Professor Mary Hamilton

Could you tell us a little about your background?

I started out as a teacher of adult literacy in England and the US in the 1970s when it was a radical, informal and under researched specialism – hardly  considered to be a proper educational field at all! Since then I have helped establish it and have been a core contributor to the broader field of literacy studies, which focusses on the everyday meanings and practices of written communication. My degrees were in social psychology and I have always enjoyed working at the interdisciplinary edges of research. I was trained to use statistics and quantitative principles of research design, and these understandings inform my research, although I now choose to work with qualitative, ethnographic and discourse analytic methods.  

My co-editors, Bryan Maddox and Camilla Addey are both experts in international development education and policy. We all share the belief that an ethnographic perspective is particularly useful for the topic of this book.  

Why did you become interested in education research? 

This probably goes back to my personal background. I was part of the first generation in my family to go to university and I benefitted from the expansion of HE in the 1960’s. However, I knew many other people who, despite their potential, did not stay on beyond the minimum school leaving age, although they went on to achieve many other things in their lives. I have always been interested in why people engage with learning, what this means to them, who counts as “expert” and what prevents many people from accessing formal education. I’m interested in how learning gets shaped by particular institutions and settings, whether schools, universities, workplaces or community development projects. Understanding these processes is a key part of educational research so it was an obvious choice for me.  

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

When I was still at school I knew about UNESCO’s work with international literacy and I have always enjoyed meeting people and exchanging perspectives across different contexts. From these encounters you learn about the diversity of education and – just as important – you also gain more insight into your own situation so comparison is a very powerful process which stops you from arrogantly asserting one solution to fit all circumstances. So much of education policy is now tangled up with international developments that I don’t believe we can really understand what is happening locally without seeing the wider picture.  

What tips would you give to educators and policy makers involved in international assessment programmes? 

For those on the receiving end of these programmes I would say that it is important to be informed about their history, why and how they are developing – not just about the findings themselves. Be part of discussions about how the findings are produced and don’t shy away from these through a fear or awe of numbers. Numbers do not simply speak for themselves, but are crafted through human decisions, which in turn are based on values which need to be examined. Educational, political and financial interests are at play in these programmes. In particular I would caution policy-makers not to get carried away by the current enthusiasm for Big Data. It is essential to keep local definitions of problems in mind when searching for effective interventions into practice. Finally, we all need to remember that numbers are powerful but not invincible and informed critique is essential to keep policy relevant to practice and to keep the ends of a fair and high quality education in view. 

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

International assessments are growing rapidly and literacy is a central dimension of interest in these. In parallel, there is an emerging critical debate among scholars which prompted the international symposium from which the book emerged. We are at a key moment in which literacy is being re-framed through international programmes of assessment, with all the cross-cultural and cross-linguistic issues entailed in this. This book, the first of its kind, encourages critical debate and through presenting insider accounts of literacy assessments and their impacts, it richly contributes to an exchange of views. It links to an online platform, the Laboratory for International Assessment Studies, promoting a new field of enquiry and an international network. 

Mary Hamilton is Professor of Adult Learning and Literacy in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University. She is a founder member of the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre and of the Research and Practice in Adult Literacy group. Her current research is in literacy policy and governance, socio-material theory, academic literacies, digital technologies and change. She is one of the directors of the Laboratory of International Assessment Studies.

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