Collaborating for greater equity in education

Dr Jess Harris’ qualitative research is helping to strengthen our education systems and create greater equity in education for students and teachers everywhere.

Image of Jess Harris

How can we improve education for students across every region of Australia, from the bright city lights to remote country towns?

Dr Jess Harris believes the answer lies in greater collaboration between students, teachers, the community and researchers. Her research brings groups together to pinpoint ways to boost professional development and student learning outcomes, especially at schools and universities that are disadvantaged by geography or resources.

“My research is about creating change for all,” says Jess. “I am focused on creating better learning environments for all students and their teachers by developing an understanding of excellent practices already being implemented by schools and finding ways to facilitate improvements.”

While Jess often works closely with Australian schools and other educational institutions, her findings and innovative research methods are also contributing to improved, equitable education worldwide.

Untangling the system

The education system can be a complex ecosystem and Jess understands this better than most.

Schools, universities and other educational institutions usually operate within a web of relationships, leadership and regulations at the individual, institutional and government levels. Before change can take place, Jess explains that the first step is to build a clear picture of current practices and behaviours, and to carefully consider all the interconnecting factors that influence student learning.

“People don’t always question why things are done in a particular way. When we start focusing on small issues and question ‘why does this happen here?’ we can start to identify alternative ways of going about things. I am motivated by the idea that small changes can make a big impact.”

Jess recently collaborated with a team of researchers, practitioners, teachers and community leaders in Queensland to examine and trial new approaches that create more inclusive school environments for students, especially for those who do not engage well with traditional ways of working.

“Through this collaboration, we found that teachers became more aware of how their practices in the classroom could be inclusive of the needs of all students. We provided them with opportunities to question, test out new approaches, and evaluate their practice.”

Jess takes a qualitative approach to research, driving conversations around key problem areas and collaborating for change. Within higher education settings, this includes working closely with contract researchers and preservice teachers to better understand their conditions of work and raise red flags on areas of concern.

“My main hope is to start conversations about how the everyday things people do contribute to broader social impact, like how teachers’ interactions with students in the classroom can contribute to improving student learning or how deeper understanding of the lives of researchers working on short-term contracts can contribute to changes in the way they are managed within institutions.”

Teaching the teachers

The best way to improve student learning is by empowering teachers to share their expertise. Jess’ most recent research with the University of Newcastle’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre strives to upskill teaching staff in more locations across Australia through Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR), a process for sustainable, collaborative professional learning.

“This project has the potential to make a substantial impact on teachers’ working lives. Using a broad range of approaches, we are examining how teachers change their classroom practices over time in response to this professional development. We want to understand the experiences of teachers and school leaders in implementing QTR in their schools.”

QTR was developed by the University of Newcastle’s Laureate Professor Jenny Gore and Dr Julie Bowe to help inform and improve teachers’ decision-making in the classroom and boost student learning. With funding from the Paul Ramsay Foundation and the NSW Department of Education, Jess is helping to evaluate the initiative and find ways to scale it up to benefit more teachers and students in remote Australian regions.

“QTR Digital uses technology such as videoconferencing to bridge the geographical divide that can hinder professional development for teachers.”

Involved in both the development and evaluation of QTR Digital, Jess says technology can make professional development opportunities more accessible for teachers in regional, remote and small schools.

“We want to see whether these types of technology make it easier for teachers from regional, remote and small schools to participate in this form of professional development.”

On the global stage

Jess’ research on school change, the practices of teachers and school leaders, and interventions for improving schooling is making a meaningful difference in global conversations about education practices, policy and research.

Some of her earlier work in education policy contributed to the development of key documents, including the Australian Government’s Review of Funding for Schooling (2011) and The Future of Schooling in Australia (2007).

Jess has also presented her research on school change and the practices of teachers and school leaders across Australia and internationally, including Malaysia, Mauritius, Hong Kong and Norway. Her use of person-centred methods, such as conversation analysis, has generated new interest in how qualitative research can help determine the effectiveness of educational systems and interventions.

For Jess, one of the most satisfying aspects of her work is that it allows her to advocate for the most underrepresented in education research. This includes students who aren’t benefitting from traditional teaching methods, preservice teachers and contract researchers, all of whom can face precarious conditions within education settings.

“I am proud to give voice to experiences that might otherwise go unseen. I want my work to inform change within education settings that improve the system for everyone involved.”

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.