The Rules of Society


Adult literacy has been at the heart of World Education’s work since it was established in 1951 in India and founded the Literacy House upon the urging of Mohandas Gandhi. Sixty-four years later, while gains have been made in many parts of the world, the need for literacy education remains great:  there are nearly 800 million adults and out-of-school youth in the world with limited or no literacy and numeracy.  In the U.S., adults’ basic skills are falling behind those of other developed nations.  For the first time, the skills of young adults are lower than those of their parents’ generation.  At the same time, people need even more different types of literacies to move ahead in their lives than in 1951. World Education’s approach to literacy education and how we define it has evolved and expanded commensurate with the skills adults need to navigate systems, pursue opportunities, and address problems successfully in their personal lives, work, and communities.

To commemorate the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, in this series of blog posts World Education/ U.S. staff share their views on what literacy means to us today and how we are helping to advance adult education in multiple ways.  Our list is not comprehensive: there are not enough days in a week to feature all the types of literacy youth and adults need in today’s world!  Please join the dialogue.

Civic Literacy

Civic literacy is the ability to understand the rules that organize our society, how those rules came to be, and how they can be changed. It is the understanding of history as the constant struggle of people to be seen, heard, and valued. In the not-too-distant past, civics education built the skills needed to develop informed opinions, hold decision-makers accountable, build community, and organize for change.

This aspect of education struggles to survive, however, as civics for adults has been legislated down to narrowly-defined citizenship education measured by economic outcomes. Yet civics is more relevant than ever, as there are civic questions and problems to address in every area of adult life. Rather than being siloed in a citizenship prep class civics questions could, for example, be part of the work readiness curriculum: What kinds of jobs do we want in our communities and who decides? What should we do to ensure living wages in the sectors that are creating the most jobs (retail, service, etc.)? Such questions would engage us in thinking about the system of work, not just preparing for it uncritically.

For 20 years, World Education has published resources that facilitate civic dialogue and offer a platform for varied perspectives and questioning voices. The most long-lasting has been The Change Agent magazine, and now website, where educators can find compelling student-authored materials and activities that build much-needed habits of mind.  You can find it, and other civics resources, on our Civic Participation page.



Navigating the Shifting Terrain of Technology in the Classroom

“The button was there and I pushed it. That was an action that will change my professional life.” — Cindy Holden, Vermont Adult Learning

This is the comment of one brave participant in the New England Literacy Resource Center’s (NELRC) Technology Integration Project (TIP), a six-month professional development initiative designed to prepare adult educators to understand, choose, and effectively incorporate technology into instruction. Like Cindy, many of the project participants began clicking buttons and using applications they had heard about but didn’t quite feel confident enough to try out on their own. What TIP offered was a supportive learning community, a knowledgeable guide, and clear expectations to experiment.

Adult educators understand that they need to build fluency with technology in order to pass that competence along to students who need these skills in their lives – to function in the workplace, to stay informed, and to both monitor and support the way their children use the internet and social media. They also understand that the world of education is being rapidly transformed by new tech tools and innovations. Many instructors have kept pace with these changes and are bringing them into their classrooms. They may have grown up in technology-rich environments and know how to navigate that terrain. But others, though interested in staying abreast of change, feel that they can’t get a foothold in this ever-shifting landscape; just as they learn one new instructional tool, they discover that it’s become outmoded and replaced by a new device, application, or platform, and they feel back at step one. The TIP aimed to help instructors think less about the endless number of tools they could learn about, and focus instead on building confidence with specific tools that would meet their instructional purposes.

TIP was also an experiment in providing extended professional development to a field where most staff are juggling multiple under-compensated jobs and have little time to focus intensively on their own development. It needed to provide all the supports we recommend when we talk about learner persistence, and focus on practical, concrete outcomes. The design included these key elements:

  1. Start off with a facilitated online course* that builds a common knowledge base and develops a learning community.
  2. Discuss ways the course ideas can be applied in various settings and have participants work with a project partner as they bring new tools and techniques into their classrooms.
  3. Provide individual and group coaching by a knowledgeable and supportive facilitator.
  4. Connect the learning to other requirements, such as implementation of the College and Career Readiness Standards, so that it feels like a support rather than an add-on.
  5. Reinforce the learning by having participants reflect on and articulate what they have learned via a final project.

Eighty percent of the TIP participants completed the full sequence of activities up to the final project and sixty-six percent completed everything. While participants had suggestions for ways the project could be tightened up, the impressive completion rate suggests that our efforts to support their persistence had an impact. In addition, the great number of discussion posts about what participants were learning from each other’s projects and how they would transfer those ideas to their own work, demonstrated that we had reached our primary aim of building practitioners’ sense of competence and confidence in using technology to meet their needs. For more on TIP and to access the archive, visit NELRC’s Promising Practices page:

*The online course that anchored the TIP project was the LINCS course, “Integrating Technology into the Adult Education Classroom.” It is available on the LINCS Learning Portal, which can be accessed from the homepage:

Promising Practices for Adult Student Persistence

Nationwide, almost half of the adults enrolled in adult education classes leave before completing at least one educational level or achieving their goals. Many stop attending due to changing work schedules, lack of reliable child care or transportation, poor health, need to take care of other family members, or just simple exhaustion. Others falter because of self-doubt about their abilities or uncertainty about the relevance of their studies. In 2008, the New England Learner Persistence Project provided resources to 18 adult education programs to investigate the impact of context-specific interventions to improve student persistence.

cover image for Making it Worth the StayThe resulting report detailed the promising practices that were tested and the quantitative and qualitative outcomes that resulted in a diverse mix of adult education (ESOL, ABE and ASE) programs in urban, rural and small town settings. It also aimed to understand why the implemented strategies were so successful. What explained their effectiveness?
Our analysis led us to conclude that the strategies work because they address six “drivers of persistence:”

Community and belonging
When we feel welcomed, respected, and offered a sense of belonging, we are more apt to return to that setting or task. For that reason, cultivating a sense of belonging and community from the moment a prospective adult learner comes through the doors or calls is an important persistence strategy.

Clarity of purpose
Clarity of purpose refers to helping students gain clarity about their own purposes for learning – their goals and dreams – and how the instructional approaches of their teachers address those purposes. Knowing this builds trust that the program will meet their needs.

A sense of competence
Adults’ sense of competence and self-efficacy (beliefs about one’s ability to perform in a specific area – cooking, math, languages, etc.) can have a profound effect on their persistence and achievement. Students with more self-efficacy are willing to work harder and persist in the face of adversity to reach their goals.

Learning is difficult in an environment that is chaotic or unstable. This is challenging, especially, for the many adult learners whose lives are marked by instability caused by poverty and trauma. According to Perry (2006), “The major challenge to the educator working with highly stressed or traumatized adults is to furnish the structure, predictability, and sense of safety that can help them begin to feel safe enough to learn.”

The degree of perceived relevance of instruction to the adult learners’ goals, interests and life experience is a key factor in adults’ motivation to persist in their studies. Most adult learners juggle many competing priorities that may take precedence if the instructional program does not feel meaningful to their needs and interests.

Agency is the capacity for human beings to make things happen through their actions. As people mature, they move from dependence toward self-direction, and want to be treated as responsible individuals with the capacity to determine things for themselves.

We continue to apply what we’ve learned about student persistence to each new project we design, and to share it through our online courses (Helping Students Stay: Exploring Program and Classroom Persistence Strategies, Promoting Mental Health in the ABE/ESOL Classroom) program resources (Adult Learner Persistence Website, The Change Agent), and workshops. For more information, see our website or contact Andy Nash.