Family literacy and the SDGs

EXPLORING EVERYDAY LEARNING

a group of people at a coffee cermony

Neighbouring families attending coffee ceremony in Bahir Dar

Neighbouring families attending coffee ceremony in Bahir Dar

Family literacy has long been promoted as an approach to encourage parents to support their children’s education, such as reading school story books together.

Taking a new angle on family literacy, researchers from UEA and four developing countries have moved outside the typical classroom setting to explore local and indigenous learning, using an ethnographic style of fieldwork.


The Family Literacy, Indigenous Learning and Sustainable Development project is funded by UEA's Global Research Translation Award (GRTA), a £1.36 million project to help tackle health, nutrition, education and environment issues in developing countries. The funding comes from the UK government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), part of the Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) international aid budget.

Over the past year, the GRTA project has conducted ethnographic-style research with communities in Malawi, Nepal, Ethiopia and the Philippines to discover how younger and older generations learn and share local knowledge and skills in their everyday lives.

Ethnography involves researchers joining people in their homes, fields, forests, temples and other public spaces to learn first-hand what it means to live in this community. Through writing ‘thick descriptions’ of events and interactions, comparing and discussing each other’s ideas about learning and literacy, the project team captured rich insights into ‘how’ and ‘what’ intergenerational learning was taking place.

As partners of the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation, the project team shares a deep commitment to addressing inequalities in the poorest communities of the world through adult learning.

The team included researchers from: University of Malawi, Malawi (Ahmmardouh Mjaya, Symon Chiziwa, Jean Josephine Chavula); Tribhuvan University Research Center for Educational Innovation & Development (CERID), Nepal (Kamal Raj Devkota, Sushan Acharya); Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia (Turuwark Zalalam Warkineh, Abiy Menkir Gizaw, Tizita Lemma Melka, Yeraswork Megersa Bedada, Ermiyas Tsehay Birhanu); University of Santo Tomas, Philippines (Gina Lontoc, Camilla Vizconde, Belinda De Castro); School of Education and Lifelong Learning and School of International Development at UEA, UK (Anna Robinson-Pant, Chris Millora, Helene Binesse, Sheila Aikman, Ulrike Hanemann and Catherine Jere).

Malawi

people and boats on a beach in malawi

Fisherfolk on the shores of Lake Malawi

Fisherfolk on the shores of Lake Malawi

Adult literacy rates are low in Malawi (men 72% and women 66%), yet educational policy expects parents to provide literacy support to children. The Malawi team visited a farming and a fishing community, to discover what learning practices families use and how they contribute to sustainable development of livelihoods.

The research team participated in traditional activities alongside the farming families, which included planting rice and collecting mushrooms.

"We sought to understand the lived experiences of community members by employing an ethnographic approach"
Dr. Ahmmardouh Mjaya, Malawi team

The researchers discovered that learning happened spontaneously and voluntarily as the family members went about their day-to-day tasks. For example, Ukoto, a young boy, accompanies his mother on mushroom collecting trips, learning which are good to eat and sell, and how to correctly harvest and store them. Ukoto carefully stores the mushrooms between leaves, checking with his mother regularly that he hasn’t picked a poisonous type.

In the fishing families, the researchers observed that the men use boats to fish and women generate an income by making mats out of palm leaves. The women forage for the correct type of leaves and carefully prepare ‘laces’ for weaving. The process requires exquisitely accurate counting and measuring systems to create a stunning range of different shapes and sizes of mats.

These women are often considered ‘illiterate’, but the research shows they possess sophisticated knowledge. Their daughters watch and gradually join in, and so the learning is passed from generation to generation.

The family members valued these learning practices greatly because their livelihoods depended on traditional skills.

"Learning is not an end in itself but rather, a means to an end. They learn for a purpose. For programmed literacy initiatives, this finding hinges on the need to critically think about the relevance of such initiatives, not so much from the perspectives of the providers but rather … the learners"
Malawi team
a man in a rice paddy

Dr Symon Chiziwa participating in transplanting rice

Dr Symon Chiziwa participating in transplanting rice

two people in a wooded area

Ms Asiyatu and her son Ukoto collecting mushrooms

Ms Asiyatu and her son Ukoto collecting mushrooms

women sewing a cylindrical mat

Mat ribbon sewn into cylindrical structure

Mat ribbon sewn into cylindrical structure

Nepal

Young woman teaches siblings to read and write religious Arabic texts at her home

Young woman teaches siblings to read and write religious Arabic texts at her home

Adult literacy rates in Nepal are improving but remain low (men 75% and women 57%), and policy makers are recognising the importance of adult literacy for achieving sustainable development through lifelong learning. The Nepal team selected four communities spanning diverse cultures and languages to understand what learning and literacy practices are taking place within families.

The team discovered that traditional healing knowledge and practices used to be passed on orally, but now some healers are writing diaries and recipes for the younger generations. Demand for herbal medicine is increasing, and these families are maximising income opportunity by teaching younger members to make and sell remedies.  

"The disconnect between the formal education curriculum and the teaching, learning and knowledge that is shared in indigenous communities, needs to be addressed for sustainable learning"
Nepal team

The researchers witnessed informal education taking place in the evenings taking place in the evenings, led by teenage girls teaching younger children Arabic reading and writing. Public readings and wall-writing of sacred scriptures are further examples of literacy embedded in religious cultural practice.

Indigenous knowledge and skills such as wine-making, carpet-weaving and tailoring helo sustain family livelihoods. The researchers observed learning shared between the generations; as older women taught younger women the techniques of making yeast to prepare homemade wine for sale in the local markets, the younger women demonstrated literacy and numeracy skills through keeping records of sales.

"This collaborative study surely supports us to frame our university curricula and research activities especially in the subjects of Social Sciences and Humanities in line with exploring and documenting indigenous knowledge and intergenerational learning"
Dr. Shiva Lal Bhusal, Rector, Tribhuvan University, Nepal
notebook with black writing

Example of translanguaging. Text beneath Raj Ghale, the astrologer’s hand, is in Gurung and the rest is in Nepali

Example of translanguaging. Text beneath Raj Ghale, the astrologer’s hand, is in Gurung and the rest is in Nepali

a woman weaving

Priest Shree Jung’s wife Maya weaving raadi

Priest Shree Jung’s wife Maya weaving raadi

man measuring a boy for cloth

Measuring up

Measuring up

Philippines

a thatch house

An Aeta house built on the lot awarded to them by a religious NGO

An Aeta house built on the lot awarded to them by a religious NGO

Despite high levels of literacy (98% in 2015), an estimated 4 million young people are not in school in the Philippines. The research team spent time with a predominantly female farming community and an indigenous community called the Aetas.

In the farming community, the researchers observed how livelihood practices are passed on from older generations to younger generations through everyday activities, such as preserving seeds in unwashed wine bottles to prevent mould and mixing corn kernels with ash to prevent pest infestation.

farmers planting in a green field

Farmers planting rice

Farmers planting rice

A farmer making vinegar from bananas

A farmer making vinegar from bananas

Two people in a courtyard preparing vegetables

A family preparing vegetables for the market

A family preparing vegetables for the market

women with mobile phone

Ate Zoria learning how to use the UST Family Literacy mobile application

Ate Zoria learning how to use the UST Family Literacy mobile application

two children reading a text book

Children doing homework - the oldest among them acting as tutor

Children doing homework - the oldest among them acting as tutor

a yellow and blue building on a sunny day

Brgy. Pinili Hall & Chapel

Brgy. Pinili Hall & Chapel

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farmers planting in a green field

Farmers planting rice

Farmers planting rice

A farmer making vinegar from bananas

A farmer making vinegar from bananas

Two people in a courtyard preparing vegetables

A family preparing vegetables for the market

A family preparing vegetables for the market

women with mobile phone

Ate Zoria learning how to use the UST Family Literacy mobile application

Ate Zoria learning how to use the UST Family Literacy mobile application

two children reading a text book

Children doing homework - the oldest among them acting as tutor

Children doing homework - the oldest among them acting as tutor

a yellow and blue building on a sunny day

Brgy. Pinili Hall & Chapel

Brgy. Pinili Hall & Chapel

These traditional skills co-existed with new learning from government and NGO programmes such as using local ingredients to make organic pesticides and fertilisers. The researchers saw how families engaged with many forms of written and digital text from a variety of sources and, like the other countries, younger family members taught their parents and grandparents digital literacy.

"Lifelong learning opportunities in communities strengthen and preserve local and indigenous knowledge, sustain people’s livelihoods, and create links between the family and the larger community"
Philippines team

In the indigenous community, the researchers observed three generations of men fishing together using handmade bamboo tools and goggles. The Aeta families took photos of their traditional arts, crafts and practices to safeguard their culture for the next generations because they feared the slow erosion of their culture. They wanted formal learning programmes to include indigenous practices.

Ethiopia

church entrance surrounded by thatch huts

Hut houses surrounding a church where church education is taking place

Hut houses surrounding a church where church education is taking place

Ethiopia has low literacy rates and an inadequate provision of adult literacy. The Ethiopia team identified three communities for their fieldwork, seeking to investigate family literacy, and local learning spaces where indigenous and new knowledge was being shared.

One such space is the coffee ceremony, where neighbouring families gather and share news regularly. The team observed neighbours discussing COVID-19 and how to prevent it spreading. Another important space is the market, where craftsmen make fly-whisks and bamboo crafts.

"Those who have not had the chance to attend formal schooling and who were/are not able to read and write, have developed a tendency to consider themselves as useless, ignorant and ashamed of themselves and their situation, despite the fact that they have deep knowledge and many skills that enable them to nonetheless participate in socio-economic, cultural and political life"
Ethiopia team

Teenage boys and adult men approach the craftsmen, asking to spend time learning the skill. The Orthodox Church is also an important space where learning is structured in phases, at the learner’s pace, choosing their own pathway and teachers. Although unrecognised by the government, traditional church education provides many opportunities for practising literacy and numeracy.

We were able to participate in these capacity building activities and trainings due to the availability of essential ODA/GCRF funding... Now, because of our engagement in these activities and trainings, our team is visible at national level. Our department was selected to undertake a nationally-harmonized adult education and community development curriculum revision task as a result of the visibility
Abiy Menkir, Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia

Traditional practices are informally transferred from the older to the younger generation as they go about daily routines and tasks. The research team saw children teaching parents how to use digital devices and finding information on social media about COVID-19.

three people weaving

Family in Awramba engaged in different tasks of weaving together, showing the collaborative nature of the task and the learning

Family in Awramba engaged in different tasks of weaving together, showing the collaborative nature of the task and the learning

group of people sat outside in shade of a tree

Learners in traditional church education learning from one another in their teacher's living compound, Awi Zone

Learners in traditional church education learning from one another in their teacher's living compound, Awi Zone

person in a shop using a calculator

A salesperson in Awramba craft shop

A salesperson in Awramba craft shop

a fly whisk

Personalised fly whisk with owner’s name written on the handle

Personalised fly whisk with owner’s name written on the handle

Translating findings into policy change

This lived research experience – ethnography - has produced rich insights into how learning occurs within families and communities outside of the ‘Western’ approach to education. The teams are presenting evidence to education providers and policy makers within each country and highlighting the disconnect between mainstream teaching and everyday learning, particularly for adults. This vital research is starting to challenge mindsets about the ways  in which families and communities learn. It is beginning to encourage ‘bottom up’ development of literacy materials that  connect with the realities of indigenous and local communities.

The country teams and their UEA colleagues meet regularly online to share their research findings and advocacy methods. The teams are providing training programmes for students and early career researchers in their own countries, building capacity to continue ethnographic research and activism beyond the timeframe of the project. The project is partnering with UNESCO to co-host a global webinar in November 2021 and develop an online course called ‘Family literacy and indigenous learning’. Following UNESCO’s International Literacy Day events, this collaboration will enable international and national literacy policy makers and practitioners to engage with and build on the project findings.

Watch: free webinar on family literacy and indigenous learning

Through this family literacy project, ODA funding has facilitated important ethnographic research and communicated findings to policy makers, built capacity of research teams in four developing countries, and amplified learning to hundreds more through webinars, mentorship and training programmes.


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