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John Guenther is the Research Leader—Education and Training, with the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. He has worked as an adult learning practitioner in the Adult and Community Education, Vocational Training and Higher Education sectors. For the last 18 years his focus has been on research in northern Australia, and more specifically working with remote First Nations communities to build evidence to inform policy and practice. Among the many issues that come up, adult literacy and learning are consistently raised as priority issues.

‘Literacy’ is often seen as a direct enabler for adults to gain access to a range of individual and social outcomes: including but not limited to, economic participation, social cohesion/capital, health and wellbeing, identity, wellbeing and cultural sustainability. The simple causal logic for these outcomes might look something like this: being literate enables individuals to access knowledge and higher levels of training and education, which in turn gives them greater access to social and human capital which in turn leads to economic participation in the knowledge economy. It all starts with literacy. Right?


In this presentation John Guenther will attempt to challenge the simple logic posited above along with its assumptions as they apply to remote First Nations communities. The first challenge lies in the nature of literacy or more correctly, ‘literacies’. Literacies encompass more than might be suggested by tasks associated with ‘skill levels’. What kind of literacies are we talking about? English, Indigenous language or some other language? Where do digital literacies fit? And where does the literacy of Country or culture fit into this logic?

If we were to design an adult literacy intervention that would take account of these many literacy forms, how might we enhance the underpinning drivers of literacy acquisition and application? How do policies, the powers that create them and the dollars that deliver them, influence an intervention? And how do the socio-cultural values that promote and resist change affect an intervention? Then there are post-structural (such as colonization and racism) and structural factors (such as bureaucracies and hierarchies) that enable or disable meaningful learning. What about basic infrastructures (e.g. broadband access and learning spaces), and delivery mechanisms? We haven’t scratched the surface of the impact of an individual’s identity, his/her/their history, motivation and family. All of a sudden our adult literacy intervention has become complicated!

One of the key problems for policy designers and implementers is that the assumptions they bring (often from a capital city) don’t necessarily apply in remote communities. Those of us who work in remote contexts often discuss the failures or lack of adult literacy policies and programs for First Nations people in remote communities. However, while there is an absence of policy it is a good opportunity to rethink our assumptions, and go back to the foundations of what drives adult learning/literacies in remote communities (positively and negatively) and then look at constructing better pathways as well as dismantling the blockages that would facilitate fit for purpose literacy acquisition programs in remote communities.