Summer Institute 2012: Workplace Literacy & Essential Skills: Shaping a New Learning Culture



Documents Produced for the Institute

What Happened at the Institute




The 2012 institute consolidated the learning from the previous three Summer Institutes and other research to focus on questions about the roles of context and culture as factors in program outcomes. We examined long-standing models of WLES from specific contexts; asked how and why they worked, and why so few transfer well to other settings.




The 2012 Summer Institute consolidated what we know about effective models and measures of workplace literacy and essential skills by weaving strands from our Institutes since 2009 with findings from recent studies in Canada, the United States and abroad.

While policy attention has concentrated on models, tools and assessment instruments, recent longer term studies indicate the significance of context and culture for WLES policy and practice. These factors seem to play roles at the level of country, province/state, region and organization. Just how important are they? How can we influence or change them?

Enduring WLES models have been developed and implemented in specific geographic locations, such as Nova Scotia and Manitoba, in defined job sectors, such as the construction industry in British Columbia, and in organizational milieus, such as hospitals, in the UK. Why have some models endured? Why have they not been directly transferrable to other settings?

What lessons can be learned from models that have endured, as well as from others that have not? Is it primarily the design of models that accounts for longevity, or do other factors play a role? Recent studies suggest that we must move beyond simple questions such as “What works?” to “What works, for which populations or groups, and in what circumstances?”

The UK offers valuable insights and lessons. Following a decade of large-scale government investment in their Skills for Life strategy, including a workplace component, researchers have been assessing the outcomes. Results have been mixed. A report in 2009 on a six-year study by Alison Wolf, Karen Evans and John Bynner suggested that most programs were too short to improve the literacy skills of workers or the economic performance of companies. A 2011 study on whether workplace Skills for Life provision is sustainable suggested that the complex and shifting funding landscape with its bureaucracy and emphasis on credentials has not supported sustainable provision. They suggested that organizations that have managed to sustain the work have an “ecology of learning” that allowed the integration of workplace basic skills.

A paper from the 2011 Summer Institute about embedding workplace LES into training reached similar conclusions. In the US, Steve Reder’s Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) tracked a cohort of high school drop-outs over a decade as they went in and out of adult basic education programs and work. LSAL found that program participation did not result in immediate measurable proficiency gain, but that over time participation in programs affected literacy practices, and that engagement in these practices led to eventual improvements in proficiency.

In Canada, the Measures of Success project has developed a multi-faceted evaluation framework to track impacts, 3 and 6 months after WLES programs end, at almost 20 work sites in Nova Scotia and Manitoba. The measures include many factors that have rarely been examined systematically. By June the analysis of the baseline data will be complete and shared.

These and other studies raise questions about whether we have reasonable expectations about the impact of short-term interventions in workplace literacy and essential skills, and about what outcomes we measure and how we measure them. If culture and context matter, how should we account for them in setting expectations and measuring results? What kinds of policies and what kinds of organizations can support sustained provision?

At the Institute, invitees and registrants addressed these and related questions.





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