“The UNESCO Literacy Prize Jury is an intensive training course in adult education”

©S. Schmelkes del Valle

A jury member for the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes, Sylvia Schmelkes del Valle has over 30 years’ experience in educational research. Formerly General Coordinator of Intercultural and Bilingual Education at the Mexico Education Ministry, Ms Schmelkes also chaired the Governing Board of the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation from 2002-2004. She currently directs the Research Institute for the Development of Education at the Iberoamerican University of Mexico City.

In 2008 she received the Comenius Medal from UNESCO and the Education Ministry of the Czech Republic.

How long have you been a juror for UNESCO’s Literacy Prizes?

I was appointed in 2009 so this is my third and last year. A term lasts three years.  

What, in your view, makes a successful literacy project?

There are many ingredients! Firstly, the relationship of the project to its context. It must be relevant to adults’ needs and take the local language and culture into account. 

Secondly, the link to other processes of transformation. Literacy by itself does not lead to transformation. It is always linked to something – for example, health, empowerment, income-generation or social and civic participation.

Thirdly, the programme must be ongoing. It should not be a question of three months or six months, a beginning and an end. Because literacy is on the continuum of lifelong learning, it  should lead on to other spheres of learning: basic education, continuing education or technical and vocational education… There is no end to literacy – we keep becoming literate.  

How important is the learners’ environment?

It’s hugely important. The best projects work on making the environment literate as well, rather than just a small group. This is where local and national authorities can come in.

Language is another crucial factor. Many languages only exist in an oral form.  Language policies are needed to find ways to convert them into a written form. Then people won’t have to abandon their mother tongue when they become literate, as often happens.  

What is the distinction between literacy and learning?

You don’t start learning with literacy – learning has begun long before.

Literacy is just a means to an end. For example, health education is more important to many people than literacy on its own. You must give people what they need. This is why motivation is very important. Adults who have never encountered literacy don’t always see the point. They see it as a childish activity – ‘going back to school’ – and feel that maybe they’ve missed their chance to learn, whereas joining a group in itself can be motivating. So it is important to build self-esteem in such adults, respect their dignity and reassure them that their knowledge has value.  

What happens “behind the scenes” at the UNESCO International Literacy Prizes ?

Well, everyone reads all the projects and then we divide them into three piles: yes, no and maybe. The ‘yes’ group shouldn’t be too big – we try not to choose more than six projects . After all, there are only four prizes! We then debate each project on its merits.

The annual theme of the prize is an important criterion (this year it was Literacy and Peace), but so are many other issues: the relationship to context, links to processes of transformation, gender, creating a literate environment, etc. In addition, monitoring and impact studies should show measurable results: improved health, higher income and so on.  

Do jurors sometimes disagree?

Disagreements are few, but they do happen! Picking a winner is often a close call, because it is hard to choose between equally excellent projects. In these cases, we do a scoring exercise, using a chart with all the major criteria set out and examining the project according to each. The projects that tick all the boxes are the winners.

But in general the criteria are not numerical, the discussions are much more qualitative.  

What is your verdict on your three years as a juror?

Being a juror is a learning experience. During the week the jury meets, we come across a great number of innovative pedagogical approaches, curricula and training.  I have discovered that in Africa the relationship between literacy and development is especially clear - which is why such remarkable advances have been made in that region. The UNESCO Literacy Prize Jury is an intensive training course in adult education. 


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