13 JULY 2015

Dr Camilla Addey

I was born into a British-Swiss family and brought up in Italy on an organic, self-sufficient, open farm where people who shared our back-to-the-land philosophy of life could spend time holidaying and working. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who enjoyed sharing ideas as well as many writers in our family who covered topics such as philosophy, fiction, astrology, bioregionalism, parenting and animal husbandry.

Together with my brother and sister, I was home schooled in what felt like a linguistic island. Living with people from all around the world in an alternative way to our local community and being home schooled in a multicultural and multi-lingual environment is what most probably made me embody a comparative approach of enquiry, enjoy sharing knowledge through both talking and writing, but also into a nomad who feels at home almost anywhere in the world.

Why did you become interested in education research?

Studying linguistics at university (I did my BA and MA at La Sapienza in Rome), I was introduced to educational inequalities in Letter to a Teacher by Don Lorenzo Milani’s students, and to the right to quality education for all in the manifesto called Ten Proposals for Democratic Language Education (Dieci Tesi per l’Educazione Linguistica Democratica) which argues that participatory democracy is weak if citizens do not have literacy levels that allow a proficient level of understanding and self-expression. Both publications greatly influenced my thinking and led me to read Brian Street’s New Literacy Studies and to write about inequalities in the Italian educational system (I decided to go to the local Italian school at the beginning of secondary) based on my experience forty years after the publication of Letter to a Teacher (an extract was published in TES). These concerns but also my multi-cultural upbringing formed the basis of a comparative study I carried out on reading habits in Italy and the UK (published as Readers and Non-Readers), leading me further into the world of research on education, which in turn led me to work at UNESCO on adult literacy and non-formal education. Amazed that I could be paid to read and write – two activities I love, I then did a PhD on international literacy assessment, a process which only reinforced my commitment to education as a human right and my love for research and the way it makes you question everything around you.

What do you find most interesting about working on international projects?

Resource-heavy international educational assessments have acquired a greater role in educational policy and practice than originally intended by the actual testing agencies developing and administering them, and have led to a light reading but heavy reliance on the data. Amidst the many conceptual and methodological challenges international assessments are faced with, it must be recognized that they have catalysed debates and provoked political dialogue on education. My research suggests international assessments serve political and economic agendas, leaving their original raison d’etre – improving quality education for all – a rather insignificant place. The data is often relied on as objective, impartial evidence for educational policy and practice but it must not be forgotten that a lot gets encoded and hidden in international numbers. Conceptual and methodological choices are made, knowledge is produced, truths are constituted, dominant ideologies are spread. Whilst dominant literacies silently devalue local literacies, official languages are further institutionalised, countries are stigmatized, and the philosophy of education is narrowed. Comparing a set of universally valued competencies is conceptually challenging, especially when the choices are not the result of a democratic dialogue. My tip would therefore be to not compete in the Literacy World Cup rankings whatever the price, but if participation is about improving learning for all, to keep at the forefront of any decision what education is all about – providing everyone, at all ages, with quality learning that meets the needs and the aspirations whatever that may mean in terms of the individual and his/her community’s values. 

What prompted 'Literacy as Numbers' and why is this book important?

Mary, Bryan and I (the editors of Literacy as Numbers) share a history of work and research in adult literacy and a New Literacy Studies approach – an ontology that sees literacy as a social practice, which is culturally embedded and historically situated. In other words, literacy is not an autonomous, universal skill that can be measured separately from its social, cultural, and institutional context of practice (Hamilton 2001). This approach is at odds with the idea that literacy can be measured with a set of universal tests and compared across contexts of practice, and thus urgently calls for debates and research into the way international assessments are reconceptualizing literacy and numeracy, and transforming educational policy and practice. Sharing similar concerns, we applied for funding to bring together researchers and practioners researching international assessments at an international symposium called ‘Literacy as Numbers’ in London in 2013. The quality of the papers and the success of the event led us to gather the papers into an edited volume which CUP enthusiastically welcomed as a distinctive contribution to the debate. Within International Assessment Studies, published research appears to focus on education systems whereas this book takes a lifelong learning perspective to remind all those involved in education that the transformations we are seeing must be understood within a broader perspective.

Hamilton, M. (2001). "Privileged Literacies: Policy, Institutional Process and the Life of the IALS." Language and Education 15(2): 178 - 196.

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