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New education head ponders learning beyond COVID-19


Associate Professor Alison Kearney, who will become the next head of the Institute of Education in May.


The immense challenges for education in the digital age have preoccupied Associate Professor Alison Kearney for a while.  Now, the newly appointed head of the Institute of Education is also having to consider the massive impact of COVID-19 on how we might live and learn beyond lockdown. 

Dr Kearney, who takes over the role on May 4 when current head Professor John O’Neill steps down, is not daunted. “In terms of the challenges taking over the leadership of the Institute of Education amidst this state of emergency, I think it will be more important to focus on the opportunities that will arise from being forced to think about learning and the role of educators in different ways,” she says.

“There is no doubt that there are dreadful consequences of this worldwide pandemic – social, health, and economic. However, it has forced us, as educators, to think about a new ‘normal’ and realise that we will be changed forever, and our centres of education will be changed forever – we won’t be able to go back to how things were before.”

Dr Kearney, who began her career as a primary teacher before being seconded to Massey’s Initial Teacher Education programme, gaining her PhD in 2009, says; “we’ve known for a while now that the role of the educator in the 21st century is not as the person who holds then imparts the knowledge, and I think that the Covid-19 situation has brought this into stark reality – people can access knowledge and learn in so many ways, usually by a few clicks on a device. 

“They can also connect with just about anyone, anywhere and anytime, to learn and access knowledge – this will be the new normal, and we need to ensure we take these opportunities and re-imagine our education systems.”

Dr Kearney, a co-founder of the Equity Through Education Centre, established within Massey’s Institute of Education (part of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences) in 2016, says whatever unfolds through the COVID-19 crisis, she will continue to champion the need for equity in education. She cares deeply that all New Zealanders have equal access to quality education and is concerned that some – including Māori, Pasifika, people with disabilities or from backgrounds of poverty – are missing out.

Social changes present some of the biggest challenges facing education, in her view. “Our system is not doing very well by some groups in New Zealand. While we have a highly ranked system, there are some groups people and students missing out. This is a problem because we know our life chances are strongly influenced by our education opportunities. The better our educational outcomes, the more money we earn, the better our health, the more engaged in society and the happier we are.”

Equity through access to education

With her colleagues in the institute and the centre, she is addressing issues of discrimination and exclusion by fostering relationships with iwi and schools, aiming to break down barriers to learning. They work with communities to develop initiatives, and run symposia on topical issues as well as contributing to policy development, such as the recent review of Tomorrow’s Schools.

Dr Kearney’s ideals and values might be shaped by and expressed through academic activity now, but her passion for educational justice was kindled through early personal experiences. She grew up in Gisborne with a brother who had an intellectual disability. An absence of support, or schools that accepted people with disabilities, meant he had to go to a residential home in another town from age 13. In her 20s Dr Kearney learned about the terrible things that happened to him there, including going blind from a head injury. “People didn’t own their own clothes. They didn’t have their own rooms-  they lived like in a hospital ward with no schooling. There was a lot of abuse in such places. 

“I think this [her brother’s experiences] has been the thing that’s driven me in terms of thinking ‘why is it that we treat some members of our society as if they are second-class citizens, particularly as that relates to education. Why is it that he couldn’t go to school?’”

For her PhD research she sought to uncover some of the factors that lead to the exclusion of disabled pupils and found that in some cases, they were simply being denied access to enrolment either blatantly, or in more subtle ways. 

She believes schools are better at dealing with wider societal issues now. “We are definitely going in the right direction. Twenty or 30 years ago we talked about fixing the person, now we talk about fixing the system. That’s a great shift. It’s the same for tertiary study too – we need to ask ‘how are we meeting the needs of our Māori and Pasific students, and students from backgrounds of poverty?’”

Future of learning

Following 15 years as a primary school teacher (in Tauranga, Tokoroa, Christchurch and Palmerston North) to teaching into Massey’s Initial Teacher Education (ITE), masters and doctoral programmes, and most recently as National Coordinator of the Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RTLB) qualifications, Dr Kearney is keenly aware of how fast things are changing, of the sheer volume of knowledge at our fingertips – and the impact this will have on education. 

Developing open minds and critical thinking to navigate the abundance and complexity of information will be a vital skill in preparing students, she says. 

“It used to be enough to impart knowledge and to teach what things, but it’s so much more complex now – we also need to know why and how, and when, we need to think critically and problem-solve, to communicate and collaborate, and to be information literate. This changing world requires a changing education system, one that nurtures life-long learning as people seek to upskill throughout their lives.”

 

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