Anna Sullivan

How the ARC could destroy our amazing education research

Australia has an impressive record when it comes to its education research. Our education research is third in the world for number of citations and second in the world on the percentage of documents cited. And if you look at the work of our researchers published in the top quarter of journals, we rank third just behind the US and the UK. Collective research has a citation impact of 2.19. This is impressive for a nation of Australia’s size and reflects a collective performance ‘well above world standard’.

But here is the challenge – changes set to be introduced by the Australian Research Council (ARC) to evaluate our research may make our performance seem worse than it really is.

Since 2010, the ARC has administered the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA), Australia’s national research evaluation framework. The aim of the ERA is to ‘identify and promote excellence across the full spectrum of research activity … within Australian higher education institutions.’ Australian universities are presently preparing for the ERA 2023 evaluation.

The ARC is currently consulting on improvements to the ERA methodology to be adopted for ERA 2023. This comes in response to a request from the Hon Stuart Robert MP, Acting Minister for Education and Youth. The Acting Minister requested a new scale for assessing the quality of research so that ‘world standard’ is actually benchmarked against ‘nations and universities that are at the forefront of research’.

The ARC has proposed two rating scale options, both of which will provide more nuanced ratings of the quality of research compared to worldwide performance in the field. Additionally, the ARC has proposed changes to the underpinning citation metrics and peer review guidance. Most science-related disciplines are assessed using primarily citation metrics. However, the research quality of humanities and social sciences disciplines are primarily assessed by peer review. The ARC has drafted a series of questions to guide ERA peer reviewers and plans to provide some other measures, such as “additional training for ERA peer reviewers using webinars” aim to “ensure a consistent approach to highlighting and contextualising world leading research where present.”

However, it remains unclear if the introduction of these changes will effectively assist peer reviewers to assess the quality of Australian education research.

How did the Field of Research: Education perform in ERA 2018?

For ERA 2018 ratings were decided by a Research Evaluation Committee convened by the ARC using relevant data, indicators and peer review/REC member outputs. ERA ratings were reported using the following five-point scale:

5The Unit of Evaluation profile is characterised by evidence of outstanding performance well above world standard presented by the suite of indicators used for evaluation.
4The Unit of Evaluation profile is characterised by evidence of performance above world standard presented by the suite of indicators used for evaluation.
3The Unit of Evaluation profile is characterised by evidence of average performance at world standard presented by the suite of indicators used for evaluation.
2The Unit of Evaluation profile is characterised by evidence of performance below world standard presented by the suite of indicators used for evaluation.
1The Unit of Evaluation profile is characterised by evidence of performance well below world standard presented by the suite of indicators used for evaluation.

The indicators for Field of Research: Education were:

●  21,947 publication outputs

●  $240,341,445 in research income

●  2,537 FTE researchers

●  $7,968,363 in commercialisation income

The reference period for research outputs was January 2011– December 2016 (6 years). Overall Education accounted for four percent of the research outputs submitted across all fields. The breakdown of publications submitted for Education was:

●  362 Books

●  5,032 book chapters

●  12,842 journal articles

●  3,210 conference papers

●  455 reports

Education was evaluated as ‘well above world standard’ in only two universities, ‘above world standard’ in eight universities and ‘at world standard’ in 19 universities.

This seems like a pleasing result for Australia, but further investigation shows this is concerning.

How did Education perform compared to other disciplines in ERA 2018?

In the ERA 2018, Education performed better than in previous evaluations, but poorly in comparison to other fields. Larkins, Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, explains

The 2018 ERA exercise provides clear evidence that concerns about the evaluation methodologies are justified. In eight science-related disciplines assessed in 2018 more than 80 percent of the universities performed above the ARC ‘world standard’ benchmark. By contrast, the methodologies for humanities and social sciences disciplines (primarily peer review) are different from that for the sciences (primarily quantitative citation measures with the excellence ratings for disciplines in these areas more clearly defined).

Larkins questioned the “metrics used to establish the world standard benchmarks and how they have changed over time for the 22 discipline fields of research” (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Percentage of Universities with Science-Related Disciplines Ranked Above World Standard in 2018 and 2012 presented according to performance.

Figure 2. Percentage of Universities with Humanities and Social Science Disciplines Ranked Above World Standard in 2018 and 2012.

You can see the low evaluation of all of the Humanities and Social Science disciplines which rely heavily on peer review. You can also see that Education was the fourth worst performing discipline out of 22 disciplines.

This is a problem and raises questions about the accuracy of peer review as a method of evaluation. The peer review process has been widely criticised for many reasons including reviewers having “different thresholds or interpretations of what constitutes ‘world standard’”.

Has the discipline of Education been benchmarked accurately? Possibly not.

According to Web of Science’s InCites during the 2018 ERA reference period 2011–2016, in the research area: Education and Educational Research Australia (sourced 14/3/2022):

●  10,282 Web of Science documents

●  Third in the world for number of citations

●  Second in the world on % documents cited

When considering only the publications in the top 25% of journals, InCites indicates that Australia:

●  Third in the world (behind USA and UK)

●  1,318 Web of Science documents

●  92.41% of documents cited

●  Category Normalised Citation Impact (CNCI) of 2.19

Despite InCites data showing that Australia produces a significant number of the world’s best education journal publications, our performance in ERA reflects a different level of performance.

These data show that the volume of high quality Australian educational research publications is exceptional. It would seem logical that a number of universities contributed to this success.

However, this InCites data related to 59% of the research outputs submitted for evaluation seem at odds with the outcomes of ERA 2018. Given ERA 2018 rated only 26% of universities with Education ranked above world standard, how is it that Australia ranks third in the world for this period in relation to journal publications?

So where does that leave ERA 2023?

It’s likely that the peer reviewers who evaluated the quality of a selection of research outputs did not benchmark accurately in previous evaluations. But this is not unexpected given the lack of clarity around the benchmarks.

For ERA 2023, peer reviewers will be asked to benchmark against nations and universities that are at the forefront of research.

According to InCites, Australia should perform extremely well in the evaluation of research quality in Education. Current data in the research area: Education and Educational Research Australia for the ERA 2023 reference period 2016-2021 (sourced 14/3/2022) indicates a strong improvement from the ERA 2018 period. Data shows:

●  12,809 Web of Science documents

●  Third in the world for number of citations

●  First in the world on % documents cited

When considering the publications in the top 25% of journals, Australia:

●  Ranks third in the world (behind USA and UK)

●  1,746 Web of Science documents

●  89.46% of documents are cited

●  CNCI 2.44

This is impressive for a nation of Australia’s size and reflects a collective performance ‘well above world standard’. The changes that will be introduced by the ARC are unlikely to help very much and the introduction of more nuanced quality research performance ratings will just widen the gap between the citation fields and the peer review fields.

As peer reviewers do their work in the future, they should be more confident of the high-quality Australian Education research because it is one the top high performing countries. Thus, we should expect to see more universities rated as ‘World leading’ or ‘High performers’.

Finally, why isn’t the ARC including citation metrics in the suite of benchmarks for all disciplines? It might offer a checking balance to moderate peer reviews. 

Professor Anna Sullivan is the Director of Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion at the University of South Australia. She is also a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education Executive, responsible for Research and Research Advocacy . 

Why is the acting minister trying to damage Australian education?

Part two of a two-part series in response to Stuart Robert’s comments last week. Yesterday: Rachel Wilson on Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Australia is facing a teacher shortage crisis. Schools are struggling to find enough teachers to teach their students. The situation is extremely dire. For example, modelling indicates that Australia is going to be short of more than 8,000 primary school teachers by 2025. Too few people are entering the profession and, worryingly, far too many teachers are leaving early especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Low wages, overwork, difficult student behaviour, lack of support and stress are some of the reasons teachers leave the profession or have periods of sick leave.

The Acting Minister for Education and Youth, Hon Stuart Robert MP gave a very irresponsible speech last week, which will do more harm to the teacher supply crisis. Robert claimed that he wants to ‘attract the very best candidates to the teaching profession and to ensure they are well prepared when they first enter the classroom.’ However, he argued that Australia needs to ‘knock down the bottom 10 per cent of dud teachers’.

He went on to explain:

… you can hire and fire your own teachers, I’m talking to the heads of your schools here. And there’s no way they will accept a dud teacher in their school like, not for a second. So for your school, you just don’t have them, you don’t have bottom 10 per cent of teachers dragging the chain.

This is a clear and calculated political statement about the quality of teachers and how they should be treated.

Robert argued, ‘The point being, if we can take the bottom 10 per cent quality of teachers and turn them into the average quality within the teaching profession, we will arrest the decline.’

Such political statements frame teachers as a “problem” and are aimed at creating derision and uncertainty in the broader public. Robert is doing this well.

Robert clearly calls into question:

·         ‘what students are taught’

·         ‘how students are taught’

·         ‘the environment in which students are taught’

·         ‘the content of ITE courses’

·         the levels of ‘disruptive behaviour in classrooms’

He also calls into question other aspects of education in Australia, including:

·         the quality of public schooling,

·         the quality of teaching,

·         a preference for certain types of education research,

·         public school lack values,

·         parents’ preferences for schools

·         students’ levels of achievement

·         the safety of schools

Roberts’ comments suggest that he considers himself as an appropriate expert who can make informed decisions about education. For example he states, ‘my assessment is that the revisions are travelling very very well.’

Unfortunately, public statements by powerful people, such as Robert, politicise teachers and their work. This politicisation influences who is attracted into the teaching profession and how they do their work, particularly those teachers at the beginning of their careers.

Robert’s political views expressed in this speech focus on individual and deficit perspectives of teachers. He raises unfounded concerns about many aspects of education in Australia.

Regular attacks on student performance, teacher quality, teacher education, academic standards, teaching methods, and school discipline occur in many countries around the world.

These views are intentional and aimed at undermining perceptions of the success of education systems to bring about more traditional approaches to schooling. That is, politicians like Robert are pursuing an ideological agenda which undermines the professionalism of educators and ignores the bodies of research that should be informing policy and practice.

Such negative views of education continually undermine the profession and create tensions and doubt in society. In this environment it is very easy to slide into disparaging and demeaning public discourses about the declining quality of teachers and the profession more generally.

In a context of uncertainty related to the quality of education in Australia, there is likely to be a range of political remedies to “fix” the problem of incompetent and ill-prepared teachers by reasserting control over teachers’ work and focusing on traditional teaching methods such as scripted curriculum, testing, rewards and sanctions, behaviour management, and explicit instruction.

Australians should be very concerned because Robert’s comments contribute to further de-professionalisation of teachers’ work and a lack of trust in the work teachers do. They are likely to deter people from considering teaching as a career option and could lead to further problems to the overall supply of teachers.

Finally, we should not have ministers of education making politically motivated statements like this:

‘So why don’t we face the brutal reality that we have got to arrest the quality of our teaching, if we are going to make a difference when it comes to it and stop pussyfooting around the fact that the problem is the protection of teachers that don’t want to be there; that aren’t up to the right standard; that are graduating from university or have been for the last 10 years and they can’t read and write. They can’t pass the LANTITE test.’

They are damaging Australian education.

Professor Anna Sullivan is the Director of Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion at the University of South Australia. One of her areas of research focuses on early career teachers’ work. In particular, she has sought to understand the ways in which teachers’ work can be restructured to enable their success and how early career teachers can be supported to stay in the profession.

Schools are unfairly targeting vulnerable children with their exclusionary policies

Australian schools are unfairly suspending and excluding students, particularly boys, Indigenous students, and students with a disability.  Our research is examining exclusionary policies and practices in Australian schools and the impact they have on vulnerable children. The findings suggest that these practices are discriminatory and harmful to the health, welfare and academic achievement of the children involved.

Recent publicly available data from 2019 shows that school exclusionary practices are being disproportionately applied towards particular groups of students in Australia. Our analysis shows that the following groups of students are at greater risk of being unfairly suspended and excluded from schools:

Indigenous students

  • In Queensland, Indigenous students received a quarter of all fixed-term and permanent exclusions (25.3% and 25.4% respectively), despite making up just over 10% of all Queensland’s full-time state school enrolments.
  • In NSW, of all short and long suspensions approximately 25% were for Aboriginal students, even though this group represents just 8% of all student enrolments.
  • In Victoria, 6.5% of all expulsions were for Indigenous students, however, this group represents only 2.3% of the student population.

Students with disability funding

  • In Victoria, students with disability funding received 14% of all permanent exclusions yet constituted only 4.5% of all government school enrolments.

Male students

  • In South Australia, over three quarters of all suspensions were given to male students (77%), a ratio of over 3:1 compared to females.
  • In Victoria, males received over 80% of the permanent exclusions, a ratio of 4:1 compared to females.
  • In NSW, around three quarters of all short and long suspensions in 2019 were for males (75.3% and 73.9% respectively).

It’s not just happening in Australia

A recent review of US research concluded that marginalised groups, including students from particular racial backgrounds, students with disabilities, boys, and, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, were disproportionately at risk of being suspended and excluded from school.

Similar findings have been observed in England. Research has shown disproportionately higher rates of exclusionary practices are applied to Black Caribbean students, Gypsy/Roma and Traveller pupils, Mixed White and Black Caribbean pupils, boys, as well as those with disabilities and/or behavioural, emotional or social difficulties.

What exclusionary practices are involved?

Exclusionary practices involve removing students who disrupt the ‘good order’ in schools and threaten others’ safety. This includes suspensions in which a child is removed from a class to a different place in the school (in-school suspension) or suspending a child from attending school for a set number of days (out-of-school suspension). It can also include exclusions or expulsions, whereby a child is removed from the school either temporarily or permanently.

Why it matters

Exclusionary practices that disproportionately affect vulnerable groups of students have the potential to contribute to ‘deep exclusion’. Deep exclusion refers to ‘exclusion across more than one domain or dimension of disadvantage, resulting in severe negative consequences for quality of life, well-being and future life chances’.

Research shows that there is a clear relationship between suspension from school and a range of behaviours detrimental to the health and wellbeing of young people’ including alienation from school, involvement with antisocial peers, increased alcohol and tobacco consumption and a lower quality of school life which increases the likelihood of school dropout, and involvement in illegal behaviour.

Students who are considered vulnerable or disadvantaged in more than one way are at heightened risk of being suspended from school and are therefore more likely to be adversely affected.  Thus, school exclusions are likely to both result from and contribute towards further deep exclusion.

What is possible instead?

We believe exclusionary practices should be considered as a last resort and that legislation and policy related to school exclusions can be framed in ways that provide guidance for school discipline while also keeping students in school where possible.  We hope our ongoing research will help provide the evidence base for policy and school-based interventions that enhance the success of vulnerable children in our schools.


For those who want more information – please visit our website School Exclusions Study

Anna Sullivan is an Associate Professor and Director of Research for Educational and Social Inclusion Group at the University of South Australia. She is a leading expert in school discipline and is committed to investigating ways in which schools can be better places. A/Prof Sullivan was lead researcher of a major Australian research study investigating behaviour in schools. The findings from this research have led to a greater understanding of teachers’ views of student behaviour and how school leaders can enact behaviour policy to support students in humane and caring ways. Her research has informed education policy and practice internationally.

Neil Tippett is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Australia, who completed his PhD at the University of Warwick in May 2015. His doctoral research examined school bullying from a socioecological perspective, identifying how individual behaviour and wider societal characteristics impacted on the likelihood of children being victimized or bullying others at school. Currently, his research interests include child safety, mental health, and student wellbeing and behaviour. Most recently he played a central role in reviewing and updating the National Safe Schools Framework, the Australia-wide document guiding how schools and communities can support the safety and wellbeing of their students. 

Bruce Johnson is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Australia. He is an international expert in school discipline and classroom management. His research interests include human resilience, curriculum theory and development, school reform, classroom management, and sexuality education. He was a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council Linkage funded Behaviour at School Study

Jamie Manolev is a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia undertaking research within the fields of classroom management and school discipline. His expertise is in discipline, classroom management and critical policy analysis. He has worked as a research assistant on two ARC Linkage projects: The Behaviour at School Study, and the Refugee Student Resilience Study. 

Vast amounts of data about our children are being harvested and stored via apps used by schools

Electronic data is increasingly being collected in our schools without people being fully aware of what is happening.

We should be concerned about the amount of data being collected via apps and commercial software used by schools and teachers for varying reasons. We need to ask questions such as:

  • How is that data being stored and used?
  • How might the data be used in the future, particularly sensitive data about the behaviour of children?

We also need to ask about data being collected on teachers and schools.

  • Is the collection of data on individual students in fact allowing data to be collected on teachers and schools?
  • How might that electronic collation of data be used in the future?

Potential misuse and consequences for children

Recent times have brought issues about data and privacy to the public eye. A number of ‘data controversies’, including breaches from global giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, as well as a security slipup from the huge education platform Schoolzilla, that exposed test scores of up to 1.3 million students. These issues reveal the risks of collecting human data and its potential misuse by the companies that store and use it.

A recent report published by the UK Children’s Commissioner also highlights the potential consequences for children. It reported that,

‘we do not fully understand yet what all the implications of this is going to be when they are adults. Sensitive information about a child could find its way into their data profile and used to make highly significant decisions about them, e.g. whether they are offered a job, insurance or credit’.

Many companies already use psychological profiling data to make decisions about who they employ. In the future they might find it valuable to view a behaviour profile developed through schooling to help assess an employee’s suitability.

An example: ClassDojo is accumulating sensitive data profiles on students, teachers and schools

ClassDojo is an extremely popular classroom management app designed to help teachers with school discipline and communication. What isn’t clear to many is its voracious appetite for student data or what happens to that data. Also, it’s not clear that data on teachers and schools is being collected.

New research examining ClassDojo is raising concerns about how student data about behaviour may be collected, accumulated and then used.

Much like the traditional behaviour chart ClassDojo is designed to give feedback to students about their behaviour. Students are awarded positive and negative points to reinforce or discourage particular pre-selected behaviours.

However, unlike traditional behaviour charts, ClassDojo creates a long-lasting record of the data it collects. With the ease of generating a behavioural report with the click of a button, it makes creating a permanent electronic or printed behaviour record simple for busy teachers.

As teachers monitor student behaviour by keeping electronic records, they are also creating a data set on their own behaviour over time. Collectively such student and teacher data records could be compiled for a school.

What data does ClassDojo collect?

Student behaviour in the classroom

The data gathered by ClassDojo to shape student behaviour includes:

  • behaviour performed (default behaviours are psychological character traits i.e. grit)
  • how many times a particular behaviour has been performed
  • the date when the behaviour feedback was awarded
  • the point value that comes with the behaviour
  • who gave the feedback
  • how many ‘positive’ points a student has
  • how many ‘needs work’ points a student has, and
  • a calculated percentage score representing the per cent of positive points compared to total points received.

All this data is compiled and analysed to create behaviour reports about individual students and the whole class. Reports contain red and green colour coded donut charts showing a comparison between the ‘positive’ versus ‘needs work’ behaviours. They also provide numbered statistics based on the data mentioned above, the main one being a percentage score referred to in the above list designed to represent the behaviour quality of a student or class.

The big problem with ClassDojo reports on students

A major problem with creating reports like this is that they only judge students on a small number of behaviours that ‘count’. They ignore, and even deter, diversity. For example, teachers have to identify behaviours they want students to exhibit so they can monitor them using ClassDojo. Default options include working hard, on-task, and displaying grit. This list has to be limited to a number of behaviours that is manageable by the teacher to track. The selected behaviours end up being the ones that count, others are ignored, thus promoting conformity.

Resembling a psychometric report, there is a concern that these ClassDojo reports may be collected by schools to create student behaviour profiles that follow students throughout their schooling.

Such reports could be used to make highly significant decisions about students, e.g. whether their ‘character’ profile is suitable for leadership roles, or whether they should take certain subjects.

Ultimately there is the potential that profiling in this way could influence decisions that limit or enhance future educational opportunities. We know from decades of research on the power of teacher expectations that this is an important consideration.

The vast amount of data collected by the company is a concern for all caught in the net

ClassDojo also collects a vast amount of personal data about its users including students, teachers, parents and school leaders. This data includes

  • First and last names
  • Student usernames
  • Passwords
  • Students’ age
  • School names
  • School addresses
  • Photographs, videos, documents, drawings, or audio files
  • Student class attendance data
  • Feedback points
  • IP addresses
  • Browser details
  • Clicks
  • Referring URL’s
  • Time spent on site
  • Page views
  • Teacher parent messages

Moreover, ClassDoJo says it ‘may also obtain information, including personal information, from third-party sources to update or supplement the information you provided or we collected automatically’.

The ClassDojo messaging function

ClassDojo’s also has a messaging function.  The company describes its ClassDojo’s messaging function as a ‘safe way for a teacher and a parent to privately communicate’ but this messaging function raises further concerns for us about data privacy and profiling. ClassDojo Messaging enables teachers to send text, photos, stickers, or voice notes to parents who can respond using text.

To add to our concerns over the messaging function is ClassDojo states ‘The content of all messages (including photos, stickers and voice notes) are stored. [and] … cannot be deleted by either the teacher or the parent.’

It remains unclear just how private such communication really is. While ClassDojo says it does not read these messages, it declares that school ‘district administrators can request [access to] messaging histories (plus Class/School/Student Story posts) by emailing [the company].

How safe is all of this?

So where does all this data collected by ClassDojo go?

Two of the third party service providers involved are Amazon Web Services and MLab. They are companies used by ClassDojo to store data about its users. Amazon Web Services has a less than ideal record of keeping data stored on its servers secure. Data breaches within Amazon Web Services have exposed sensitive information about thousands of GoDaddy and Accenture customers.

Because ClassDojo stores the data it collects outside of Australia, it is not subject to Australian Privacy Law. A point of difference being that US law states that companies can be forced to hand over hosted data to the government, and to do so secretly.

It’s time to take stock of the electronic data that is being collected in schools

So whilst apps like ClassDojo might be easy to use and friendly, schools need to carefully consider the potential consequences.

Too much sensitive data is being collected about our students and we need to stop and critically reflect on what is happening in schools.

We also need to be aware that by collecting data on students we are also creating data sets on teachers and schools. We do not know how such data sets could be used in the future.

For those interested in our research:  Jamie Manolev, Anna Sullivan & Roger Slee (2019) The datafication of discipline: ClassDojo, surveillance and a performative classroom culture, Learning, Media and Technology

Jamie Manolev currently studies and works at the School of Education, University of South Australia. Jamie does research in School Discipline, Digital Technologies and Primary Education. His current PhD research is investigating ClassDojo as a school discipline system. Jamie also works on the ‘School Exclusions Study’ and as a Research Assistant on the ARC Linkage funded ‘Refugee Student Resilience Study’.

Dr Anna Sullivan is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of South Australia. A/Professor Anna Sullivan is a leading expert in the fields of teachers’ work and school discipline. She is committed to investigating ways in which schools can be better places. She has extensive teaching experience having taught in Australia and England and across all levels of schooling. A/Professor Sullivan has been a chief investigator on numerous Australian Research Council Linkage grants.

Roger Slee is Professor of Inclusive Education at the University of South Australia. He is the former Deputy Director-General of Queensland Department of Education, Founding Editor of the International Journal of Inclusive Education and Journal of Disability Studies in Education, and held the Chair of Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education University of London.

Wake up academia: time is running out to voice your objections to Abbott’s “reforms”

“Wake up, ” Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra Professor, Stephen Parker, told Australia’s academics in a passionate speech in Sydney recently where he railed against the Abbott Government’s higher education reforms.

The professor was speaking at the National Alliance for Public Universities’ forum held in Sydney earlier this month at the University of Sydney.

He was unequivocal with his views. “These reforms are unfair to students and poorly designed policy. If they go through, Australia is sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities,” he said.

He challenged Universities Australia’s very vocal and some Vice Chancellors’ very quiet support for the proposed changes.

This call was made whilst I was attending the Australian Association for Research in Education Annual conference in Brisbane. I returned from the conference trying to understand why we (academics) have largely been silent about the proposed reforms, when just about all of us are very concerned.

I don’t believe it is because we endorse them, but more that we have lost our sense of collective agency to voice our concerns. Performance cultures have lead many of us to be wary of taking a stand about issues that matter.

Academics face a ‘high degree of uncertainty and instability’ because they are ‘constantly judged in different ways, by different means, according to different criteria, through different agents and agencies’. Three-year probation, performance management and promotion applications seem to have contributed to a culture of ‘fear’. As a result, academics seem reluctant to contribute openly to public debate.

The questions for me are: How do we collectively regain our voice? Why do we need to find our collective voice?

I returned from the conference thinking about the idea of the activist teacher and how university leaders can empower academics to be activists, have a sense of agency and exercise professional judgements. For me, Professor Parker woke the activist in me, for which I am grateful.

When I speak to my friends they say, “I thought that the universities supported this reform because Universities Australia has advertised its support”. However let me say very clearly Universities Australia is not representing my views or the views of many of my colleagues. For this reason we have to find ‘our’ voice.

A group of academics formed the National Alliance For Public Universities to give voice to the researchers, teachers, administrators and other staff whose perspective has been overlooked.’ They have prepared a Charter for Australia’s Public Universities

This alliance is promoting a collective voice for academics.

So where are we now? Professor Parker claims that this might be half-time as the government regroups, advertises and lobbies.

We have only a few weeks to find our voices. So I say, “wake up academia”! We might not get another chance.

Please add your support to a a Charter for Australia’s Public Universities today.


Anna Sullivan photo


Anna Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of South Australia. Anna currently teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students in the area of managing learning environments. Anna is a chief investigator on a few Australian Research Council Linkage grants. Her current research interests include critical policy studies, micropolitics, teachers’ work, student behaviour, classroom management and school discipline.

Persistent misbehaviour challenges teachers more than student violence and aggression

Australian schools are not out of control and violent behaviour in Australian classrooms is not common. Don’t believe the media beat up that has been going on for at least the last two decades.

Our research confirms what teachers already know: low-level disruptive and disengaged behaviour is the main problem in our classrooms, not violence and aggression.

What may surprise you is teachers feel more challenged by the small daily transgressions in their classrooms than by any other kind of behaviour. In fact teachers are more worried about students using their mobile phones inappropriately than someone being violent or abusive.

Classroom management is one of the greatest concerns of teachers today. It often leads to burnout, job dissatisfaction and early exit from the profession.

We conducted a web-based survey of teachers across all school sectors in South Australia to investigate the extent to which student behaviour is a concern for schoolteachers. It was open for five months and 1750 Reception to Year 12 teachers responded.

They told us of the most challenging things that students do in classrooms are: –

avoiding doing their schoolwork

disrupting the flow of a lesson

disengaging from classroom activities

talking out of turn

being late for class

using a mobile phone inappropriately.

We also uncovered problems with the strategies teachers use to try to manage this low-level disruptive behaviour.

Most teachers spend considerable time and energy trying to prevent students from disrupting the learning environment. The strategies they use frequently involve ‘controlling’ students to ensure their compliance. Rewards are used to promote compliant behaviour and sanctions are used to deter students from disrupting orderly learning environments.

Step systems are often used and typically involve an escalation of punitive responses such as giving a warning/reminder, in-class time-out, out-of-class time-out, referral to a school leader, inschool suspension, out-of-school suspension, and permanent exclusion from school.

However these attempts to control or punish the student do not address the underlying causes for a student being disengaged and ultimately may not change that behaviour.

What is important is the creation of classroom conditions that promote academic engagement. Engagement is the key to establishing schools and classrooms where behaviours are more productive.

We argue that if teachers gained a greater understanding of the broader ecology of the classroom and how it can influence engagement and therefore behaviour, we might see a shift in focus to engagement rather than punishment.

We use our ecological approach to explain and manage both productive and unproductive student behaviour. In the ecological model we use (see the figure below) the classroom is thought of as an ecosystem involving interactions between the physical environment, teacher characteristics, curriculum including teaching methods and resources, and a multitude of student variables in examining specific productive and unproductive behaviours and teacher responses.



The theoretical framework underpinning this study suggests that disengaged student behaviours have more to do with factors within a teacher’s control than with those located within the student. Teachers can consider aspects related to the physical environments, the curriculum and resources, and their teaching to engage students in learning activities.

The key principle is that student behaviour does not exist in isolation but within the interaction between all elements of the ecosystem. At the whole-school level, as well as internal factors, the influences of outside factors (home, socioeconomic, political, cultural/racial/religious) impact on the ecology of the school.

This model leads us to understand that various factors influence student behaviour and that responsibility for behaviour should not rest just with students.

We believe if teachers give thought to the ecology of their classrooms they might feel less overwhelmed by the challenging behaviour they face daily.

A teacher who can see and positively influence this ecology is more likely to feel a sense of hope that they can reduce disengaged and disruptive behaviour and create a more productive classroom.


  Anna Sullivan

Anna Sullivan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of South Australia. Anna currently teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students in the area of managing learning environments. Anna is a chief investigator on a few Australian Research Council Linkage grants. Her current research interests include critical policy studies, micropolitics, teachers’ work, student behaviour, classroom management and school discipline.

This blog is based on the research paper Punish Them or Engage Them? Teachers’ Views of Unproductive Student Behaviours in the Classroom by Sullivan, A. M., Johnson, B., Owens, L., & Conway, R. (2014) published in  Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(6), pp 43-56.    Find the original paper HERE

Behaviour at School Study website

A National Summit “Behaviour in Australian Schools: Current trends and possibilities” will be held on 15-16 July, 2014. Both Dr Sullivan and Professor Johnson are participants. Find details of the summit here