Rachel Parker – They are the answer

Author: Carolina Capelo Garcia

Rachel Parker is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). She has more than 20 years of experience in international education, including specific expertise in learning through play and global education. More specifically, Rachel has been leading, designing, evaluating, and managing education programs for development partners such as UNICEF, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank. Through ACER, Rachel leads Learning Through Play at School, a major four-year study on the benefits of playful pedagogies, as part of a joint project with the LEGO Foundation. She is also co-author of Frontiers in Education’s most viewed article of 2022, “Learning Through Play at School – A Framework for Policy and Practice” (Parker et al, 2022).

Photo credit: Simone Norris

What drove you to follow the path of education research, and more particularly, how did you end up exploring the importance of learning through play at an international level?

“What drove me to education research was my curiosity. I also had this naïve desire to want to make a positive difference in the world. Before I worked in research, I worked in international development programming in education. I enjoyed the role. However, I felt like a small cog in a massive, unstoppable wheel and would often question the approaches that we were using and the evidence base for those. That’s what drove me toward a different type of role.

“I made a lateral move from that work to Melbourne University’s Asia Education Foundation, and that’s where I got the bug – an interest in where research, policy, and practice intersect. Part of my position was to investigate the role of international school partnerships and how they support intercultural competence and reduce prejudice in young people. I participated in an evaluation on that topic, and it was part of my master’s research, and got a real buzz from it. I loved doing that kind of work. Looking at the evidence, theories, and policy implications and then feeding that back into practice again; this idea of proceeding from a well-informed evidence base really appealed to me. Curiosity was the number one driver as I love learning new things and have a passion for evidence.”

In your own personal experience as a mother, a woman, and an educator, how did you navigate the pandemic having to home-school your daughters, and what effects did that time have in fostering your understanding of the advantages of play in learning?

“Initially I was curious as a researcher because I thought I might be able to trial some things that we’d been thinking and learning about. And again, it was this intersection between policy, practice, and research. I was thinking critically about our collective preparedness for the pandemic, like how schools were supporting parents and how teachers were being supported by their schools. Not only was I approaching this as an education researcher, but also as a mother with children in primary and high school. It was really interesting, but also scary because we were in a situation where we had to play teacher. What does that look like? What support was out there? What do we need to do? It really opened my eyes. I wrote an article for the ABC about my experiences and also journaled a number of features of home learning because it was such a unique experience.

“I wanted to document what I was witnessing, seeing, hearing, and discovering. It was a great opportunity for me to learn with my daughters. Just like for other parents, it showed me that learning happens all the time. Learning is not confined to a classroom. It is not confined to a lesson. It doesn’t have clear boundaries and premises. Children will learn and they will learn in any context. It might not be what you want them to learn and it might be outside a narrowly defined scope that many schools have, but the opportunities for learning are vast – whether inside or outside of the home, in all contexts. As a whole, we also realized that effectively supporting learners is very time consuming. I was lucky to have flexibility in my role. I could share the work with my husband and we could take turns being the home-schooling parent. That’s not the case for all families, so we felt incredibly privileged.”

Your Frontiers in Education article, “Learning Through Play at School – A Framework for Policy and Practice” (2022), co-authored alongside Dr. Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Chair of Learning through Play at the LEGO Foundation, and Dr. Amy Berry, Research Fellow in Educational Monitoring and Research at ACER, defends not only the benefits of play for student engagement and success, but also for children’s cognitive and social development. What do you see in society as the trend for more or less incorporation of play into standardized notions of learning and education? How is it important for there to be change?

“There is a strong desire, but I think the interest is often peripheral to policy and practice. There is action taking place at the edges, in assessment reform, and in particular progressive schools, but in the mainstream, it’s just not widespread. So it’s quite hard to capture any useful system-level data. The benefits of and approaches to foster learning through play at school are generally not well understood. There is an increasing interest by stakeholders because we know particularly after the pandemic, there is decreased engagement. We have had massive school refusal issues in Australia – large enough to launch a Senate inquiry – and around the world. Engagement in learning itself has decreased as a result of the pandemic, so learning through play is potentially a solution.

“On the flip side, there is this contradictory expression being used, namely ‘learning loss,’ which is a notion that children have lost learning during the pandemic. This has prompted a number of rapid, targeted responses in this area to regain ‘lost learning’ in the traditional areas of math and literacy. However, teachers and schools know that the bigger problem has, in fact, been the negative impact on children’s social and emotional skills during the pandemic. Learning through play can traverse both of these problems. It can support literacy and mathematical skills development and social-emotional skills development. The need for an understanding of this is really pressing and the right timing is now, in this post-pandemic world we’re in.”

At ACER, you had been working with the LEGO Foundation in Ukraine for three years on a study supporting teachers to implement playful learning in the classroom when Russian forces invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. What had you learned by that point throughout the study, and what happened at the time of invasion?

“I think we were all stunned for quite a few months. Leading up to that moment, we felt like we’d already overcome quite a bit with our study. We were implementing a brand new playful assessment we’d designed in 20 schools spread across the entire country, being chased by a wave of COVID-19, assessing in full masks, and we achieved that. We got our baseline and we had really interesting results about children’s literacy and social emotional skills in their first year of school.

“We got our professional learning program underway, which was an online and face-to-face professional coaching program. Teachers were partnered with a mentor, whom they worked with over the course of four semesters. Classroom videos were collected and teachers participated in online discussion forums and activities about the different aspects of learning through play. We felt pretty amazing having come this far.

“And then it was quite shocking when it happened. In fact, the morning of the invasion, we had a training session booked with our partner in Ukraine, and we canceled it at the last minute. Everybody was stunned because we still didn’t quite believe it was going to happen. It took us a few months to regroup. We were horrified and very worried for the safety of our colleagues. But fortunately, and the world has witnessed this, the Ukrainian people are incredibly strong and resilient. They are not going to let their education system fail.

“All 30 of our teachers across the 20 schools want to continue and are committed to participating in the program even though their schools have either been damaged or they themselves are not teaching in person currently. Some children are learning in modified learning environments, but they still want to keep going with this study of learning through play, which is remarkable and a real inspiration to us. It demonstrates the commitment of those who want to improve learning for all children against all odds. This is the embodiment of that. They are all very brave and notably, they are all women.

“We are very lucky to be able to pick up and continue with the study. We are planning to conduct another assessment next April with students in environments where it’s safe to do so and with safety and security protocols in place. We will be one of the only studies that actually has a pre- and post-conflict measure. This will be interesting from a research point of view, as we will be able to look at the difference between the assessment of literacy and social-emotional skills prior to the invasion against where they are now. This will help us to better target interventions.”

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4 focuses on delivering quality education by 2030, ensuring inclusive lifelong opportunities for everyone. COVID-19 has increased the global learning crises we are trying to address by leaving 24 million learners potentially without ever returning to school. Children in crises and refugees are being offered remote learning opportunities in an attempt to provide some normality to an extreme time of war. What do you believe is the part that teachers, educators, and educational figures have in supporting and shaping the lives of our children in the move towards a more sustainable future?

“That is a fantastic question. I’ve been working very closely with teachers and professional learning experts for quite a number of years now and I’ve learned a great deal from them. I also have my own limited experience as a teacher many years ago. We are often very critical of teachers’ practices and skills; that they need more and more training. However, there is a lot of research that finds short-term teacher training to be ineffective. What is needed is essentially a far more comprehensive and systemic approach to create an enabling environment for teachers. We should be surrounding them with all of the resources that are needed and lifting them up, not tearing them down.

“Teachers might believe that learning through play is the best way to support children. They may firmly believe that children need play. Yet they are working in an environment with its own constraints and demands, perhaps with a rigid curriculum or schedule that has to be followed, or a professional learning context that specifies a certain pedagogical approach. There are so many restrictions and barriers in the way of effective education reform. I think the idea of a positive, enabling environment to lift teachers up is really important. It isn’t cheap to fund high-quality, inclusive education. Adequate funding for education is an issue here in Australia as well as everywhere else. This makes it even more important that we develop a systemic approach to support teachers to be able to deliver on what we want for all children in education because they are the answer.”

Frontiers is a signatory of the United Nations Publishers COMPACT. This interview has been published in support of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all and United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

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