In Cambodia today, millions cannot read, choose not to read, or find reading a challenge. Out of necessity millions opt out of school to work. And millions walk in shame. Literacy statistics seem to express one reality; but in the real world with everyday people at the village level, the number of non-readers looms as a staggering majority. In fact, across the globe such oral learners number in the billions – two-thirds of the world’s population, according to the International Orality Network.
When I arrived in Cambodia, I was ill-equipped to relate to adults who did not read. A perennial solution from the field of orality proffered the use of narrative; but after a few years of employing that strategy and observing oral learners, I knew there was more to be explored. So, I enrolled in doctoral studies and studied ethnography, qualitative research, and grounded theory.
For my dissertation, I thought I was embarking on a cognitive journey to understand how Cambodian adults with limited formal education (ALFE – al-phee) learn. I was grossly mistaken. Instead of a smooth journey toward the finish line of discovery, the ride turned into a roller coaster of emotions, gut-wrenching, tear-filled, and more like my first days hearing fresh stories from Khmer Rouge survivors.
I interviewed agricultural workers, factory workers, builders, rice farmers. My institutional review board, as most do, asked whether I intended to research a vulnerable population, but they said nothing about the impact of interviewing on my own vulnerable heart and soul. As a former laboratory scientist induced to studying intercultural education, I was acquiring a new skill – qualitative research and listening for the important immeasurables.
My friends’ experiences shouted of surviving, surviving lost childhoods, surviving forced labor, surviving horrific loss and inhumane treatment. They missed many a rite of passage – from hearing bedtime stories to going to school. The next generation after the Khmer Rouge continued to lack opportunities as poverty’s shadow loomed during recovery. In the aftermath of atrocity, families reluctantly chose between school and work for their little ones. Intelligent young ladies left elementary school never to return. Others related stories of attending school but failing to learn to read. Regrets, pain, and shame filled my interviews. Some had undiagnosed learning disabilities and lived with constant shaming from relatives and friends. The education system toddled in infancy, with no resources to address those learning disabilities.
The more I interviewed, the higher the inequities mounted. On day one I wept along with the narratives, as I do even today. After interviewing person after person, finding many ALFE who ceased to learn, ceased to have hope, I finally found a quorum who did, groups who shared their experiences. Following grounded theory, I interviewed and listened until I continued to hear the same mantra.
How did they really learn? The answer was so simple. How does natural learning progress from childhood? Would you prefer to learn from a dead book or a living person? Why read print when you can consult a trusted confidant? People held primacy in the lives of non-readers. ALFE learned from others, something I called connected or relational learning.
When learner-centered education is touted as paramount, why are the ways of these learners excluded? Where ALFE are concerned, why is the primary strategy only literacy? If ALFE want to learn how to do something, they sneak and watch, beg for help, find an ally. Where are the opportunities for non-readers to learn through connection? Why do we hand them a book, offer a class in literacy, when they would rather learn through other means?
Wanting to fix the pain, heal the shame, help those with dyslexia, offer connected/relational learning, I felt the burden of this overwhelming challenge. In the aftermath of my research, I write, I present, I give honor to ALFE, I teach in new ways, I include, I love. A Cambodian friend who accompanied me through many interviews followed up with a number I interviewed. She painstakingly taught those in her village to read and a number succeeded. Another young lady I interviewed did learn to read and became a special education teacher. A young man who wanted to kill himself because he could not read received a vision exam, eyeglasses, and the opportunity to experiment with overlays and font styles and sizes.
But there is so much more to do. At a recent Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research USA conference, I shared with an educator working in the school system receiving the most immigrant students in his state. An enthusiastic advocate for SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education), he demanded my presentation files to share with his leadership. Just as I did, educators worldwide struggle to teach non-readers arriving in their classrooms. Employing connected/relational learning would make an indelible impact.
At the 2007 Harvard commencement, Bill Gates proclaimed, “Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries, but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.” The greatest inequity I found was the lack of learning opportunities for ALFE in the ways they preferred – through connected or relational learning. Learning even by these simplest, organic means loomed beyond their reach. Globally, opportunities for adults to learn without reading or before learning to read are scarce. This travesty cannot continue, and what my research uncovered must impact future policies on a global scale.