A marketer in education: my takeaways from “Lost For Words”

(“Lost for words” cast students, credit SBS on Demand)

I got to know the show “Lost For Words”, one of the newest shows aired on SBS On Demand, in a newsletter I received. As I was on sick leave, I had the time and binged watching all of the three episodes in one set. I was trying to recover from tonsillitis and could feel the sleepiness kicking in when I watched the shows, but it was just simply brilliant — and very connected to me on the other side of the spectrum.

Over the course of nine weeks, eight adults that were identified with different learning disabilities (dyslexia) and/or were suffered from generic conditions were placed into a tailored adult literacy program, improving not only their literacy & numeracy skills but also overall confidence in engaging in learning and their lives. The latter part is very easily seen throughout the show (and a few plots from Mediaweek, Sydney Morning Herald, and News.com.au have debriefed the audience on this), and I also just, as many other viewers, shed some happy tears at the sweet ending. Well done, everyone!

(The graduates of the program, credit SBS on Demand)

Whilst I’m still a tiny bit suspicious of how “life-changing” the actual program is, I was impressed by the hands-on, practical, and tailored approach in what was displayed. Not as “exclusive” as having a one-on-one tutor, but close enough to let everyone have their own attention and needs taken care of. Much as the ending teaser gave details on what the student was up to immediately, I really look forward to seeing if there would be follow-ups on the adult learners’ journeys in a year’s time — just as one of them mentioned in the show, “if nine months could bring this much change, what if this program runs for a year?”

As an early childhood teacher, I did find a few interesting things that the program — as captured and displayed on screen — offered. They also gave me some inspiration that echoed some main principles in early childhood education.

What is the “normal”?

What fascinates me the most is that these adults participating in this literacy program don’t have “disabilities”. They live normally, have families and friends, and quite a few of them have a career. However, the ability to read and write has imposed so many invisible obstacles in their lives, and altogether with other negative touches of the stress from other parts of life, the struggle is real. What’s also interesting about the literacy levels, reading and writing most namely.

In a world filled with smart technologies, people can choose not to engage with certain activities but are still able to live and survive. But, is there a “normal” way of living when you can’t really get the hang of everyday life?

(a normal distribution graph)

This made me think about the general normal distribution we always see, which describes where the “normality” lies. Like every other curve, there are shrinking aspects

Not being able to hit certain social expectations, but “normal” enough to live a life without so much assistance, is not a good point to be. For children and for adults. Are we doing enough in the educational programs to make our education more inclusive to children on both sides of the spectrum? Special and inclusive schools have a somehow “negative” touch, and talented and gifted programs can be run in a very goal-oriented way (e.g. winning at competitions) which makes study not as fun. Is there a balance point?

There will always be people on the “edge” of anything.

Is there a way to live “normally”?

Real-world situations

Shopping with a grocery list, cooking a meal by following a recipe, finding their ways from a certain place to a certain place, delivering a speech… I was very amazed by the hands-on experiences provided in the course and realized they are actually everywhere in our lives. I personally can’t imagine a functional adult not being able to complete these tasks on their own, but looking from this new angle and seeing them as proactive and capable learners, my sights have changed. Utilizing the real-life scenarios and give it a little twist (making it more challenging but educational as there would be personal support) has proven to work with the students, and I wouldn’t doubt that

The approach did have a drawback — you get what you are provided, and the situation is what it is. It definitely works on the smaller, individual scales when every person gets a chance to complete his or her own project. However, if there’s no follow-up, or when someone is exposed to another way of doing it — what would they do? For example, today the recipe is to follow a “kangaroo pie”, what about a “cottage pie” tomorrow? Here the theories and the building blocks come in and in the program’s case — to actually sit down and learn to read the word components, sentence structures, and the alphabet. Theories and real-world practices go hand-in-hand.

That said, the real-life scenarios fit perfectly into the participants’ personal goals, and I’m excited to see how we can also apply these in a child-safe environment too — making children more aware of their interests and develop a consistent passion to engage in them.

Mixed-level learning

The eight adults have various literacy levels, ranging from pre-level (not even primary) to In regards to “reading level” assessment, Style Manual Australia has indicated the following data:

  • about 44% of adults read at literacy level 1 to 2 (a low level)
  • 38% of adults read at level 3
  • about 15% read at level 4 to 5 (the highest level).

*People at a reading level 1 read at a primary school equivalent level. They can understand short sentences.

As I enjoy my favorite books in Chinese and English and write in both languages too, I find it hard to believe what I’ve been experiencing and the mainstream society’s situation. Being the (advanced) 15%, I personally struggle with understanding the instructions as well, but in the sense that I couldn’t “more successfully” transfer what I’ve learned into what I need to do. This is another skill that pure literacy couldn’t bring — and that exists for a lot of people, I believe.

Some of the clips in the documentary did highlight the importance of “Scaffolding”, which takes place a lot in mixed-level learnings. For example, some participants were “copying” other people’s actions or relied on body language instead of purely reading, can well be a kind of learning, especially when the actions are matched with their existing knowledge. In my opinion, in mixed-level learnings, any parts with differentiated ability levels would be exposed to something different (not necessarily “Better”, but definitely different ways of doing the same things), and be influenced by that. It can happen positively and negatively, and that’s where the mediation comes in. But it is important to keep the variations so people can take away something they haven’t thought they would. Those things will in the end contribute back to the journey of them reaching their overall goal.

The note on “literacy” was also a good one. In early childhood education, we also put a lot of emphasis on literacy, and children are exposed to all different picture books from a really young age. I’ve seen children that could name what they see at a really young age, as well as children who understand all that is written but couldn’t capture the deeper meaning of the texts (which is totally normal and the books can be out of their levels). Being able to read and write is a whole new set of system that children need to be constantly exposed to, and much as the Australian early learning framework is based on play, children could utilize all the different play opportunities to practice writing (e.g. sand painting, finger painting, number physical activity games, etc).

And literacy is not only just reading and writing, just as we don’t always need a pen and pencil to learn to write (although many times we do).

And last but not least…

Not taking anything for granted, in any way. In early childhood education, we as teachers, have learned to build our activities and program on what we’ve observed of the children — let them lead us to teach. Whatever they enjoy playing/engage with, we find ways to build on them to provide extended learning.

As teachers, we should aspire our students to learn, no matter what that is. For children, ignite the interest of the world around them through “serve and return”. This was, in my eyes, seen in the documentary as well, as the participants were empowered not only on the “learning” of letters, words, and sentences, but also on developing a keen interest to the world, based on their individual interests and orientations.

The program motivated the participants to (re)develop an interest in learning and I think that is the most amazing part of it. Aside from the linguistical, and hard-core technical things they’ve picked up along the way, the support they’ve received seemed second to none. No judgment, individualized curriculum, and personalized assessments, is probably a really good combination of effective learning. However, the most important thing I think is the reignition of a positive outlook for life for them, as well as for a lot of viewers. You put in efforts and you can achieve things — and this definitely applies to traditional learning. It can take time, but it will happen. Nevertheless, how fantastic is life with constant surprises brought by learning something new everyday?!

And the positive feedback feeds more curiosity and desire to do more.

(Article written by Yingzhao Zhu, an early childhood teacher & marketer based in Sydney)

Early Years Teacher | Freelance Bilingual Marketer. yingzhaozhucreates.com