Literacy in a Complex World
by Tracy Westell
In January 2005, when I was planning an Appreciative Inquiry workshop
with Jean Connon Unda, I read Peter Calamai’s piece in the
ABC CANADA newsletter, Literacy at Work. The article was an excerpt
from a speech Calamai gave at the Literacy and Health conference
the previous fall in Ottawa. Calamai is a journalist and long-time
supporter of literacy in Canada. His speech was hard hitting and
many literacy workers, including myself, took offence at the criticism
he levelled at us. He tempered his criticism of literacy programs
with an understanding of the low levels of funding (“cash-strapped
literacy providers”) and the lack of “quality standards.” But
he claims the needle that shows a reduction in “the number
of adults whose literacy skills fall below Level Three” hasn’t
moved in 17 years of literacy funding and this cry will only get
louder with the results of the new Adult Literacy and Life Skills
Reading about complexity theory helped me to understand Calamai’s
viewpoint. He sees literacy education as a simple input-output problem
and that, somehow, we literacy practitioners had been applying the
wrong inputs and, consequently, had not made the gains in literacy
that we, and the government, had hoped for. In the last 30 years,
complexity theorists have begun to realize that many of our natural
and man-made systems are not created out of a unilinear cause-and-effect
paradigm but are complex adaptive systems that are created out of
multiple interactions. These interactions include feedback and feed-forward
loops, sensitivity to initial conditions (the butterfly effect),
fractal design (repeating iterations of patterns that are endless)
and self-organization. Complexity science is now influencing many
nonscientific fields including education, urban planning, psychoanalysis,
policy development and architecture. Phelps and Hase, in their article “Complexity
and Action Research”, explain the implications for the social
sciences in this way:
First, it places an increasing stress on self-organization and a
realistic awareness that sociological phenomenon often cannot be
forecast. Secondly, the theory recognizes that all living organisms
are self-steering within certain limits and that their behaviour,
therefore, can be steered from the outside only to a moderate extent.
Thirdly, complexity theory highlights the continuous emergence of
new levels of organized complexity within society (p. 508).
We are living in a policy landscape that is based on an audit culture,
a culture committed to Newton’s view of the world, that for
every action we take there is a reaction (or in social management
terms, an outcome) and that those reactions can be used as measures
of performance of the agent initiating the action. In a closed system,
such as a refrigerator, we know that we can put freon into a set
of tubes, provide some source of power generation and get cooling.
If we don’t get cooling we can examine all of the inputs to
determine what isn’t working, fix the input and get a satisfactory
outcome. In adult education, checklists, standardized tests, matrices,
etc., are all put into place to assess if our system of adult education
is working, all predicated on the erroneous assumption that we are
working with a cause-and-effect system that can be measured and graded.
Furthermore, society, within which adult education is embedded, is
also a complex system and the number of adults whose literacy skills
fall below Level Three is a social fact that is multiply determined
by diverse factors that include, but go far beyond, our education
system, including economics, family, health and individual differences,
to name a few. To call on adult literacy programs to unilaterally
move those statistics is to shift the burden onto a minor player
in the system as a whole. This is not to say that literacy programs
should not be held accountable for what we do, but rather to insist
that we not be expected to make up for the ills of a society that
result in such large numbers of Canadian adults with low literacy
levels in the first place.
Contrary to Calamai’s doom-and-gloom view of the literacy
field, I believe that learners and practitioners have accomplished
much over the last 17 years. I’ll only mention three things—all
hard to measure:
1. We understand that learning is complex and that no one system
will satisfy all learners’—or even most learners’—needs.
2. We understand that we can help adults to learn, but that there
are many other factors that learners and practitioners have little
control over that work against and for the success of that learning.
3. We understand that progress in learning is sometimes unpredictable,
not easy to quantify and often connected to the relationships and
community in which the learning takes place.
Tim Blackman writes:
Performance management has been described as one facet of the audit
culture that ‘relies upon hierarchical relationships and coercive
practices’ (Shore and Wright 2000, p. 62). It involves the
use of information centralized in the hands of the few to manage
the performance of the many. A series of problems follows from the
coercive accountability often associated with this paradigm, from ‘implementation
gaps’ to the manipulation of performance indicators and frustration
about being held to account for the effects of external factors on
Complexity science tells us that it is very difficult to predict
outcomes when dealing with complex systems. Blackman puts forth a
vision of policy development and public management that moves away
from the audit culture paradigm toward a culture that is based on
dialogue, innovation, transformation and acknowledgement of the environments
within which organizations are (usually) struggling to work. In Canada,
literacy policies have been developed with directives, outcomes and
performance indicators that, if not met, would jeopardize an organization’s
funding (this is not necessarily stated explicitly but is implicit
in the whole culture of the system). So coercion is embedded in the
Creating sensible policies
How might applying the principles of complexity theory shift literacy
policies so that they are more flexible and responsive, more democratic
and more innovative?
• Do not tie simple outcomes to complex systems. Better
jobs may not be (and I would suggest rarely are) a result of better
literacy skills; fewer gun deaths are not the result of more recreation
centres. However, the combination of rec centres, literacy programs,
health centres, tenant groups, job training, etc., may result in
better jobs, fewer gun deaths and more democratic action.
• Acknowledge and encourage (rather than silence) the
natural feedback loops in the system. Create opportunities
for dialogue among learners, practitioners, bureaucrats and politicians.
• Develop a set of guiding principles for literacy
programs that provides some limits and parameters but promotes
organizational sensitivity to local conditions and innovation: complexity
theory says that systems are self-organizing.
• Do not tie funding solely to literacy performance. We
need benchmarks to determine an organization’s performance
but to isolate one complex system from the many complex social systems
within which it is embedded and then mark its performance is frustrating
and not representative of how the organization is performing. “There
has to be an alignment between the aims of policy and the capacity
of organizations to deliver, and this includes considering the fitness
landscape which each organization faces” (Blackman).
• Encourage innovation. Above all, “organizations
need to have the autonomy to initiate innovation rather than be constrained
by predefined performance targets” (Blackman). Literacy practitioners
in Canada have no time for reflection and innovation because they
are too wrapped up in servicing the audit culture. Practitioners
are the holders of a vast set of experiences and have learned much
from their practice: they are truly the potential generators of empirically
gathered knowledge about learning but have had no acknowledgement
of this and no time to document it.
• Strengthen the infrastructure of the field. “Structure
arises dynamically from agents’ patterns of common or coordinated
responses to given conditions, repeated over time” (Blackman).
Adult literacy is a very small part of the government’s responsibility.
What would happen if, as an experiment in policy development, government
allowed the field to structure and monitor itself with help from
government in terms of field development, guiding principles (developed
with the field but partially monitored by government field workers)
and financial accountability guidelines? I would suggest that the
field might have a moment of disorganization and incredulity but
it would soon start using the excellent infrastructure already in
place to organize itself and continue in the ever-changing and challenging
project of providing the best education possible.
• Find meaningful ways to document adult literacy. Acknowledge
that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts: “[C]omplex
open systems have evolutionary potential. These systems cannot be
understood through analysis—through reduction to their component
parts. Neither does the reductionist principle of causation apply.
Complex things have properties and causal liabilities which do not
reduce in a hierarchical sense—things at different levels can
recursively interact. Emergence is crucial…” (Byrne).
Some things are not measurable and perhaps those are the most important
things. Certainly, complexity science tells us to take note of the
unusual, those things that emerge out of the pattern. Let’s
document our work in a meaningful way and resist the temptation of
measuring the immeasurable.
Tracy Westell has left literacy work.
Blackman, Tim (2001). Complexity Theory and the New Public Management.
Social Issues 1(2). Available at www.whb.co.uk/socialissues/tb.htm.
Calamai, Peter (2005). Literacy at work 43, January. Toronto:
Byrne, David (2001). Complexity Science and Transformations in Social
Policy. Social Issues 1(2). Available at www.whb.co.uk/socialissues/indexvol1two.htm.
Phelps, Renata and Stewart Hase (2002). Complexity and Action Research:
Exploring the Theoretical and Methodological Connections. Educational
Action Research 10.3, 507-524.
Shore, C. and Wright, S. (2000). Coercive Accountability: The Rise
of Audit Culture in Higher Education. In M. Strathern (ed.), Audit
Cultures, London: Routledge.