By Tom Sticht
Over two decades ago, in a 1989 paper entitled Making the Nation Smarter: The Intergenerational Transfer of Cognitive Ability, Barbara McDonald and I asserted that “the challenge for the future is how to manage the intergenerational development of cognitive ability in such a way that we can provide the human and social capital needed for making the nation smarter.”
We said that a society that wants to bring about the development of individual human capital must also tend to the development of social capital.
Since our report in 1989, a considerable amount of policy and practice within the field of adult literacy education has focused upon the development of human capital, that is, the development of an individual’s language, literacy and numeracy, the so-called “basic skills.”
However, it is only in the last few years that attention in the adult basic skills education field has turned to the idea of developing social capital with adult learners. For instance, in August 2010, The Centre for Literacy in Montreal issued a report entitled Social Capital Outcomes of Adult Learning and Literacy Initiatives: How Do We Measure Them? The report states: “Human capital refers to the knowledge and abilities that individuals possess, while social capital refers broadly to the social connections and understandings between people that enable them to work together, live together and learn from each other.”
In January 2011, Maurice Taylor and his associates at the University of Ottawa released a report entitled Making Sense of Social Capital Theory through the Lens of Adult Learning. The authors state that research findings “suggest that the creation of social capital can have a positive impact on learners’ lives especially in the areas of personal, family, work, education and public lives. The increase in confidence, seen in data collected over time, was correlated to the ability of learners to acquire new skills and network with peers.”
In my 1997 Functional Context Education notebook which I used in workshops for adult literacy educators, I argued for the social basis of mind and discussed how the motivation of learners to persist in programs could be formed in social groups and networks (churches, clubs, gangs, etc.) with which an individual interacts and which motivate and support him/her, that is, they provide social capital.
Literacy programs can help form social capital by having peer learning, team activities and small group instruction in which members of the group support each other’s efforts. They can also host social occasions such as parties, where community members and learners come together, encouraging social interaction and communication.
Today, social media using digital technologies offer additional opportunities for both teachers and learners to obtain and provide social capital to help them sustain and advance in their teaching and learning activities. Numerous discussion groups for adult literacy educators can be found using the Internet and provide opportunities for teachers to learn from each other and obtain motivation for their daily work. Additionally, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites serve to provide social capital.
Numerous Internet-based resources are available for adult learners to pursue study on their own, and many programs are now offering distance learning opportunities as adjuncts to their classroom work or as stand-alone learning opportunities. Teachers can provide social capital through the use of cell phones, email or social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and learner to learner peer interactions can also be conducted using digital social media.
The essentially social basis of literacy and other cognitive processes which require social capital for their development is captured in John Donne’s classic 1624 devotion No Man Is an Island. In a newspaper for adult literacy educators and learners that colleagues and I produced several years ago, we borrowed John Donne’s devotion and changed it to No Mind Is an Island for the newspaper motto. Here our idea was to explicitly express the idea that we all are engaged in sharing our minds and that all minds are part of our collective, virtual mind.
Overall, adult literacy education, like the other components of our educational system, serves the general purpose of improving the entire network of minds in the society in which we live and helps to maintain our very survival as a society of human beings in contemporary times.
Using traditional face-to-face tutoring, classrooms and/or the latest digital social media, adult literacy education makes a valuable contribution to our nation’s store of social capital used in forming bridges among minds, fostering social inclusion and insuring that ‘no mind is an island.’
Tom Sticht is an international consultant in adult education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.