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A blog by Centre for Literacy’s Administrative and Marketing assistant Caterina Incisa.

Whether it’s a scary jack-in-the-box or an unexpected phone call from an old friend, surprises come in all shapes and sizes. In the recent results from PIAAC (also known as The Survey of Adult Skills), though much of the data was expected, there were a few surprises. At our recent Fall Institute – Interpreting PIAAC Results: Understanding Competencies of the Future we invited our participants to each write down one thing that surprised them about the PIAAC results. Here are a few:

“The drop in results from Norway.”

“…. that no great differences were found between the proficiency between recent and established immigrants.”

“What most surprised me about PIAAC? The Canadian media’s overall lack of reportage, particularly given the disproportionate investment and oversampling in Canada relative to all other OECD member nations.”

“Canada normally performs above the OECD average in international surveys. So the fact that in PIAAC we performed below the OECD average was a shock for the general public.”

“Variability within countries.”

 “My surprise: The remarkably high literacy scores of NS, PEI, and NB respondents of those whose first language is not the same as the test language.”

One “surprise” which came up repeatedly was that many young respondents had not done better, especially in the PS-TRE (Problem Solving in Technology Rich Environments) component of the survey:

“Youth versus 55 – 64 showing poor literacy.”

“Low performance of those aged 16 – 24 in Canada.”

“Results for youth opposite of what I expected.”

“I was surprised by the low scores of the younger cohort in England.

“I was surprised that the 16 -24 year old results were not better.”

These phrases floated among tables throughout the three days of the Institute, concern on people’s faces as they wondered why many young people weren’t doing better than the older generations, especially in digital literacy. People were puzzled: isn’t this the Millennial Generation? The generation who have more Facebook friends than real ones? Shouldn’t they be “computer literate”? Well, perhaps this is the exact problem. On Day Two of the Institute David Rosen suggested that perhaps the youth were not using digital technologies in the same way anymore. Rosen suggested that perhaps I.T has evolved into ICSET (Information, Communication, Shopping, and Entertainment Technology). There was a murmur of agreement at my table as people traded stories of sullen teenagers hunched over Facebook and online shopping. In one task, the PS-TRE component of the PIAAC survey asked respondents to take a series of emails and categorize them into folders; perhaps if the problem given had involved hashtags or memes the youth might have performed better?

The low youth scores were particularly a problem in England: The Guardian reported that “England is the only country in the developed world where the generation approaching retirement is more literate and numerate than the youngest, according to the first skills survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.” The BBC noted that “(this) younger group will have many more qualifications, but the test results show that these younger people have no greater ability than those approaching retirement who left schools with much lower qualifications in the 1960s and 1970s.”

During the Fall Institute people suggested that perhaps the technology used in the PIAAC survey was outdated for younger generations, that they were accustomed to using more recent platforms and thus the technology they were being tested on was unfamiliar to them. It brought to mind the following image:


Image taken from We Know

How can we expect the youth and older adults to take the test in the same medium if they are not familiar with the same technology/platforms? Might this be a reason that some youth respondents did worse than their older counterparts in the PS-TRE component of the PIAAC survey? The answer is not clear, but the question at least has sparked discussion.


After the October 8, 2013 release of PIAAC results we put together a web page of analyses of reactions to the results in Canada and other countries. In response, some experts in the field sent us their own reactions to PIAAC and to the responses from media and policymakers.  As we note in the introduction:

The OECD also did an early analysis of media reactions to PIAAC in different countries. You can read it at McGill University professor Ralf St. Clair offers his own analysis on his Literacy and Learning Blog, while noted New Literacy Studies theoretician Brian Street has sent us his comments on PIAAC to the e-consultation on the upcoming United Nations Development Program Gender Equality Strategy [pdf document], focusing on the gender differences found in the PIAAC results as well as the need to make lifelong learning opportunities available to all.


Gail Spangenberg, President of the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy (CAAL) in the United States, has written a couple of blog posts about the PIAAC results. In the most recent, What’s The Story?, she argues that it is important to help low-skilled adults and that an exclusive focus on “fixing” the K-12 education system won’t do that:

Discussions about our low-skilled adults and what we can do to help lift them up tend to revert mistakenly to what we can do to improve K-12.  I stress this point because historically and in most current media coverage, we fail over and over again to grasp the importance of differentiating adult education from K-12 or colleges.  We need to coalesce around the real and very urgent need to upgrade the basic foundational skills of our adults: our current and future workforce, the parents of our children, and to put it altruistically, the keepers of our freedom.”