Questioning education

Dr Nisha Thapliyal believes that students, parents and communities should have the power to participate in education reform and redress inequalities in educational opportunity and quality.

Coming to Comparative and International Education from a background in social work and psychology, Nisha’s work examines and questions pedagogy, curriculum, and education policy using a theoretical framework informed by critical, antiracist, feminist, and queer theories of education.

“I am interested in questioning some of our fundamental beliefs: that formal education is always beneficial, that formal education is always empowering, that schooling in and of itself is democratic because it has to do with sharing knowledge,” Nisha states.

“In reality, history tells us that educational systems and processes are not always equitable.”

“It is apparent that there are particular kinds of knowledge and particular kinds of students that we value within modern mass education systems.”

Nisha has a specific interest in how community-based activism and social movements can contribute to strengthening public education systems and the democratisation of education policy making. She documents and analyses collective struggles for public education through the frames of human rights, social justice, peace and sustainable development.

A lecturer working with all levels of pre-service and post grad educators at the UON, Nisha is also Director International, for the School of Education and Coordinator of Staff and Students Talking About Research (SSTAR).


It was during her childhood in India, that Nisha first became aware of inequity.

“I lived on the second floor in an apartment building and I saw a whole family grow up on the pavement opposite me,” Nisha recounts.

“I always had questions about why some people have to work so hard just to get by.”

Nisha completed both an MA (Social Work) and BA (Psychology) in India, with research focused on the discrimination and challenges negotiated by institutionalised children.

She soon felt that both psychology and social work were limited to offering too little too late, and looked instead for ways to begin to address systemic disadvantage and exclusion.

Examining more closely the experiences of ‘invisible’ children, including those with physical and cognitive disabilities, orphans, street children, those in the juvenile justice system, or isolated by geography, Nisha found a common underlying theme – a lack of access to equitable and culturally responsive education.

“These children are great survivors and I learned a lot from them,” Nisha says.

“Essentially they made me question what it is we are trying to do in schools and universities, and whether it is working and for whom.”


Moving to the United States for post-doctoral studies, Nisha began to investigate ways that education could be influenced from the ground up, to ensure more relevant and inclusive pedagogical practice. Nisha currently studies and works with education social movements in South Africa, India, and the United States.

Her PhD dissertation analysed the educational philosophy and critical pedagogies of the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) - the Landless Workers Movement of Brazil.

The four decades long struggle of 1.5 million Brazilian landless peasants who constitute the MST for the right to land, to education, and to sustainable development has provided hope and inspiration for grassroots social movements in South America and around the world.

The MST have critiqued mainstream education in Brazil which privileges urban and industrialised culture and excludes a diversity of rural and Indigenous perspectives and educational philosophies. They have successfully claimed the right to construct their own curriculum and pedagogy inspired by educational thinkers such as Paulo Freire and Anton Makarenko.  What makes them unique in the world of alternative education is the fact that their schools and teacher training institutes are “public” institutions and funded by the government.

“Apart from making education more culturally relevant and more responsive, these rural communities have a heritage that's rich in culture, and rich in knowledge of the natural environment, and that knowledge isn't getting lost anymore,” Nisha imparts.

“This model isn’t perfect but it is inspiring as a means of community led change.”


Understanding the experience of inequality as being created by the intersection of multiple social factors, Nisha draws on feminist, queer and antiracist educational theory to question and challenge what is valued within the education system.

Although the first woman in her family to go to university in India, Nisha acknowledged enjoying relative privilege in her country of origin, due to her education in English. Moving to America to as a multi-ethnic woman of colour who spoke English as an additional language, Nisha had her own experiences of otherness.

“As a woman in the North American academy, a woman from postcolonial India in the West, that was not my world,” she says.

“It was in women's studies' spaces in the US that I found women like me who could bridge these worlds in a way that I could understand - that's what attracted me to intersectional feminism and gender studies.”

Queer theory is particularly effective in challenging the status quo in education, because it constantly questions notions of what is ‘normal’ and the way ‘things have always been done’ and the implications for equitable and just education.

“As an educator, and particularly as a teacher of teachers, it was from feminist and queer pedagogies that my classroom tool box emerged,” Nisha states.


Nisha confesses that she has been fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues who really care about teaching, and teaching at institutions that really care about students.

The UON is renowned for training quality educators, ranked in the top 150 universities in the world for education and training. The School of Education is particularly committed to supporting students to overcome barriers to higher education, an endeavor that Nisha is excited to be part of.

Nisha is very aware of the barriers that some of her own students may be facing.

“I always start my class with a survey, so I can get to know my students and their realities before I throw 20 books at them,” she says.

The survey includes questions regarding all aspects of the pre-service teacher’s lives, from favourite food to work commitments.

“The really important questions are about how many hours they work and how many people they are responsible for caring for,” Nisha explains.

“To be a responsive educator, you can’t make any assumptions about what responsibilities people have outside of the classroom that may impact on their ability to perform. I hope my students remember this in their classrooms too,” she says.

For the same reason, Nisha is especially careful to challenge hyper romanticised ideas of rural and remote Australia, where many UON teacher education graduates may find themselves in the near future.

“School communities are not a blank canvas,” Nisha says.

“They are a rich resource with histories, roots, values, meaning, identity, visions, hopes and dreams and a great deal of knowledge to share.”


So how does a global view of education seen through a critical, feminist, and queer lens translate into the practice when teaching UON education students how to teach?

Nisha teaches into all levels of competency in the School of Education, from exploring the philosophical and sociocultural foundations of education with first year pre-service teachers through to supervising Honours and PhD Theses focused on alternative conceptions of education and development.

Her courses are designed to help educators develop a social and historical context for their profession and enhance the ways in which they can contribute to a just society as teachers and global citizens.

Related links

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.