In July of 1992, the Division of Adult & Continuing Education at CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs received funding from the New York State Education Department to conduct a year-long, state-wide technical assistance project for programs interested in exploring and implementing contextualized learning approaches. The Division worked with staff members of STEPS, Inc. to develop the training, consultation and documentation activities described below. The project began in July of 1992 and concluded in June of 1993. This Final Report and Handbook is intended to summarize the project’s activities and findings and to provide a set of guidelines for directors, teachers and other program staff to design and develop contextualized learning projects.
The Division coordinates and promotes the University’s involvement in the provision of educational opportunities for adults outside the traditional credit framework. Classes are offered in Basic Education, English for Speakers of Other Languages, GED Preparation, and various occupational fields. Students include young adults who have left school before obtaining a high school diploma, older people returning to school after a long absence, individuals seeking retraining, and individuals on public assistance. For the last decade, the Division has concentrated its energies and resources on improving instructional quality in its various programs. Its interest in contextualized learning flows from a conviction that contextualized approaches can make a significant contribution to improving the quality of instruction.
In 1991, the Division initiated the establishment of a Consortium for Contextualized Learning to foster the development and implementation of curricula and instructional approaches emphasizing “learning in context.” At the time, we recognized that contextualized approaches could be developed around a wide variety of matters–related to family life, academic subjects or the workplace. Over the last several years, for example, we have re-designed the University’s GED Preparation Program around the double context of improved performance on the GED Tests and college preparation. Interested readers can contact us for additional information about that.
Workplace Curriculum Research and Development Project
The Consortium’s first activity was a Workplace Curriculum Research and Development Project. That project was designed to produce curriculum resource materials for literacy and language teachers in several occupational training contexts. In order to accomplish that task, we selected twenty-three adult literacy, language and occupational educators from a variety of different agencies to conduct first-hand investigations of literacy and language demands in selected occupational fields at Montefiore Hospital, a large medical institution in the Bronx. The hospital is a large institution and employs more than six thousand individuals. Our teams of investigators closely observed more than a dozen workers – carpenters, electricians and air conditioning technicians; food service workers; unit secretaries on medical floors; a nurse’s aide and a medical technician.
Our findings were quite revealing:
- The skills necessary to perform all of the jobs we investigated – whether they were considered to be skilled or unskilled – were quite complex. At the same time, all of those we interviewed appeared quite capable of doing all the necessary work.
- The uses of print were more or less complex across different jobs. At one extreme, perhaps, were the individuals working in building engineering. On a typical day, the total volume of print for maintenance workers, such as electricians and carpenters was relatively small – most often, work orders; but the Unit Secretaries were surrounded by print – more than a hundred forms, some filled out by others with numerous variations in handwriting, some requiring completion by the secretary.
- Although there appeared to be significant differences in the extent of print and the complexity of its uses across different jobs, we did discover a remarkable consistency in the role that communication played in the efficient operation of the hospital. In the hospital where our investigations occurred, thousands of times an hour people must communicate with others about what needs to be done.
- Effective communication is not always dependent on oral proficiency in English. For example, two investigators tape recorded an interview with a man born in the Dominican Republic. During the interview, they had no difficulty understanding what he was saying and he had little difficulty in understanding them. However, when one of the teachers attempted to transcribe the interview, she had an extraordinarily difficult time making out what he had said. This confirmed, for her, that communication is dependent on a host of factors beyond oral proficiency of English.
- All of the interviewed workers reported that they had learned to do their jobs on the job. It also appears that particular job functions change with some regularity when new procedures and/or new forms are introduced. As a result, certain forms of learning can only take place at work.
- The individual workers reported that they had relevant experience before they obtained the job at the hospital. It is undoubtedly true that their previous experience enabled them to get the job and to learn how to do it. This pattern raises, again, an old question – how does an individual get relevant experience for a job if he or she needs experience to get a job?
Most important, the project allowed us to discover anew the reality that contexts are essentially the sum total of the enormously complicated human interactions that occur in different settings. In other words, the context is not just the stage upon which the play is acted. It includes the actors. But, the scripts are seldom written completely in advance. Instead, the plots are made and unmade by the actors themselves as they go about their work. In an educational program oriented towards work, teachers must choose, along with students, how to delimit the context for the purpose of their work together. It is likely, for example, that classroom-based studies would be more valuable if they emphasized depth, rather than breadth, of coverage.
A Guide to Conducting Workplace Investigations is now available and curriculum resource guides will be forthcoming.
Contextualized Learning and Work Conference
Our second effort in the area of contextualized learning consisted of the organization of a fairly large conference on the topic in June of 1992. The conference included formal presentations by a number of accomplished researchers into the connections among education, skill and work performance. Proceedings of the conference are available.
Several common themes were articulated by the presenters. First, they concluded that workers know a great deal. Second, they concluded that much of the popular analysis of skills in the workplace and a good deal of classroom practice in work-related literacy is mistaken, at best, and degrading, at worst. Third, they suggested that the workplace is an incredibly complicated setting and that nuanced understandings of workplaces are quite difficult to produce. Finally, they argued that good educational practice must take full account of the dreams and desires of workers, as well as other students.
Some of the presenters had been critical of many approaches that would appear to be consistent with the whole idea of contextualized learning. For example, they suggested that individual workers often were reluctant to participate enthusiastically in literacy classes organized solely around the apparent demands of the workplace. If that was so, why then should educators try to design programs to do just that? Also discussed was the fact that training programs frequently enabled individuals only to obtain low level jobs and not to embark on a career ladder within an industry. Even if contextualized learning was used to make such programs more effective, the programs would still remain unable to affect the larger patterning of opportunities in the workforce.
Technical Assistance Project
As we approached the technical assistance project, we hoped that it would allow us to clarify our thinking on issues raised at the conference and to learn from educators across the state. As we met with more than two hundred adult educators from around the state, we discovered a good deal of confusion and concern, but also a willingness to investigate new models of curriculum development and instruction and to try out new ideas. While the project has certainly not eliminated either confusion or concern, we believe it has allowed many people to move forward – either by continuing to do what they had already started or by initiating new ventures.
We hope that this document allows readers to discover if contextualized learning affords them an opportunity to improve the quality of what they do and to enhance student accomplishments. We do believe that a contextualized learning model which is grounded in an understanding that work is complicated and deserves careful scrutiny, rather than superficial description, can allow adult educators to do better work. But, it will not happen by inserting work-related issues into a traditional program model, into traditional assessment practices, and into traditional curriculum and instruction. Instead, if contextualized learning is to have a beneficial effect, we will have to examine all aspects of our programs and be prepared to reconsider many standard assumptions and practices (see Poczik.)
At the same time, good practice in contextualized learning will have a great deal in common with good practice in other educational settings. It will have to be based on high expectations of student achievement. It will have to develop and utilize authentic methods of assessment. It will have to offer demanding courses of study. It will have to provide students with abundant and varied materials to read and discuss. It will have to promote new forms of student activity in and out of the classroom. Indeed, it will have to re-examine the place of the classroom in learning since the very notion of contextualized learning requires that learning be embedded in a genuine context and classrooms have, for too long, been structured to promote de-contextualized practice and somewhat artificial proficiencies (Resnick; Berryman).
In re-examining the classroom experience, we should not hesitate to borrow from work done in other educational settings – for example, themed curricula in elementary schools, efforts to integrate academic and vocational coursework in secondary schools and inter-disciplinary courses and programs in colleges. Such borrowings might also bring us into direct contact with other educators – people from whom we have much to learn and people whom we have much to teach.
II. Project Summary
The technical assistance project had originally been intended to provide specific assistance to a number of adult education programs funded for contextualized curriculum development in 1991-1992. Therefore, we conducted an investigation of those programs to discover what they had accomplished, what difficulties they had encountered and what assistance they might find helpful. The investigation included written questionnaires, follow-up telephone calls and/or visits with appropriate staff members. All told, we received twenty completed surveys from programs around the state. We also sent a survey to the field staff of the Office of Continuing Education at the State Education Department to determine their understanding of the issues involved.
Since the actual starting date for the technical assistance project came after most of the curriculum projects had been concluded, we decided to change the focus of the project to allow for a broader participation by programs and staff members who were interested in developing contextualized learning approaches – whether or not they had received specific funding for contextualized learning projects in 1991-1992.
We notified adult education programs around the state of the project and invited them to consider participating in it. To advance this goal, we also mailed out a Participation Interest Inventory. We received twenty six completed inventories. Subsequently, the great majority of programs indicating interest in participation did, in fact, participate.
We organized and conducted a three-day Institute for over twenty five program staff members from across the state to review essential aspects of good practice in contextualized learning and to prepare the participants for possible involvement in subsequent project activities. (See attached agenda in Appendix D.) During the three days, we distributed a substantial amount of print resources and engaged in a series of wide-ranging discussions on all aspects of program practice. The print materials included reports and sample curricular materials from several of the projects funded during 1991-1992 (including Franklin Essex Hamilton BOCES, the Great Neck Adult Learning Center and Oswego BOCES).
The agenda for the Institute was planned to situate the three days of discussion in an understanding of the complexity of work as a human activity. Participants were asked to complete several brief reading assignments related to work and to write an essay on a personal work experience before coming to the Institute. The essays were collected and circulated to all Institute participants. They offer touching, and often humorous, insights into aspects of the individuals’ quite varied work lives.
At the beginning of the Institute, we viewed a twenty minute clip from “Frankie and Johnny,” starring Al Pacino as a short-order cook and Michelle Pfeiffer as a waitress. The beginning of the movie features displays of individual idiosyncracy, ingenuity, dexterity, sadness and hope on the part of the varied cast of characters working in the diner as cooks, dishwashers and waitresses. After we watched the film, we discussed if it had captured something of the reality of work as we might see it. Although our discussion was brief, it appeared that most, if not all, agreed that it had indeed captured something essential and important about work. Some did point out that distortions of work also occurred – usually for dramatic effect. Nonetheless, we suggested that numerous films and TV shows, including soap operas, were about work in one way or the other and that tapes could be used with both teachers and students to explore work in ways that all might have something to contribute to.
On the first day, participants were also asked to join a team to conduct an abbreviated investigation into the work of several individuals on the Borough of Manhattan Community College campus (where the Institute was held). We provided them with a version of the interview and observation guide utilized in the Workplace Curriculum Research & Development Project. Although the observations and interviews were brief, they did allow the participants to discover the value of conducting first-hand investigations and of appreciating the ingenuity and versatility of the workers they met.
The presentations, discussions and activities of the second and third days revolved around an extended consideration of several written case studies – based, in part, on actual programs and, in part, on synthetic accounts of different programmatic approaches to contextualized learning. (See next page for a sample case.) The intent was to conduct an overall review of the essential aspects of program design and operation and to identify aspects of good practice in key program areas – such as assessment, curriculum and instruction, materials selection and use, staff development and evaluation. But the Institute was also intended to allow participants to identify and discuss obstacles to the development of contextualized learning. In general, while they were more than willing to acknowledge their own lack of expertise or experience, participants also felt that they were constrained by the policies of funders and/or the institutional arrangements of the programs where they worked. The same issues were encountered throughout the project and are summarized in the section on findings.
We organized three day-long workshops across the state (at the Great Neck Adult Learning Center on Long Island, at Schenectady County Community College in the Capital District and at the UAW/Chrysler Region 9 Training Center of the Onandaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES in the Syracuse area) in November. The workshops were attended by teachers and other staff members of adult education programs in the respective geographical areas.
The same print resources distributed to Institute participants were made available to workshop participants. Workshop activities consisted of an adaptation of activities from the initial three-day Institute as well as customized responses to particular requests from participants. Workshop discussions often took off where those at the Institute had ended
since several Institute participants assisted us in the organization of the workshops.
At the Institute and the workshops, we announced our interest in visiting programs. During such visits, we offered to observe classes, meet with project staff members, identify resources and offer suggestions. We received three formal requests – from two community-based organizations in Brooklyn and the Bronx and from an upstate BOCES. We found the visits stimulating and informative.
In addition, we organized two workshops for the staffs of CUNY programs. The first was an open workshop for interested staff members from the University’s literacy and GED programs. The second was for staff from occupational skills programs, newly funded under the EDGE program (the principal education component of New York State’s welfare reform initiative), which were attempting to integrate academic instruction with occupational training.
During the fourth stage, we maintained contact with all participating individuals through regular mailings and telephone calls. We prepared and developed lists of participants in project activities and, subsequently, developed list of participants by area(s) of interest. All lists have been circulated to all participants.
The staff produced this project report and handbook on contextualized learning. Selected participants were invited to review the draft report/handbook and to make suggestions for amendments and refinements.
The Institute, workshops, visits and telephone calls allowed the project staff to talk about contextualized learning with more than two hundred adult educators in New York State. Some of the conversations were difficult ones since, often enough, individuals interpreted contextualized learning as a challenge to the effectiveness of their current practice. They often saw contextualized learning as fundamentally impractical since its assumptions seemed to require programmatic structures very different from the ones they were accustomed to.
For example, a reconstruction of one teacher’s description of her class might go something like this:
On a typical day, I might have about thirty individuals who entered the class either many months before or just that day. Some are teenagers who have not finished high school; some are public assistance recipients who have enrolled under mandate from the local social service agency; still others are laid off industrial workers who are attending only as long as they are not called back to work. Most of the instruction is individualized since the students have entered the program for varied reasons and would not necessarily want to be studying the same things.
She wanted to know what contextualized learning had to offer her.
Her question echoed comments made by participants in the Institute and at other project events. While teachers saw possibilities, they also saw all too many obstacles. One such obstacle was the historic lack of connection between academic and vocational instructors, even at agencies such as Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) which have relatively strong institutional capacities in both areas. Another was the widespread pattern of part-time employment for adult educators. Such part-time employment made it especially difficult for teachers to spend the time outside of the classroom that is almost certainly necessary to implement contextualized learning models.
Another obstacle resulted from the impact on program operation of enrollment mandates. Pressures to keep enrollment numbers high often led to frequent intakes and the placements of new students into existing classes. If a teacher attempts to seek out materials and topics of common interest, it will usually take the form of self-contained lessons – lessons, for example, generated by articles in a newspaper on a current event or a subject of controversy. But, the teacher will seldom be able to develop sustained coverage of the topic if new students are joining – because they will not have had the opportunity to read the materials used previously.
This difficulty is compounded when teachers are expected to provide individualized instruction (meaning, in this case, little or no group activity and an emphasis on a diagnostic-prescriptive approach to the organization of student work). While continuous enrollment almost inevitably makes such individualized instruction necessary, traditional instructional prescriptions have made a virtue out of necessity. Recommendations that instruction be “individualized” perpetuate confusion between individual attention and individual instruction. The need for individual attention flows from a recognition that each learner’s learning will be somewhat idiosyncratic. On the other hand, a recommendation of individualized instruction often assumes that each learner will travel the same path–just at different speeds.
But, in addition to these external barriers to changed curriculum and instruction, there appear to be other, just as significant, barriers in adult educators’ own conceptions of their responsibilities. One such barrier results from the fairly commonplace acceptance of school-like models. As we all know, schools are organized into grades and movement from one grade to the next is governed by the grades students receive. Teachers in each grade are expected to cover the material appropriate to each grade. Since there is usually much to cover and not enough time, teachers place a priority on the efficient management of instruction. Students are evaluated by their performance on various tests – teacher questions during class, weekly quizzes, midterms and finals, annual reading and math tests.
As a result, adult education teachers are often convinced that the most appropriate way to organize instruction for adults is to retrace the traditional school curriculum – moving, in apparently obvious order, from simple to difficult. But, as many have pointed out, it is not at all clear what is basic and what is advanced. Indeed, some have suggested that complexity is essential for genuine learning since it allows learners to grapple with substantial matters and not to be too preoccupied with getting the right answer (Perrone; Duckworth).
This difference is obviously no small matter since what might be considered the more traditional approach is supported by most teachers’ recollections of their own schooling. It is easier by far for us to remember how we were taught than it is for us to remember how we learned. What makes the traditional more appealing still is that it is sustained by a wide variety of instructional texts and, increasingly, of instructional software. Those who would go about things differently will be taking on a very large challenge.
Towards Program Re-design
Until recently, most efforts in contextualized learning have concentrated on curriculum development work. Typically, this has taken the form of the redesign of occupational curricula to allow for academic skills instruction or the rewriting of occupational texts to allow for reading by students with less developed literacy skills. What has become clear is that effective contextualized learning requires a fundamental reorganization of programs.
A contextualized classroom should be a place where a teacher, who has become knowledgeable about the characteristics of a particular context, can work with a group of students, who are interested in becoming knowledgeable about and proficient in that context, over a substantial period of time. This requires that the teacher be afforded an opportunity to become knowledgeable; that the program orient and advise prospective students appropriately; that students are selected carefully; that a course of study is developed, that materials are selected; that field sites, when necessary, are developed. It is an agenda for programmatic change that goes beyond new curricular resources. If programs are to rise to the challenge, they will have to re-examine a great deal and work very hard. Hopefully, this handbook can assist them.
III. What is Contextualized Learning?
In many ways, contextualized learning is nothing new. It is based on the proposition that people learn more effectively when they are learning about something that they are interested in, that they already know something about, and that affords them the opportunity to use what they already know to figure out new things. It is similar to a fairly common approach in reading instruction which emphasizes the value of prior knowledge in enabling readers to make sense of what they read. It is also similar to curriculum themes in elementary school classes, paired content and skills courses in colleges, and “less is more” approaches in high schools affiliated with Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools.
But, that is not the way it is usually discussed. More often, a context is assumed to be little more than a container, the contents which can be easily identified and counted, and distributed straightforwardly to the people who need to use them. The shortcomings of this approach have been eloquently chronicled by Sheryl Gowen of Georgia State University in The Politics of Workplace Literacy (Gowen). We would suggest that the popularization of an unnecessarily narrow notion of contextualized learning has made many adult educators critical of its assumptions and skeptical of its potential.
At the beginning of the Institute, we discussed specific concerns about contextualized learning that participants had articulated in their applications. Some expressed concern that contextualized learning would result in a narrowing of curriculum and instruction to specific training for a specific job. If that occurred, they reasoned that contextualized learning would just be a new form of tracking. Others had suggested that a preoccupation with preparation for work, at a time when too few good jobs were available, was mistaken. Still others had asked if contextualized learning was anything different from good pedagogy.
In part, different conceptions of contextualized learning result from the number of different interests converging on contextualized learning. The impetus for the development of contextualized approaches to the provision of literacy and language instruction has come from at least three sources. The first source is the evidence accumulated by various researchers that adult literacy instruction provided in the context shaped by the requirements of certain occupations enables students to make more significant and enduring progress than is usually the case with “general” literacy instruction. The preeminent advocate in this field has been Tom Sticht. (See articles and reports listed in the Reference section.) The second source is the growing public policy concern with designing effective linkages between literacy and occupational education, especially in the context of the JOBS Program, wherein emphasis has been placed on the provision of educational services that lead to employment. The third source is a fairly widespread dissatisfaction with high attrition, low retention over time and, by most accounts, quite modest accomplishment on the part of students in adult education programs (see Diekhoff).
One of the promising potentials of contextualized learning programs is that it allows programs to enroll students who might have otherwise been excluded. For example, occupational training programs often establish grade level criteria for enrollment. As a result, many prospective students are denied entry. But, contextualized curriculum development allows literacy, language, and GED programs to incorporate texts and tasks from the occupational curriculum into their classrooms and allows individuals to prepare for challenges they might face in the training program – even if they would still score below a cut point on a test. At the same time, contextualized curriculum development allows training programs to incorporate literacy and language learning opportunities into the occupational education coursework. Either approach requires that teachers from the academic and occupational disciplines become more familiar with each other’s work.
There are some surprises in store. For example, we found that some occupational instructors are already fostering literacy development by assigning their students significant amounts of reading outside of class. While reading educators agree on few things, one thing they do agree on is that doing a lot of reading helps someone become a better reader. Thus, it may in fact be the case that occupational teachers are fostering literacy development even though they might not have been doing so intentionally. What the occupational instructors probably lack, however, is a strategic understanding of how to assist students who are having difficulty in reading certain materials. Efforts to contextualize work-oriented classes or programs must acknowledge and expand upon the best aspects of current practice in both literacy education and vocational education.
IV. What Do We Need to Know?
There is a lot to learn and know about literacy, about work and about learning. The findings from our Workplace Curriculum Project and of the more formal research conducted by those who presented at our conference suggest that what we take for granted about work is not necessarily accurate and that we have much more to learn about the relationship between education and employment.
As we have developed our knowledge about this issue, we have come to value ethnographic studies of everyday literate and language practices, work and skills in context. (For a summary description of one approach to ethnography, see Taylor.) The perspectives developed in the following sections have been drawn from the work of a number of ethnographic researchers.
1. Literacy and Language Practices
Native oral language use tends to be taken for granted as a “natural” human activity. We use and learn it in naturally occurring human contexts. First language acquisition does not require formal instruction. Literacy, on the other hand, is usually assumed to be something that schools must teach and students must learn in the context of that schooling. Thus, parental involvement in children’s literacy development is usually subordinated to the goal of school performance. Furthermore, pre-school or out-of-school acquisition of literacy is assumed to be evidence of unusual ability and not of any direct relevance to the ways in which literacy instruction should be organized in schools.
Literacy, in a strict sense, is probably not yet a “natural” human activity. (Cole) However, with opportunities to participate in a literate community and to engage in literate activities, individuals are likely to acquire and to practice at least some literacy. If you have access to lots of books, chances are that you are more likely to become an avid reader than if you have access to none. Perhaps needless to say, nothing works automatically. There are individuals who come from homes where little literacy is evident who become quite proficient (see Auerbach). And there are others who come from homes where a great deal of reading and writing go on who appear to be uninterested.
In general, though, individuals’ literacy habits are significantly influenced by the particularities of their material and cultural circumstances and experiences – in other words, by the contexts that they pass through. James Gee has suggested that literacy can be defined as “the mastery of a secondary discourse” – wherein a discourse is interpreted as a set of mutually understandable meanings attached to words and other human artifacts (Gee).  Therefore, we should speak not so much of people becoming literate, but rather of people acquiring and/or learning many different literacies.
But the literacies we acquire do not exist apart from our own active meaning-making. Denny Taylor has suggested that each individual’s literacy configuration (a pattern of literacy uses and practices) is as distinctive as a thumbprint (Taylor). If that is so, it suggests that full measures of individual literacies will have to be customized for each individual. Traditional measures, which rely on standardized procedures, will capture only a part of what might be present.
It is not surprising to learn from many adult literacy teachers that their students can read a great deal more than would be indicated by their score on a reading test. At the same time, however, the education and policy literature is replete with analyses documenting the poor basic skills of many adults. That documentation, of course, relies on the results of test scores and neglects evidence that individuals engage in a good deal of literacy and numeracy that is never noticed in school or on tests. Since literacy behaviors are deeply embedded in individuals’ everyday lives and since neither the lives nor the literacies are transparent, the actualities of literacy performance and the possibilities of literacy development can only be captured through careful investigations. Fortunately, some very revealing investigations have shed light on actual literacies.
Sylvia Scribner, until her death a professor at the City University of New York, researched literacy practices and uses among farmers in Liberia and among dairy workers in Baltimore (Scribner). She and her colleagues did so by conducting extensive field work where they paid close attention to what people actually did and then presented them with some specially designed tasks to assess the significance of the literacy they possessed. In both research instances, Scribner concluded that literacy came in lots of different shapes and sizes and its significance depended on what people were trying to do and why they were trying to do it.
Shirley Brice Heath spent a decade studying literacy and language practices in different communities in the Carolina Piedmont (Heath). She concluded that there were many different “ways with words” that people employed and that their different ways of using language (either oral or written) affected the types of literacy they valued and how they evaluated literate performances. There was no one scale that did equal justice to all the different patterns. 
What makes matters more complicated is that individual participation in literacy practices within communities and other social groups often takes different forms depending on the particular roles and interests of different individuals. Steve Reder has suggested that literacy practices occur along three dimensions–technological, social and functional. One individual might have greater mastery over the technical features of literacy (such as decoding and encoding printed symbols) but others might be more knowledgeable about the purposes and consequences of particular literacy acts. On numerous occasions, the skills of individuals will be orchestrated to produce a competent literacy act that no individual could have accomplished alone (Reder).
This is a complementary insight to the discovery by Hanna Fingeret that individuals with limited literacy skills typically participate in extended social networks which provide them access to other individuals with greater facility in reading and writing. In turn, those with limited literacy contribute other valued skills to the network and provide appropriate assistance to others (Fingeret).
In the eyes of researchers such as Heath, Reder and Fingeret, literacy processes and products are part of a larger social context. People use literacy when it is appropriate to accomplish something that they desire or that they have to do. Everyday reading and writing are seldom used to communicate information by themselves. Reading and writing occur during social interactions and almost never stand alone.
Similarly, researchers into patterns of workplace literacy have remarked that people at work who perform reading and writing tasks as part of that work seldom think of the activity as reading and writing:
Literacy activities may involve reading and writing short‑term notes and messages, filing and retrieving information from documents to answer a short question over the telephone. These would rarely be identified as literacy activities by people performing them, yet they require reading and writing, and, in fact, they occur frequently during the workday. It is these kinds of activities that people often discount as “not really reading (Jacob & Crandall).”
Work is a complicated and paradoxical human activity. At times, it allows us to cultivate important and valuable relationships and to become versatile at many tasks in many situations. It also allows us to secure some satisfaction from the work itself. But, at the same time, it is often humiliating, degrading, back-breaking and boring.
Since workplaces are seldom transparent, it takes patient observation to begin to capture the textured complexity of the human interactions in hierarchically organized settings. At times, for various understandable reasons, workers will not be too inclined to reveal the actual character of the tasks they perform.
To illustrate some of the complexity, let’s take a look at the impact of technological change. It is usually assumed that technical innovation more or less automatically affects all jobs by making them more difficult to perform. For example, several years ago in New York City, staff of the Department of Employment wrote that: “Reading materials in many jobs now require at least ninth‑grade‑level reading comprehension, and by the mid‑1990’s, advances in technology are expected to cause the educational demands of jobs to rise even higher (Department of Employment).” Such an analysis is based on the implicit assumption that technological innovation requires handling what are presumed to be more difficult texts and that the presence of those texts produces more complicated jobs. However, Sticht and other researchers have suggested that technical innovation might very well reduce the literacy skills required to use technology. At the same time, technological innovation might increase the skills necessary to “develop, maintain and control the new technologies (Sticht; Levin).”
Furthermore, technical innovation often results in individuals working harder and in more work done by fewer people. In other words, the impact of technical change may not be so different now from what it has been in the past – machines replace people. 
Few sensible conclusions can be drawn on the basis of preconceived assumptions about the character of particular jobs. It is necessary to conduct first-hand investigations of workers at work – investigations that include the perspective of the workers themselves about the work that they do. Such investigations can be carried out by teachers and by students. They can be supplemented by personal reflections on their own work lives (through essays, oral histories and group discussions), by viewing and discussing films and television shows or by listening to songs, and by reading fictional and reportorial accounts of work (such as Studs Terkel’s Working).
3. Skills in Context
Much of the education and training literature fails to value the significance and potential of practical knowledge–which might be considered synonymous with skills in context. That undervaluing springs from a failure to recognize the distinctiveness of the two over‑arching contexts of school and non‑school. School knowledge is a very particular sort of knowledge that is usually expressed in particular ways of talking about something. On the other hand, out‑of‑school knowledge oftentimes is demonstrated in the course of accomplishing some task and is not necessarily spoken about or precisely understood (Gee).
To take an illustration close at hand, many adult education programs advertise themselves through the placement of classified ads in newspapers. Potential participants call in response to the ad and subsequently enroll. At the least, this requires that they locate and read the ad, make a phone call, arrange for an appointment, keep the appointment, bring appropriate documentation, complete forms and be interviewed. The skills they have used are numerous; but they are not usually acknowledged or documented.
Another instance concerns comparison shopping in supermarkets. Researchers have discovered that people are quite capable at using mathematical reasoning to make informed judgments about wise purchases without knowledge of formal school-taught mathematics. Indeed, if they attempt to make the same judgments through the use of school-taught math, they often do not do nearly as well (see Lave). Since the skills involved are embedded in tasks, it is not always obviously clear to the participants or external observers just what skills are involved. This suggests that a full measure of an individual’s performance cannot really be taken in a decontextualized situation such as a traditional standardized test. It might be clearer to spell it out this way:
What we can do, when we know what we are trying to do, in a situation that we
understand the social rules of –
is quite different from
what we can do, when we are asked to do something, that has been set for us in a more or less arbitrary way, in a situation that we do not understand the social rules of.
Unfortunately, most school‑oriented assessment relies on models of performance evaluation that are rooted in traditional lab‑based psychological studies. All participants are required to perform the same set of tasks even if they have very different backgrounds and experiences and even if the tasks themselves are ones that they would never perform in any other situation. Indeed, the “strangeness” of the tasks is intentional since it is designed to insure an “objective” measure. However, such tests fail to capture essential aspects of individuals’ capacities. For example, because reading tests demand that test‑takers demonstrate what they “can” do under test conditions rather than what they “must” do in the course of actual reading, they tend to underestimate knowledge and exaggerate apparent deficits (Tuinman).
4. Contextualized Assessment
Recent work in literacy assessment has improved the situation. Several surveys conducted by researchers at the Educational Testing Service (the Young Adult Literacy Survey, a survey of JTPA-eligible individuals and the recent National Adult Literacy Survey) have been household surveys of representative samples of individuals living across the nation. The surveys did not use a multiple choice format. Instead they used open ended questions. For example, participants might have been asked to examine a replica of a Social Security Card and sign in the appropriate place. Thus, scoring of the survey required actual examination of the responses recorded in the survey booklet. As the texts and tasks became more complicated, judging correct and incorrect responses became more demanding. By almost every measure, the survey design represents a dramatic improvement over the more traditional approaches reflected on instruments such as the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE).
The surveys’ contents were designed to assess literacy skill along three scales – document, prose and quantitative. Document literacy referred to the kinds of things one encounters at work, as well as in everyday life, such as bills from a restaurant, and bank statements, as opposed to novels, poetry or fiction. Prose literacy referred to what we more typically think of as school texts, although not always what one would expect. Often the examples were directions on how to do something, or the instructions on a warranty. So they were usually functional and utilitarian, rather than, for example, excerpts from literature. Quantitative literacy included tasks related to the use of check stubs or the calculation of sales tax on a bill, or the analysis of a chart on wage patterns.
The researchers have found that most individuals could do rudimentary literacy tasks without much difficulty. However, they have suggested that, as the texts became more elaborate and the tasks became more difficult, the performance of most individuals fell off. Not so surprisingly, performance patterns tended to reflect educational accomplishment. As a group, college graduates did better than their peers who had not completed college. In addition, when the performance of black and Latino young adults was examined, they did not do as well as their white counterparts.
While there is a good deal of extremely valuable information and analysis in the original Survey and in the subsequent surveys of JTPA-eligible individuals and of adults generally, we would suggest that they have missed something, due to a rather uncritical approach to the analysis of performance on simulated tasks. As should be clear, all of the Survey respondents were asked to complete the same tasks. In some cases, this meant that they were completing tasks that they were quite familiar with and, in others, not. We would suggest that familiarity has a great deal to contribute to competent performance. For example, there is the matter of the bus schedule. One of the most frequently cited results of the Young Adult Literacy Survey is that only 36% of young adults could decipher a bus schedule competently. If you take a look at the schedule in question, we believe that many of us would have had a great deal of difficulty reading that bus schedule and doing the tasks that were required. The difficulty stems not only from our lack of familiarity with the particular bus schedule and but also with our quite different patterns of real life performance.
To give another example close to home, in the New York metropolitan area, a large number of New Jersey residents commute to New York City by bus – into the Port Authority bus terminal. Most of the time, they take the same bus every morning and another same bus every evening. When they need to travel at a different time(s), they seldom look at the bus schedule. Instead, they go to the terminal and wait for the next bus, which (especially during the rush hours) is likely to come reasonably soon. Or, in a case of late night travel, they might call the bus company and ask what buses will be leaving during a given time period. Sometimes, of course, individual commuters will look at the schedule. And, they will usually be able to use it effectively – although perhaps not efficiently. But, when they do so, they will use it in the context of their familiarity with the patterns of bus travel in and out of the city.
It’s possible, however, to design ways of inquiring into the various competencies that individuals actually do possess. Such competencies will not usually be isolated techniques, but rather the ability to perform whole tasks reasonably well in work or home settings. In the case of work, this is best done at work. As has already been reported, our Workplace Curriculum Project resulted in a Guide to Conducting Workplace Investigations. That Guide describes how direct observations and individual interviews can be conducted. But, other methods (such as focus groups) might prove equally valuable. The raw findings from such investigations can become the basis for sophisticated analysis to identify the skills embedded within them.
A determination of what individuals know and can do must be premised on the recognition that such capabilities are not fixed ones. Instead, they are affected significantly by the contexts in which individuals are asked to perform, and by the nature of the assistance they are provided. What is needed, therefore, is an approach to assessment that is designed to:
- capture all of the capacities that are evident in the activities individuals engage in;
- identify the conceptual difficulties they encounter when they perform certain tasks;
- assist teachers in identifying appropriate lessons to assist students in gaining practice in real activities ‑ whether of the kind found at work, in communities or in school situations;
- assist students and teachers in discovering the ways in which their out‑of‑school knowledge can be of use to their learning within a classroom;
- integrate students’ perspectives on what they want and need to know into the overall picture.
5. Where the Skills Are
For reasons that were confirmed by our findings in the research done at Montefiore Hospital and that are echoed by other investigations into work, we are skeptical about many of the numerous claims concerning the lack of worker skill and knowledge. We believe that most people can become adept at doing many different things so long as they are given the opportunity to learn and practice them in a supportive environment.
Part of the difficulty in discussing issues of skill is a difficulty of terminology. For example, is there a difference between contextualized learning and teaching specific skills? Are there generic skills? What skills, if any, are transferable? We will not resolve these issues in this report but we would like to suggest a new way of looking at skill. It may be that what we think of as a skill is really a form of refined knowledge – knowledge that has been accumulated over time in one or more contexts and that, when it is sufficiently broad, appears as a distinct form of human versatility. If that is the case, then the surest way to enable individuals to become skilled is to afford them rich opportunities to become more knowledgeable. The question then becomes: where do we begin? Practicing contextualized learning is a way of answering that question.
V. Essential Aspects of Practice
There are many different ways of separating out distinct aspects of educational practice. And, usually, those distinctions do not hold in the everyday lives of classrooms and programs. We recognize that the following categories are therefore somewhat artificial. Nonetheless, we do feel that they allow us to discuss most of the essential aspects of practice.
In an effort to explore alternative approaches during the Institute, we distributed an assortment of assessment instruments to participants and asked that they evaluate their potential usefulness in the assessment of hypothetical prospective students. (See cases on next page.) The instruments included standardized tests such as the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), the California Test of Basic Skills in Spanish (CTBS/Espanol), the GED Official Practice Test and the ETS Test of Applied Literacy Skills. In addition, the assortment included non-standardized instruments such as the Gateway materials from the Community Learning Center at CUNY’s York College and the Primary Language Record from England. (See descriptions in Appendix F.) While time did not allow for a full discussion, almost all were in agreement that good assessment required an opportunity to get to know a student through an extended interview.
Such an interview, however, needs to be situated in an understanding of the actual literacy and/or language tasks the individual might have experience with, as well as those he or she might encounter in different settings. Therefore, teachers need opportunities to acquire
understandings of what literacy and languages practices look like in different settings or contexts.
We have spoken previously of the value of conducting first-hand investigations.  But, we have not said much about the ways in which such investigations might be reported. In a number of recent projects, including the Workplace Curriculum Project, we were struck by the power of the stories told by our teacher-researchers – the stories of their own work lives as well as the stories of the individual workers they come to know. Therefore, we recommend that the findings of investigations be summarized in narratives – narratives that can be drawn upon to enrich conversations with students who will, needless to say, have stories of their own to tell.
In addition to narrative summaries, teachers and other staff members need to have context-related texts available to present to students during assessment sessions. Such texts, of course, can be collected in workplaces and other settings, but they can seldom be simply transferred to an out-of-context program setting. It may be possible for programs to approximate, with more or less success, the context by providing individual students with summaries of the ways in which the particular texts are used by particular people in a particular place. The use of the text will never be the same as it is in the original setting, but at least, it will not be completely divorced from its context.
Let’s imagine what this means for a program. A prospective learner could be scheduled to attend an Orientation Session with other prospective students. Such a session could provide those in attendance with extensive information about the goals of the program, the variety of services available (including the different courses of study), the expectations the program has of students (concerning, for example, attendance and achievement) and the opportunities that successful completion of courses will create for them. Students could be asked to describe their previous educational and related experiences and to articulate their own educational and occupational goals. If possible, each student should be interviewed individually to discuss the appropriateness of their participation. For some, it may be that another program might be more suitable for them and program staff should be prepared to suggest program alternatives and make appropriate referrals. It may also be the case that some students are not yet clear about their goals and the interview could allow them to start sorting out their ideas.
For those who wish to enroll, the next step of the orientation should introduce them into the ways in which their reading, writing, speaking and listening capacities will be assessed. It is possible to accomplish this by asking students to read a sequence of carefully selected materials – including workplace texts, inviting them to write an essay in response to a reading selection or question. (See descriptions of Gateway materials in Appendix F.) It is also possible to involve students in the evaluation of their performance and placement decision. 
This approach to intake minimizes clerical-bureaucratic-testing tasks. It will allow program staff to pay close attention to the individuals who come and to discover, along with them, their abilities as well as their special needs. If it is necessary to administer a standardized test, each student should be provided an introduction to the particular format and content of the test as well as information on interpreting the score obtained. We would advise all programs to become accustomed to interpreting standardized scores with many grains of salt and, at the very least, to supplement the scores with other types of information about prospective students.
Furthermore, the long-standing practice of continuous enrollment in literacy programs should be carefully reviewed. We believe that adult students can be reasonably informed that they must wait for a relatively short time before they can be admitted to a program. It would be better by far if students were admitted into classes at times that made instructional and curricular sense for them and for the other students already enrolled.
Obtaining a job and performing it satisfactorily, as well as being prepared to act in concert with one’s fellow workers, require the complex orchestration of literacy, technical, and interpersonal skills. In the work we conducted following the investigations at Montefiore Hospital, the teacher-researchers realized that there were several different approaches to curriculum development evident among those working on the project. One small group suggested that three of the principal approaches could be categorized as follows. One approach focused on the idea of curriculum as exploration wherein students would be enabled to examine for themselves the particular circumstances of individuals working in different job settings. This approach might be most useful in programs designed to prepare unemployed people for work. The second approach focused on the functional aspects of literacy, language and technical aspects of the performance of particular jobs. This approach might be most useful in the design of a curriculum for an occupational training program. The third approach focused on a critical examination of work in both its general and particular forms.
This last approach might be seen as complementary to the first two but it could also be seen as somewhat in tension with them. Echoing some of the concerns about contextualized learning that were described in the early sections of this handbook, some would argue that a focus on the ways in which individuals should prepare themselves to fit into the workplace would, almost inevitably, discount the significance of the need to resist some of the circumstances of the workplace. Two examples concern occupational safety and sexual harassment. If those issues are avoided or minimized in adult education programs, students might very well be led to conclude that the program staff does not believe such issues are especially significant.
On the other hand, one might argue that the introduction of those issues would be interpreted as an unwarranted introduction of extraneous, political concerns into the classroom. There is probably no simple resolution of this larger issue. Attempts to prescribe particular forms of curricular coverage of those types of issues suffer from the same shortcomings of most curricular prescriptions. They discount teacher and student knowledge. It’s been our experience that efforts to prescribe what teachers must teach usually result in impoverished lessons. However, we would suggest that teachers do need to discuss these issues since they will, whether we wish them to or not, arise in our classrooms. Perhaps the worst thing we can do is to attempt to “silence” students when they raise difficult issues (see Fine).
Therefore, teachers do need to be ready to create opportunities for thoughtful discussions of controversial issues. This can be done by providing students with an array of readings that reflect different opinions. In many cases, this will require a good deal of homework by teachers themselves. Equally important, it is essential that classroom discussions be conducted in ways that not only allow for a full discussion but also that contribute to an enhanced ability on the part of individual students to read and write their own texts on those issues.
In any case, some actual curriculum development work has been completed and deserves review and distribution. As mentioned above, several of the projects funded during the 1991-1992 program year produced curriculum materials. Since then, the Consortium for Worker Education (CWE) in New York City has published a Health Care Employee GED Curriculum.
During the Institute and at several of the workshops, these materials were reviewed and discussed. Views varied considerably. Some felt that the curriculum development work had produced materials that they would feel quite comfortable using with their own students. Others were concerned that some of the materials relied on a traditional notion of “coverage” and did not allow sufficient time or space for student-centered interactions. On a few occasions, the curriculum developers were themselves present, and it became clear that the materials were integrated into classroom practices in very different ways by different teachers. Thus, even very sophisticated curriculum development would only be valuable if it was accompanied by good instruction.
A final note about curriculum–we find it helpful to keep in mind that teachers and students seldom do exactly as anyone has planned. Therefore, any formal curriculum materials should be intended to be suggestive of possibilities and not prescriptive of routines. Furthermore, any discussion of curriculum needs to keep in mind that a course of study which does not respect, value and nurture the imaginations of students will, in the end, probably result in material being covered, but not necessarily in learning.
Effective implementation of new curricular approaches will require that we reshape our classrooms, as well as of the place of classrooms in student learning more generally. While some participants in adult education programs are able to attend full-time, part-time participation (generally between six and twelve hours per week) is more common. It is therefore essential that programs develop strategies to allow their students to use time outside of class valuably. This is strikingly illustrated when we consider the situation of an English-language learner. A student who only hears and speaks English in class, and who hears and speaks another language for all his or her hours outside of class will not likely make as much progress as he or she would if they had regular English-using opportunities outside the classroom. We think the same point can be made for reading, writing, math and occupational skills.
We find it helpful to start thinking of classrooms as workshops. In a classroom/ workshop, students will be engaged in doing many things – working at them, evaluating them, doing them better. This approach is consistent with the recommendations of Ted Sizer and his colleagues in the Coalition for Essential Schools. The Coalition concentrates its energies on transforming high schools, and often speaks of “students as workers” in order to emphasize the active responsibility-taking they believe necessary for learning (see Sizer; Fleming). This belief is consistent with the recommendations of Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh, who has pointed out that learning in school has traditionally been a very different kind of activity from learning out of school and, as a result, has contributed to a profound disengagement from schooling on the part of many students (see Resnick).
We could design and develop classroom/workshops for a variety of different contexts. This would include the physical and pedagogical re-design of classrooms to reflect the characteristic circumstances and activities of different work situations. For example, a classroom/workshop for individuals interested in working in direct patient care would include furniture, equipment, and paperwork typical of health care settings. It would also include varied texts related to health and health care topics. Students would spend a great deal of time in the classroom performing tasks, reading and writing in conjunction with the tasks, conducting case studies of workplace situations, completing projects of importance to themselves and other students (perhaps preparing a student guide to hypertension), reading about health care topics in a wide variety of different texts and genres, viewing videotapes, discussing issues of personal health, preventive health care, appropriate and effective treatments and health care policy. We believe this mix would provide students with an opportunity to gain experience in direct care approximating that which they would gain in a health care job.
Similarly, a classroom/workshop for college preparation would be equipped with the most useful tools of academic learning – examples of work well done, reference texts, maps, video players, computers, calculators. It would be furnished and arranged as a library/study hall – a place where people would come to work together. Assignments would be intended to allow students to discover how to do serious academic work.
Although our Workplace Curriculum Development Project was originally intended to assist teachers in conducting workplace investigations, we recommend that many of the observational and interview procedures be modified for direct use by students. Students can be trained in conducting investigations and can then conduct investigations in their homes, classrooms, neighborhoods and in a variety of workplace situations. They can also prepare oral and written reports on their investigations and can share the results with their fellow students. In this way, the investigations can be enriched through the process of reporting and summarizing findings. Reports and summaries can then be analyzed and evaluated in the light of other knowledge students possess. And, when appropriate, students can decide what additional knowledge they would need to complete those evaluations. Additional knowledge might come from further investigations. At other times, it might come from more traditional forms of academic research. Throughout the entire process, students would be inquiring into something important and discovering the ways in which new knowledge can alter interpretations and inform decision-making.
This approach has major implications for the ways in which teachers’ roles are imagined. Rather than being efficient and effective dispensers of knowledge, teachers must instead be creative organizers of demanding and interesting projects. Few students will be able to attempt or to complete the kind of work we have outlined without substantial assistance from teachers. Teachers will have to become knowledgeable about many different topics and issues in order to provide helpful suggestions along the way and to evaluate student accomplishment. Some readers might be familiar with the metaphor of scaffolding wherein teachers are encouraged to see their work as scaffold construction to allow students to reach higher and to do more than they would have been able to do alone. What we are recommending is not so very different. Both approaches borrow from the work of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky who originally formulated the notion of a “zone of proximal development” to identify the great value of the learning made possible by interpersonal social relations (Vygotsky). In short hand, he argued that learning is often inter-personal before it is intra-psychological. Therefore, individuals are often able to accomplish a great deal more with assistance than they are able to accomplish independently. Over time, the form and content of the assistance can be modified so that what was once only possible with assistance becomes possible without it.
As part of the effort to reconstruct the relationship between classroom learning and actual performance, we believe it essential to draw upon the knowledge and skills of individuals who are experts in different contexts. The most natural way to tap this knowledge is to create opportunities for our students to enter workplaces and to participate, alongside experienced workers, in the work itself.
As we expand on this notion, we believe that apprenticeship models, which value both the knowledge of experienced workers and the capacity to learn of novice ones, will be especially valuable in the bridging of the gap between learning in school and learning for “real life.” What is crucial to the success of apprenticeship programs is the commitment on the part of the journeyman to the development of the apprentice. Apprenticeships are predicated on the assumption that the novice can learn everything the expert knows.
Apprenticeships need not be limited to the traditional crafts; as our investigations revealed, all workers possess skills essential to the completion of work. Indeed, apprenticeships need not be limited to preparation for work. Professor Resnick, for example, has suggested that literacy development can be enhanced through what she describes as “cognitive apprenticeships” (Resnick; see also Berryman & Bailey). In all cases, knowledgeable practitioners work alongside novices – showing them how something is done, encouraging them to try it out themselves, assisting them when they do and explaining difficult tasks.
Instruction should be provided in ways that encourage participants to take responsibility for their own learning – to understand that they need to invest time and energy in and out of the classroom if they expect to learn anything well. At the same time, instruction should be designed in ways that encourage participants to take risks, to make mistakes and to become more reflective about their own thinking and learning processes. In turn, this will allow participants to become more flexible in their use of different strategies for accomplishing different types of tasks in different contexts.
In many ways, this conception of teacher responsibilities demands much more from individual teachers than the traditional one which emphasizes “covering the material.” At the same time that it is more demanding, it also holds out the distinct promise of being more rewarding.
4. Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic
It may seem odd to include a separate section on reading, writing and arithmetic. But, we have chosen to do so since we believe that interest in contextualized learning should not result in a de-emphasis on the acquisition of essential skills in those domains. Let’s review each.
Reading & Writing
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of expertise required: a macroscopic understanding of literacy development and a microscopic understanding of individuals’ reading and writing processes. Until relatively recently, it was assumed that the reader’s task was to find or to “get” the meaning that had been encoded in the text by the author. There was on-going debate about how best to accomplish that task and how best to assist developing readers to do so.
The central task of comprehension has been re-defined to stress the active meaning-making involved in reading. In turn, meaning has come to be understood as the result of an interaction between the reader and the text. Thus, any particular reader’s ease or difficulty with a particular text is not determined only by the vocabulary or syntax of the text. It is also influenced by the prior knowledge that the reader brings to bear, the purposes he or she has for reading, and the strategies he or she applies.
This also suggests that there is not necessarily one right meaning in any particular text – although there are some texts that invite a very limited range of reader responses (for example, a list of food items to be purchased at the supermarket). However, even in those situations, individuals will be able to read the texts quite differently depending on their prior knowledge, purposes and strategies. Thus, an individual reading a list of phone numbers of individuals that he or she knows reads that list differently than someone else reading the same list who does not know the individuals on it. The range of possible reading responses grows with the increasing complexity of vocabulary, syntax and rhetoric, as well as with the expanded purposes of the text creators. Thus, fiction, poetry and drama invite extended interpretation – interpretation that can be enriched by a consideration of other interpretations down through the years.
In their interpretations of the results from the above-mentioned literacy surveys, the ETS researchers have pointed out that the difficulty of any particular item in the surveys seemed not to be inherent in any particular text. Asked to do a relatively simple task with a relatively uncomplicated text, many respondents succeeded. Faced with the same text, but with a more demanding task, a good number of the same respondents failed. This has led Irwin Kirsch and Peter Mosenthal towards a promising new approach in the understanding of different types of texts and tasks. They have been encouraging teachers to look closely at various types of texts and to develop methods of analyzing those texts according to the type of information included and the different forms of presentation. (See series of articles in Journal of Reading). 
Reading instruction should properly attend to all of the different aspects of reading – the orchestration of prior linguistic and content area knowledge, the variation of purposes and the application of strategies, as well as the text. Recent research suggests that even very beginning readers approach texts in these ways (Chittenden & Bussis). However, as we well know, many of the adult students we work with have not benefitted from many years of reading instruction. Peter Johnston has suggested that “disabled” readers have frequently abandoned a flexible strategy selection and often read all texts with the same strategy (Johnston).
This orientation suggests that reading assessment should be primarily concerned with the process itself. However, since the act of reading remains locked inside human minds, a good deal of attention must be devoted to developing methods of getting inside the process. Observation techniques, such as miscue analysis, running records and think-alouds, are designed to give observers insights into the “logic” of the reader and to potential changes in that logic.
Teachers can also use assessment opportunities to provide assistance to readers in order to expand and extend reading performance. Relying on a conviction that extensive opportunities to read are among the most valuable components of good reading instruction, teachers can ensure that assessment does not become yet another moment when a developing reader is convinced that he or she should not read since it only confirms how little he or she can do. In addition, they can use assessments as opportunities to gather information on areas of interest and prior knowledge in order to suggest additional texts to be read in the same area. Rose Marie Weber has argued that strategies to encourage extended reading (such as the cultivation of areas of expert knowledge) should be accorded a very high priority in any instructional scheme (Weber). For example, a student with an interest in a particular disease, such as diabetes, would be pointed towards a multiplicity of texts dealing with its causes, symptoms and treatments. He or she might read about some of the same basic information many times over again. But each time, he or she would be becoming a somewhat more versatile reader of texts on diabetes since the relationship between known and unknown would be shifting in favor of the reader. As prior knowledge increases, the difficulty of texts decreases.
There have been parallel developments in writing assessment and instruction. The task of any writer is shaped by the need to write in the context of a particular purpose or purposes and to write for a particular audience or audiences. Thus, once again, writing can be relatively simple and straightforward or exceedingly complex. Along the continuum, there is no one right way to write. Whether one is making a list, completing a form, scribbling a note, drafting a memo, or composing an essay, the writing process will vary from person to person.
As is the case with reading, individual difficulties in writing can and should be interpreted from the vantage point of understanding the learner’s logic (Hull & Rose). In addition, “errors” can oftentimes be re-interpreted as evidence of a learner’s willingness to attempt a new strategy or to extend his or her capacities. Overly “correct” writing may mean that a student is only doing what he or she has already learned. Indeed, errors might serve as proof that the risk-taking essential to learning is occurring (Shaughnessy).
There has been a dramatic shift in emphasis from instruction on the formal and abstract principles of correct writing to close attention to the writing process itself. Students can be encouraged to proceed through several sloppy stages – of brainstorming ideas, making lists, drawing illustrations or flow charts, writing a first draft, editing (in whatever combination suits best the demands of the moment or the development of the learner). Progress can be recorded through the collection of the documents from these various stages in portfolios – simply folders used for this purpose. It is also possible to periodically examine the contents of portfolios to discover patterns of development or frustration. Therefore, attention to conventions of correct usage is usually incorporated at the end of the process. Similarly, lessons on principles of grammar are usually provided only when they make sense in light of a particular student’s or group of students’ actual writing.
While the shift towards process approaches has been largely beneficial, concerns have been voiced that adult students seldom have a great deal of time available to them to allow for a very leisurely development of their writing skills. The task for teachers is a balancing act – how to insure that students indeed do develop their writing skills rather than just learn a lot about language rules and at the same time, foster that development through expert instruction.
If and when teachers find it necessary to provide formal direct instruction, it seems wise to keep in mind that talking is not the same thing as teaching and that remembering is not the same thing as learning (Duckworth). For example, we may think we know what we mean when we say that a “subject is what the sentence is about” or that the “subject and the verb must agree,” but there is a good chance that those who listen to us may be nodding only because they have heard others tell them the same things many times before and not because they are understanding something about sentence structure. When teachers talk, they should be prepared to listen to what they are saying and to think once or twice if what they have said is quite as conclusive as they might have wished. Of course, the best way to discover the effect of such teacher talk is to listen carefully to the talk of the students and to be prepared for some surprises along the way.
A final note about writing–writing is not only an essential skill to be developed; it is also an essential way of learning. Throughout the activities of this technical assistance project, we have asked teachers to write about their experiences and ideas. Invariably, they have discovered that writing allowed them to recall things they had not thought about for some time and to clarify their thinking. The same is true for students – even if the actual task of writing is more demanding than it might be for teachers.
Perhaps surprisingly, much of what we have said concerning reading and writing can be said of mathematics. Pioneering work in rethinking curriculum and standards has been completed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. That organization has insisted that arithmetical accuracy has for too long been the over-riding goal of much instruction. They assert that our students would be better served were they to have an opportunity to become knowledgeable about mathematical ways of thinking. This would include an appreciation of the sophistication of various math conventions (such as units of measure and formulas), the power of math tools (such as calculators), and of the practicality of math as a way of solving problems.
Others have pointed out the similar idiosyncracy at work in individual uses of mathematics. Individuals construe the same problem very differently and pursue quite different ways of solving it (see Duckworth). What seems agreed upon is that students can become versatile mathematicians if they are provided with genuine practice in doing math. Uri Treisman has described his feeling that good mathematicians can “feel” the mathematics (Treisman). This should not be confused with lots of repetitive drill on de-contextualized operations or even with the dressing up of such routine drills with terminology from one setting or another.
E. Materials & Technology
As is hopefully clear by this point, texts by themselves are not necessarily useful as “stand-alones”. If we are to assist individuals in becoming more capable independent readers of texts, we will have to situate those texts in the contexts from whence they came. We will also have to ask students to complete different types of tasks with those texts. But, then we will have to stand ready to appreciate the idiosyncratic ways in which they might attempt to complete the tasks and to understand the logic of their errors when they experience difficulty.
The first task for us is to collect and annotate texts from whatever different settings we are interested in exploring. The annotations should attempt to capture the moment of the text within a setting and at least some of the characteristic tasks that individuals complete involving those texts.
One of the traditional issues involved in the selection of texts for instructional purposes is the issue of readability. It has long been assumed that texts need to be screened in order to insure that they not be too difficult for students. In individual passages, this judgment is made through an analysis of the difficulty of particular words – usually the number of syllables. As has been pointed out, the shortcomings of this methodology are numerous. For example, which word is more difficult to read – “elephant” or “id”? The three syllable word, with the variant spelling of ph, is nonetheless familiar to most would-be readers while the straightforward monosyllable remains obscure to many.
The classroom should be rich with texts, not only those drawn from the immediacy of any particular context, but also those texts which allow teachers and students to explore the larger contexts of the texts. Such larger texts can include novels, biographies, official documents and reports, charts and graphs, and maps. In addition, they can be supplemented by videos and computer software. Although the technical assistance project did not address the use of computers directly, we would urge educators to seek out authentic uses of computers – uses that reflect the role of computers in other than school-like settings.
F. Program Design and Development
It would be quite difficult for contextualized curriculum development and instruction to be provided within the operating frameworks that shape many programs. Most programs have precious little in the way of financial or technical resources and their current designs are, more often than not, the result of the various twists and turns of funding policies over the years rather than the product of careful planning. But, the principles of program design necessary for a good contextualized learning program are not so different from the principles of good program design in general.
A good education program requires that program staffs engage in a long-term process of programmatic self-evaluation and development. Only such a process can make a lasting contribution to the improvement of program quality.
It is possible, however, to identify some of the essential characteristics of effective education programs for adults. The first, and over-arching, characteristic of an effective program is that it must clearly identify itself as an educational program. It is now clear that the education necessary for those considered most in-need should be at least as good as that deemed necessary for those considered to be least in danger.
High quality education requires that all teachers be knowledgeable and well-prepared. The types of curriculum development and instructional design that we have suggested above demand that teachers become accustomed to active involvement in the development and design stages as well as the delivery stage. As has been said on numerous occasions, what’s needed are curriculum-proof teachers rather than teacher-proof curriculum. Only on-going and enriched staff development can allow that to become a reality.
Staff development should include opportunities for teachers to share in the work of proposal development and reporting as well as opportunities for the administrative staff to share in the work of the classroom. In addition, the full staff should meet regularly, observe each other’s work as often as scheduling constraints permit, participate in outside workshops and conferences and read professional journals and reports.
All this will require time. And it will usually require full-time staffing patterns–which, in turn, will probably require greater resources than have traditionally been available. But, programs need not wait for the arrival of those greater resources to begin doing the necessary work. Look, for example, at the Case on the next page.
G. Program Evaluation
The dominant evaluation paradigm is shaped by the metaphor of accountability. It evokes images of accountants poring over books, of items being counted, of things being checked. It also suggests a profoundly passive role for the people in the programs during the evaluation process. But, aside from the images, the notion of accountability is worrisome because it tends to promote a lot of explaining away. When, as happens often enough, programs do not meet specified goals, program staff members are accustomed to explaining away the shortcomings by citing either the personal characteristics of the students, the difficult circumstances of their lives, the shortage of staff or, especially recently, the poor shape of the local economy.
We don’t mean to suggest that those issues do not matter. Indeed, since much of adult education is provided on the basis of grants, organizational stability is a pressing issue. It is quite hard for individual administrators, teachers and counselors to do their best work when their own working circumstances are so difficult.
But, the tendency to want to explain away apparent shortcomings distracts us from the far more important work of being responsible for what we do and don’t do. Therefore, we would suggest that responsibility is a far more appropriate metaphor for evaluation than accountability. We should be looking at what we do as we do it – not after the fact. We will, in any case, have little to do with the uses that our students make of the literacy/language or technical knowledge they acquire through participation in our program. But, we have a great deal to do with the quality of the exchanges between students and teachers, and students and students, exchanges that are the lifeblood of any program.
We need, therefore, to become accustomed to the idea that looking at ourselves and our large and small interactions with students carefully and thoughtfully can and should be the soundest foundation for evaluation. In order to do so, we must imagine and design circumstances that are conducive to the cultivation of such habits. Time is very important; so also are methods. We’d like to suggest that the collection and interpretation of stories should be our indispensable methods.
Thinkers as varied as Robert Coles, Oliver Sacks, Mike Rose, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, and Studs Terkel have been telling us about the value of stories (see references). To understand and to evaluate what we do in our programs we must become sensitive to and knowledgeable about all of the stories that criss and cross in our programs. But, stories, no matter how well told and no matter how rich they are in interpretive possibilities, do not lend themselves well to the quantification that is so much required in program evaluation circles. The preoccupation with measurement in evaluation is the result of a long history of efforts by those who conduct social scientific research to make their methods and their conclusions as “objective” as those of their counterparts in the physical sciences.
Lest we be misunderstood, we don’t think that stories are the same thing as anecdotes. The kinds of stories that we are thinking of need to be ambitious undertakings. They need to be close case studies of students, teachers and programs at work. They would almost certainly provide rich sources of data for inclusion in program final reports and in proposals for future funding. But, as well as being collected, they need to be reviewed, interpreted and evaluated–which then brings us back to the question – evaluated by whom and for what.
In a recent report from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, the authors comment that the predominant approach to evaluation tends to reflect an all or nothing preoccupation. Programs are evaluated to determine if they have done what they were supposed to. They are seldom evaluated to see if they did something else, or whether what they were supposed to do made much sense, or why they did not accomplish as much as was hoped or how they might be changed to become better programs (Grubb, et. al.).
In order to assist in this type of evaluation, we have developed a preliminary approach to the self-evaluation of adult education programs. (See Case on next page.) The type of self-evaluation we have in mind would draw upon the established practices of bodies such as the Commission on Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. A combination of extended self-study, involving students as essential participants, combined with a thorough peer review process can provide program staff and funders with invaluable information. That information could then provide a basis for informed decision-making concerning program effectiveness and guide the staff in making any necessary changes.
The systemization of self-study approaches for formal use in adult education programs will require a great deal of time and effort devoted to several essential tasks–the articulation of characteristics of excellence, the development of detailed procedures for program self-study and for visits by outside teams and the design of appropriate report formats, as well as the conduct of pilot evaluations to identify difficulties and formulate revisions.
In small part, the identification of essential aspects of good practice has been very much the concern of our initial Institute and the workshops held around the state. The process, however, is far from complete. Similarly, the development of procedures for use during the self-study stage remains embryonic.
V. Concluding Comments
Not too much of what we have described is secret. For the most part, we believe that we can recognize genuine learning and that we know as well which kinds of circumstances are most conducive to it happening. Fifteen years ago, Mina Shaughnessy, speaking about writing teachers, wrote the following:
For unless he can assume that his students are capable of learning what he has learned, and what he now teaches, the teacher is not likely to turn to himself as a possible source of his students’ failures. He will slip, rather, into the facile explanations of student failure that have long protected teachers from their own mistakes and inadequacies.
If contextualized learning is not to become another way to secure approval for diminished expectations and outcomes, we will have to articulate ambitious goals and work very hard, with our students, to achieve them.
David Fleming, “The Next Literacy: Educating Young Americans for Work and Citizenship,” Future Choices, Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 1991.
Lauren Resnick, “Learning in school and out,” Educational Researcher, 16, pp. 13-20.
__________________, “Literacy in School and Out,” Daedalus, Spring, 1990.
Sylvia Scribner, “Studying working intelligence,” In Rogoff and Lave (Eds.), Everyday Cognition: Its Development in Social Context.
Theodore Sizer, Horace’s Compromise. Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1984.
Thomas Sticht, Functional Context Education. Applied Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences, Inc. March, 1987.
J. Jaap Tuinman, “Reading is recognition when reading is not reasoning,” In S. de Castell, A. Luke and K. Egan, Literacy, Society, and Schooling: A Reader. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
 For Gee, the primary discourse is the discourse spoken in the home, and perhaps the extended family, of a child. Since that discourse is not usually shared in its totality beyond a family, individuals do not usually become literate in it. At the same time, of course, Gee recognizes that some primary discourses are more similar to some secondary discourses than others.
 Denny Taylor and Kathe Dorsey-Gaines studied patterns of literacy activity in the homes of impoverished city dwellers (Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines). Sheryl Gowen wrote about the versatility of hospital workers, who are seen at work as unskilled, but who reveal themselves in other settings as quite skilled (Gowen). From this research it would seem evident that any judgments about skill proficiency or deficiency should be arrived at slowly and should not rely on any one measure.
 Irwin Kirsch and Paul Barton have argued that we have insufficient evidence to make any sweeping predictions concerning the literacy impact of technological change on work(Barton & Kirsch). But, Thomas Bailey has argued that a useful prediction can be made if we attempt to chart not just the jobs at the low and high ends of the scale but also those in the middle. He concludes that there is evidence of a steady, although usually gradual, shift towards higher required skills (Bailey).
 Lest we be misunderstood, we would urge teachers and students to undertake investigations into literacy and language uses in all sorts of contexts, not just workplaces.
 Although the particular issues involved in the assessment of English language learners were addressed during the project’s activities, they did not receive the same degree of attention as did the matters of literacy assessment somewhat more narrowly conceived. Therefore, we are reluctant to suggest too much for educators working in this arena. Nonetheless, a non-testing interview still would seem essential.
 Unfortunately, their approach relies perhaps too much on an “information processing” model of text comprehension and tends to discount the extent of idiosyncratic meaning-making almost certainly involved. In any case, their work is an important starting point.