School term started a few weeks ago here in the UK. This weekend saw thousands of new students (including my nephew) head off for university which means Cardiff, where there are two universities and a further education college, is best avoided for a little while. I made a mistake last year and ended up in the city during Fresher’s Week – the pavements were congested with gangs of students (why do all newbies go around in large groups) and the roads full of these odd-looking vehicles where people sat at a bar drinking beer while cycling. A dangerous combination surely? The most amusing aspect was to encounter the people handing out leaflets for parties and bars – I clearly wasn’t in the right age profile for such festivities but they didn’t want to offend me so kept foistering all this stuff on me. I kept all the coffee shop vouchers and 2 for 1 cocktails but ditched the ones for the burger chains along with the free condoms.
Not to be outdone I had my own back-to-school event this week. Not as a student but as a volunteer for an adult literacy and numeracy programme being run in my village. Literacy is something I’ve always been passionate about, even more so after I met the woman who started the Plain English Campaign in the UK. Chrissie Maher didn’t learn to read until she was in her mid teens. Many years later, frustrated by the complexity of a lot of government forms, she set up a project in Salford, UK to help people in the same position. In 1979 she took on the government by burning piles of their forms in front of the Houses of Parliament, an act which brought her to the attention of a government minister called Margaret Thatcher. The Plain English Campaign was born as a result.
I’m not in the same league as Chrissie Maher but I know there are many adults who struggle with writing and arithmetic because they missed out a lot of formal education. The Essential Skills programme is giving them a second chance. A few of the people in our programme are mothers who want to become youth workers but can’t start training until they can prove they have basic literacy and numeracy skills. We also have some young people who can’t start college because they don’t have the required qualifications. Even though we’ve only had a few sessions together I’m impressed by how determined all these people are – it takes a lot of courage to say ‘I need help.’
It’s been an eye-opening experience for me because it’s meant digging into the grey cells to remember concepts I first learned 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve worked with words for all of my career so I think I know a thing or two about punctuation and sentence construction but explaining it, now that’s a different thing. Faced this week with the question: what are the two situations in which you use a comma, my mind went blank. I know it instinctively but that’s not much use to students faced with the conundrum of when to use it’s rather than its or whose instead of who’s.
The picture with arithmetic is even worse. I’ve thought for many years that there are words people and numbers people. I belong firmly to the first. Show me a piece of text and I can summarise, analyse, edit or proof read it easily and quickly. Show me a set of numbers or a chart and I’ll be able to make some sense of it – eventually. It made work rather challenging often when I’d be sat with one of our business boards reviewing last quarter’s performance for example and everyone else would quickly home in on what was working well/ what was heading for a fall etc. Me, I’d still be working it out long after they’d passed to the next topic.
Addition, multiplication , subtraction, division I can do in my head (the product of working in my parent’s shop every Saturday without the benefit of a calculator or fancy cash till). But I’ve forgotten everything I ever learned about multiplication of fractions, how to solve an equation or calculate the area of a circle. I knew it once (I have the certificate to prove it) but it’s long disappeared down memory lane. As for those stupid questions about calculating how long a bath fills if the tap runs at x gallons a minute and the plug hole empties at y gallons a minute, I never did figure how out to solve those puzles. I couldn’t ever see the point really. Nor did I see the purpose in calculating the point at which two trains would pass if they were travelling in opposite directions at different speeds. I mean, how many times in the last five years have you been called upon to know how to do this?
But these are still questions that our students might encounter so I thought I’d better refresh the old memory. Part of my summer has therefore been spent re-learning how to multiply and divide fractions and decimals (this has generated much heated debate with Mr Booker Talk who takes a completely different route to get to the answers) and work out percentages. As you can tell from the title of these two books I’ve gone right back to the beginning. It’s going to get harder from here on though – next step is my old favourite of algebra. But I need a glass of wine to help me with that I suspect.