Aboriginal literacy program a success

Wilcannia was the community that agreed to be the first pilot community for the program in Australia.

This is an abridged transcript of an interview Linda Seaborn conducted with Dr Bob Boughton who helped initiate a Cuban supported literacy program in the NSW town of Wilcannia. Part two of this interview can be read here.


Tell us about the Cuban “Yes, we can” literacy campaign model.

I came across it while working in Timor Leste where the government had invited a group of Cubans to help with their national literacy campaign. They had a model they had developed back in 2000. There are three aspects to the model. One is they mobilise the whole community around the issue of literacy and they build a local campaign structure which drives the campaign.

The second aspect of the model is they have a pre-recorded set of DVDs on which there are lessons, and when you watch the lessons you are watching a class learn how to read and write.

The third aspect of the campaign is that when people complete the 64 lessons, the community or local government organise activities which allow people to continue to build their literacy.

It's a way of doing literacy work which means you can do it on a mass scale without a lot of qualified people, because you can use village-based tutors and facilitators to do the teaching and organising.

It's based on their experience, over many years, working all over the world, to assist newly independent countries and liberation movements to raise literacy levels amongst their population.

In the English-speaking world the program is almost unknown. But in Latin America it is really well-known, it's being used in 28 countries around the world, mostly in Latin America and Africa.

Why was the program developed?

The origin of it is the Cubans’ own literacy campaign which they developed in 1961 — 52 years ago now. They closed the high schools and people went into the districts and taught people how to read and write. They eradicated illiteracy in the country in about a year. On the basis of that, they were invited to go to other countries and help, so they went to Angola, Mozambique and other places.

Over the years they developed a lot of expertise in this area. In the ‘90s they started using radio to do it in Haiti and it was that experience of using radio that gave them the idea they should do it with television, as a TV program to use in countries where there weren't a lot of resources. So it was basically a model that they developed to use in countries of the global South.

It’s a distance education model which uses audio-visual technology to deliver classes. The cleverness of it is that when people are watching the class they’re learning to be students or, if they’re the facilitator, they’re learning to be a tutor because it’s being modelled for them on the screen.

And you can turn it on and off to do the exercises in the books that come with the DVDs.

How successful has it been?

In the countries where it’s been deployed in countries of the global South, they are getting a 90% completion rate for people who are joining the classes. I worked with the Cuban advisor group in Timor Leste between 2006 and 2010 when they were rolling it out there. They’ve reached over 150,000 people with it, some of them in very remote communities.

So it’s very successful. It only takes people to a very basic level of literacy. It only brings people “through the gate” as they say, and from there they can build. It gets everybody to a level where they can at least sign their own name or they can write a simple letter.

Does that affect people’s confidence so they can go on and learn by themselves?

One of the most dramatic impacts is the way it builds people’s confidence in their capacity to learn and to join that world where literacy is the coin. If a person didn’t go to school or felt they didn’t have the capacity to learn, this is a really simple step which allows people to realise they do have the capacity to learn.

The way the Cubans designed the lessons, it isn’t just about learning to read or write, there’s a lot of general knowledge in it. Every lesson starts with a positive message which is quite a simple message, it might be about the environment, or about looking after children or the importance of education, and then there’s a discussion in the class about that issue.

So whether it’s in Timor or Wilcannia in NSW, where we’ve had a pilot program, people really enjoy having the chance to talk about issues that they’ve got really strong views about, but they’ve never felt confident enough about expressing them before.

How was the model applied in Wilcannia, a remote Aboriginal community?

Wilcannia was the community that agreed to be the first pilot community for the program in Australia. The CEO of the land council did a lot of work talking to the community about whether they thought literacy was an issue, and whether they would be happy to have a Cuban advisor come and live in the community.

The community really liked the idea. We started with a big launch in a park in the middle of town and over 300 people came, in a town of 700. So it was a sign that the community did really want to be part of it. From then on it’s gone really well.

We’ve had two cohorts of students complete the classes and we’re at the stage now where a third cohort are starting and some of the students from the first cohort are helping to organise that third group.

In Wilcannia, in the first phase, when we were building community support for it, we went to every organisation in town — the health service, the shire, the school, the youth centre — and got their support before we started.

We also do a house-to-house survey. Some local people were trained to go house to house to discuss whether there was anybody in the household who might benefit from joining the campaign or whether anybody in the house wanted to help with teaching or some other role.

It opens it up to the whole community, the Cubans insist you have to go to every house, it’s not exclusive. There’s no selectiveness about it, anyone who wants to do it can join in.

When the classes ran we used a set of DVDs that had been made for Grenada — a country in the Carribean — because that’s an English speaking country that had used this method for their national literacy campaign that started in 2007. So the actors on the DVDs were Grenadian.

We weren’t sure how this would work in Wilcannia, but the community loved it. They were really interested that there were other people of colour in the world who didn’t know how to read or write.