Professor Vianne McLean
1. Why, how and where did you enter the field of education?
I went straight into the Brisbane Kindergarten Teacher’s College from high school when I was 17 years old. I didn’t have any great sense of vocation or a mission to be a kindergarten teacher. I really wanted to be a doctor actually, but I had made the wrong subject choices early in my high school years and even at the age of 17, it all seemed too difficult to go back and start fixing that. I had wanted to be an art teacher, but the results of my final high school exam were not good enough to get me into that programme, so for me, kindergarten teaching was a second choice.
2. Was there anyone who influenced you? Why?
No. None of my family were educators.
3. What were your original goals or aims?
Once I got into the kindergarten programme, I quickly became wildly enthused with early childhood education. I became absolutely passionate about it in a very short period, and in fact, just a matter of weeks after entering that programme, I was offered a place in secondary art teaching, in what used to be called the second round, but I turned it down because I was already so enthused with the whole early childhood experience!
4. Could you outline the milestones or highlights of your career path to date?
In the first part of my career, I taught for several years in preschools; I then left education altogether in my mid-20s and moved into the tourism industry for about a year and a half. Then I came back into early childhood education as a preschool adviser, and that was certainly a milestone for me. That was the second phase of my career. During that time I became the senior preschool adviser for a state-wide early childhood organisation, and worked with about 7 or 8 other advisers who I was responsible for in that role. I was still in my 20s at that time. I had been studying part time during those years, but I went back to uni full time, and finished a Bachelors degree. Then in 1982, I went to the US to do a Masters in Education, and ended up staying over there and doing a PhD as well. I didn’t get back to Australia until 1986, and had by then resigned from the preschool advisory job. When I came back with my new PhD, I came straight into an academic role and have worked in universities ever since. I started my academic career in a College of Advanced Education, in the School of Early Childhood Studies, and then that institution became part of QUT in 1990. In 1992, I was headhunted back to the US as an Associate Professor in Early Childhood Education at Arizona State University West, and stayed until 2000. But, in 1997 I made a switch out of the College of Education into a central administrative leadership position, and became the Associate Vice-Provost for Academic Programs and Graduate Studies from 1997 to 2000. In 2000, I returned to Australia, to take up my current role as Dean of the Faculty of Education at QUT.
5. What are you most proud of having accomplished over your career so far?
My current role is undoubtedly the most challenging I have ever filled. This university has an enormous faculty – it’s by far the largest Faculty of Education in the country, and I find that very challenging to lead. The faculty has around 200 full time staff and 6000 students and a budget that runs to around $15 million a year. I’m also proud of my work in the US – while involved with higher education there I developed something of a national profile because of my work in performance evaluation of academic staff, and policy development around that issue; so I did a lot of work in the US, including consulting all over the country, and working with the American Association for Higher Education, so I’m proud of that too.
6. Did you ever see yourself as a future Dean of Education?
No. When I was a student at the kindergarten teacher’s college, I remember right at the end of that programme thinking “gee, maybe one day I could teach in this teacher’s college”, and it was sort of a flash of something that had never occurred to me before, but that’s probably as close as I ever came – imagining that I could be a teacher’s college lecturer.
7. When did you start to see yourself as an educational leader?
I think when I had the job as a preschool adviser was the first time that I saw a leadership dimension in myself and what I was doing. I was a preschool adviser for about 6 years, so I developed a range of leadership skills during that time.
8. Looking back, do you think your understanding of the relationship of practice and research in education has changed over time?
Undoubtedly. But I also see strong connections between my own practice and my research interests. The focus of my research for a number of years was on teacher knowledge and teacher education because I was interested in how teacher knowledge developed; so it was not only my practice as a teacher educator but also my research interest. Basically, I thought about teacher knowledge a lot and wrote about it, and over the years, I’ve shifted position somewhat as a result of that work, so absolutely – my understanding has changed several times.
I think that early in my career, I saw a very clear distinction between theory and practice, and because of that I also saw a distinction between research activity and practice, and I think that’s why I researched that topic for over a decade in the middle part of my career. Later, I came to be much less certain about that distinction and in my own work; I shifted my position to start to understand the practicing teacher as a theorist, as a theory builder, and as a type of researcher also. So, I think that’s been typical of my career, in that, over time in my thinking, things that once seemed clear cut no longer seem clear cut. I have less certainty, not more certainty, throughout the course of my career building.
9. How do you think the general education community views educational research?
I think for the most part, teachers are unfamiliar with educational research, and see it as being disconnected from the world of practice, and also I think there is deep scepticism in many practitioners; so that when an academic is interested in conducting research with them or in their schools, there is a sense of scepticism about the motives of this person and doubt that it will lead to anything useful.
10. What do you feel are the current issues facing Teacher Education?
There’s one enormous issue that is hanging over all of us in teacher education in the here and now and that’s funding. I think the Nelson reforms have made teaching and teacher education a national priority area but we have not seen the dollars flow to back that up. I think all of us are on extremely shaky ground in terms of whether or not we’re going to see sufficient resources flow, for us to do what we need to be doing. Another issue, though different in nature, is probably equally as challenging, and has to do with the conservative perspective that many faculties of education have embedded within their culture. So much is changing in the broader society and in broader academic circles- the whole futures area and the whole ‘rise of the creative class’, as Florida calls it, is challenging the conservatism that is still very strong within faculties of education and I think, within the professional field also. There are many pressures for conformity, for conservatism, and I think a huge issue for all of us is how we change the culture of our faculties’ communities to think very differently about the whole challenge of becoming a teacher. I see it as challenging – quite a difficult task.
11. What do you think the future of Teacher Education in Australia holds?
I think we’re always going to be needed. Australia will always need educators, particularly teachers. We will have to work through these difficulties – it is not an option for us to say “it’s all too hard” and walk away from it. I think we will just have to work through this rough patch, and hope it is just a limited time in our history where we have faced significant challenges- particularly critical resource shortages. Australia cannot do without educators, so I think our long-term future is assured in that sense. But I think our short-term future is not particularly rosy. The other thing to note is though; we have structured ourselves as faculties of education – by and large-around teacher education. But given the changes to society, the corporate sector, and the community, educators might no longer be teachers, necessarily. There will be a need for expertise in learning and the facilitation of learning right across the corporate sector – every industry has learning dimensions now required as part of the knowledge society, and I don’t know how well positioned we are to capitalise on that. I think our sense of identity has been so strongly fixed to teacher education, and that once you get beyond teacher education and look at the preparation of educators or learning specialists across a broader range of contexts and industries, it is something that has never been achieved before, and the question is; “how do you become that sort of faculty?”
12. What are your views on the current Australian Tertiary sector?
I think it’s a very strong sector for the most part. I think internationally, Australian education holds up very well. I do worry, though about the long term impact of poor resourcing. One of things that is a constant concern to me is that Education is categorised by DEST as a low cost discipline, and if you think back through the history of funding at universities you discover that the formulae, the weighting that drive how many dollars come to Education, were really developed back in the late ’80s, when very few Education programmes were in the university sector at all; Education was still in CAE’s. While the tertiary sector as a whole is quite strong and largely healthy, parts of it are certainly pressured financially, and I think within that sector, Education is in a particularly vulnerable place.
13. What do you think the sector’s immediate challenges are?
For the whole tertiary sector generally, the potential change of government at the federal level is a major issue for all of us in the tertiary sector. We haven’t quite figured out how to make the Nelson reform work yet; all around the country we’re still coming to terms with what that means for us and how to make that new pattern work for us, and the prospect of a change of government the midst of that will throw us into great uncertainty for the next couple of years.
14. What do you think your faculty’s strengths are?
This is quite a strong faculty in terms of our research productivity. On national benchmarking data we’re in the top 10; we’re in the top 2 for some indicators. I think our research capacity is certainly a major strength for us. We have an incredibly hard working staff, both academic and professional staff. Academics carry heavy teaching loads as well as many of them being active researchers. I think our staff is also very strongly committed to the wellbeing of our students. They really do care about their students and what happens to them. So I think that is the major strength of the place.
15. What do you consider to be the most important attribute from graduates from your faculty?
In the last two years, we have shifted our major undergraduate programme to a learning outcomes model. We have totally reconceptualised it around a very clearly defined set of desired learning outcomes for our graduates. We have about 4000 – 4500 students in that programme. I think because of this shift in the model, we are pretty clear about what the attributes of our graduates should be. We are systematically trying to track the development of those attributes. But this is a new programme that is only in its second year, so it will be some time yet before we have the hard data.
16. Are there any other questions you’d like us to ask other deans, or have you anything else you’d like to add?
I think the issues around the extent to which the faculties of education are regarded, how well they are regarded, by other disciplines within their universities, is a question that really engages my mind. I think we’re not always well regarded by our colleagues from other disciplines, so I do think it’s an interesting area for us to explore. We need to think about education as a preparation of educators, much more than the preparation of teachers. I think the interdisciplinarity or the transdisciplinarity- the extent to which we are able to connect with colleagues from other disciplines, to work together on a new generation of educators, are questions critical to us. So, I would just like to know what other deans thought about that, and how well they’ve been able to make that happen.