Research excellence: Seeding success for Aboriginal children

Published: Wednesday 11th November 2015

Professor Rhonda Craven is the inaugural Director of the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education (IPPE), and has an enviable publication list and a stellar track record in attracting ARC grants. Her recent work, Seeding Success, involves identifying factors that contribute to positive early childhood health and development in Aboriginal children.

A very quick background on you

Studying education at Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education, the Sydney Institute of Education, and then the University of Sydney, I developed a strong conviction of the power of education to make a real difference in people’s lives and a lifelong passion for Aboriginal education.

What led you to choose this career path?

My first class as a primary school teacher was a composite class of all the ‘bottom’ students of Years 5 and 6 – widely known as ‘the dummies’. Being young and starry-eyed, I stayed up till all hours preparing learning activities to engage them. But I soon found that none of the ‘you-beaut’ teaching strategies I’d been taught in college would make the slightest difference to these students – unless and until I could make them feel better about themselves and their abilities. I concentrated on enhancing their academic self-concepts and taught them that learning to be smart was like eating an elephant: ‘one bite at a time’! They soon engaged in learning, doubled their marks in the end-of-year exams – ‘dummies’ no more. A fair proportion of these students were Aboriginal.

This is why I studied Educational Psychology and became a teacher educator: to make a difference by helping shape the next generation of teachers. To my utter astonishment, I soon learnt that most student teachers (and most teachers) knew little or nothing about Aboriginal Australia and most had never even met an Aboriginal person. Analysing teacher education curricula around the country, I found little or no Aboriginal content - only one primary teacher education program mandated an Aboriginal studies subject.

As a young teacher educator I was fortunate that my Dean at the time - Australia’s brilliant Professor Tony Vinson - introduced me to Oodgeroo Noonuccal (the famous poet Kath Walker), who always described herself as an educator. She taught me the vital lesson that one person can make a difference! She inspired and with Tony helped me start the Commonwealth funded ‘Teaching the Teachers’ Project of National Significance, in partnership with the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG). I also learned (and still continue to this day) from the wisdom of Bundjalung Elder Uncle Charles Moran, who chaired the Steering Committee after Oodgeroo’s untimely passing. We developed a model mandatory Aboriginal studies subject to empower all beginning teachers to teach Aboriginal students effectively and educate all students about Aboriginal Australia. ‘Teaching the Teachers’ more than doubled the number of universities with mandatory Aboriginal Studies in teacher education - though of course there is still a long way to go before the talents of Aboriginal students are developed as they should be. I see ‘Teaching the Teachers’ as among my proudest achievements – Australia will never be all we can be until the potential of the First Australians is activated.

During my Educational Psychology studies, I was fortunate to work with the one-and-only Professor Herb Marsh (IPPE) (the only most frequently cited ISI scholar in 2 disciplines!) as my PhD thesis supervisor. Years down the track, I worked with Herb to found the SELF Research Centre which morphed into a virtual international centre which today conducts biennial international conferences and produces an international research monograph. Later I founded the Centre for Positive Psychology and Education at UWS. Then in 2014, I became the founding Director of the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at ACU.

IPPE academic and professional staff are delighted to be at ACU, particularly because of the synergy between ACU’s Mission and our vision at IPPE. We also love our new colleagues at ACU and are deeply appreciative of all your support.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

Getting feedback from people on how useful they find our work for helping others and making a difference. For example, I am particularly humbled by the number of teachers that send me an email saying our book Teaching Aboriginal Studies has been transformational in what they know and now do about effectively teaching Aboriginal Studies and Aboriginal students.

How does your research make a difference in the community?

Our research helps people, communities and organisations to not just succeed but thrive. We tackle ‘head on’ some of the social justice issues of our time and capitalise on new positive psychology approaches.

Our focus is on solutions, not problems. Strengths-based approaches rather than deficit modelling. We are about seeding success and building well-being to enable people to be all they wish to be and can be.

Our work enables and contributes to success and well-being. We produce research that results in transforming lives and communities and fostering the common good. For example, our work can make a difference in enabling Indigenous people to flourish and thrive, and in activating the potential of Indigenous students Australia-wide. This will help to end the wastage of Indigenous talents that has blotted Australia’s copybook for too long. Further, lessons learned on Indigenous projects can transfer to other situations. Our work is essentially about enabling individuals, communities, organisations – and Australia – to flourish and thrive - to be all that they can be – and getting the most out of life.

We are about finding the best — and best tested — ways to promote well-being and improve performance, and, perhaps above all, to increase justice in society to make Australia truly the land of the fair go, where all Australians— and our nation — can flourish and thrive.

What are you working on at the moment?

We are honored to have been invited by the ARC to submit a full application to the Centre of Excellence Scheme. IPPE is collaborating with our colleagues in ACU Research Institutes and ACU to develop a full proposal to establish an ARC Centre of Excellence in Indigenous Thriving Futures which comprises 4 inter-related research programs (see Figure). The CoE aims to conduct research that enables Indigenous children and youth not to just succeed but thrive.

IPPE has eight synergistic research programs that will underpin this CoE proposal.

Indigenous Culture, Education and Wellbeing Program. In this program we are working on four ARC projects:

  • developing the experiences and insights of selected NSW Koori Elders for enhancing school programs;
  • analysing what drives Indigenous success in Australia and replicating this success more broadly;
  • in partnership with NSW Department of Education a study of gifted and talented Indigenous students in NSW schools: why some are not identified, why others decline selective placements, what provision is needed;
  • in partnership with The Scots College, a study of how this program and other Indigenous programs transforms Indigenous lives and communities.

Our Indigenous program also strives to strengthen teaching and learning in Indigenous Studies and build the research capability of Indigenous researchers.

Mindfulness, Compassion and Action: advancing understanding of self-regulation, compassion, empathy, values, psychological flexibility; testing interventions to promote well-being, supportive communities and effective behaviours, with the goal of finding ways to reduce human suffering and promote thriving.

Physical Activity, Sport, and Health Psychology: to increase physical activity and healthy lifestyles to address the rising tide of obesity: how it contributes to health and well-being, testing interventions to enhance performance and reward all participants;  testing an online program for physical education teachers designed to increase students’ opportunities for and motivation towards physical activity in schools.

Our Positive Education Program capitalises on advances in educational psychology theory, research and practice to empower individuals to thrive, enhancing learning skills, social and emotional capability, relationships and learning engagement throughout life through interventions derived from and tested by robust empirical research. Positive education can improve life satisfaction, self-efficacy, and functioning. We also focus on equity, teachers and teaching that makes a difference.

Positive Organisational and Social Context: to improveunderstanding of the social contexts of psychological processes that support or undermine positive outcomes, and leading international research in developing models of contextual effects. An example is our research aimed at improving NSW police wellbeing, to help prevent police officers from getting sick in the first place by finding out what enhances their retention, resilience, and wellbeing.

Positive Psychological and Social Developmentstudies resilience character traits that help people deal with setbacks and lead healthy and fulfilling lives. How to measure resilience; how it develops and changes; how to promote it, with a focus on aspects of resilience that are potentially modifiable and promote well-being; testing interventions to promote social effectiveness.

Positive SELF and Well-Being: Self-concept and related self-belief constructs are at the heart of the positive psychology revolution - how individuals can get the most from life. A positive self-concept and its enhancement facilitate good outcomes. The program draws on advanced quantitative methodology to fuel research to build capacity throughout society.

Substantive-Methodological Synergy: Complex issues in applied research require strong methodology; methodology is stronger when stimulated by real substantive issues. The two together generate a powerful compound synergy. IPPE capitalises on cutting-edge methodological developments to address complex practical issues with theoretical, practical, and policy implications. Our work in this area helps drive the international research agenda.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

Working with amazing people both here in Australia and around the world and IPPE’s and ACU’s outstanding team of researchers and professional colleagues who are genuinely committed to making a difference.