New Voice Scholars: Perspectives

Transforming Education by Providing for Individual
Sstudent Needs and Diverse Backgrounds

“The New Voice Scholarship is a fabulous opportunity for skilled and motivated educators to be recognised by their peers. ACEL is committed to giving-back to the profession, through the provision of world-class learning opportunities for up-and-coming leaders, and we are thrilled to welcome the 2016 Scholarship winners into the ACEL network.  There is also opportunity to have their voices heard through ACEL Publications and at events. All winners of the New Voice Scholarships were invited to write for the special issues of Perspectives, where they consider the following topic, with no limitations or directions, If you were able to transform education (given a metaphorical magic wand), what would you do? These perspectives are, like our New Voice Scholars contexts, diverse and inspiring. I hope these articles challenge and inspire you to reflect further.”

Aasha Murthy, CEO ACEL

Kirk Zwangobani
School Leader
Dickson College, ACT

Making a return on diversity

I was recently invited to give a keynote presentation at an education forum held by a well-established community organisation that supports refugee and asylum seekers to settle in Canberra. In closing the presentation and to cement my arguments in the minds of the audience, I projected two images. The first image was of my Year 2 class photo  at my local primary school. I was in the front row, school uniform, desert boots and, being of African heritage, an afro. The remainder of the class of 20+ students, however, were all white Australians. The second image, was my daughter’s class photo at the same primary school some two and half decades later. She was also in the front row with a similar uniform – minus the Afro. In sharp contrast though, only a generation later, she was one of a dozen non-white, ‘multicultural millennials’ in the same sized class. This should not have been surprising, given that statistics suggest that 46% of the Australian population have at least one parent born overseas (ABS 2013). Now, the first provocative question I asked my audience to consider was: “which image, the first or the second, best reflects our school leader demographic?” That provocation aside, the second question, and one which I would like to consider further here, was: “how will schools leverage this increasing student diversity to develop ALL students’ social, cultural and intellectual capital?”

Yes, there are a number of minority groups in our schools that receive support under ESL training and CALD policies, not to mention refugee bridging programs. Yet how do we work with later generations to ensure that they play a key role in shaping the nature and quality of their learning within the school environment? Before I explore some possibilities I would like to briefly look at some emerging trends. My PhD research on ethnically diverse young people in schools and communities in Canberra suggests, for example, that even in a context of growing diversity, young people in minority cultural groups still feel that they must acculturate, remain invisible or perhaps figure as a kind of exotic curio (“where are you from?”). On this, convincing arguments have been made, that part of the dilemma lies in the fact that ‘white middle class teachers’ inadvertently continue to be liable to claims of ‘replicating and sustaining dominant cultural patterns’ (Forrest 2016). Or, as a recent NSW study of teachers’ understanding of multicultural education and ESL teaching concludes, ‘there is no guarantee the teacher workforce possesses the necessary expertise to adequately deal with the rapidly changing demographics within Australian schools and educational and social challenges these pose’ (Watkins et al 2016).

Just this week I finished facilitating a number of youth focus groups on social cohesion with ethnic communities in Canberra. For the better part, multicultural youth agree that their cultural communities are well connected and socially cohesive, relative to the larger metropolitan centres. Yet, the evidence also suggests that schools remain culturally homogenous for these youth, places in which, if you want to be heard, you have to ‘act like a white Australian’. Given the rise of students as agents in transforming teaching, how do we turns these insights into innovation? While this could be considered a systemic challenge, I would like here to explore amongst numerous possibilities, two distinct trajectories worthy of reflection for school leaders.

First, there is a need for young people to leverage their sense of difference, whether racially, ethnically or culturally to give them agency in the classroom, their education and their future. With schools increasingly having a place in our sense of community, there is a collective responsibility at a time of increasing diversity and global migration, to ensure that teaching and learning build capacities in young people. Rather than figuring youth of diverse backgrounds as a ‘challenge’ to be addressed, the question here is how we might enable such young people to turn their difference into socio-cultural capital, which will better create economic and social value in the 21st Century workplace. To coin a phrase, schools need to mobilise young people to make a ‘return on diversity’.

Secondly, principals and school leaders need to meet the challenge of making their schools, if not systems, more ‘globally competent’ (OECD 2016). This will require that school leaders and teachers broaden their view on how student outcomes are evaluated, so that global competencies feature. To be globally competent, we must also re-consider approaches to ‘working with’ the diversity in schools, so that we create the conditions in which efforts toward social cohesion and intercultural dialogue serve to increase all young people’s ability to critically and creatively solve complex problems. Such aims already feature in the Australian Curriculum’s general capabilities for intercultural understanding, but we now need to progress further in this regard, not only in response to these changing imperatives but also in the face of more extremist responses to difference from majority and minority cultures alike. The question that I will leave open as a provocation is ‘how well will our current approaches to school leadership serve to achieve such aims?’

Perhaps the best way to finish is to borrow from Andreas Schleicher, Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General. In writing on the OECD’s aim to assess global competencies in the 2018 PISA, Schleicher says:

Schools need to prepare students for a world in which people need to work with others of diverse cultural origins, and appreciate different ideas, perspectives and values; a world in which people need to develop trust to collaborate across such differences; and a world in which people’s lives will be affected by issues that transcend national boundaries.

For those educational practitioners who wish to be considered educational leaders, the task is to appreciate the potential in such differences. It is to provide models of educational systems and practices that recognise the positive contribution that diversity makes to Australia, which is, fortunately, always more than an island.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 4102.0-Australian Social Trends (April 2013). Viewed 21 July 2016

Forrest, J., Lean, G. & Dunn K. 2016, Challenging racism through schools: teacher attitudes to cultural diversity and multicultural education in Sydney, Australia, Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 19, no 3, 618-638.

OECD Directorate for Education and Skills, 2016, Global Competency for an inclusive world, Paris, France.

Watkins M., Lean G., & Noble G. 2016, Multicultural education: the state of play from an Australian perspective, Race Ethnicity and Education, 19:1, 46-66.


Haydon Staines
Teaching Prinicpal
NT Department of Education, NT

If you had the power and influence, what is the one thing you would you do to ‘transform’ education?

The truth is education is a forever transforming field and I believe it is absolutely essential that as educators we continue to adapt with flexibility whilst developing our understanding and practice. It is also essential that we strive to contribute successfully to this overall transformation. This is not to suggest that it is ‘out with the old and in with the new’, but rather continue to develop and build a strong learning foundation alongside our current and successful education pedagogies.

With this in mind my answer is to continue to contribute to the wonderful transformation that is currently taking shape nationally when it comes to incorporate Indigenous perspectives, knowledge and language into the Australian Curriculum. My vision for transformation would be to see the two hundred plus indigenous Australian languages resourced and funded effectively in order for them to be taught within schools. My vision for transformation would be to see the explicit teaching of culture and indigenous perspectives to all students in Australia. My vision for transformation would be to see Aboriginal and Torres Straight history studied and related back to our nation’s broader history. My vision for transformation would be to see every student have an understanding of the indigenous people who belong to the land on which they are learning every day. I do not think this transformation is revolutionary however I do think it is necessary. All of this would be taught alongside effective pedagogies and meta-knowledge which I will touch upon.

Imagine the positives that would be associated with this transformation: preservation of heritage, language and culture whilst maintaining identity; the collaboration between teachers, parents, schools, communities, departments and other stakeholders: and the continuing development and strengthening of cultural understanding and multiculturalism amongst all Australian students. What better way to the path of reconciliation than to educate all Australians about indigenous peoples and their culture, so that we all have a better understanding and respect for each other?

For a number of years now in history lessons, I have given my students a research assignment task. They are given the opportunity to choose an indigenous Australian clan or group and construct a presentation covering pre-European settlement history, dreaming, the importance of the land to that particular clan, bush-tucker and more. The results are always astonishing and the enjoyment students and families get out of this simple assignment is very encouraging. We have had indigenous families come in and tell us about their family and community history, share their dreamtime stories and even bring in artefacts and bush tucker. I have had students with little or no prior knowledge of indigenous people and their culture, become immersed in the rich and interesting ways of indigenous Australians. The same question is asked every time, whether it come from eight year olds or eighty year olds, “why isn’t everyone taught this?”

Of course there are a number of factors that play into this, and as a member of the Northern Territory Indigenous Curriculum Advisory Network, I am aware that this change is something that will not happen overnight. There are many different indigenous groups across the nation, each with their own culture and language. There is a need for indigenous teachers, elders and community members who can pass this knowledge and understanding (meta-knowledge) on whilst being effectively resourced. These are just to name two of the many challenges, however I am also aware that there is a vast amount of research and resources that can assist with addressing these challenges. Take for example the 2009 thesis written by Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta called Aboriginal Pedagogies at the Cultural Interface. The paper researched and investigated how teachers can engage with Aboriginal knowledge and how to use Aboriginal knowledge productively in schools. There were a number of strategies outlined including staff development and in particular the use of Aboriginal pedagogies (which I must point out connect nicely with a range of other current pedagogies used daily in schools around the nation). I personally believe these two factors are vital to the implementation and development of my desired education transformation.

In summary, my transformation is an ongoing transformation that relies heavily on collaboration when it comes to a number of stakeholders including parents and community. The challenges are apparent but so are the positive rewards. I see this as a chance to really teach our first nations 40,000 to 60,000 year old culture. This is my vision of the transformation I would love to see and be a part of.


Yunkaporta, T (2009). Aboriginal Pedagogies at the Cultural Interface, Professional Doctorate thesis, James Cook University Australia.


Emma Goodall
Senior Adviser - Autism
Department for Education and Child Development SA, Adelaide, SA

If I had the power/influence the one thing that I would do to transform education is:

Embed flexibility.

Research indicates educators are still locating difficulties as ‘within the students’ (Sullivan, Johnson, Owens & Conway, 2014). Taken in conjunction with a year level based academic structure, this can lead to some students feeling that they less valued by their peers (and subsequently to feel that they are unable to succeed in education), teachers and themselves. Self-fulfilling prophecies have a significant impact on educational and wellbeing outcomes for children and students – using a strengths based model can therefore impact positively on both sites and children and students (Zyngier, 2007). Researchers have found that low expectations are often present for students with disabilities and these low expectations are known to lead to fewer educational opportunities and poor outcomes (Shifrer, 2013).

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA)1992 specifically talks about attitude as being a possible unlawful barrier to educational access for students with disabilities. The DDA and the Disability Standards for Education (DSE) 2005 stipulate that all education providers are legally obliged to provide education for students with disability on the same basis as other students. Unlawful barriers to education, whether physical, academic, attitudinal, or policy related, need to be eliminated. Inclusion is about U and I – all students have strengths and support needs, all students have potential. When student strengths and support needs are acknowledged and teaching is aimed at facilitating their achievement of potential then every child will know that they count.

International Day of People with Disability (IDPWD) is celebrated annually in NSW with the Don’t DIS my ABILITY campaign. It encourages communities in NSW to think and act inclusively, in all aspects of life. Only when students feel valued and respected can they learn to value and respect themselves long term and in turn be able to live well and find their place in society.  I believe that all students have strengths and support needs and that student achievement and growth can be maximised through creativity, flexibility, understanding, acceptance and the celebration of diversity.  In understanding that all students are learners and that success means different things to different people at different stages of education, teachers can respond to the support needs by engaging flexibly with student strengths, focusing on what a student can already do to build deeper and broader skills and knowledge.

Having worked as an educator in seven different countries as well as being educated in eight schools across three continents, I have experienced a wide range of educational philosophies and educational values in action. Schools are not just places of curriculum learning, they can also drive social change and build a strong sense community as children grow and develop not just academically but holistically. This change can lead to greater social equity and improve on the current poor life outcomes experiences by people with disabilities in Australia (COAG Reform Council, 2012).

Social change in education can come from a focus on measurable academic outcomes and/or a stress on human rights. To achieve both of these a holistic and flexible teaching framework which responds to individual student needs is required. In contrast, a stress on outcomes that does not have human rights at its core can lead to policy and programs that are inadvertently inequitable. This can happen because educators and schools can become too focused on measures of academic success to the detriment of holistic skill building for individuals and whole school communities.

Where students have splinter skills or atypical developmental profiles, their abilities can be overlooked when attention is focused on deficits. These deficits can dominate teacher perceptions when reporting on measures of academic success that are not easily attainable for many students with atypical developmental profiles. I have been lucky to have been set up for success by teachers who nurtured my maths talent whilst helping me develop my writing skills through areas of interest or strength. I want to ensure that all students are able to experience such powerful positive transformative education, which enable them to see themselves positively and be seen as successful learners and valuable people.

A flexible education system is well placed to respond to holistic needs and strengths of students, focusing on growth and development of individuals. Currently atypical students need to meet particular criteria to access significantly modified learning environments or curriculum content. However Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles embed flexibility to ensure that there is a strengths focused response to students contextualising the individual within school and that sets up success by embedding wellbeing into the school community.  One of the seven Principles of UDL developed by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University is flexibility. Flexibility is however at the heart of all seven principles as it is required to enable the needs of all students to be met effectively and efficiently whilst ensuing equitable access to education.


COAG Reform Council. (2012). Disability 2010–11: Comparing performance across Australia. COAG Reform Council, Sydney

Shifrer, Dara. (2013). Stigma of a Label: Educational Expectations for High School Students Labeled with Learning Disabilities. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 54(4), 462-480.

Sullivan, A. M., Johnson, B., Owens, L., & Conway, R. (2014). Punish Them or Engage Them? Teachers’ Views of Unproductive Student Behaviours in the Classroom. Australian Journal of     Teacher Education, 39(6).

Zyngier, D. (2007). Listening to teachers-listening to students: Substantive conversations about resistance, empowerment and engagement. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 13(4), 327-347.


Brendan Colville
Assistant Principal
Acacia Hill School, Alice Springs, NT

Remember when you were in school and there was a kid with a disability in your classroom?
What did they do in the classroom?
Did you have much to do with them?
How were they treated by other children?

When I was in primary school there was a girl called Shelley (not her real name) who had Cerebral Palsy and used a wheelchair to get around. I didn’t have much to do with her, she used to work mostly with a teacher assistant and seemed to work on her own curricula. The teacher set aside different work for her and Shelley would rarely be involved with other children in the class.

Knowing what I know now, our teacher and Shelley’s assistant probably didn’t have any idea of what to do with Shelley in the classroom. They would not have had anything to do with students with disabilities, nor had any special education training, nor a curriculum to work off. It would have been overwhelming for them.

Progress has been made in the 30 years since I was in that classroom with Shelley, but contemporary teachers would still feel that sense of “What the heck am I doing?!!!” when teaching students with disabilities. This also includes teachers in special schools with students in their classroom with a range of disabilities.

How do we transform that? How do we lift the standard of special education teachers in Australia?

A great way to start, is to SELL special education better to pre-service teachers and mainstream teachers who have the skills to ‘cut it’ in the world of special education.

Special education can be the greatest job in the world!
Unfortunately the perception that most people have is that special education is based around dribble and snot and students that can’t do much. This is a societal perception - the preconceived ideas about people with disabilities and the notions about what they can’t do, not about what they can do.

We learn the ideas about the limitations of disability when we had ‘that kid’ in our classroom when we were at school. Mine was Shelley and it was a classic example of inclusion not working. It’s the same challenge today; when a child with a disability is thrust into a mainstream classroom and the teacher and assistant have had no special education training or experience, they inevitably fail, and the preconceived idea that we already had about kids with disabilities is reinforced. It’s a cycle we try to break with inclusion, but we often end up achieving quite the opposite.

Imagine this though – a teacher and assistant who have completed special education qualifications, including multiple units on successful school inclusion, and have the skills to meaningfully integrate a student with a disability into a mainstream classroom. Imagine the impact on you as a child, if you are sitting next to a student with a disability and you are both doing the same work. Imagine getting help from a student with a disability on the work you are doing! It begins to change your perspective on what a student with a disability can do.

As children grow up with an altered perception of students with disabilities and make their way to Year 11 & 12, let’s identify their potential as a ‘gun’ special education teacher and direct them into a university degree of special education.

American universities recruit quarterbacks from secondary schools, let’s do the same for special education teachers!

Universities must target the best and brightest secondary school students for special education degrees.

We also need to sell special education better to get the best people into special schools. Phil Doecke from RMIT University concedes that ‘disability is not sexy’ and he’s right. This perception can be changed with campaigns such as the Superhuman video for the 2012 London Paralympics.

Do yourself a favour and have a look

Let’s develop a media campaign like the Superhuman campaign to SELL special education teaching to year 11 and 12 students who are considering career paths!

Let’s target schools and universities for the best possible people for special education!

When these graduate teachers enter the workforce, a quality mentor is invaluable. These mentors need to be full time and placed in support/coaching roles. This also applies for teachers that have transferred from mainstream to a special education setting, and have the potential to be great special education teachers. There are a number of mainstream teachers who have successfully transferred their skills to special education and learned new ones on the job.

A special education teacher can have a much greater impact on a child when they have a structured plan to follow, such as a curriculum tailored to ALL students. Pre Foundation levels on the Australian Curriculum give teachers a plan to follow for students with disabilities. The ABLES program from Melbourne University allows teachers to assess and plan for the next stages of a student with a disability’s education. A commitment from schools to embed a pre foundation curriculum and regular, extensive professional development for special education teachers on curriculum will also increase the standard of special education teaching.

To transform the standard of teaching in special education, there needs to be an increased focus on student-teacher relationships. Teachers must ‘know thy impact’ to borrow a phrase from John Hattie.

Students with disabilities have complex learning needs and there are so many more layers to a quality relationship with them that a teacher has to have a profound knowledge of.
The first Standard of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers is Know Your Students and How they Learn. Devoting time and effort to these relationships always pays dividends in the long run, this is of paramount importance for children like Shelley.

I’m not sure what happened to Shelley, but I have the understanding now that she could have had a much better education than she did. I hope we can develop a plan to transform the standard of teachers for kids like Shelley and all students with disabilities in the very immediate educational future.