NALL Working Paper #26-2001
LEARNING CAPACITIES IN THE COMMUNITY AND WORKPLACE :
An action research project
Report on the community and literacy learners
1997 to 1998.
Prepared for “Learning Capacities in the Community and Workplace: An action
research project” sponsored by Advocates for Community Based Training and
Education for Women (ACTEW) and, initially, the Communications, Energy and
Paperworkers (CEP) Union. Funded by the Canadian Labour Force Development
Board, National Literacy Secretariat, New Approaches to Lifelong Learning
network at OISE, University of Toronto and the JUMP Project in British Columbia.
|the research network for
New Approaches to Lifelong Learning
||Le Réseau de recherche sur les nouvelles approches de l'éducation
I started by contacting approximately ten non-profit organizations that run
literacy and training programs. Three organizations expressed interest
around participating in the project; SUCCESS, the literacy department at Douglas
College; and the Community Skills Centre. SUCCESS is a twenty year old
non-profit agency that serves the multicultural community. They provide
programs in employment training, ESL, Interpretation, literacy, settlement and
integration and counselling. Douglas College and Community Skills
Centre are operated by Vancouver Community College, offer many courses and
programs and also serve a very diverse population. In total, I interviewed
thirteen literacy students from the two institutions and an additional fourteen
students at SUCCESS.
At SUCCESS, there were fourteen students in The Building Services Workers
Program, twelve were immigrants and had resided in Canada for five to ten years
and two were Canadian born. The immigrant students had, on average, a low
to intermediate level of English proficiency. Their previous work
experience was in areas like export, tourism, carpentry, gardening, retail,
production, and factory operation. Although they considered this program their
only option and a stepping stone to other opportunities, the program did not
capitalize on their prior skills, knowledge or experience.
I was able to create a very open and comfortable environment in the class.
When I explained that the project goals, the SKP and the concept of transferable
skills, they expressed excitement about filling out the SKP. In addition
to being eager about participating in the project, the participants raised
questions on the process of recognition and validation from employers. This a
very critical issues that needs more focus. The students were open about sharing
information but since their language fluency was low, the terminology in the SKP
was difficult to understand. It took four hours and a lot of assistance to
complete the forms. The concept of informal learning was quite foreign and the
students were not able to connect with the potential value of the SKP. I
recommend that individuals who have low English fluency should complete the
entire SKP and the interview as a one to one session. This would be more
productive for the interviewee and for the project.
Facing the challenge of trying to ensure continual funding and more
restrictive eligibility criteria, many community based training programs are
compelled to work with people who are the cream of the crop, those with higher
levels of skills and experience. Many of these students are placed in jobs which
deskill their abilities and eventually they lose the motivation to pursue jobs
that interest them or jobs that capitalize on their skills and knowledge. The
other interesting observation was that in spite of my repeatedly emphasizing
that “your skills and learnings from your country are valid and you can write
about it in the SKP”, many only wrote about work and programs they were
involved in Canada and ignored any learning that occurred in their home
countries. One possible explanation for this is that the individuals have
internalized the constant rejections they experienced in the Canadian workplace.
Since employers demand that workers have Canadian experience, immigrants have
come to believe that only experience in Canada matters.
After this experience I realized that if we did more focus groups or
interviews with the immigrant groups it would be necessary to make changes to
the current SKP form.
The immigrant population who speak English as a second language has a vast
range of skills and experiences from their home countries and the revised SKP
captures some of that, but only touches the surface. It would be essential
to translate the SKP into different languages or to use an interpreter. An
addition of settlement and adjustment under major events with culturally
appropriate questions would help in identifying survival skills, values and
emotional trauma people experience. If the skills were identified and
documented, the SKP could boost their self esteem. Since the notion of
transferable skills was new to the people in my group, it needs to be explained
with examples which are culturally appropriate. I would also stress that
it is important to enter into a conversation with employers on transferrable
skills. Students tend to believe that the whole exercise of identifying
transferrable skills is meaningless without the recognition of employers.
For the next group of interviews I decided that the best method to tap into
the students’ informal learning is to conduct individual face to face
interviews. I met with literacy students from Douglas College and
Community Skills Centre and in total, I interviewed thirteen students. The
Douglas College students functioned at a very low literacy level, all were on
social assistance and a high number had special needs. The majority of them were
Canadian born and from the Caucasian culture aside from two first nations
students. The learners at the Community Skills Centre were primarily
Caucasian and Canadian born; many with special needs. The age range was also
very broad. I found many similar themes emerging from my work with these
programs to those that arose in the work with the participants at the SUCCESS
program. Overall I found the following themes in the work with the SKP and the
1. Self confidence and access to information is a necessary tool. In all the
groups I found that self-confidence was important to the students in order for
them to move forward in work or further study. The people I worked with
face major barriers such as cultural and settlement issues, poverty, racism,
foreign credential recognition issues, and poor English skills. The
systemic racism encountered by ethnic communities led to an internalization of
low self-esteem. In addition, gender, race, marital, and class play a
significant role in learning.
2. Language relating to personal skills and occupation are very important. If
they do not have the language for their learning that skill, the learning is not
valid. This relates to the comment that people felt that their previous
knowledge and skills were not relevant to a Canadian context if they were not
fluent in English. ESL students said that their learning was accelerated
when it connected to prior skills and experiences.
3. The need for employer recognition and validation. As I already
noted, students felt strongly that without some systemic approach to recognizing
and validating their prior knowledge and experience, the exercise was not
useful. They also thought that formal qualifications should not be required if
one can do the job well.
4. The difficulty of translating survival skills into employability skills.
The other observation I made was since other cultures are more holistic than the
North American culture and the threshold for tolerance is much higher therefore,
immigrants are less likely to critique their survival skills in order to
identify the actual learning that has taken place. There is no conscious
awareness that there are many skills that arise from surviving and overcoming a
traumatic or stressful experience and these skills are transferrable to the
5. A supportive environment was helpful in promoting learning. There was a
preference for classroom training in Canada as there were supports provided. The
students told me that having access to information was critical to their
learning and that access was facilitated through the structured program
environment. In order to continue their education and pursue their dreams,
the individuals said they needed counseling, family support and courage. Some
students connected an encouragement to reading during childhood as important in
establishing an affinity towards reading and learning. A high percentage
of interviewees appreciated programs like Job Clubs or transition programs
because they provide support and the facts in a blunt and honest manner.
Individuals like learning what they need at their own pace and the opportunity
to learn in different ways and styles. This was especially significant for
older workers with low literacy levels who, affected by downsizing and
restructuring, are returning to the classroom.
6. Adults face numerous obstacles upon returning to the classroom.
These include time, multiple responsibilities, limited finances, and general
frustration. In addition, if an instructor publicized his/her values that
contradicted a student’s value system, the student was affected negatively.
7. Learning disabilities and social and emotional problems at
home were often not recognized in school. This caused many individuals to lose
interest in learning, lower self esteem, turn their feelings inward and not
participate or to leave school and give up on learning.
8. Multiple skills sets. Individuals tended to have skills and expertise in
three to four different fields which they had learned from a friend,
family member, on the job, or a combination of the three.