ISSUE 6   November 2003  


One On One - Meet The Network's Newest Board Member


An insightful question and answer session introduces you to Peter Calamai, National Science Reporter for The Toronto Star who has just joined our Board of Directors.








“We've got a pipeline with a big kink in the middle of it. We have all this stuff coming in at one end and not much of it is actually coming out the other end in terms of actually being delivered.”

Peter Calamai

Q: What does your background offer to our organization?

A: The first reason you have people on a Board is for their life experience, and second for their perspective, and third maybe for the way in which they would interact with other Board members. In my case, the life experience that's relevant to this Board would include being in charge of the first survey that was done on adult literacy in Canada, the Southam survey done in 1987, which I directed and wrote as a series of articles for the Southam newspapers. The articles were later republished in a book called, "Broken Words". Since then, I've stayed involved in the adult literacy area, so that's certainly the most relevant part of life experience.

My professional life as a journalist, since the mid-1960s, means that I have a sort of vast, superficial knowledge of almost every topic in existence, having written about almost everything you can think about in those years. When topics come up for discussion at the Board, I'm usually able to add information. There are very few issues that a journalist isn't exposed to, and the fact that I work in Ottawa in a Parliamentary Bureau, means that in terms of federal public policy, I'm probably closer to it than many other Board members. Although I must state that I'm not involved in trying to make policy, because that would be a conflict with my journalistic role. I do though have an idea of how it is made, what actually happens, and how changes in public policy happen, as opposed to what the political sides teach.

And as for the third reason, the sort of interaction with the rest of the Board members, that is partly because of what I am, a reporter, and partly because of genetics of environment. I tend to be impatient. I have a relatively short attention span, a very low boredom threshold, and am interested in moving things along rather than discussing them endlessly. I've spent most of my professional working life not going to meetings, and not writing memos, and reading only the summary of reports, if at all possible. On one Board I already serve on, ABC Canada, I tend to be the person who says, "Well, let's cut to the chase here", or who says "This is all bafflegab and I can't understand it, could somebody please explain this to me in words of two syllables?" This is not always appreciated, but this is what I do, and it's sometimes helpful. I try not to be disruptive, but that's the part that I bring to the mix, you know a little bit of the volatile part, to a mix of in-group discussions.

Q: What's the best way to disseminate children's language and literacy scientific research to effect change?

A: First, choose your audience. Whom are you trying to disseminate the research to? That's the most important thing, because what you have to do is shape the research for the intended audience. It's a bit like chemistry, you have to have a receptor which is the right shape, before you can stick in the molecule that's going to go in there. Many of the problems that come about in the communication of scientific information are because people are trying to do "one size fits all", and it's definitely not the case. If you're trying to communicate it to policy makers, to take one identifiable group, you would shape it one way. If you're trying to communicate it to the educated lay public, you would do it another way.

In today's society, and this comes from a person who writes for the largest circulation daily newspaper in Canada, people have too much information coming at them from too many sources. People have established filters, and they're going to filter out an awful lot of information unless it hits relevancy buttons very quickly for them. Much of the scientific information that groups try to disseminate to the public doesn't hit those relevancy buttons for various reasons. The advice is to find the audience, research the audience, and emphasize the relevance.

Q: You mean you wouldn't advise just publishing research and hoping it is applied?

A: Almost guaranteed to fail.

Q: Do you have an example of successful scientific communication?

A: As a case study involving children and learning, look at how Fraser Mustard pushed the agenda for early child development. Find a Masters student at a university who wants to do a case study in communications strategy, and look at how that was done. When I was out of newspapers, for two years, I could do things I otherwise couldn't do; one of those things was to sit on a Government Advisory Board. The committee I sat on was the Science and Technology Advisory Board for the Department of the Environment. We had a Masters student at Carleton University look at the acid rain issue and how Environment Canada and other groups had communicated the science behind acid rain to get the necessary changes in law and practice, and most importantly, peoples behaviour. (What you're really involved in here is changing peoples cultural beliefs and modifying their behaviour.) It does no good to preach to people about the importance of children being exposed to language and learning at early ages unless you also change parents behaviour so that they make changes. If parents just take information in as a piece of theory, that's no good. You have to change the behaviour.

Q: In the Canadian context, where do you think language and literacy issues are on the radar of important issues?

A: They're probably in the motherhood camp. Everybody thinks it's a great idea, but it's not very well actualized.

I just haven't seen the research on this. My suspicion is that it's probably far more concrete at the community level. Lots of things are happening, usually under-funded, usually under-supported, at the community level, but there isn't yet a very good network regionally, provincially, and nationally to maximize things. Many people are doing run-offs, repeating mistakes that other people have made elsewhere, because they just didn't know. Much of the success is probably very much dependent upon the energies and the personalities of the people involved in those programs, and if they tire or drop the torch, there isn't enough institutional robustness for the programs to continue.

There is a serious institutional problem here and that's one of the places, for instance, where The Network has a chance for some yoking of energies.

Q: How can our Network work to close that gap between research, policy change and making literacy an issue that is outside of motherhood?

A: I think most of what The Network could offer would be on the social sciences side, and a lot of it would be in behavioural modification. In fact, it could even be a marketing issue.

In many ways there is a super-abundance of research to show the importance of literacy and learning early for children. You can stack the reports up until they crush you. I don't think the problem is in piling up more data to show the importance. There is of course research worth doing into methods, techniques, deliveries, and understanding. There's tons of work being done all around the world on dyslexia, looking for dyslexia genes and things like that. All that's well and good, and should be continued and encouraged. But we've got a pipeline with a big kink in the middle of it. We have all this stuff coming in at one end and not much of it is actually coming out the other end in terms of actually being delivered.

What I want to be assured of (I will attend my first Board meeting in November) is that were doing everything that's within our mandate, and within our resources, to encourage research into how do we resolve that kink, that bend in the hose pipe, and how do we do research into the delivery of information that will help change attitudes of everybody from the people in your local community up to the Member of Parliament.

Q: Any closing comments?

A: My tendency has always been to try to promote literacy at all age levels as first and foremost a human development issue. It's a bit squishy and fuzzy, and I'll be the first to admit it. But if you're going back to Rousseau, and even farther back in philosophy, human beings have the inalienable right to be able to participate in society to the best of their possible abilities. No one, very few people anyhow, would deny that a child born with Down Syndrome should get all possible care, and all possible help, so whatever they're capable of doing, they're able to do.

If you have people who have problems learning, with language and literacy of any sort, it is their inalienable right as a human being to be given help for that. You could also argue, "it's a medical necessity, an economic necessity", but in the end it's citizenship. As long as were committed to giving everybody in this country a say in how the country is run, by giving them a vote and also the right to run for our leader, we should be equally committed to giving them as much access to the opportunity as we possibly can. We can't guarantee the result, but we can certainly try to guarantee the equal access. People with language and literacy problems, for whatever reason, whether it's physical, emotional, or we don't know, have a right. It's a right. That's all it is, it's an inalienable right as far as I'm concerned.