QE - discussion topic on literacy February 19 2017

Here is my question for this meetup: America’s Trump is opinionated to the point of wanting to be President, yet can/will only read single page bullet point summaries on anything. This is not unusual among management, let alone employees. The average reading age of a tabloid reader (e.g. of Adelaide’s The Advertiser) is 11 years. Almost half of Australians are functionally illiterate (can’t read the stuff on a jam jar label). What are the consequences of low literacy, and what (if anything) can be done about it? [Thor]


1. What exactly is functional illiteracy?

2. Why do so many people achieve only a low level of functional illiteracy?

3. Now that people can access such a large amount of information through visual media, does advanced written literacy really matter much?

4. Is there any correlation between sophisticated written literacy and sophisticated visual and aural literacy (the ability to process complex messages from watching and listening)?

5. Why are the problems arising from poor functional literacy so little discussed and remedied?

6. Does a popular culture of anti-intellectualism have an impact on general levels of literacy?

7. People with literacy problems become expert at concealing them, and thus avoid overcoming them. How can this be remedied?

8. I argued in my own doctoral research that the most effective way to learn was to teach. In other words, reciprocation and role switching involved people in a psychological process where long term learning came naturally. Collaborative problem solving is an example of such mutual learning. How can mutual teaching/learning be put to work in overcoming limited literacy?

9. Looked at objectively, low functional literacy costs any society vast amounts of money to compensate for errors, productivity loss, anti-social youth revolt, and so on. The Centrelink fiasco is an example of this. What kind of long term program would be socially and politically appealing enough to tackle these issues?

10. Our societies are becoming more complex by the day. What was an adequate level of literacy for most people decades ago no longer cuts it. Are there limits to human learning and sophistication beyond which societies are destined to spin out of control?



[1. Facebook posting]

"What If the President Couldn’t Read?" at http://www.chronicle.com/…/what-if-the-president-couldnt-…/… . Even putting politics aside, Lucy Ferriss has put her finger on something here. I've had some involvement with adult literacy teaching, and Trump fits that demographic very well. Although, as expected, a huge proportion of welfare recipients and the prison population have issues with functional literacy, it is not uncommon at every level of society. Many of those affected become extremely skilled at concealing their disability. Part of that deception is putting up a huge front, and cast iron self-belief. You find these people in management positions refusing to deal with anything more than single page bullet point summaries. The trouble is that complex analytic thinking pretty well demands a high level of literacy. Estimates of "functional illiteracy" vary widely, partly because the requirements of modern society are so diverse. The Ferriss article here suggests that 14% of Americans are functionally illiterate. This is a rather low figure. More common estimates are that in countries like Australia (for example) 47% of adults struggle with functional literacy. Whatever number you pick, the implications are huge, and difficult to shift (there was no golden age of mass advanced literacy). Just as many people find maths difficult to varying degrees, so it is with reading.


[2. comment on Brisbane Times article about Centrelink chaos]

At the moment Centrelink is in meltdown over the robo-debt outrage : http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/public-service/centrelinks-debt-230000-have-now-been-hit-20170110-gtp8zt.html  My comment to Fairfax on that is probably relevant is very relevant to the question of functional illiteracy (meetup 19 February): @ Hacka says - " Couldn't all this be fixed up if each welfare recipient had an electronic account where they could update their details / other income on a regular basis ?" - Hacka knows very well that this is already the case. He must also know that the program was written by 900 blind monkeys. It sucks, even when it can be accessed. However, nobody from either side of this catastrophe has put their finger on the reason that a "digitized" Centrelink is always going to be a failure. The reason is FUNCTIONAL ILLITERACY. Almost half the population of Australia (and of every other supposedly advanced nation) is illiterate to the point that they cannot read a medicine bottle label or a train timetable. Just as many people find maths hard, vast numbers find more than basic literacy hard, and there is no easy fix. Among Centrelink clients the proportion of functional illiterates is huge. They are utterly confused and terrified by a paper form, let alone a computer menu. The only way to efficiently and compassionately handle them is to sit them down face to face with experienced Centrelink staff who do understand the system, and who can tease out the situation with intelligent, spontaneous questions. As things stand, Centrelink is tying itself in knots trying to sort out errors that would never have occurred with properly resourced front desk staffing. As for the supposed data matching program with the ATO, we know that the program is broken, is driven by managerial ignorance, and that the minister has declined to fix it. The Prime Minister is missing in action. All of this righteous "debt recovery" is chicken shit in a country where 35% of large businesses pay no tax at all.

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