The Big Issues
The politics of education and the professional identity and practice of teachers are among the wide-ranging research interests of Nicole Mockler.
Not so today, says the early career researcher with the Educational Research Institute Newcastle (ERIN), who is vitally interested in the way governments use touchstone issues in education to gain political leverage and how media representation of those issues can create a sense of panic that forces schools into a reactive response.
"Education is hot-button issue for governments because it is one of the few common experiences all people have - the vast majority of us have been to school and we all have an opinion on education," Mockler says.
"I am interested in the way politicians, in conjunction with the media, create these 'panic points' around education and the effect that then has on the way teaching is conducted in the classroom."
A perfect example is the way that the ranking element of the MySchool website has skewed teachers' approaches to NAPLAN tests, according to Mockler, who last year conducted a study on media reporting of MySchool. She argues that NAPLAN was designed as a diagnostic tool but has become a contest feeding off community concerns about teaching quality and choice that have been magnified by widespread media coverage.
"As a result, NAPLAN becomes all-consuming at that time of year, and other aspects of the curriculum are pushed aside while students are force-fed sample tests and 'prepared' for an exam that is supposed to be an indicator of their basic skills," Mockler says.
Mockler also has a keen research interest in how the professional identity of teachers is shaped, another area in which media representation plays a critical role, and the professional development of school educators.
Both streams of research stem from her early teaching experiences in high schools, where she spent time in leadership roles directing learning for both students and teachers. She later formed a consultancy and found high demand for her skills working alongside teachers on professional development and learning.
"In teaching, we used to think about professional development as those pupil-free days that every school has four times a year where they get an outside expert in to give them some kind of spray-on professional development," Mockler says.
"But the best professional development happens when teachers have extended opportunities to think about their practice within peer groups and ask critical questions."
Mockler is part of a University of Newcastle research team conducting a pilot project investigating teacher professional learning in schools in the ACT. She is also active in environmental education research and in 2009 teamed with ERIN colleague Associate Professor James Ladwig to undertake an evaluation of the Schools Climate Change Initiative for the NSW Department of Education and Training.
Mockler completed her PhD at the University of Sydney in 2008 and was appointed to the University of Newcastle the following year. She is a senior lecturer on the Central Coast campus and Deputy Head (Teaching and Learning) of the School of Education. In 2010 she received the inaugural ERIN Early Career Research Award.
She describes the common thread to her various research interests as "helping teachers understand who they are in a professional sense and creating the kind of environment that will allow them to step up to the challenges of 21st century education."