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UWS: A success story in teacher education and educational research November 18, 2014

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Steve Wilson

It has been a good year for the University of Western Sydney (UWS). Recognition of the university’s reputation as a quality institution has recently been captured by the recent publication of the Times 2014 World Higher Education Rankings. Here, UWS is noted as being amongst the top 100 of the world’s ‘young’ universities (under 50 years of age). It has also been included for the first time in the rankings of the top 400 universities in the world, marking it in the top 2% of all universities around the globe. These are great achievements for a university marking just its 25th anniversary in 2014.

There is also reason for the academics and professional staff in the School of Education at UWS to be justly proud of their own achievements in teacher education, research, and their engagement and leadership in the community. This is because a 2013 Report resulting from a high level external cyclical review of the UWS School of Education (2012), has concluded that:

The School of Education at the University of Western Sydney (UWS) has evolved into what can be considered a success story in terms of education faculties in Australia (Report, p.i).

In their report the review panel, comprising highly placed Education senior managers from other Australian universities and education systems, provides advice to the School on ways it can improve: this is, after all, a fundamental purpose of such reviews. Significantly, having consulted with UWS university students and graduates, school principals, teachers and community members during the review process, it congratulates and validates the School for the quality it is achieving, and points to a number of features of the School’s degree and research programs which have led to highly successful outcomes in teacher education and educational research being achieved by the School.

It is this success I wish to focus on here, particularly as teacher education programs across many universities often receive bad press from detractors (particularly some politicians and people in the media) who seem to often lament the quality of graduates of university teacher education, but who do not usually take the opportunity to investigate and understand what really happens in university teacher education. This is an alternative, and evidence-based good news story, from UWS.

The features of the UWS School of Education programs which are evaluated and praised by the review panel in its report include the following.

UWS’s ‘clever’ and effective course design
UWS has a postgraduate model of teacher education, meaning that students enter teacher education having completed a Bachelors degree. Through this pathway they bring an experience and maturity into their teacher education which assists them in becoming critical and classroom ready teachers. At UWS, facilitated pathways through Bachelors programs leading into the Master of Teaching degrees provide students with certainty in accessing postgraduate teacher education. According to the Review panel,

Introduction of the Bachelor of Arts pathway into the Master of Teaching was an especially smart move as this helps to prevent large numbers of students completing four years of study in education only to realise that they do not want to become teachers. This is a powerful model for linking undergraduate to postgraduate courses (p.22).

Course content and teaching approaches are also recognised by the panel as high quality features, and are addressed below.

Engaged learning and teaching
The panel’s Report commends the School on the experiences it provides to its student teachers through its program of service learning. Describing service learning as “one of (the School’s) great strengths” (p.7), and quite distinctive to what is offered in other universities, it praises the School for the range of community service projects in which student teachers can participate, and for the vast numbers of student teachers engaged in these programs (who each gain course credits for undertaking voluntary work). Commenting on the value of student teachers having the opportunity for deep engagement with people in the community, it notes that:

The Panel heard that the process of ‘getting to know people one-on-one’ through programs can be transformational – both for the UWS students and for the members of the community participating in the program (p.7).

The panel also notes the very positive responses to these programs from both student teachers, and community agencies and their clients. It notes the positive outcomes these programs achieve, including, as just two examples of many, preventing high school students from dropping out, and helping refugees improve their learning success through tutoring programs. The panel notes that feedback from external agencies and individuals involved in the service learning programs is extremely positive:

Feedback from this group was overwhelmingly positive, with many expressing gratitude and thanks to the School (including its students). One external partner that has received over six hundred student volunteers from the School spoke of the “clear commitment of UWS to build capacity in the region” … It became clear to the Panel that exemplary results are being achieved through community and regional engagement and the Panel wishes to congratulate the School on its outstanding engagement performance (p.i).

High graduate satisfaction
A clear outcome of the review is recognition that the School of Education is marked by outstanding teaching, indicated by high levels of student satisfaction with the programs and teaching. In expressing this, the panel notes that:

The Panel received many reports of the School’s outstanding learning and teaching performance, including the programs, focus, quality of teaching, and content of curriculum. The School has strong results in the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) [an Australia-wide instrument for measuring graduate satisfaction with university teaching] and Student Feedback on Units (SFU) surveys, as well as excellent scores on the My University Website (p.21).

A notable element of this feedback from the panel is that it took the opportunity to meet with many present students and former graduates before making this assessment of the quality of UWS courses and teaching. Some of the comments from present and former students relayed in the report include: ‘the course was wonderful’; ‘our tutors are excellent and provide the most unbelievable amount of resources’; ‘lecturers go out of their way’; ‘teaching is excellent at this university’; ‘some subjects are cutting edge’; ‘academics try so hard’, and that the School is ‘such a better atmosphere than my first (other) university’ (p.24).

More generally, the panel reports that student comments noted

The outstanding support provided by academics within the School, including the levels of empathy and understanding shown to students experiencing stress and/or personal difficulties (p.24).

In a summative comment, the panel notes that the “overall quality of the School’s teaching and learning is excellent” (p.21). This is something about which the School’s staff should be very proud. The overwhelmingly positive feedback from the Review indicates that while some politicians and others may choose to criticise and even disparage university teacher education programs, the quality of their graduates, and point to low levels of student satisfaction with their teacher education programs, this is certainly not the case with UWS, as just one example in the university sector.

High employer and community satisfaction
While staff in the School of Education have always felt that the quality of their graduates was high, the review and report confirms this. Noting that many UWS graduates find employment in highly culturally diverse areas of Sydney, the Panel notes that:

feedback from external partners also testified to the quality of the School’s graduates and their work-readiness for highly diverse settings … (and) it was impressed that students were confident of their preparation for the diversity of the region” (p.21).

The general capacity of UWS graduates, as identified in both classroom practicum and service learning settings, is praised by external stakeholders. Some of their comments tendered to the review, as mentioned in the report, include:

The Panel also heard that that the School’s students and graduates are viewed as being enthusiastic, caring and “very knowledgeable about the needs of children”. Others commented that “UWS students are of a very high standard”; “students are fantastic”; “I am amazed at the quality and enthusiasm of the students”; and that students on practicum “know what they are doing” (p.3).

Quality and engaged research
The UWS School of Education has built up a strong research program which is both theoretically sound and of high relevance and impact (particularly, though by no means exclusively, through its engagement through research with social and educational issues in the greater western Sydney region). In reviewing the scope of educational research conducted within the School and research centre, the panel’s report

notes that the School’s research concentrations focus on: educational psychology; global children, families and communities and education; transnational knowledge exchange; equity of educational outcomes; youth transitions and high school completion; and, social ecology (p.13).

More recently, the Centre for Educational Research in the School has strengthened its research program by adding in the theme of sustainability through education.

Endorsing the quality of educational research at UWS, the panel comments that “the School has on its team a number of the best educational researchers in Australia (and in one or two cases with global reputations)” (p.13). It also notes that, relating to results in the national Excellence of Research in Australia (ERA) 2012 research evaluation process:

It is the Panel’s view that research in the School is being done well … and the Panel congratulates the School on achieving an improved overall ranking of ‘3’ … which is classified as average performance at world standard, and … now clearly above the sector average of 2.4 (p.15-16).

The panel also comments on the School’s “good reputation for graduating” students undertaking research higher degrees such as doctorates, and on the “high degree of support provided to them”, including “regular meetings with mentors who were clearly busy; opportunities to attend conferences and workshops; and, opportunities to take part in project planning of programs” (p.17). The panel concludes that “overall, the message from research students was that the School has a strong focus on the future and is “a fantastic place to be a researcher” (p.17).

The motivation for reporting these achievements at UWS is that teacher education within universities is sometimes subject to uninformed, and often quite negative, criticism. This is a good news story out of UWS which is worth reporting because, as just one example in the higher education sector, it shows a different and successful narrative for university-based teacher education. Such stories enable those who work within universities to be proud of what they do, and those outside of them to have confidence in what universities are achieving.

The message from this review of the School of Education at UWS and its recent report is that academics and professional staff in the School of Education at UWS are achieving quality outcomes. They should feel justly proud that they have a good, successful model of teacher education, supported by outstanding university teaching, and a world class program of educational research. They are achieving high quality outcomes in each of these areas.

This review indicates that current UWS students, former graduates, schools and learning institutions who employ these graduates, teachers who work with them, and the community at large, have every reason to be confident in the education that graduate teachers and researchers who have attended UWS have received. They should be equally as confident in the capacity of these graduates to make lasting, positive impacts on their professions, on the lives of children and the general population, and on the world, during their professional lives.

 

Steve Wilson is Emeritus Professor at the University of Western Sydney and Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at UWS.

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