Promoting Educational Futures in Australia: A Talk with Valerie Harwood

Valerie Harwood, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Education at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, spoke recently at Teachers College about her current research project, Getting an Early Start to Aspirations: Understanding How to Promote Educational Futures, funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship. In this project, she explores the use of social marketing strategies to promote educational futures and legitimize subjugated knowledges of learning in places of significant educational disadvantage through the design and evolution of the Lead My Learning Campaign. In the following interview with Sarah van den Berg, Harwood elaborates on the context for her work and insights into striving for greater educational opportunities from the perspective of critical sociological theory and Aboriginal paradigms of learning, respect, relationships, and reciprocity.

Social marketing techniques are a particular modality, used often in health (campaigns to drink more water, stop smoking, wear seat belts, etc.), to promote behavioral change in particular segment of society. A proposition statement is developed; in which the promoted behavior offers greater benefits and fewer barriers than the current behavior. A campaign is designed through extensive consultation with the target audience to promote this behavior. Over the course of over a year, Harwood and Project Manager Nyssa Murray, a Dunghutti Woman—(a member of the First Nations of Australia)— developed relationships with parents and service providers in the community doing “formative work” to design the campaign. The LML campaign’s proposition statement is that “It is possible to lead your child’s learning. It only takes a little time and can fit in with everyday activities.” Through the promotional materials such as bus station advertisements, free photographs for families, play-time mats for service providers, and a commissioned song for playgroups that show ways of “sharing” and “encouraging” learning that likely already happens amongst their target audience, the LML campaign aims to promote ‘learning moments’ by sending the message that “you can encourage your child’s learning without having specific knowledge AND it gives a child the happy experience of valuing and enjoying learning” (Harwood Presentation).

What particular issue do you aim to target using social marketing strategies in the Lead My Learning campaign?

Strictly speaking, what social marketing is about is behavioral change. So, as a Foucauldian critical scholar, there’s no way I’d say, I’ve got to change everybody’s behavior, but strictly speaking, what social marketing does is this idea of behavior change for social good. Because of the critical framework that I use, I don’t look at people as having a lack or deficit, I’m more of the school of thought that it’s the institutions that have problems. So part of the challenge for us in our campaign is figuring out what are people from our target audience doing to promote learning with their young children and figuring out ways of legitimating what people are already doing. If all the talk is about early childhood being so formative and important—and I’ve got different views as well because I think it’s not the end of the story when they’re ten—then, what are the practices that might be really useful in children who are young for promoting an educational future and building up the possibility of higher education. We’re trying to work against foreclosure, and a lot of the early childhood literature really points to how important parents are in those efforts. But if the parents (parents referring broadly in the Aboriginal paradigm to any adult with parental responsibilities) haven’t had great experiences with education, then education isn’t actually a great product to pitch. Our formative research with over 100 parent participants, shows they value education, but they’re also very uncomfortable with it. So—without using the term ‘education’, we aim to promote educational futures, a term I’ve been using in a book published recently with Hickey-Moody, McMahon, and O’Shea, The Politics of Widening Participation and University Access for Young People, to capture the idea of an openness to education in all of its various guises, instead of foreclosure.

What role do relationships with your participants play in designing this campaign?

Our daunting task was to promote education to people who haven’t had good experiences with education. As we got further into it, we realized that we couldn’t even use the word ‘education’ —that’s why we use the term learning. If you look around the Lead My Learning website, you won’t see the word ‘school’: you’ll only see the word ‘learning.’ We spent time developing really good relationships with our informants, who all said that we cannot use the word education, we’ve got to use the world learning. So with the Aboriginal people, they do so much around learning but it’s a learning that’s completely unacknowledged by society. In our campaign what we’ve tried to do is showcase Aboriginal practices of learning by observing and pitching in (LOPI) so people who are doing it already can identify those strategies and say yep, we’re doing that, as well as to provide tips and tricks to encourage more of it. One of the things that also happens is service providers see very different imagery of people that get described as deficit, so we’ve tried to spin that around so it’s also had an extra effect on service providers to see so much positivity.

What’s important for education researchers that might be doing work in early childhood or community is really building really good alliances with the informants – like the parents and really strong service providers who are doing great jobs and have that affinity with the people they’re working with. We’ve worked closely with service providers, and have learned a lot from our relationships with them. We also honor Aboriginal practices of reciprocity and mutual respect, so we try to give back something that’s useful to them and can carry our message. So we ask, what do you guys need in this early childhood center or playgroup that’s really useful? And they might say that they really need mats. So we get mats made with our brand messaging purchase them from the research budget, and all of our research sites they get mats. And this is Aboriginal protocol, right, about reciprocity and relationship. So you don’t just go into a research site and take a load of data and leave, you’ve got to build a relationship, bring something to it.

What are the next steps for the project?

It’s a four-year fellowship, so the next phase is around sustainability. We do pre- and post-service surveys, individual and group interviews using Aboriginal yarning methodology and service provider surveys. And then, it’s really thinking about how can we possibly sustain it or get it integrated into other kinds of services.

The thing about part of the sustainability is responsibility, because we’ve embedded ourselves in a community and we do our hardest within practical reason to continue in the community if it’s wanted. Sharing what we’re doing is important too. We’ve had service providers in the community talk to us about what we can continue to do. The thing is that we’ve created the brand and the content, but if you want to keep using materials you’ve obviously got to get funding to be able to keep doing that. And part of it is showing how working in this way might be useful—how building these sorts of relationships and adapting social marketing techniques might be a resource that aren’t tapped into as much as they could be.

Because of the intensiveness of the collaboration with participants through the design process, I think a lot of people don’t see us as having created the stuff, it’s very readily accepted. For example, in one of our post-interviews, Ali, a research assistant, was with an Aboriginal grandmother at one of the sites. The grandmother said ‘I don’t know that campaign’ but when Ali pointed to the poster on the wall of the campaign, and the grandmother said ‘Oh yea! Yea, I do that already.’ And for Nyssa and I, that was gold, because what we’d strive to do, was not to be seen as some kind of Expert coming in and saying ‘Let’s do this’, but rather – here’s what you’re already doing it which is helping your child’s learning and you can do more of it.



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