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Can Academics Solve the Tricky Problem of Global Illiteracy? Two NLU Profs Give It Their Best Shot


Across the globe, 781 million adults cannot read or write, according to UNESCO.

Is it crazy to think academics can help developing nations solve that problem, even as those nations grapple with hunger, disease, lack of infrastructure and other quagmires?

Not after an enthusiastic conversation with Anthony Cree, O.A.M., an NLU visiting professor, and Professor James O’Meara, Director of NCE Program Analysis and Development  at NLU. The two Australian-born professors, who organize conferences which attract heads of state and education ministers from around the globe, talk passionately about how raising literacy levels can raise standards of living, improve health and spark learning in struggling nations.

They’re expanding NLU’s international involvement. Cree is the founder and chairman of the World Literacy Summit, which meets every two years at Oxford University in Oxford, United Kingdom, and draws high-ranking decision-makers from every continent.  O’Meara is the organizer of the Global Education First Conference, as well as being an elected member to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Non-Government Organization (NGO) Liaison Committee and an invited member of the UNESCO International Taskforce on Teachers for EFA (Education for All).

Big Business needs workers who can read

They skip deftly from topics like the need for cultural sensitivity to why industry will probably push African nations to require schooling and develop literacy.

Cree knows of corporations which would like to hire local workers on projects in sub-Saharan Africa, but don’t make those hires because the local populace can’t read.

Because of that, they can’t follow a training manual or even understand a sign that says “Danger — do not enter,” he points out.

Both men suggested that the need for a prepared workforce will increase literacy in Africa the same way it did in Europe.

Industrial Revolution made Europe literate

“Up until the industrial revolution, 80 percent of the population (of England) was illiterate. In a rural agrarian population, you don’t need to read and write, but as soon as you move into an industrialized economy, you have to,” Cree said. “However, the push for education came from industry, not the government.”

O’Meara tied that thought into the United Nations’ eight Millennium Goals, which include achieving universal primary education throughout all nations.

“2015 is the evaluation date for the Millennium Goals, then there will be a new set from 2015 to 2030,” he said.

As huge as the challenge may seem, setting goals, indicators and targets  helps to define strategies and monitor progress, they said.

One teacher, 1,000 pupils

“India had Operation Blackboard. They mandated one teacher per thousand people. And the Indian literacy level is 64 percent, compared to 30 percent in Pakistan,” Cree observed.

But the problem is much bigger than that. The region of South and West Asia is home to more than half of the global illiterate population (52%), O’Meara pointed out, citing UNESCO figures.  In addition, 22% of all illiterate adults live in sub-Saharan Africa, 13% in East Asia and the Pacific, 6.5% in the Arab States and 4.7% in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Both professors also know that even though the U.N. has prioritized the goal of international literacy, the effort must surmount many obstacles present in developing countries. These include armed conflict in many areas; diseases such as AIDS and Ebola; limited access in some places to water, food and sanitation, and a lack of infrastructure, which makes for few roads in some places.

There’s the question of weather, which makes roads impassable in wet seasons and conditions difficult in dry seasons. Of course, there’s also the need to be aware of politics.

Literacy pioneers who want to engage with international communities must also be aware of people’s cultures and respect them, lest they offend people and do more harm than good, the professors explained.

Pictures that look like local people

Cultural knowledge and sensitivity can be an effective tool in teaching. Cree capitalized on it with aboriginal children in Australia by starting with English children’s books, removing images of English children and their puppies and replacing them with images of aboriginal children and their pet dingos, or other Australian animals.

“They are so popular that we send off 10,000 books a month,” he said, referring to the work of his Aboriginal Literacy Foundation.

On the question of whether academics can really surmount the burdensome challenges of developing nations to help spread global literacy, Cree and O’Meara think they have an answer.

So how DO you teach the world to read?

“I started by being hands-on, but I’ve come around to James’ view,” said Cree. “You’ve got to have a plan, work out what works and what doesn’t work. That’s why conferences are so important. A lot of cross-fertilization takes place.”

For example, he gave a conference talk on teaching methods he found have worked with aboriginal Australians, and some listeners said they were going to modify the methods and use them in Africa.

A woman from Nigeria was intrigued by a literacy concept used in the Navajo (native American) community, and is going to adapt it to students in Nigeria, Cree added.

Besides that, people come together at conferences, form ideas and goals, set up coalitions and get sponsors, governments and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) involved.

“This is why you need the big thinkers,” O’Meara said. “You need to develop local responses that reflect an  understanding  of  the strategic plans of  multilateral organizations like UNESCO and the  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) .”

Up Next:

Nov. 20-21, 2014—NLU is participating in the Chicago Dialogue: Preparing Teachers for the Post-2015 Education Agenda, which O’Meara is organizing. The Chicago Dialogue is described as, “a forum for teachers, teacher educators, parents, children, employers and community members to have a voice in the global education agenda for 2015-2030 as well as the post-2015 development agenda.” Delegates will have a chance to express their views via the Chicago Declaration. The final draft of this document will be shared with the organizers of the 2015 World Education Forum, and the United Nations Summit in New York.

November 2015—NLU will participate in the Global Education First Conference.

April 2016—NLU will participate in the next World Literacy Summit in Oxford, England.