Samantha McMahon

Why we should ditch metrocentricity now (and read about a new book too)

We are coming to the end of the conference but still happy to take blogs about papers you heard and papers you’ve given. I’m on

Sally Patfield, Senior Research Fellow, Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, School of Education, The University of Newcastle writes on the Rural Education Symposium

Knowledge and rurality: Deconstructing geographic narcissism in education

Philip Roberts, Natalie Downes, Jenny Dean, Kristy O’Neill, Samantha McMahon, Jo-Anne Reid, Laurie Poretti, Ada Goldsmith

Approximately 7 million people – or 28% of the Australian population – live in rural and remote areas across the country. Rural communities are unique and diverse, not only in terms of geography and demographics, but also in terms of the emotional and material realities of residents’ lives, framed within the interrelated context of the local and the global.

We’re all used to hearing the phrase ‘educational disadvantage’; it’s rolled out repeatedly to capture and conceptualise the apparent education achievement gap between rural students and their metropolitan peers. Particularly when it comes to standardised tests like NAPLAN, it’s a well-worn narrative that the achievement gap between rural and urban students is persistent and widening.

This symposium turned this narrative on its head by interrogating the metro-centric bias inherent within curriculum, educational institutions like schools and universities, and even within academia itself. It re-frames how we think of the ‘problem’ by asking: ‘what, and whose, knowledge is valued?’ And: ‘what if its not rural students who are failing to perform, but rather, the education system which is failing rural communities by marginalising the perspectives of the rural?”

The four papers presented within this symposium weaved together a powerful argument that challenges the way we think about the very nature of ‘educational disadvantage’ by questioning existing practices and illustrating the important role rural knowledges and ways of being can play for young people, their families, and the future of their communities. 

Each paper provided a different layer of insight and analysis: granular case studies that demonstrate how schools are already integrating rural knowledges into curriculum enactment; large-scale analyses of achievement data which examine how school location influences senior secondary outcomes; an examination of the experiences of rural students in higher education, focusing in particular on notions of belonging; and finally, questioning the way research may (perhaps inadvertently at times) even (re)produce deficit notions of the rural, marginalising different ways of knowing, being and doing beyond the metropolis.

The first three presentations brought to the fore key issues around the ideas of spatiality, inequality and knowledge production: that is, that rural space has a reality and, relatedly, that rurality is “reality producing”. In this way, the presenters clearly demonstrated how notions of space and place are central to both the maintenance and representation of social difference.

Overall, this symposium challenges us to think about how we define and engage with the rural – both as educators and researchers. In the third presentation, Natalie Downes and colleagues sadly showed how rural university students see rurality as misrecognised and misrepresented in their coursework and curriculum, with rural locations and careers portrayed as problematic – places associated with staff shortages and a lack of opportunity, for example. Unfortunately, rural students reported that the way rurality was depicted not only impacted how they felt at university but also once they returned home to their communities. Clearly there is much more to do to transform how we embed rural knowledges and promote rural careers across higher education degrees.

In the fourth presentation, the stark reality of how rurality is commonly portrayed was again emphasised, with the presenters highlighting that the fact that far too many projects do not engage with the complexities of rurality in definition nor in analysis, often just mentioning ‘the rural’ in passing as the site of the research. The authors made the case that context matters in education research and how we position and work alongside rural communities plays an important role in either perpetuating or dismantling longstanding hierarchies of power and knowledge.


On Wednesday, the AARE Local/Global Issues in Education book series launched Community Matters: The Complex Links Between Community and Young People’s Aspirations for Higher Education by Jennifer Gore, Sally Patfield, Leanne Fray and Jess Harris. 

The book explores the complex meanings of community, the pressure young people face to attend university, access to higher education, university aspirations in rural communities, and understanding why community matters when young people express a desire to attend university. 

In reading an excerpt, Gore described how the book was about how “community helps to soften blunt equity categories and remind researchers, policy makers and equity practitioners of the human conditions that mediate the gap between important analytical categories that undergird important social justice efforts”.

The book is due to be published on 30 December 2022

Community Matters: The Complex Links Between Community and Young People’s Aspirations for Higher Education offers a new lens on equity of access. The policy focus, nationally and globally, on widening participation for under-represented target groups too readily treats such groups as if they have a singular voice, a singular history, and a singular set of concerns. Drawing on the perspectives of Australian school students, their parents/carers, teachers, and a vast array of residents from seven diverse communities, this book uses the lens of ‘community’ to reframe inequitable access. It does so by recognising the complex social and cultural forces at play locally that shape how young people form and articulate their post-school futures.

New help for regional students thinking of taking a gap year

Taking a gap year is a popular choice for school leavers, and may be even more so in the current pandemic climate. However, research tells us when regional students take a gap year they are much less likely to transition on to university than their metropolitan counterparts who take a gap year.

We are not against gap years or think university is the best educational future for school leavers, but we are concerned that gap years seem to be perpetuating educational inequity for regional students. So, we wanted to look more closely at what is happening and design a resource that could specifically help regional students explore their post school options in creative new ways.

What is happening with regional students and gap years?

According to a recent, large-scale study:

  • In NSW, over 40% of regional students with an ATAR over 75 are not going to university from school (compared with 26% in metropolitan areas)
  • In NSW, approximately 50% of regional high school students will take a gap year, yet only 5% of this gap year group will transition to university This is a significantly lower rate of transition to university compared to metropolitan students who take gap years.

One possible reason for this may be the amount of information available to support decision making around taking a gap year. If you type “Why Take a Gap Year?” into Google, you will receive around 155,000 pages selling gap year programs or selling university attendance; the sites rationalise gap years in terms of adventure, improving skills, widening horizons and self-discovery. But we know from the large-scale study, that the main reasons for NSW regional students choosing a gap year over immediate university attendance will be:-

  • financial costs of university – worry about future debt for fees and how to pay for living costs while studying
  • social costs of moving away from family and home
  • indecision about what and where to study

We wanted to help regional students through the process of thinking about taking a gap year -from what they might want from a gap year, to helping them develop an understanding of what university is about, to correcting known misconceptions about gap years and university experiences.

Re-framing the gap year for regional students in NSW – our research project

The NSW Department of Education is investing over half a million dollars in our research project to help regional students with their gap year decision making. The project brings together a consortium of education academics and equity practitioners from the University of Sydney, the University of Canberra, the University of Wollongong and the Country Education Foundation

Our aim is to establish new forms of supportive digital communications for regional students and their parents. The non-branded resources we are creating and making available from this project are not intended to actively dissuade or encourage regional students to take a gap year, rather they are designed to help students understand options and help them through a decision-making process.

Pilot and production work are already underway. You can check out the episodes and resources we have so far created here.  Episodes include how to manage income and expenses, how to get your head around actually going to university, gap year needs and wants, and making the most of your time before university.

Access to all of the resources is free and anyone can use them.

The innovative aspect of this research project

If you visit our Gap Year resources, you will notice every ‘episode’ provides a ‘call to action’ for

  • Year 12 students,
  • young people already on a gap year, and
  • families and support networks of gap year decision makers. 

The ‘call to action’ sections help participants work in a space that invites, through co creation, ways to conceptualize, critique and to problem solve using creative ways of thinking and knowing. They support regional students in making informed, accurate decisions about taking a gap year and going to university.

When we design the calls to action, we draw on theoretical and yet practical dramatic and theatrical traditions. For example, in drama the use of ‘conscious alley’ (a dramatization activity where both sides of your conscience are speaking to one another), this thinking routine gives our students a chance to problematise, analyse, imagine and make plausible difficult and sometimes uncomfortable decisions about their educational futures. This approach works in concert with many drama and creative pedagogies, with (all call to actions are different), providing tools to give decision makers agency and processes that help reduce the ‘noise’ and anxiety of market-driven information available regarding gap years.

We want young people and their families to use the tools we offer to ‘think differently’ about taking a gap year. It is this use of creative pedagogies for critical, cultural social marketing purposes that is the real innovation in our project. 

Using creative pedagogies

A key feature in our project is the use of creative pedagogies. If we want young people and their families to ‘think differently’ about gap years, there needs to be different knowledge and different thinking tools offered to help with decision making. Creative pedagogies can be tailored to this task.

There are three guiding principles in the facilitation of creative pedagogies in this project and they work to create doable, teachable, actionable knowledge. Our gap year decision makers need to get hands-on resources that are eminently doable and in and of, the moment.  Students need to feel a connection to what they are being offered, and they need space for connection and collaboration.  This is why our resources are largely online and digital.

Connections are created by responding to key messages, and applying them to their own decision making, in structured conversations and activities such as KWL Charts, conversational prompts, planning templates and empathy mapping.  The project is about ensuring our gap year decision makers are ready to engage with all that university has to offer them

We know there are substantive links between creativity and student success for decision makers to understand the gap year and the university world and their place in it. Learning by imagining can be a powerful tool and complement generative learning strategies like our calls to action.  It is our hope that our gap year decision makers will be able to actively construct meaning from diverse and complex information and develop it into relevant and actionable knowledge; this is the key to our generative model of creative pedagogy

Alison Grove O’Grady is the Program Director (combined degrees) and Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney, Sydney School of Education and Social Work. Alison teaches and researches across a range of areas including Pedagogy and Practices, English Curriculum and Creativity Teacher Artistry. Alison’s PhD examined the teaching philosophies of pre-service and graduate drama teachers and how they use language to orient to theories of social justice. Alison is involved in an international research project that examines the effectiveness of applied theatre in professional learning for history teachers. Alison is currently working on an interdisciplinary project that facilitates a critical consciousness of human rights in personal practice using drama. Alison brings to the project expertise in foundational and creative pedagogies that will ensure the resource design and content is pedagogically effective.

Samantha McMahon is an Academic Fellow, Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney and lead CI for the “re-inventing the gap year” project. Sam is an educational sociologist; her research explores how engagement with multiple knowledges effects the equity of student experience. Her research includes participation in The AIME Research Partnership (the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience) and NSW public primary and high schools. Sam brings to the project expertise in epistemology and sociology of knowledge and research experience in the fields of widening participation and outreach and digital resource design and production. Samantha is on Twitter @McMahonSam_

Catherine (Kate) Smyth is a Senior Lecturer in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, where she coordinates and teaches HSIE K-6 curriculum (Human Society and its Environment) in both the B.Ed. and Masters of Teaching primary teacher education programs. Kate works extensively in developing, facilitating and supporting primary teacher professional learning collaborations in rural and urban schools in NSW. Since 2008, Kate’s sustained interests in regional education is evidenced in her involvement in an ongoing academic partnership with rural schools in the Lismore area. Previously, Catherine worked as a primary teacher in NSW, the Solomon Islands and Kuwait and as a project officer in HSIE curriculum. Kate was primary history advisor for the Australian Curriculum: History; her research and PhD explore history teaching and learning in the primary classroom and she is particularly interested in the role that ICT and creativity play in activating historical knowledge. Kate brings to the project expertise in creative and digital pedagogies and a wealth of experience working with regional schools. Kate is on Twitter @SmythCatherine