichael Report].


Evans, Karen  1995 "Competence Based Education and Training: The British Experience"; published as Issues Paper No.3, Office of Training & Further Education, Department of Education, Victoria.


Hull, Glynda 1994, "Hearing Other Voices: A Critical Assessment of Popular Views on Literacy and Work" in Thinking Work Vol.1 Theoretical Perspectives on Worker's Literacies, pub. ALBSAC Sydney; reprinted from Harvard Educational Review 63:1, 1993 [challenges orthodox perceptions and contains an excellent bibliography on international studies of workplace literacy].


Institute of Automotive Mechanical Engineers, 1992, "Competency Based Training" in The Automotive Engineer Vol.56 No.6; pub. Sydney: Magazine Printers.


Weller, Sally A  1987  "Report on Learning Needs of Students at Batman College of TAFE". [This report was commissioned from Saulwick Weller & Associates, 576 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne 3004. Based on interviews and questionnaires, the study was highly critical of the standards of written trades materials, and of the outcomes of self-paced learning practices (matters which are still highly relevant). Weller felt that its conclusions applied widely to other TAFEs in Australia.]





10. Acknowledgments


Many trades teachers, other educators and students have unwittingly contributed  to the ideas expressed in this paper. Special thanks for help are due to Anna Brunken, Jeremy Audas, John Booth, Michelle O'Brien, Kerri Bauer and Glenys Murray. I take full responsibility for expressed opinions of course, and any of the preceding might disagree with some of my conclusions.


11. The Author

Professional bio: At the time of writing “Apprentice Literacy: Designs for a Bonfire of the Vanities”, Thor May was working in a Victorian TAFE (institute of technical and further education) as a "communications skills" teacher to support part-time doctoral studies. Thor May's (2010) PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).




 Apprentice Literacy: Designs for a Bonfire of the Vanities(c) Thor May 1997; all rights reserved

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