Risk Literacy: What Can Adult Literacy Education Learn from the Decision Sciences?
Posted by Laura McLoughlin on July 21, 2021 in categoryFacts & Research

In the research digest “Risk Literacy: What Can Adult Literacy Education Learn from the Decision Sciences?,” author Leah Katherine Saal points out that risk literacy is “the ability to evaluate and understand risk.”  

Adults are faced with making decisions, or problem solving, all the time that require them to weigh the risk and reward of their decision—health care decisions, who to vote for, or whether to heed safety warnings, for example. Yet, Saal takes a look at adult literacy and questions how often adult students are taught the problem-solving, or risk literacy, skills necessary to make big decisions.  

Saal’s research digest appears in the current issue of Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy. Read an excerpt here: 

Choices, like which health/car insurance plan best meets both needs and budget, whether to evacuate for a hurricane or shelter in place, whether to participate in a protest during a global pandemic, or even which politician serves their communities’ interests in an upcoming election, all require adults to determine the risks and/or rewards associated with alternative outcomes of these multifaceted, socially, and culturally embedded real-world problems (Gresch et al., 2013; Saal, 2015; Saal et al., 2020). Adults bring prior experiences, knowledge, and existing skills of inductive reasoning and evaluation to “not only effectively tackle these situations at an individual level but also to take part in public debates and make fair judgments on how the authorities deal with these issues at a local or global level” (Fang et al., 2019, p. 427). 

According to the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act of 2014, literacy refers to “an individual’s ability to read, write, and speak in English, compute, and solve problems [emphasis added], at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society” (Title 2, §203). Yet, according to the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (2017), over half of American adults are ill prepared to solve problems that include: two or more steps or processes, interpret simple statistics and data, integrate two or more pieces of information, or use reasoning to compare and contrast information across print and digital texts. Because adults navigate their literate world with their own experiences, solving novel complex problems where background knowledge may be limited or inaccurate/biased (like many risk literacy frameworks/domains) is a particular challenge (Greenberg & Feinberg, 2018).  

Yet, in adult literacy education, how often do we consider explicitly teaching problem solving in risk domains? This kind of problem-solving skill is also referred to as risk literacy, or “the ability to evaluate and understand risk” (Cokely et al., 2018, p. 481) in the context of literacy events (Purcell-Gates et al., 2011)? This research digest focuses on using an interdisciplinary approach to teaching risk literacy in adult literacy education settings by applying findings and recommendations from decision science research. 


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