Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Too many Canadians have lowest levels of literacy, numeracy

What role does the smart phone play in shaping skills for the 21st century?

That question says a lot about the world we now live in, and while nobody has a definitive answer to it, a new international study released this week goes some way toward finding one.

The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) was a survey of adults in 24 countries conducted by the OECD. It examines three sets of skills that everyone needs in order to thrive in the digital age: literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE).

Story continues below advertisement

That last skill is an unfortunate mouthful. But it's also an essential one in today's world, as everyone from school children to nuclear scientists knows.

Fortunately for Canada, we are one of the leading countries in the world on that measure: Along with only six other nations, Canada scored above the OECD average. That means we are outpacing much of the world in our ability to complete tasks that involve solving complex problems in computer environments.

We're also ahead when it comes to simply engaging with technology. Not all participants were able to complete the assessment on computers, but over 80 per cent of Canadians did – a number that places Canada in the top tier of countries surveyed. This result is encouraging, suggesting that Canada is well positioned to adapt to the ever more competitive and technology-rich global economy.

But if there is one thing the world of technology has taught us over the past 20 years, it is that no one can afford to be complacent in the face of change. The PIAAC study reinforces that message for Canada. It shows that in literacy we are only at the OECD average, and in numeracy we are slightly lower. More significantly, while many Canadians are top performers, we also have a disproportionate number of people who score at the lowest levels of proficiency in all three skills. There is a pressing need for us to do better.

Where do we begin? The first place to turn is our education systems.

It is a truism that educational attainment and skills proficiency are closely linked. In particular, people with a postsecondary education score highest on all skills, not just because of what they learn in the classroom, but because of the opportunities they have to use and upgrade their skills after their formal education is complete. But the results from PIAAC put that truism in a new light.

For example, immigrants to Canada score lower than the rest of the population (although the gap is smaller in Canada that in most other countries), but those who complete a significant portion of their education in Canada do not. Similarly, Aboriginal populations score lower than non-Aboriginals, but when we compare Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people with similar levels of education, the differences in proficiency disappear.

Story continues below advertisement

These findings are important precisely because of what really sets Canada apart: our diversity. We are a bilingual nation, with the second-largest proportion of immigrants of the 24 countries surveyed. In addition, we have the largest percentage of population whose mother tongue is different from the official languages of the assessment. The skills advantages that we have rest on our success in responding to this diversity through, among other things, our systems of education.

Yet, the responsibility does not lie exclusively with schools, colleges, and universities – the labour market has a role to play as well. Businesses and governments need to ensure that Canadians get the training they need to maintain their skills if we are to remain competitive in the global economy. This has never been truer than today, when productive employment depends increasingly on the ability to interpret, process, and act upon information. And this is no easy task, as the results highlight a classic conundrum: Those most in need of skills training are often the least likely to access it. We need to ensure that those who find themselves at the lowest levels of proficiency do not fall further behind. If we provide them with the right opportunities, they too can flourish.

The challenge before us is neatly symbolized by the smart phone. In under a decade it has gone from novelty to necessity, having become the face of a technological revolution that is changing the way we work and live. Mastering it demands developing new skills, as well as reinforcing traditional ones. Those who do so enhance their productivity, employment opportunities, and access to the new digital world; those who don't are increasingly left behind.

Jeff Johnson is Alberta's Minister of Education and chair of the Council of Ministers of Education.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to