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Social equity vital to education: new director

August 14, 2014

Social equity vital to education: new director

Championing social justice and challenging inequailty are values that Massey’s newly-appointed Institute of Education director is keen to see continued by a new generation of researchers.

Professor John O’Neill – whose appointment has just been announced – says the major challenge educators face is that New Zealand has become “one of the most socio-economically unequal societies in the world.”

“We have an ever-reducing tax base to fund public services, we have an ageing population, we have a population divided between the minority who know how to lead long, healthy and happy lives, and those who struggle to keep body and soul together,” he says.

Massey is committed to demonstrating how education can increase individuals' opportunities through lifelong and professional learning, he says.

Growing Massey’s international research partnerships and being the education provider of choice for Māori and Pasifika educators and higher education staff in developing economies in the Asia Pacific region are also top priorities, says Professor O’Neill, formerly the institute’s research director.

His new role makes him the second director for Massey’s Institute of Education since it was launched last year as an integral part of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He has been an elected Council member of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education, and has served as an invited member on the Marsden Fund Social Sciences Panel and the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF). In 2012 he received the Teacher Education Forum of Aotearoa New Zealand career excellence award and a Massey University Research Excellence medal.

Professor O’Neill, who began his career as a teacher of children with special educational needs, says his vision for the institute is about leading New Zealand’s professional education in its established areas of expertise, such as teaching, educational psychology, counselling and speech and language therapy.

“We want to be benchmarked as a world-class provider of researcher and education professional training at postgraduate and doctoral levels,” he says. “We want to build international research partnerships, exchanges and collaborations in our existing strengths, which include mathematics, literacy, inclusive education, e-learning and tertiary teaching.”

The institute has over 60 full and part-time New Zealand-based and international doctoral researchers currently enrolled.

Among innovative staff research projects is a ground-breaking project led by mathematics education specialists Dr Bobbie Hunter and Professor Glenda Anthony to raise maths achievement among Pasifika and Māori children in low decile Auckland primary schools.

Dr Hunter's "mathematical communities of inquiry" teaching model, developed during her doctoral research, was piloted in 2009 with remarkable results. This year the Ministry of Education allocated $1.5m to enable her to train 140 more teachers in nine schools, noting the model was receiving international recognition. The model – in which pupils work collaboratively in groups and use cultural models to solve problems – is now so popular it is known as "Bobbie maths" by the schools.

Other top researchers include Dr Alison Sewell and Dr Maggie Hartnett who are working with colleagues in the College of Sciences on a project to investigate how farmers can be supported to apply good science knowledge to what they do on the farm. Meanwhile, while Dr Mandia Mentis, Associate Professor Jill Bevan-Brown and Dr Alison Kearney are researching the effects of their cutting-edge Specialist Teaching Programme.

Professor O’Neill, who will take over the institute’s leading role from its inaugural director Associate Professor Sally Hansen later in the year, says one of the reasons he came to Massey when he immigrated to New Zealand from Britain 20 years ago was the opportunity to work in an “open university” that champions second-chance learning.

Another reason was Massey’s reputation for “socially critical education research - standing back and asking who benefits and who loses from particular education policies and practices”.

He says he frequently get comments from teachers, principals and senior educators that they greatly appreciate the way Massey education researchers consistently “speak back to power. We are well known in our teaching and research for our commitments to social justice”.

With a general election looming, he says top education priorities are; more evidence-based education policies; careful trial and evaluation of new initiatives; funding to target the more disadvantaged children in society; and starting free pre-school public education provision as early as possible.

“Most of the key decision-makers in our society today benefited from a free public education,” Professor O’Neill says. “For some reason they have decided to pull the ladder up behind themselves and saddle the generations that follow with personal and public debt mountains. That's not fair and as educators we have a moral responsibility to do research that informs better education policymaking.”


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