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Reflecting on what happens in the classroom and using current research are keys to making good decisions about students’ learning, says Mary Ryan.

Member profile by Erica Cervini

When she was a young girl, Mary Ryan became captivated with the idea of explaining things to others because of the influence of her grandmother, who was a teacher. This experience inspired Professor Ryan to become a primary school teacher.

In the classroom, she was drawn to the students who were a “bit on the edge”.  Professor Ryan, Head of the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University, related to these young students largely because she grew up with six brothers, two of whom were a “bit of a handful”.

Her experience of working with children who might feel disengaged from school encouraged her to reflect on the elements that help to produce a positive relationship between teacher and student, and sowed the seeds for her later research on reflexivity.

Professor Ryan recalls that showing an interest in the primary school students was a key to engaging with them.

“As soon as you’re interested in students and you engage with them about their lives, it is so amazing what a difference that makes,” she says. “Research now shows that that’s true – it’s the relationship the student has with the teacher that actually makes a difference to their achievement.”

For students who are struggling at school, that relationship becomes super important, Professor Ryan adds.

Her experience of teaching primary school students and the students “on the edge” has motivated Professor Ryan over the years to undertake internationally-recognised research on how changes in teaching practices can transform lives. An important ingredient of this research is the idea of reflexivity.

“Reflexivity is one of those theories which really helps you to think about how you make decisions?” Professor Ryan says. “What are you taking into account? When you make decisions, are those going to be the sorts of decisions that are going to change things for the better? Are you going to have a better impact on students?”

Professor Ryan explains that the decisions are made after looking at current research, gathering data in the classroom and weighing up the evidence. This evidence, she adds, can be used to help individual students.

One area she has applied the idea of reflexivity is to the teaching of literacy, and how teachers and students use and create texts in the context of teaching and learning. Professor Ryan says there is “no magic formula” for teaching students literacy because no one strategy will suit all students.

“You move into a different classroom, a child has a different background, different skills and needs, there are different policies, the parents have different attitudes. All of those things are always emerging in any context.”

Professor Ryan is currently the primary chief investigator of a project looking at improving classroom writing in the primary school years. The aim is to build teachers’ reflexive decisions and practice, and to improve students’ writing achievement. It is expected that new writing approaches will be developed when the project finishes in 2021.

Professor Ryan’s research on reflexivity is also having an impact on shaping teacher education courses at Macquarie University. She says students need be taught how to be reflexive, adaptable and resilient because they have to continue learning throughout their teaching careers.

“You can’t just give them a whole program of information and skills at the beginning and then expect them to have what they need for a career, “Professor Ryan says. “It’s just not possible. It’s too much.”

To help education students become conversant with the skills and attributes needed throughout their teaching careers, Macquarie has embedded the “five Rs” framework within their education programs. The five Rs include resilence inside and outside the classroom, reflexivity in teaching practice, [being] responsive to students, ready to learn and research engaged.

Professor Ryan says when these attributes and capabilities are taken together, they point to students being “professionally-ready” not just “classroom-ready”.

“It’s more of a sense that as a professional in the profession of teaching, it’s not just about being in the classroom, it’s about your professional learning. It’s how you get engaged with colleagues [and] with communities.”

Professor Ryan is also the primary chief investigator of a project on helping preservice teachers to teach diverse learners. Specifically, the team is examining how to develop education students’ reflexivity and epistemic cognition to enable them to work with diverse learners.

From the time Mary Ryan sat with her grandmother listening to her stories about teaching, she has wondered how people learn. Professor Ryan also wants her graduates to ask questions throughout their careers.

“You need teachers with an inquiry stance,” she says.

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