This study sought to understand policy factors underlying the differences between the literacy levels of Canadian and Swedish adults as reported in the International Adult Literacy Survey. The New Literacy Studies provided a critical perspective for comparing adult literacy as contextual rather than as a technical, pedagogical skill. Adult learning in rural and urban sites in Canada and Sweden was compared through a qualitative case study.
The conceptual framework based on situated literacy and comprising policy-inintent, policy-in-practice and policy-in-experience guided a multi-method approach. Source materials included public documents and reports, the media, group discussions, interviews and participant observation. There were substantive differences between the two countries in the provision of and access to adult education at the macro-level but at the micro-level, individuals shared similar goals and issues. Swedes with the least education were accorded priority in access to formal education. In contrast, Canadians with the least education often had to rely on the volunteer sector. Other social policies in Sweden, particularly universal childcare and school lunches, facilitated individual participation in adult education.
The terminology used in the two countries implied different public perceptions of adult education and literacy. In Sweden, adult education had been a universal compensatory entitlement since 1967 and the term literacy was rarely used. Public policy initiatives in the 1990s focused on increasing the supply and diversity through additional funding for an already well-resourced adult education system. In Canada, literacy was considered a prescriptive, individual responsibility and resources went into public awareness campaigns and an extensive policy network rather than increased learning opportunities. Priority in access seemed to be given to adults most likely to succeed in further education or the job market.
Adult education policy discussions in both countries focused on formal learning with little reference to the significance of the century-old informal sector in Sweden. The costs and relative benefits of universal versus targeted social programs deserve further study. The reluctance of older, less educated workers to participate in formal adult education programs in both countries underscores the need for public policy that encourages bridging between informal and formal learning to effectively engage those who read, but not well enough, according to the International Adult Literacy Survey.
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