Adult literacy and numeracy learners talk about their wellbeing outcomes

Dr. Judy Hunter and Dr. Jane Furness, University of Waikato

“I put a plan in my heart, in my body, my mind that I need to do this first; work more on my numeracy then once I feel I am able to do this, I want to move forward” (Learner, Communication-focused programme).


In 2017, we began a two-year TLRI study with adult literacy and numeracy (L+N) learners to better understand how their learning was meaningful in their everyday lives. In this way we hoped to provide a more balanced, in-depth view of literacy learning outcomes than is currently available through the standardised skills-based National Assessment Tool. Along with our partners Literacy Aotearoa, we were interested in expanding their previous research framework of wellbeing outcomes with Māori literacy learners. A full report of the project is available online, but here, we’d like to share a few key learnings.

Overall research outcomes

The TLRI project with diverse adult L+N learners addressed the following focus areas:

  • The meaningful, manageable development and incorporation of a wellbeing framework into adult L+N programmes;
  • Learners’ identification of wellbeing outcomes from their L+N learning;
  • Learners’ ownership and agency over their continuing learning with the use of a wellbeing framework.

First, three key programme qualities contributed to the identification, reflection and recording of wellbeing outcomes:

  • Tutors’ consistent, regular attention to and care for learners’ wellbeing;
  • Programme content involving practical aspects of daily living;
  • Achievement of officially-recognised programme certificates.

Second, learners reported a range of wellbeing outcomes. They talked about increased self-esteem, self-efficacy and sense of self-worth, commonly identified outcomes from second-chance learners. Interactions and relationships with family members, the public, businesses and agencies were enhanced. The learners all felt a strong sense of belonging within their programme. Their autonomy and independence in managing everyday tasks were improved.

Third, we found agency and ownership to be less an individual attribute and more aligned with theoretical perspectives that see it as distributed locally and globally across relationships, resources and circumstances. For example, learners in some programmes became Facebook friends outside the classroom. Another told of her computer search for programme-related information that she shared with classmates. Others spoke of sharing their learning with family and whānau, for instance, teaching their children what they’d learned.

Learners’ assessments of key programme enablers

Learners described three programme characteristics that enhanced their wellbeing. First, they valued the learning support they received from tutors, including:

  • Plenty of tutor help and attention;
  • Direct teaching of knowledge and skills used in everyday life;
  • Acknowledgement of achievements e.g. workbook completion, other official markers.

Second, they appreciated their tutors’ genuine interest and care for them and their families, noting that the tutors:

  • Are interested in and welcome them and their families;
  • Share their lives and families including on Facebook;
  • Believe they can do things they don’t think they can and encourage next steps;
  • Tell them it is okay to fail, and make mistakes themselves.

Finally, the learners valued the respectful and supportive relationships they shared with each other and their tutor. They appreciated:

  • Getting to know each other and each other’s families;
  • Respecting and helping each other;
  • Class discussions and sharing tasks;
  • Seeing each other outside class.

Figure 1 shows the cooking programme participants’ mind map about what it meant to them to learn together.

Hunter and Furness

Reviewing our notion of student voice

One of the key features of our TLRI project, as well as Literacy Aotearoa’s research, was to gather learners’ own perceptions of their wellbeing outcomes. Indeed, many teachers across the sector recognise the importance of listening to student voices. We aimed to “collect” their voices by asking about their everyday meaningful and useful experiences with L+N in their everyday life. However, we received little feedback, especially initially. On reflection, there were several possible reasons: their personal lives were not really our business; wellbeing was a tacit part of life; there was a chance of losing face in front of others; talking and writing to us was a literacy task with unfamiliar “researchers”. We were not successful in creating a list or taxonomy of themes, but we began to see student voice much less as a finite record of outputs, and much more as in progress perspectives. Thus, we need to see learners’ reports as incomplete and evolving, importantly acknowledging the fluidity and emergent nature that is constituent of their lives.

Learners’ reports and OECD and government wellbeing descriptions

Given the increasing government attention to wellbeing, we considered the relationship between the learners’ reports and OECD and government descriptions. The OECD’s Better Life Initiative  seeks improved measures of people’s wellbeing and societal progress by looking beyond economic systems to people’s experiences, living conditions and aspects of life that matter to them. Aiding this shift here, Treasury’s Living Standards Framework (LSF) helped identify mental health, child poverty and Māori and Pacific development as the first three priorities in the 2019 Wellbeing Budget. A proposed Indigenous approach to the LSF involving interconnected micro-level (rather than atomistic, macro-level) domains seems more relevant for our country.  We could see our learners’ experiences in the domains of “confident participants in society”, “living healthy lifestyles” and being “economically secure and wealth-creating” for example. In contrast, the latest adult L+N policy document – Literacy and Numeracy Implementation Strategy 2014-2019 – describes macro-level benefits of L+N and in primarily economic terms. We hope that all future L+N policy documents overtly reflect at least the Wellbeing Budget definition:

“Wellbeing is when people are able to lead fulfilling lives with purpose, balance and meaning to them.”

Judy WaikatoDr. Judy Hunter is a Research Associate and supervises PhD candidates in the Division of Education at the University of Waikato. She researches and writes on language and literacy in workplace, education and health settings, particularly among marginalised populations.



Jane WaikatoDr. Jane Furness is a Teaching Fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Waikato. A community psychologist, Jane brings together her interests in wellbeing and education in her research and teaching. She is a researcher in the Endeavour Fund Programme “The expression, experience and transcendence of low skill in Aotearoa New Zealand”.

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