Rural Education’s Rubicon

It’s been about 16 months since the release of the report of the independent review into rural, regional and remote education (IRRRRE). The review provided a much-needed focus on the unique challenges and opportunities rural, regional and remote communities encounter.  However, the report, and the federal government’s response, was a missed opportunity to address the longstanding challenges facing rural schools. More significantly though, it raises serious questions about the impact of rural education research in Australia, and the effectiveness of rural education researchers in impacting education policy. 

At this moment we need to ask ‘what went wrong?’ and ‘where do we go from here?’ as a research field.  While we may welcome the review’s call for further research into rural, regional and remote education, such a call implies that there is an absence of research.  Furthermore, the review largely ignored much of the rural education research produced in Australia.  Instead the review relied upon non-rural studies, grey literature, older research, international studies and submissions from communities. Why was so much recent Australian research overlooked? What does this mean? And what do we do as a result? In this article I outline the research used in the review’s reports in order to highlight the dilemma we face as a field. 

In the literature review and final report for the review there is very little research cited from people who are usually associated with the rural education field in Australian.  While names one would expect to see such as Halsey, Guenther, Corbett, Vichie, Plunkett & Dyson, and Roberts do appear across the literature review and report they are not drawn on significantly.  Furthermore, references to Guenther, Corbett or Roberts are not to research one might anticipate would be cited.   Most notably however significant researchers’ names from the last period are not cited at all – such as Green, Reid, White, Cuervo, Graham, Cooper, Kilpatrick, Sharplin, Trinidad or Ledger.

As illustrated in table 1, most of the ‘research’ drawn upon by the review was published in the grey literature online.  While not represented in table 1, this was all overwhelmingly non-rural – instead it was reports on international testing, standardised tests and so forth where the difference between rural and non-rural achievement was referred to in the text of the review.  In table 1 I’ve separated out references that are essentially literature reviews themselves, and references that are really to opinion pieces. Finally, the ‘library’ reference refers to research that is primarily available through libraries, i.e. in books and academic journals etc. 

That such a significant proportion of the cited research was available online also raises questions about where ‘we’ need to publish in order to achieve ‘impact’. Clearly in this context peer reviewed research, that university metrics on academics’ performance, and government rating exercises of universities, value, is not impactful. Furthermore, the overwhelming preference for referencing ‘research’ using quantitative data speaks to the preference in public policy for a certain type of research – something (rural) education researchers in Australia don’t produce a significant amount of. 

Given most of ‘our’ research is in academic publications, and often qualitative, we seem to be feeding into an ‘evidence’ bias?, with ‘our’ resultant absence raising serious questions about the impact of rural education research in Australia, and the effectiveness of rural education researchers in impacting education policy.

It seems that in order to have policy impact, rural education research needs to be quantitative and freely available online

To be fair, the dilemma regarding the nature of the research that has ‘impact’ is not only a rural education. The issue must also be considered in the context of the productivity commission report on the national evidence base, which questioned the quality and impact of Australian educational research more broadly. Then there is the proposed education research clearinghouse recommended under Gonski 2.0.  Should this come to fruition, and drawing on the international experience, how do we ensure our research is impactful? and, of course, how do we advocate for the value of qualitative research?

In the end the federal government’s response to the review has been somewhat mute, focussing essentially on rural university centres. While I have not analysed the National Regional, Rural and Remote Education Strategy briefing papers that has been developed following the review here, I will comment that it focuses near solely on tertiary education, and yes, the lack of rural research informing the review remains! 

Indeed, it seems that the only game in town for rural research funding is in relation to rural students’ participation in university.  The National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) runs the only real research grants in this space, and nationally the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) – both schemes focus on low SES and rural student participation in University.  There’s really no other rural focussed research grant scheme, with researchers having to compete generally in Australian Research Council general grants. One positive element however, both have strong themes towards quantitative data, and as such start to fill an important gap in Australian rural education research. 

Do we need champions?

I’ve been around this space for a surprising 16 years, including the last 10 in the academy.  My engagement begun when I started to look into the staffing of rural, regional and remote schools.   Looking back, I’ve started to wonder if we need champions for our cause.  The problem with champions, though, is that the field gets re-shaped in their image. 

Most of the major (funded) projects in our field since I’ve been involved have been led by a few researchers.  These key leaders have been successful in obtaining large grants, for instance Sue Trinidad in securing the federal contract for NCSEHE and Jo-Anne Reid, Simone White and Bill Green in various Australian Research Council Grants, and when they existed Office of Learning and Teaching grants.  These have resulted in some of the most significant research projects including RT(E)P, TerraNOVA, RRRTEC.  Reflecting the interests of the leaders, these have had a pre-service preparation focus, with some conducted with the support of the Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA) – that a couple of these key leaders were heavily involved in. Perhaps the only other significant inclusion here is Tom Lowrie’s attention to Mathematics education that includes a rural element.

There was of course SiMERR, led by John Pegg, that still has a role in supporting the ISFIRE conferences, and produced a number of quantitative reports and publications in the early 2000’s.  Nationally there is the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA), though it seems to also need champions such as SiMERR and NCSEHE to sustain conferences. 

Overall, it seems to me that the number of people association with ‘rural education’ has been declining since I’ve been involved. There has been way more retirements than new members.  Furthermore, the field has been shaped in the interests of its champions – primarily teacher education and now increasingly university participation. In the interests of broadening the Teacher education focus and evolving practice orientation of SPERA, the Australian Association for Rural Education (AARE) Rural Education Special Interest Group (SIG) was formed. The aim here was to begin to engage more generally with educational research and ensure ‘rural’ was at the table at the Annual Australian education research conference – though, again, this was initially developed by champions mentioned above. I should note I was co-convenor and then convenor of this group for 5 years. 

Pleasingly, a few new ‘young’ researchers have entered the field. Though the next generation I see are primarily, not exclusively, in Educational Leadership or Hernan’s work with Youth.  There is also now the University of New South Wales ‘Gonski Institute for Education’, led by former NSW Education Minister Professor Adrian Piccoli, which has a rural focus in its equity remit, and Piccoli a committed advocate for rural schools and communities. 

This may read as though there is a vibrant field. However, it needs to be remembered that most of these are ‘past’ initiatives, and that the focus remains narrow – on teacher education and now university participation. Opportunities do abound for research. There is more money for research in the rural than there has been for quite a while, it’s just some things have been deemed researchable (university participation) and others foreclosed or positioned as solved – we seem to have accepted a national curriculum as read, and resourcing as solved.  The way in which the ‘researchable’ issues are framed is the challenge for us to respond to. The determined topics of lower university participation, and the ongoing challenge of staffing schools, are highly visible, and as such demand attention. However, research is about uncovering what we don’t know – not tilling over what we already have exposed. 

Why critique?

I want to step aside here for a moment and make a comment on critique.  To critique is not to criticise, to raise critique is not to be a pointless critic.  Indeed, critique is not to dismantle or attack, it’s to improve.  My reflections in this, and previous, posts and in forthcoming research is not to be contrarian, but to urge discussion of what we can do better. of what I can do better. As noted, I’ve been around this space for quite a while, and been centrally involved for a good part of that. 

That ‘we’ didn’t have much impact on the IRRRRE was for me a wakeup call. This critique is part of my reassessment, and is driven by the thoughts of the children I used to teach and communities I worked with, for whom what we have done seems to have not worked. 

Sure, I’ve been thinking about the field for a while. When we started the 2015 special edition of the ‘Australian and International Journal of Rural Education’ on ‘what next for rural education research?’ it was with a conviction that we needed to more and do it differently to how we had been in the past.  This is a view I still hold.  As it turned out this edition was to be the beginning of my 3 years as a chief editor of this journal, and my time convening the rural education SIG, so I can reflect on the work in the field in this time. 

This perspective has led to two other recent critiques that I will refer to here. The first, with my colleague Natalie Downes, reflect on research pertaining to the staffing rural, remote and isolated schools in Australia 2004-2016.  In this analysis we noted that the same themes emerge as they did in research prior to 2004 (when I did my initial staffing research), those being the attraction, retention, preparation of teachers as well as a focus upon school leadership. With the exception of leadership, most ‘approaches’ to enhancing rural school staffing have been pre-service based. I’d suggest this is attributable to the situation that most researchers are teacher educators. An obvious difficulty here is that prepare teacher’s is the main game, and thus the reason for most academic employment.  but the outcome is we cede other initiatives to non-rural folk, and reduce teacher education to practice based approaches linked to practicum. 

To quote ourselves we observed that ‘The continuity upon a theme within the staffing studies over the past twelve years, we suggest, presents the rural education field with an interesting challenge: if we have such a well-developed understanding of the issues, challenges, and successful approaches, why then are rural schools still hard to staff and why are the approaches proven to work not universally adopted by education jurisdictions?’ (p.45) and that ‘it suggests a need to develop new ways to address the intractable dilemma of rural school staffing on a broader scale’ (p.46)

My second reference point is work we have undertaken in response to Biddle & Azano from the USA Context to both look at how rural has been engaged with and to examine the context of that engagement. The first analysis of this was presented at AARE in 2016 (The final version is taking a while as we want to ensure we get it right). Drawing upon the main journals used in Australian education we arrived at a finding that less than 5% of articles the purported to have a rural link actually engaged with rurality in a meaningful way. Furthermore, for the Australian journal ‘Education in Rural Australia’ (1991-2011) 26% of papers that referred to rural engaged meaningfully with rurality while in its successor, the Australian and International Journal of Rural Education (2011 – present) this fell to 18%.  Indeed, we also discerned that an overwhelming majority of research is qualitative, with scant quantitative studies published by researchers, with the main exceptions being research related to SiMERR – though in the last couple of years we are seeing slightly more in this space thanks, I suggest, to NCSEHE’s focus on data. We’ve been working on a more thorough analysis of this work that will be available shortly, and as such the figures will likely change somewhat. 

What is the point of this critique? Ultimately, to do ‘research’ we need to be advancing the field in new directions: otherwise we’re just revisiting old ground.  

New directions for rural education research.

The IRRRRE suggests some directions regarding methods that make a policy impact, as well as outlining what it regarded as key areas for consideration in rural education.  As I outlined in my previous piece, the rural education field seems to have done what fields do – reify themselves in an idiosyncratic ways that become bounded. Historically I’ve suggested we have become teacher education focussed, and now focussed on university participation. 

However, the issues facing rural communities, and that form the context of education, are broad based, multi-faceted and interlinked. However, we are a bit limited in Australia as there is no well-developed rural studies field here compared to those in the USA and Europe to engage these issues.  In Australia the most well-developed fields with a rural focus seem to me to be health, followed by economists regarding economic development.

We need to prepare now for the next review in about 12 years (…Schools Com 1988; HREOC 2000; IRRRRE 2018…). As part of this we both need to ensure we have ‘impact’, which inevitably seems to mean more quantitative research. However, we can’t only do that. We need to equally problematize the data & statistics used in government, think tank and non-government organisations regarding rural places.  There is an ongoing problem in that such data is invariably put to work in a not so subtle deficit discourse to illustrate poor rural performance and justify some sort of intervention – that is invariably build on metro-normative notions. We can’t discount the big data critiques that are developing, but we can help make them sensitive to issues of rurality. 

As I suggested previously, there is potentially generative theoretical insights to be learnt from the other international rural fields that can then be engaged in our research. The IRRRRE also raises the issue that, just maybe, rural education is a practice field (as the review responded primarily to practice submissions). As such do we need to engage further with practice theory rather than empirical research?  

In what follows I present some thoughts regarding how we might start to think about engaging with the other fields of education studies. I also outline a longitudinal program of research that, in my view, might just start to achieve something useful. One thing that strikes me is the need to get away from short term research programs (that align with a governments term, and/or provide initiatives to announce. A child is at school for 13 years – change in education takes time, and, as we’ve said elsewhere, is often more related to communities than the school per se.

Below I draw on the work of Furlong & Lawn (2011) ‘Disciplines of Education: Their role in the future of Education Research’ (below)

Some other fields (below)

The areas identified in IRRRRE (below)

A possible rural education research program

Outcomes after 7 years:  

  1. To have raised the performance of all schools in Regional Rural and Remote Australia,
  2. Narrowed performance gaps (academic, wellbeing, attendance),
  3. Expanded the professional development of the RRR workforce,
  4. Created an environment of sustainable improvement in RRR schools, 
  5. To have contributed substantially the research and evidence base in RRR education.

I thought I’d finish with what this review cost, as that’s on the public record – expensive perhaps, but if we learn from it and make an impact, money well spent. 

Post Script – I’m certainly not advocating quantitative only work with my comments re impact being quantitative. I think me publication record speaks to that, especially my approach to researching rural places.

Featured picture is Angledool Station,NSW, by John Murray. I have a version of this signed by teachers, students and community members from my teaching days above my computer as a reminder of where this all began, for me…

Rural Education: Pasts, Presents & Futures

NWNU July 2018

I had the great pleasure of being an invited Keynote at Northwest Normal University (NWNU), Lanzhou, Gansu, for the International Conference on Rural Education Development in the New Era in July 2018. 

At this event I talked on the topic of ‘Rural Education: Pasts, Presents & Futures’.  This was a general overview to the rural education field, but with a particular focus as well to China and comparative education.  The China links were made with reference to some of the points made about rural education research in an introduction to rural education in China as part of special edition on the same topic I published with Emily Hannum from the University of Pennsylvania. 

What I find fascinating about rural China is that we can observe the processes, and implications of, modernity happening before our eyes. That China is a nation with a distinct history and culture that is longer than Europe’s where most contemporary powerful academic knowledge and theory emanates from means we can examine the process of modernity removed from the social and cultural construction of rurality within Eurocentric cultures.  I should note, how Europe came to be dominant in knowledge production, and what was taken from other nations (Inc. China), and the implications of this and its eventual change is a topic for another day. 

Half the globes population lives in cities

Half of the Earth’s population now live in cities! indeed modernity can be defined as the move from the rural to the urban.  This occurred in 1948 in Europe and the USA, 2012 in China and was pretty much the state of affairs since the British turned up on our little isle in the pacific.  Modernity, the dominance of urban populations, and resultant metro-normativity in knowledge and theory raises profound questions about how we understand and interact with the world? the knowledges we value in education (curriculum), what we assume as normal or standard (benchmarks/averages), issues pertaining to the potential loss of cultures, values & knowledges and the very research methodologies and epistemologies we engage. 

Globally the ‘non-urban’ and issues of ‘equity’ and spatial self-determination have become a wicked problem that no nation or community seems to have adequately engaged. Wherever you look we tend to see, on average, in non-metropolitan spaces ageing populations, overall population decline, increased proportions of Indigenous and minority group populations (both natural increase and non-indigenous exodus), less health care access, higher suicide rates, less, and often declining, economic activity, comparatively lowereducation outcomes and difficultly in attracting professional staff (e.g. doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers).  Focusing specifically on education, we tend to see in non-metropolitan spaces  less access to early childhood education, decreasing literacy & numeracy scores, decreasing retention rates, decreasing senior secondary completion, decreasing subject access, lower rates of matriculation and higher proportions of students studying vocational pathways (not necessarily a bad thing, but if pre-determined by location a problematic assumption). In Australia the recent 2018 Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education (the pirate review ‘IRRRRE…’) highlighted many of these issues. 

The Rural Education Field. 

I’ve become a little critical of late of the rural education research field. Specifically, this criticism has been around the scope of research, its limited impact and the propensity to rake over old ground. I think this reflection began back in 2015, was spurred further by the responses I read to the ‘rural backlash’ in global politicsreading about the rural in comparative education, examining staffing work that’s seems to do the same old thing and the limited engagement of rural education research in the pirate review in Australia. Consequently, I’ve been critically re-reading my field and reading deeply and widely in rural studies.  

What I see is a field that has a persistent, and somewhat narrow, focus upon the different educational outcomes and achievement levels of rural, regional and remote students. Typically, this revolves around issues of access to a full curriculum, access to further education and training, the attraction and retention of staff, the socio-economic composition of rural populations and regions, and higher, and increasing, Indigenous and Minority Group populations.  Consequently, arguments in these areas are usually predicated upon notions of equity for rural regions and rural people, economic development of regions and the human capital development of rural populations. 

In this context arguments about the levels of rural achievement and development are usually framed in comparison to a metro-centric norm.  In this situation the ‘rural’ has been defined by major centres of power in this research and not in its own terms.  While rural education research has begun to problematize this construction, it seems to me that these arguments are often couched in romantic or nostalgic notions of the rural and the nation’s (and maybe the researchers’) past. 

Perhaps more intriguingly these positions have tended to emanate from within education studies and often only draw on the broader fields of the humanities and the social sciences in a limited sense. They also tend to be within nation studies – with one key exception.  What we seem to have are separate spheres that don’t often overlap.  

To explain figure 1.  The separation of education studies sub-disciplines and parent disciplines I put down to the history of education studies as university disciplines (I recommended reading Furlong 2013 and Furlong and Lawn 2010 whom I paraphrase poorly here).  As the university study of education grew in the 1980’s-90’s the sub-disciplines emerged from their parent disciplines, and in order to obtain credibility in the academy developed distinct research cultures and journals.  Slowly they, and their scholars, became more removed from the parent disciplines such that they are often no longer recognisable to each other. The only place I see a trend towards a sustained link is in the sociology of knowledge pertaining to recent debates about knowledge and the curriculum as part of the curriculum studies field. Furthermore, we can see that rural sociology has experiences somewhat of a similar history, itself becoming a separate sub-field within sociology (perhaps the same can be said re geography and rural geography).

What I find fascinating is the peculiar case of comparative and international education. There is a distinct group of ‘rural educators’, often sitting in sociology departments internationally, who study rural schools in other countries – particularly China. Note all the other international guests at NWNU in 2018 were in this category. They call themselves ‘rural education’ people but don’t look at their own countries. Interestingly, they really don’t know the other folk who call themselves ‘rural education’ researchers in their countries exist – and visa versa. Nor do the within nation studies folk look at their work or other nations. I suspect this may be a national academic cultures issue pertaining to the power of policy and the economics of education sub-fields. Though, I would add the comparative education folk are the closest linked to sociology, probably as they usually are sociologists in the traditional sense in sociology departments in the USA and Europe. The only limitation is they are then often not educators and thus the nuances of education are not familiar. The situation seems somewhat different here in Australia where the remnants of comparative education are generally in education faculties – remnants as the dominance of practice-based program standards is slowly killing the disciplines. 

This is of course my initial reading and thinking on these matters. There seems like such wasted opportunities for cross fertilisation of theory and ideas. Our ‘Mapping Rural Fields’ project and symposium at the World Congress of Rural Sociology (in Cairns, Australia, July 2020) will present initial findings of a more academic study of these relationships that is currently underway.  

I’d really like to see a field that looks a bit more like figure 2 below – though I’m ambiguous if I mean sociology or rural studies. Rural studies are essentially rural geography and rural sociology. Either way greater links here will help all as, in general rural studies does not engage with education other than through limited human capital notions

There is such a great opportunity to build the field, and rural studies, through greater cross field integration.  For mine the opportunities lie in engaging with the spatial turn in social theory and education research as a matter of the representation and production of the rural in modernity.  Productive notions from Lefebvre (and Soja) such as space as produced and space as ‘real-and-imaginary’ are fantastic tools to look at the production of rurality in modernity.  Similarly, the notion of Spatial Justice provides powerful new ways to look at equity and justice in, and for, rural spaces.

Why Rural?

I’ve argued in papers, and previous talks, that defining the rural is important aspect of research that claims to be ‘rural’. I won’t reiterate those here. Though I will step sideways for a quick comment.  I think the position I hear reported that there is a school of thought that it’s the ‘guys’ who do this sociology thing (oddly so many people now call themselves rural sociologists on twitter nowadays, a search for legitimacy perhaps?) who argue about defining the rural, and the line that ‘we all know the rural is hard to define so we should just move on knowing that’, are both limiting and potentially dangerous.   Complexity is where new insights and theoretical advances lies, and clearly what we’ve been doing so far hasn’t worked, other than keeping us employed and published, so…

Anyway, for the issue of researching modernity and rural China my position here is a little more nuanced. The complexity of understanding the rural is indeed the opportunity.  The multiplicity of defining rural places, and perceptions of the rural, remind us of the forces that have become otherwise invisible in modernity and that, inevitably, place matters. Furthermore, increasingly rural research in education uses the theoretical tools of place and situated practice to justify a difference in rural schools. Repurposing these orientations to the social system that positions rural schools, and their communities, are marginal and deficit provides avenues to critically examine the influence of established, and powerful, methods on the construction of the rural (Gruenewald, 2003) and the relationship between centres and their peripheries (Nespor, 2006).   It gets a tad more complex in rural China where the pragmatics of economic development and lifting people out of poverty are key drivers. Furthermore, the very social and cultural position of the rural is distinct, hierarchical and classed in China – but again, this is the opportunity born of challenge and the foundation for comparative research on rurality and cultures. 

Defining rurality

The rural is generally defined in some combination of demographic, geographicand cultural terms. The definitions, and its composition, are important as they then relate to how the rural is researched and represented. Consequently, rurality is represented methodologically as statistical, geographic (spatial mapping or distances) or cultural (qualitative accounts of difference (to?)). In Australia, for instance, we really only use a limited version of demographically and geographically defined notions of rurality that is expressed solely in a statistical frame of analysis and considered as a policy variable. 

Internationally there was a period in the early to mid 2000’s when discussion per definitions were topical in rural studies. This resulted in three influential constructions. Firstly, Halfacree’s (2006) Three-Fold Model of (rural) spaceas rural locality (geographic), formal representations of the rural and everyday lives of the rural. Next Balfour, Mitchell & Molestone’s (2008) Generative Theory of Rurality which was rurality as context, forces (Space, place & time), agencies (Movement, systems, will) and resources (Situated, material & psychosocial). Finally, Cloke’s (2006) Three Theoretical Frames of functional (land use & life linked to land),political-economic (social production) and social (culture & values).  

What’s important here is not necessarily some definitional conclusion, as that’s probably unachievable, but the act of understanding how the rural is constructed in relation to the research task at hand. Moreso, this act helps us reflect on the limitations and affordances of our research approaches, consider the forces constructing the rural and the phenomena we are exploring, and temper our conclusions. Returning to my sidestep above, rural studies authors don’t go out of their way to define the rural in contemporary publications. However, the influence of this definitional work in the background is clearly evident in the way the rural is prefaced, phenomena constructed, research approached and written – it is foundational and understood by the field. I’m not convinced that is the case in rural education. 

In education Donehower, Hogg, & Schell’s (2007, p.9) construction of a working principle that ‘It is important to define rural not only demographically and geographically but culturally as well’ has become popular in some circles, myself included. Adding to this Howley & Howley (2010) provide a useful typology of three rural community types (in the USA), durable-agrarian, resource extraction and suburbanizing, with each having particular equity challenges and opportunities. I lean towards this being a good construction for Australian rural community types as well. Finally, Reid and colleagues (2010) Rural Social Space model is increasingly being seen as a productive model to explore education, and related social policy practices, in non-metropolitan contexts. 

Engaging such definitions open up exciting new research possibilities. For instance, Donehower, Hogg, & Schell’s (2007) construction helps set up the frame of reference for exploring rural literacies. This work has convincingly illustrated the different literacy practices in rural places, which are typically marginalized in contemporary standardized education. The burgeoning field of rural literacies, as explored by Green & Corbett (2013) is the result. Similarly, in mathematics research on spatial reasoning has illustrated the different spatial practices of rural communities (e.g. Lowrie and the STEM education research centre), again something marginalised in contemporary education.  These examples rely upon thinking about the rural as constituted distinctly, and not only in (deficit) comparison to the metropolitan where its difference is erased in the pursuit of comparable (statistical) measures. The possibilities of uncovering new insights, and generating new theory, through reconsidering what constitutes the rural (considering the rural in its own terms) is immense – and even more so when we throw different cultural contexts into the mix.

Opportunities for rural studies & education re China

There are comparatively limited studies of rural education in China in the English language, with these studies predominantly emanating from comparative education or fields such as sociology or policy studies.  Notably this work does not tend to draw upon rural studies. furthermore, rural education in China is relatively unexamined within the rural education field.  

This is not to work against comparative education, sociology of policy studies. It is merely to point out that their limited familiarity with the nuances of education as a process, with cultural assumptions re knowledge, cultures and practices leads these studies to implicit comparisons and input-output assumptions of the education endeavor.  As such they can reinforce metro-normative, and harmful, assumptions about education and equity.  Instead it is important to see education as a product, and process, of modernity par excellence – with modernity referring to the metro-normative world view outlined above. 

Comparative education is predicated on producing insights for policy transfer, being context sensitive (in terms of nations & cultures, not the rural as far as I can see) and providing insights for professional development of policy actors (Crossley & Watson 2011).  As such comparative education provides insights into what does, and doesn’t, work in relation to educational issues. There are however no magic bullets as such insights are bounded by context. Included in my thinking here is both the potential for rural educators to engage in comparative education research and broaden the understanding of education in that field, and visa-versa. 

We have an opportunity in engaging in comparative rural education studies, informed by rural studies, to foster new understandings of ruralities in the globalised world.  through such studies we can explore the social and cultural constructions of rurality and its impact on policy and practice. In a context such as China undergoing mass urbanization we can engage these in action, and have real world practical impact. 

A rural education research program drawing from rural studies could expand the field of study, and generate new insights.  I wonder what would happen if we engaged ideas such as:

Rural Studies + Curriculum Inquiry = valuing new knowledges (& examination measures)

Rural Studies + Human Capital education research (staffing) = 

Rural Studies + Policy Studies = 

In the end what we all share, and are implicated in producing, is the place of the rural in modernity…

Institute for Education Research in Western China

SNNU July 2019

I’ve had the pleasure of spending the last two and a half weeks at Shaanxi Normal University* (SNNU), Xi’an, Shaanxi, China. Xi’an* is the largest city in Northwest China and one of the oldest cities in China.  It was the capital for 13 Dynasties and often regarded as part of the cradle of modern China. Xi’an is perhaps most renowned for its role as the capital of the influential Qin dynasty and the Terracotta Army.  It’s location in northwest China, excellent infrastructure and institutions make Xi’an an excellent base for research in rural China.

This was my second research trip western China. Last year I was fortunate to be an invited Keynote at Northwest Normal University, Lanzhou, Gansu, for the International Conference on Rural Education Development in the New Era. Here I outlined ‘Rural Education: Pasts, Presents and Futures’.

A well ranked university in China focusing on teacher training, especially for rural regions, SNNU is stepping up their rural related educational research.  They have recently established the Institute for Education Research in Western China, charged with enhancing education in western (rural) China, and have an exciting research plan for the coming years. I’m honored to be appointed an Adjunct Professor to this institute and help develop the research plan.  In order to help achieve its vision the Faculty of Education has recently recruited a number of exciting ‘new’ and ‘young’ staff members to collaborate on this broad work.  Rural education is indeed the focus, and more exciting the team here are on the same page as me regarding issues regarding the representation of the rural, rural knowledge, place sensitive methodologies and curriculum issues. Furthermore, the institute will also engage with rural teacher education research in neighboring countries.

Rural China is an exciting research site due to the range of issues unfolding right now. Indeed, we can look at modernity and its implications for rurality in real time unfolding, and consequently better understand these processes.  Geographically China has a similar scale and population distribution to Australia (with the obvious exception of population 1.3bn v 26 Million) making it an interesting comparison. Given the cultural and historical differences between our nations we have the opportunity to start to better understand the process of rurality both within, and distinct from, the cultural contexts in which we typically observe it.  An exciting opportunity.  I won’t go into the range of issues and challenges facing education, and communities, in rural China here. Instead I’ll merely reference an introduction to rural education in China as part of special edition on the same topic I published last year with Emily Hannum from the University of Pennsylvania.  All I’ll say here is this is an exciting and fascinating research site, with a big dose of real significance added – millions of people’s lives are impacted in this work. 

Finally, It’s such a pleasure to spend quality time in a nation with such a long and rich history. I’m constantly amased at how little ‘we’ generally know about China and its history (in Australia).  This is a bit bemusing given the history between our nations for centuries, itself pre-dating ‘modern’ Australia. While we know northern China was one of the cradles of civilization, as I wandered the Shaanxi History Museum* I was struck by the pottery, Craft work, Frescos and so forth of comparable date and quality to those studied more typically here in Australia. Then visiting the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda* and the Terracotta Warriors* I was further struck by just how old and powerful a civilization this is – these sites are truly awe inspiring.  Consequently, it’s terribly sad to read the perspectives put forward in some contemporary political, and ‘news’, commentary: I have nothing but positive things to say about the people I’ve met on my travels, including the passersby, shopkeepers and so forth. 

I’m looking forward to long term collaborative relationship and the comparative projects we have developed, and started to roll out, both at SNNU and with other colleagues in China.  I look forward to reporting them here in the near future… 

*I’ve used Wikipedia links for simplicity, as some of the original websites default to Chinese, I encourage readers to link through to the relevant sites in China and choose the English function. 

Education & research for rural regional sustainability

Education & research for rural regional sustainability                                           Dr Philip Roberts                                                                                                                4thMarch 2019 1-1.30pm Building 25 ‘TEAL’ Room University of Canberra.

In this presentation I sketch an evolving ecosystem of rural education and community research, broadended through a recent period of outside studies.

The release of the report of the independent review into rural, regional and remote education (Halsey 2018) provides a much-needed focus on the unique challenges and opportunities rural, regional and remote communities encounter.  Notably, the review calls for further research into rural, regional and remote education, and in so doing invites the education research community to engage with this space in their work.  However, the rural is a difficult site to define, with the definitions engaged with implicitly linked to the construction of the research object, the methodologies engaged with, and the phenomena observed.   This I argue, necessitates bringing research from a wider educational audience into rural education debates, and the participation of this wider audience in these debates .

To illustrate this point, I introduce the idea that there are a multiplicity of meanings of the rural (Roberts & Green, 2013).  Indeed, determining just what is rural and what rural itself means a central pre-occupation of rural studies (Woods, 2011), and something that remains an ongoing topic of debate and discussion. Recognising this complexity, models representing the rural advanced in the rural social sciences tend to be multidimensional – encompassing statistical, cultural, spatial and cultural dimensions.  The resultant multiple ways of representing the rural tend to draw upon divergent epistemological traditions, emphasising that researching the rural must similarly draw upon various epistemological traditions.  Here I highlight these multiple models to emphasise the point that defining the rural, and then by association, rural meanings in research, is inherently complex and contested.

Building from these definitional dilemmas I introduce the relationships between rural studies (rural sociology & rural geography) and rural education.  I suggest that the rural education field has tended to work from within its own boundaries. Consequently the field has been becoming increasingly narrow and removed from the parent disciplines.  While rural education is somewhat ambiguously placed it draws primarily from the traditions of sociology and geography, with broader engagements with the non-education fields of rural sociology and rural geography.  Important here I suggest that sociology, and the sociology of education, does not engage significantly with the rural – hence the development of sub-fields of rural education and rural sociology.  Consequently, scholarship is necessary in order to bridge these divides and enhance the quality, and breadth, of scholarship in all related fields.  Supporting this claim I make reference to a recent empirical study (under review) of how the ‘rural’ has been referred to in the last twenty years of Australian education research. I also note recent theoretical advances in rural studies, and explore how these relate to rural education research.   

I argue that a lack of engagement with rural definitions, and their relationship to how we conceptualise and undertake research, policy and practice, contributes to the continuity of metro-centricity/metro-normativity in education research, policy and practice.

Reflections on a visit to the Centre for Rural Economy

During August 2018 I was fortunate enough to spend the month visiting researchers at the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) and incidentally Centre for Learning and Teaching (CFLAT) at Newcastle University (UK). Key people include Mark Shucksmith, Jeremy Phillipson, Sally Shortall, Liz Todd and David Leat

This was part of my study leave, funded by my institutions ‘Outside Study Program‘.   Having recently developed the Rural Education and Communities research group, situated within the Faculty of Education, aspects of  my travels were geared towards thinking through the directions this research group will take, and hopefully building some connections to collaborate with in this work.  As an aside the group is deliberately named as per the centre at Penn State, with Kai’s agreement, as we have strong relationships with them ( I spent time there in 2016).

I’d stress that the conception of education I use is a broadly defined one and not delimited by appending ‘school’. Indeed I sit with the Australian Institute for Sustainable Communities (AISC), and much of my work has been the role of education in communities and how rurality is engaged with in education.   AISC is essentially the remnants of the former ‘community studies’ part of the faculty, and much AISC work is related to development, and located in ‘developing’ contexts.

Rural Education 
It’s a space that has a similar community in North America and a growing community in Europe.   There are two journals in this community, the ‘Australian and International Journal of Rural Education’ (I was Chief Editor for the last 3 years) and the ‘Journal of Research in Rural Education’ based at Penn State.

I’ve been reflecting upon the nature of the field for a while, as I’ve been feeling that it is increasingly narrowing itself, becoming self-referential and overly focussed on preparing teachers for rural areas.  My initial analysis of the international field reveals a persistent focus upon the different educational outcomes and achievement levels of rural, regional and remote students.  Typically this revolves around issues of access to a full curriculum, access to further education and training, the attraction and retention of staff and the socio-economic composition of rural populations and regions.

Arguments in these areas are usually predicated upon notions of equity for rural regions, economic development of regions, and the human capital development of rural populations. Problematically, these positions have tended to emanate from within education studies and often only draw on the broader fields of the humanities and the social sciences in a limited sense.

Notably, arguments about the levels of rural achievement and development are usually framed in comparison to a metro-centric norm.  As such the ‘rural’ has been defined by major centres of power in this research and not in its own terms.  Rural education research has begun to problematize this construction.  However, these arguments are often couched in romantic or nostalgic notions of the rural and the nation’s past.

Interestingly (well I think so), there are a group of scholars who call themselves rural educators who come from ‘Comparative and International Education’. These scholars appear to draw from sociology and are equally as likely to be located in humanities and/or social science faculties as education faculties. They tend to study education in countries other than their own and no, they don’t know anything about the other rural education folk (or visa versa) or draw on rural studies. However, they have a number of high ranked journals, much higher ranked than the two ‘rural education’ ones.

Recently, a couple of us have been arguing for a greater engagement with the parent disciplines and related rural fields.  Gaining a better understanding of these disciplines and fields is what brought me to CRE and Newcastle University.

It seems that while rural education is somewhat ambiguously placed it theoretically draws primarily from the traditions of sociology and geography, with broader engagements with the non-education fields of rural sociology and rural geography (Roberts & Cuervo, 2015).  It seems to me that sociology, and the sociology of education, does not engage significantly with the rural – hence the development of sub-fields of rural education and rural sociology.

Consequently, scholarship is necessary in order to bridge these divides and enhance the quality, and breadth, of scholarship in all related fields. Currently, there are a number of moves to strengthen these connections, for instance the emergence of the area of study of ‘rural literacies’ (Donehower, Hogg & Schell, 2007; Green & Corbett, 2013) and ‘rural social space’ (Reid et al, 2010).

I came to CRE then with the broad intent to explore these relationships further.  At this moment in time it seems that the key issues are the different philosophies/theories/methodologies, the UK/Europe/USA differences in rural studies, as well as coming to recognise the recent developments in the fields – so as to start linking with education (broadly defined).

One outcome of my visit has been the positive response to my, perhaps outsider, analysis of the fields.  This has encouraged me to frame a project on ‘mapping the rural fields’. It seems there is a potentially useful project here in mapping the various rural sub fields.

A first project – ‘mapping rural fields’
This is a more formal approach to the broad plan of my study leave, and I’ve kicked off an ethics application. The broad plan is to survey/interview leading scholars in the various rural sub fields about theory, methodology, key works etc. and map the relationships. It would also involve examining the reference and citation links of the key works and theories they cite.  The aim would be to present initial aspects at the world congress in 2020 in Cairns, Australia. 

An even more exciting development (for me at least)
While based at CRE, I also met with others at Newcastle University, and Durham.  Through these conversations I have been exposed to a much more exciting development.

(and here I digress for a moment) I’ve just started working on the initial draft of a major research grant application – a 3 year project.  In that project I want to look at rural knowledges in education and how they are, and are not, engaged with and how this relates to issues of equity and social justice.  This would involve working with communities and schools, and seeing how teachers can bring in other knowledges in a standardised curriculum framework. In my draft notes I had this term ‘local knowledge’ and in the past have referred to ‘rural knowledges’ – something I’d argued pertained to knowledges emanating from a rural standpoint as distinct from the metro-normative knowledges of the global metropole. Hence the need to understand rural studies better as the possible site of the theory I’ve been looking for. Until now I could only gesture theoretically that there were ‘rural knowledges’ and make analogies to knowledge ala class, gender and so forth.

Until now I say because I discovered that CRE and the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CFLAT) have established research programs that together bring the two pieces of the puzzle together in a concrete fashion> while not focussed explicitly on engaging rural knowledges in education, they are closely related and transferable.  The work of the CFLAT, especially that related to community curriculum making, articulates well into the local knowledge, stakeholder engagement and knowledge transfer work of many CRE researchers and projects (esp. the Rural Economy and Land Use program (RELU)).

Consequently, I found the two pieces of the puzzle that I knew were missing – when I wasn’t looking for them at the time.  The first a model for engaging local knowledge in curriculum making, and the second engaging rural knowledges per se, more on that below…

Learning about interdisciplinary and knowledge exchange
The rich interdisciplinary traditions at CRE, and the work on interdisciplinary research, stakeholder engagement and knowledge transfer, are certainly areas the institute I sit with (AISC) can learn a lot from.  We’ve had some experience in a related space, but after discussing the work of CRE and the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) I’ve come to gain further insight into how we can progress in this area.

One of our projects ‘Towards Place-Based Education in the Murray-Darling Basin’ was part of the Murray-Darling Basin Futures Collaborative Research Network (MDBfutures). This network was funded by the Australia Research Council.  There were minor similarities here to the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) in the idea of an interdisciplinary design and its rural focus. However, it lacked key elements and was nowhere near as influential as RELU.  The power of leadership, interpersonal skills, and the interdisciplinary framing of projects seem critical – whereas ours was discreet projects around interdisciplinary themes.

Our project explored the ways in which sustainability is understood in Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) communities (including Indigenous, rural, small towns, regional centres, local industries, co-ops and so forth).  The project then examined how local understandings are, and can be, engaged within education to achieve more collaborative outcomes. To achieve these collaborative understandings the project explored approaches to place-conscious education as a vehicle for social inclusion and community representation. By surfacing various understandings of sustainability, the project aimed to help educators, in both the school and community sector, engage more effectively with ideas around sustainability in their work.

Following this project, we were funded to look at the aspirations of rural students for agriculture sector careers. The project identified a lack of understanding of the nature of modern rural industries by many students and teachers in rural schools. Many students, and teachers, did not understand the relationship between school subjects and careers in modern rural industries.  This then discourage students seeking places in university. Similarly rural industry leaders did not understand the language of school subjects, and consequently were not able to link their industry needs and the subjects students study at school. Bringing this together the projected illustrated a significant language gap between students wanting to pursue rural careers, teachers and rural industries – now we need to bridge that gap!

It seems a lot of what we have been doing is inherently interdisciplinary and linked somewhat to issues of knowledge exchange and stakeholder engagement. My time at CRE has helped me understand how we can better position these in the wider fields of rural studies – not a bad outcome considering it wasn’t part of the initial plan. I think rural knowledge exchange with a focus on education might have just become my central research area! well it was, but now I have some models to work with.  

While at CRE I was fortunate enough to discuss this recently published paper, then in draft form. Expertise in rural development: A conceptual and empirical analysis‘.  For mine, it provides a great framework and overview from which to do this work…

What next?
From Newcastle I headed to Aberystwyth University for a week with Michael Woods and then spent a month in Tromso, Norway with the Space, Time and Education research group in Tromso, Norway, and specifically the RUR-ED program on spatial inequity and spatial justice. Led by Unn-Doris Bæck, who spent 2017 at UTAS (where we joined up for this seminar: Space, Practice, Mobility: On social Inequality and Educational Politics)  , this group are doing some innovative statistical and ethnographic research into spatial, mainly rural, inequities. Oh, and there was a bit of a holiday in between these stops.  But more about those soon…

NB: An earlier version of this post was published on the CRE blog at this location 31 August 2018.