The University of Newcastle, Australia

Journeying into thinking

An accomplished teacher turned researcher, Associate Professor Kylie Shaw is focused on what doctorate holders can bring to industry and how people at that elite level develop and learn.

Kylie Shaw

It’s been a busy few years for Associate Professor Kylie Shaw since she stepped into the academic world from the classroom. The established mid career researcher currently has six research projects underway all with a focus on high level learning and its impacts within the workforce; and on future focused learning.

Associate Professor Shaw began her career as a primary school teacher, before becoming a coordinator of academic programs at her independent school. She completed her PhD part time while teaching and looked at how students at university engaged with honours degrees.

“While I was doing my undergraduate degree I was fascinated by students who never wanted to leave university so I got really interested in why people want to do research. This led me to my own PhD studies,’ she said.

“Honours-level research programs across Australia are very different, so I did an analysis of that, then looked at honours across one institution and came up with a notion of research preparedness, asking what is it that encapsulates students’ preparedness to begin higher research studies, and what the learning journey looks like in different disciplines,” Associate Professor Shaw said.

From there she applied for a role at the University of Newcastle. In this role, part of her current focus is on how being doctoral can influence the education profession to reconceptulise learning for children.

“When I was working in schools and I was doing my PhD I talked to the kids about it and why I was doing it, and how it made knowledge uncertain. I think that helped the children see that school is not just about learning information, because information can change. It’s like the solar system and when we found out Pluto wasn’t a ‘real’ planet. It was someone learning at that high level that discovered that and transformed knowledge as we knew it. Knowledge isn’t absolute, particularly now in our ever-changing technological world,” Associate Professor Shaw concluded.

Researcher excellence in contemporary contexts

In 2017 Kylie was awarded a Women in Research Fellowship by the University of Newcastle which funded a research project that involves working with teachers who are doing PhDs. Associate Professor Shaw says there is a lot more emphasis on teacher learning and professional development presently and so is looking at whether engaging in higher level learning enriches learning for teachers and how that impacts on their student’s learning.

“I’m trying to get a sense of how teachers engage in quality research projects, and does having the support of a network help them progress with that research,’ she said. “When teachers are learning at this high level, does that then impact on their student’s learning? For leaders in schools and school systems, how do they develop as leaders of learning so they can ensure that professional learning programs for teachers develop their own future focused thinking capabilities?”

The value of doctoral education

Associate Professor Shaw is passionate about proving just how much high level learners, such as those with a PhD, can contribute to the workforce. She’s adding to the national debate on this topic through a variety of research projects that focus on doctoral learners and what they have to contribute to industry.

Associate Professor Shaw says there’s not a lot known about what value is added when people engage in high level learning, particularly in professions which revolve around newer disciplines such as teaching, nursing and the health sciences.

“At the moment there’s a problem with people engaged in higher learning, they’re often sidelined in industry and not recognised for the skills they bring. There is this juncture in what value a PhD adds to a person’s skills. There’s sometimes a lot of resistance to people who have done this high level learning and what they can contribute.”

“One area I am especially passionate about is trying to establish how much high level learners can add to the profession, in terms of the way they work, their policy and social entrepreneurism, and how they push the profession forward. They’re creating new knowledge in the work they do in their doctorate so I’m interested in whether or not they see the world differently and can help to then push forward the profession as well,” Associate Professor Shaw said.

Associate Professor Shaw is working with colleagues in SORTI (The Centre for the Study of Research Training & Innovation) on an Australian Research Council funded project called Excellent researchers: using learner profiles to enhance research learning which aims to build a picture of what learners are like at the doctoral level. She says generally people conceive PhD students as already at the level they need to be to complete a doctorate, but what this research is finding is that there are different types of learners doing doctorates and many are still developing as doctoral learners.

“For this multi-faceted study, we’ve developed a program called DocLearn which helps students understand themselves as learners.  Using an online portal, students do a survey and through this we build an individualised learning profile for each student which the students can then explore and learn from,” Associate Professor Shaw said.

To build this profile, the survey looks at whether students see knowledge as complex or simple, how they draw on coping strategies, how they solve problems within their projects, what are their motivations and what strategies they use as learners.

“Students can also choose to do a monthly check-in, which helps them to track the highs and lows of their doctoral journey.”

At the end of their doctorate the students will be surveyed again to see if any changes have occurred in the intervening years.

“This process will show how they’ve developed as learners, whether their expectations at the start have been met and what their experience has been like,” Associate Professor Shaw said.

The results of this project will be released in 2020 with the aim of being translated into practice in the industry.

“There’s a national debate about the skills doctoral students bring into the workforce, so this research should give a better picture of doctoral students as learners and what they’re actually taking with them into industry practice.”

“In a previous project I worked with teachers on how to design innovative and authentic learning activities at school so they can help students to show what they can do in terms of knowledge construction, collaboration, communication and self regulation - all of those 21st century skills,’ Shaw commented.

“I believe those same skills should be incorporated into undergraduate and postgraduate programs because we want to personalise learning to equip all students with the skills they’ll need for the 22nd century. We know jobs aren’t going to remain the same and due to artificial intelligence a lot of the jobs that require routine learning are going to disappear, so we need people who can manage uncertainty, with the skills to drive new knowledge and transform practice.”

Support for equity students

Associate Professor Shaw’s examination of doctoral students extends to another research project through the University of Newcastle’s equity group looking at enablers and barriers to an equitable higher degree by research learning environment.

Traditionally doctoral education candidates are as seen as an elite group of people, however Associate Professor Shaw says undergraduate education is becoming more accessible with diverse pathways for people from differing backgrounds to access university education and then go onto higher level learning.

“What we’re really interested in is those students who come from families where they are the first one to attend university or female students who have barriers to studying at a high level, and how they are experiencing the doctoral journey,” she said. “We’re doing a comparative study looking at students who are doing their doctorate in two different universities and what types of support they’re accessing and whether they feel supported.”

“One of the universities has a reputation for developing and supporting students from equity backgrounds, and the other is an elite university where we are hypothesising that students in doctoral programs there are expected to already be at that high level and so there are not as many supports in place.”

This study also uses the doctoral Journey Tracking plot to follow the highs and lows of their researcher journey but for this study, also their perceptions of support.

The outcomes of this research will translate into recommendations to be made to the deans and directors of graduate research education around Australia, with the aim of improving the support for students from equity backgrounds.

“We’re trying to demystify the notion that when you’re doing the doctorate you are at that high level already and don’t need support. We’ll also end up with knowledge of where students are seeking support so we can create an online presence with resources for these students to access.”