ProLiteracy is pleased to highlight “Response to Paul J. Jurmo,” by Esther Prins, of Pennsylvania State University. This article is featured in Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy, ProLiteracy’s free online, peer-reviewed research journal created to inform practitioners, researchers, policymakers, and funders about best practices in adult literacy, numeracy, and English language education.
An excerpt of “Response to Paul J. Jurmo” is highlighted below.
Paul Jurmo proposes 10 actions to make “basic skills education more inclusive relevant, efficient, and sustained.” These recommendations are drawn from his decades of experience in the field, coupled with the expertise of researchers and professionals who understand the adult basic education (ABE) system and the needs of adult learners and educators. To further this conversation, I offer questions and observations as a “critical friend” (Forester, 1999). My comments focus on the following topics: (1) how Jurmo’s recommendations highlight learners’ capabilities and multi-faceted purposes, (2) areas for elaboration (diverse populations, efficiency, inclusiveness, and “learning eco-systems”), (3) the distance education and social support needs accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and (4) why a critical approach to education is crucial for building the more inclusive, relevant ABE system that Jurmo envisions.
First, I appreciate Jurmo’s reminder that adults bring capabilities that we often fail to recognize and that their “unmet literacy needs” (Feeley, 2014) have real consequences in their daily lives. These two discourses are often in tension. Many policy makers, researchers, and educators view adult learners through a deficit lens, focusing on what they are lacking, as evidenced by terms like “basic skills deficient” in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Others— especially New Literacy Studies scholars—valorize, and sometimes romanticize, the creative ways learners use literacy, especially outside the classroom. Jurmo’s recognition of this tension recalls Deborah Brandt’s (2001) observation: “Just as illiteracy is rarely self-chosen and rarely self-created, the literacy that people practice is not the literacy they necessarily wish to practice” (p. 8). For instance, distributed literacy (people helping each other with literacy tasks) may not signal personal preferences and collective values so much as exclusion from education and literacy learning opportunities. ABE learners are creative and resourceful and have many kinds of knowledge to contribute and they can also enrich their lives by acquiring new or expanded capabilities for using literacy, numeracy, and language.