Each month Griffith Library finds out more about a remarkable Griffith researcher. This month we spoke with Dr Greg Vass, a member of the Griffith Institute for Education Research and Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies. We asked him about his latest projects and his advice for aspiring researchers.
How did you become interested in education, and what was your path into academia?
My path toward academia started in my early 20s when I had the opportunity to complete an honours program of study that was a 100% thesis pathway through University of Queensland. My project thesis was in the field of ethnomusicology with a particular focus on the use of the yidaki (or didgeridoo) in the two popular bands Yothu Yindi and Jamiroquai. It was challenging but immensely rewarding.
While I was interested in further study or research, due to pragmatic reasons I ended up gaining employment in language education overseas, firstly in South Korea, and subsequently in Japan. These were work settings that provided the opportunity to start looking at and thinking about teaching and learning in ways that I had not previously considered.
For me, it was a curious and increasingly serious responsibility to be viewed and engaged with as a language teacher, which was largely based on simply being born in a context in which English was my first language, and in a nation where access to higher education was relatively accessible. It was an experience that allowed me to seriously reflect on concerns to do with positionality, power, representation, language, and culture which I had engaged with during my university studies and was now within the context of education more specifically. When I returned to Australia, I enrolled in a graduate diploma in education, becoming a high school teacher with an increased focus on concerns to do with Indigenous education and teaching for cultural and linguistic diversity until I ultimately started my PhD.
Your research focus is on cultural politics in knowledge production and schooling, what makes this area of research so important?
‘Across my time as a student, teacher and researcher in higher education, I have been focused (in some form) on concerns such as those to do with identities, culture, institutional arrangements, power, inequities, and social justice.’
I had a 3-4 year break between the end of high school and starting at university. At high school my academic achievements were pretty poor and subsequently I drifted into hospitality until fortunately getting a job with what is now Centrelink. It was in this context that I encountered new and different ways with what it looks, sounds and feels like when people that may not have been well served by education and the employment sector come into the orbit of big government agencies. I found some aspects of the job unsettling and confronting, particularly when enacting policy decisions and practices in connection with people that appeared to have so little control or power over the societal and structural arrangements they were caught up in. This led me to leave my job and pursue higher education to better understand the experiences of people as they engage with and move through large social and government institutions.
Across my time as a student, teacher and researcher in higher education, I have been focused (in some form) on concerns such as those to do with identities, culture, institutional arrangements, power, inequities, and social justice. Within the context of education and schooling, all of these threads run through key facets of the institution in the form of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and policies. My understanding and approach to education draws heavily on a critical tradition—the work of Freire, Giroux, Apple, Leonardo and Ladson-Billings are influential for me in this space. Of central import to those working in this tradition is the understanding that education should be designed and run in ways that empower learners to understand deeply the complexities, contestations, and challenges of the worlds they are inheriting—and more than this—the skills and knowledges to address these worries also need to be developed.
There is no shortage of examples that effect and are affected by education such as the Voice referendum, climate change, domestic violence, access to housing, wealth distribution and so on. It also remains contested how this is undertaken, and with what goal in mind. For instance, there are influences that curb the potential for the curriculum and educators to delve in depth into reconciling the effects for First Nations peoples that stem from the invasion of what is now known as Australia; to interrogate the role and implications with mining on climate change; and with the reproduction of hyper or toxic masculinity. There are notable examples of this not only in the media, but also reaching into conversations in Parliament, with the teaching of history, environmental science or sex education all continuing to be debated and contentious. In my opinion,
‘the cultural politics of knowledge production is one of the most important things to be discussing and addressing in connection with education’
Do you have any current projects you would like to tell us about?
There are two studies that I am currently working on. The first of these is the Culturally Nourishing Schooling (CNS) project, a collaborative research/practice study that is investigating new ways to support schools with developing and delivering educational experiences that meet the cultural, social and academic aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The CNS project is a multi-site, whole-school approach which aims to change schooling policies, curriculum and pedagogic practices to improve student success. Underpinning this is the requirement to fundamentally shift teachers’ beliefs and values. It is a joint research, school, and jurisdictional collaborative partnership with the NSW Department of Education (DoE), involving 8 DoE schools in urban, regional, rural and remote areas, and the Aboriginal Education Consultative Groups that are linked with each of these communities.
The second project that I am currently working on is focused more specifically on curriculum policies and practices. For this study, we are investigating the Years 7-10 curriculum in the disciplines of science and history across Queensland and New South Wales. More specifically, we are looking at the ways that educators interpret and enact the requirements to embed Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander knowledges, histories and perspectives in teaching and learning. This project is motivated by our experiences working within education, which has highlighted the lack of confidence, interest or comprehension that some teachers share regarding this curriculum mandate. If teachers are to have more confidence and better understand how to approach this new mandate, we need to comprehend how and why the disciplinary training and practices of science or history teachers can be reworked to achieve this ambition.
If you had all the power in the world, what one thing would you implement to make Australia’s schools more culturally responsive?
Ah, the magic wand question! In my view, the first thing to do would be to shut-down the private education sector that has been encouraged to grow the way that it has in recent decades within Australia. In part, private schooling is designed and run with the goal of providing an advantage to those that can access it, so it is intertwined with the reproduction of privilege and inequities in society more broadly.
A key worry is the standardising of curriculum and assessment practices to which schools report on and are held accountable—private and public schools compete for attention, resources and status based on the delivery and outcome of these practices… The standardising of schooling practices runs contrary to core facets of culturally responsive approaches such as the localising of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment practices. We have encountered concerns or fears expressed by educators about the encouragement to take up culturally responsive approaches in some schools—that the approach may deflect time and attention away from what teachers and students are accountable for and reported on. Those of us advocating for greater take up of culturally responsive approaches strongly reject this concern, and would instead argue that it is an enriching and rewarding approach that actively contributes to dismantling the reproduction of privileges and inequities through schooling.
What advice would you give aspiring teachers?
‘One of the things I often encourage future teachers to seriously engage with is the extent to which education is political…’
Over many years I have encountered educators that have conveyed a lack of interest in thinking of schooling as political, or they have shared the view that it is a responsibility for teachers to remain objective and try to ensure their own political views don’t travel into school with them. Unfortunately, I don’t think either stance is helpful or realistic. In this sense I would agree with sentiments shared by the likes of Paulo Freire who encouraged understanding and accepting the point that schooling is either actively maintaining or actively changing the current arrangements in any given social milieu. As educators, if we do not understand and accept this, then we run the risk of unwittingly contributing to the maintenance of the status quo, which given the inequities, discrimination and violence that many continue to experience, urgently requires change. In my experience, the majority of teachers enter the profession with the hope and aspiration that the profession can and should make positive changes for the lives of people and society more broadly. Hence, they come into the teaching profession with a change agenda in mind, but to achieve this requires understanding and learning to navigate the politics of schooling.
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