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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue B ::: November 2004

Reading Work

Literacies in the New Workplace

by Tracy Defoe & Sue Folinsbee
The idea that workers' "basic skill deficits" were to blame for the "ills" of today's workplace did not match our experience as workplace educators, nor did the view of literacy as a discrete set of skills to be mastered by individuals coincide with our opinions. Literacy at work is more than just reading and writing: it is also social in nature. Literacy is an integral part of the work place that must be examined in the context of the overall workplace environment. Considered in this way, literacy takes on broader meanings. We had the opportunity to participate in a research project in which we examined literacy from a social practice view. We looked at what else was happening when difficulties at work were identified as problems of an individual worker's skill, investigated why workers do or do not participate in literacy practices at the workplace, and reflected on what this means for our work as workplace educators.

We participated as two of five researchers conducting a five-year ethnographic study called the In-Sites Studies in Workforce Literacy. The team conducted research at four work sites in Canada: a food processing plant, a textile manufacturing firm, a high-tech manufacturing plant, and an urban hotel. Our team was a collaboration among practitioners and academics; we are two of the three workplace educators who participated. Our findings have been published as a book entitled Reading Work: Literacies in the New Workplace (Belfiore et al., 2004). This article is based on our research as published in Reading Work.

Ethnography is a qualitative research approach that seeks to understand the lives of the individuals on whom the research focuses, from their own point of view rather than the researchers'. Ethnographic methods primarily involve talking to people and observing what is going on. We chose ethnography for our study because most of the literature on literacy and skills does not include the point of view of workers.

Each of us spent six to eight months at our research site. We collected data in many different ways. We hung out at the workplace: on the shop floor, in training sessions, in all kinds of meetings, in the lunch room, and at other social events. We conducted in-depth interviews with people at all levels at our site, sometimes more than once. We reviewed formal and informal print materials used at work. One researcher got permission to be a "participant observer." She worked alongside workers at her site and got to feel what it was like to be inside some of the different jobs that workers do there.

Spending so much time observing and asking questions at a workplace enabled us to understand events that unfold over time. For example, a Non-Conformance Report (NCR) is a quality improvement tool used at Texco, a textile manufacturing company. Employees are supposed to — but do not always — complete an NCR when something goes wrong. Managers thought staff did not fill them out because their writing and spelling skills were inadequate. However, our research revealed that workers did not complete the forms for many different reasons. Many saw the form as a disciplinary tool that could be used against them or their co-workers. To protect themselves or others, they did not complete the form. Conversely, some workers completed the form when someone else did not, to cover themselves. Using an ethnographic research method allowed us to uncover and understand these contradictions around the use of paperwork and documentation.

Managers wanted a workplace education practitioner to design a course to teach workers how to complete the NCR forms and explain why the forms were important. Looking back, we can see that such a course would have been only partially successful because the underlying issues would not have been resolved. This is only one example of how doing this research changed the way we look at our work.

Lessons Learned

We learned that we could not separate "applying essential skills" or "using literacies" from working; literacy was intrinsic to all the work we saw. Consider the example of machine operators in a manufacturing plant. Each one works with digital micrometers to measure tight tolerances, keeps histogram and run charts for Statistical Process Control tracking of production, reads engineering drawings, writes on maintenance logs and checklists, uses a computer to look on the corporate intranet for the up-to-date Bill of Materials. When is the machine operator just working and when is he or she using literacies? They are inseparable.

We learned to look beyond the official uses of forms and documents to understand the ways in which workers interpreted them that were different from the official purposes. Workers chose to participate in 
literacies and work life, or not, depending on specific local meanings: the meanings held by the people in that particular place, about their specific situations. Sometimes, for example, the official idea of an International Standards Organization (ISO) audit is that it checks on systems, but many workers and managers believe that an ISO audit evaluates them personally.

As practitioners who work in workplaces, we cannot draw hasty conclusions about situations, or about individuals who are not participating. Any neat divisions into "skilled and unskilled" or "communication issues vs. work-related issues" became problematic. By trying to see complexities, and trying not to simplify every issue into a skills issue, we learned that what prevents a worker from engaging in a part of work life might relate to his or her literacy "skills," but it might stem from something else.

This has implications for many aspects of our work. Assessing the needs in a workplace, which is usually the first step in creating a workplace program, relies upon both mapping the workplace accurately and making recommendations. For example, one commonly stated aim of workplace learning is to help people participate at work. But if that is a goal, the question arises: Is anyone willing to listen? At the textile factory, for example, management talked a lot about the need for worker empowerment and initiative. However, not all workers felt empowered. Rather, they said that they had been reprimanded for taking initiative or giving their opinion. They feared that if they were honest and their opinion was different from management's, they would be out of favor with management. When operators were asked whether or not people write anything on the blackboard under the heading, "New Comments and New Ideas," one said, "Nobody writes nothing. Do you think they are going to listen to anything we have to say?"

In the future, we will be cautious about focusing our attention just on literacies and skills, as we now see we have done in the past. We have always relied upon joint labor-management committees to guide our work and to ground it locally, but we have not always given full weight to their concerns. Sometimes the links they see between the learning situation and the workplace did not make sense to us, so we reinterpreted their ideas through education filters. We now see that we should listen closely to their interpretations, and make a place for their understandings of complex situations. We will ask follow-up questions and when it seems someone on the committee "doesn't get it," we will ask ourselves if it is us who are missing the point.

We also learned the value of stories for illustrating a point. For example, at the high-tech factory, a group of machine operators were not completing their production tracking documents. Did they need lessons in working with data and charts? No. Did they need to learn the importance of tracking to production quality? No. They had been told that, in their particular case, with the short-run parts they made, the data was not going to be useful for analysis. So they stopped keeping it. They did not realize that the data was also used for warranty information, so in fact they did need to record it. Once the operators learned this, they started to keep the records. In this case a meaningful reason for this practice was understood by all concerned, both the workers and their supervisors. If no one had taken the time to find out what lay behind the operators' failing to complete these forms, we might have started teaching document skills and measurement —both of which would have been unnecessary.

More Questions Than Answers
As we completed the analysis of our data, we moved from asking "What happened at your site and what did it mean?" to wondering, "What are we going to do now, and why?" At our next workplace education assignments, we do not want to write learning goals that are not meaningful, or participate in pushing a learning agenda that is irrelevant. Some of the questions we posed to help us reflect on implications for practice included the following:

Together we looked back on our practice of more than a decade each, and we reflected on our experiences using our new filter of social practice. What did we not see because we were looking for basic skills? What did we miss because we were focusing on the individual person and his or her skills, rather than on the complex situation and work group that surrounded him or her? Too often in the past, the level of our interest was set on the potential student; the actual work that was most real for her was merely background, serving only as a context that we described but did not take fully into account in our work. That has changed now.

We see that we always used authentic materials, but relied too much on what those materials meant to us to form lessons. We saw the material as examples of language in use, rather than as real parts of our learners' work days. The materials were more than out of context: they were next to meaningless in situations in which the real challenge lay in the politics of how people behaved together and not in how a form or memo was written or read. We now check with a wider group of people and ask open-ended questions like "How does this work?" when we find a form, memo, or newsletter article that we think might be a worthwhile focus for teaching and learning. People have told us surprising insights: "That is the way people cover themselves and make my department look bad," was one answer. We were never comfortable with deficit descriptions of individual workers (listing what they are not good at, for example), but this response demonstrates that much more is involved in forms not being filled out than writing skills or aptitudes.

We now see the value of working with work groups, not just the people who are nominated as needing help. We recognize that understanding systems and individuals, and finding out how things work in practice as well as how they are supposed to work, will help us keep a social practice framework. This does not mean we are ignoring basic skills or individual learning; we are trying to maintain a wide focus on the workplace while also focusing on individuals and groups. We are still practitioners, but we will strive not to be innocent about the lived reality of workers' lives.

Implementing This Approach
How can we put this perspective into practice? We plan learning objectives for individuals and groups, much as we always did. Now, however, we invite our learners to bring in material that they judge important. With a pen and paper, or a cassette recorder and a digital camera, we will go out onto the shop floor with our machine operator student and see how communication can break down when the operator tries to talk with a maintenance worker or an engineer. These are the people the students really need to work with, to learn to communicate with, to practice what they are working on in writing or speaking up. This takes letting go of some control. It takes courage on everyone's part.

We will strive to identify needs and rechart a learning course over time. We have to convince our joint committees to see the goals of a learning program in this new way, and that the change in work culture that people often hope to realize from workplace education comes through this kind of process. We will use every opportunity to gather information, observe, and ask what things mean. In cases in which events or even a single document holds different meanings for different groups, we will know that we have found one of the keys to better understanding a workplace and the people who work there.

Belfiore, M.E., Defoe, T., Folinsbee, S., Hunter, J., & Jackson, N. (2004). Reading Work: Literacies in the New Workplace. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

About the Authors
Tracy A. Defoe is an independent work place education consultant and researcher with an interest in building inclusive and peer-led curricula for learning at work. She is currently puzzling through the challenges of participation in lean manufacturing.

Sue Folinsbee has worked in the field of workplace education for almost 20 years. She is presently working on a number of projects coordinated by the Labour Education Centre including the "Hospitality Workers' Resource Centre" and a "Union Passport to Learning" in Toronto, Canada.

The In-Sites Research Group members are Mary Ellen Belfiore, Tracy Defoe, Sue Folinsbee, Judy Hunter, and Nancy Jackson.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL