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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


'Real' Knowing: Rethinking Language Learning, Identity, and Work

Gayle Morris, David Beckett.

In this paper, we draw on the understanding of the lives and experiences of two Somali women, as case studies, to examine the relationship between identity, work and language learning, showing in particular how the construction of identity in the home and at school, intersects with the construction of identity, in another site, the workplace. What these women share is a clear, articulated desire for work and/or continued learning, and all are agentive, that is, they act with intentionality, articulated through embodied actions. Yet, their experience of formal learning in an adult ESL Literacy classroom, would suggest that their substantial cognitive, social, affective and physical understandings, skills and knowledges are often under-recognised (and therefore needs) by well-meaning teachers.

Each of the women enacted a version of dominant job search strategies: the use of networks to establish relationships with a variety of employers; appropriating the dominant discourse; and in reinventing of self. In many respect the women embodied the kind of postmodern 'shape – shifting' identity work, advocated by Gee (2000) – they suggest an inventiveness and playfulness in which they rework their own narrative to make themselves more attractive to the prospective employer, including reinscribing capabilities (where they do not exist) and in the rewriting of their employment history to align with the industry at hand. There is similarity with Hayes and Way (2000) study with African American women from low-income single-parent female- headed households, where the participants were active in their investigation of work and learning, but where such lived models of life/career planning were unrecognised.

The experiences as described by Hawa and Asha reinforces the view that formal education continues to be the measure of an individual’s capacity, and where years of schooling are often equated with literacy, and powerfully equated with readiness to work. This stands in stark contrast where the women are quite literally 'doing it for themselves'. There is an opportunity to perform pedagogy differently, if embodied knowledge can be confirmed and harnessed to enrich the teaching and learning context. This paper will develop the agentive angle, in order that the challenges for adult literacy teachers can be discussed.


Gayle Morris  (Australia)
Teaching/Learning Specialist
Teaching and Learning Unit Faculty of Economics and Commerce
The University of Melbourne

Gayle Morris is a Teaching/Learning Specialist in the Faculty of Economics and Commerce at The University of Melbourne.

David Beckett  (Australia)
Associate Dean (Development) in Education
c/- Gayle Morris Teaching and Learning Unit Faculty of Economics and Commerce
The University of Melbourne

David Beckett teaches and researches adults' workplace learning, education policy analysis and philosophy of education. His most recnt publication is Beckett, D. and Hager, P. (2002) Life, Work and Learning: Practice in Postmodernity. Routledge International Studies in Philosophy of Education, London

  • Adult learning
  • Adult Literacy

(30 min Conference Paper, English)