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Candidates Report Obstacles to Integrating Culturally Responsive Practice in Teaching

Have you seen the JTE Insider blog managed by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team? Check out the following interview with the author of a recent article. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles themselves in the full JTE archives online – just log in with your AACTE profile here.

This interview features insights from the article “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Schooling: Initial Teacher Educators Into the Fray” by Greg Vass of the University of New South Wales (Australia). The article, which appears in the November/December issue of JTE, is summarized in the following abstract:

In Australia, schools are experiencing increasing cultural diversity, alongside of nationalizing assessment and curricular and professional standards. It is raising concerns regarding the pace of systemic reform and sector-wide professional renewal. Culturally responsive schooling practices may be helpful at this time because [they locate] the experiences of learners as powerfully influencing engagement and achievement. This article reports on “The Culturally Responsive Schooling Project,” a study focused on postgraduate students as they prepared for, undertook, and reflected on practicum experiences. Participants identified three barriers that impacted on their culturally responsive efforts: mentors encouraging limited and limiting curricular, pedagogic, and assessment practices; mentors communicating resistance to doing things differently or valuing cultural responsiveness; and a fearful awareness of being evaluated by their mentors. The ambition of this discussion then is to encourage a rethink of the interconnections between teacher education, school leadership, and in-service professional development.

Q: What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

A: Experience as a high school teacher initiated my research interest and concern to do with the impacts of race and racism in connection with curriculum and pedagogical practices. My Ph.D. thesis, then, was an investigation that enabled me to develop a deeper theoretical understanding of the complexities of race-making in school settings. This was alongside of developing my skills and confidence with methodologically undertaking research on these lines of concern. While the study was framed by Critical Race Theory, the research journey also introduced me to culturally responsive approaches to schooling. Following on from this study, I wanted to work with teachers to apply these ideas and tools in schooling here in Australia. Ultimately, my motivation to pursue this particular research topic stems from my recognition and belief that if “we” want schooling to start producing more genuinely socially just outcomes for all students, then “we” need to start doing schooling differently from what I experienced and then witnessed as an educator.

Q: Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

A: It would be difficult to try and pinpoint any particular event or circumstances that influenced my decision to pursue this line of research. However, in previous writing I have referred to the suite of education policy changes that followed a change in national government in 2007 (initiating the so-called “education revolution”), when I was still a high school teacher, as provoking my concerns in connection with these research interests. In essence, the policy changes were moves to a national literacy and assessment program, a national “closing the achievement gap” targeting Indigenous learners, a national curriculum, and national professional standards for teachers. My worries then, as they remain today, were that many of the school-level changes in response to these educational policies have served to further entrench a collection of injustices that many students experience, while concurrently reproducing the opportunities and privileges that many others receive.

Q: What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

A: The major difficulties encountered during the research are the focus of my paper in JTE. Namely, there were unexpected barriers that the supervising teachers established that curbed the capacity and confidence of the initial teacher educators to learn how to plan and put culturally responsive schooling practices into action during their practicum experiences. Having said this, I think it is also important to try and draw attention to how and why there are institutional arrangements in place that shape and guide the potential of the supervising teachers to mentor in different ways and to genuinely undertake professional learning themselves during the practicum experience. This then is linked to the point raised in the previous response, where there is a seemingly high-stakes education policy environment that negatively impacts on activities such as relationship building between teachers and students, expansive and creative curriculum and pedagogical practices, and learning experiences that genuinely fosters the socio-political consciousness of learners.

Q: What current areas of research are you pursuing?

A: One of my current projects builds on the lines of research outlined above by specifically focusing on relationships and the involvement of local Aboriginal community members in school decision making and classroom practices. There have long been calls for schooling to more effectively respect, value, and work with local communities. Indeed, this is clearly articulated in contemporary national and state education policies in Australia, and more expansively is recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. One of the reasons often put forward regarding why there has not been evidence of sustained or widespread improvements with this issue is due to the trust and confidence that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have in regards to the dominant school sector. This is the area we are working on in the “Culture, Community, and Curriculum Project,” and we are doing so by connecting and supporting classroom teachers and people from the local community across a cluster of schools (mostly P-6 contexts). The research includes running workshops with the participants coming together to develop their relationships, to plan, and reflect on schooling practices, alongside of the community members then joining the class to contribute to teaching and learning one day a week.

Q: What advice would you give to new scholars in teacher education?

A: When working with research graduate students in teacher education, some of the questions or reflections that I encourage investing time in contemplating are [these]: Why do they want to focus on any particular line of research? What do they hope to achieve or the impact of the research to be? What sort of influence do relationships and their role (as a researcher) have on all aspects of the study? In essence, while I earlier commented on concerns to do with the well-established worry that the primary and secondary educational sector is implicated in reproducing social inequities and injustices, the extension of this would be the contribution of researchers with also maintaining the status quo. If the schooling sector needs to “do” things differently, in other words if it is to interrupt and change this in any way, so too do the efforts and activities of many education researchers need to change if they are to effectively support achieving this ambition.

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