To Learn with Love by Erica Cervini
From an early age, Debra Hayes realised that she had a passion for learning. This enthusiasm to learn has underpinned her career from science teacher to head of education at the University of Sydney.
During her school holidays, Debra Hayes would take a short train ride from her inner-west home to the Sydney Museum. Once there, she would ask the staff for worksheets and then meticulously explore the exhibits so she could complete the sheet’s tasks.
“I just loved learning,” says Professor Hayes, the Head of the University of Sydney’s School of Education and Social Work.
She credits her mum, who became a widow when Professor Hayes was 11-years-old, with introducing her to the museum. She recalls her mum pointing to the huge whale skeleton hanging above their heads. “I was just amazed,” Professor Hayes says.
Her love of learning also extends to learning from others including her colleagues and Professor Hayes’ sister. Her sister, who is seven years older than Professor Hayes, has an intellectual disability. She has taught Professor Hayes many life lessons.
“I learned very early in life that what she was capable of didn’t really depend on her. It depended on the expectations of people around her,” she explains.
“When the conditions were conducive to supporting her to achieve the things that were important to her, they would happen. But when people placed limits on her and had low expectations of her, it was very unlikely to happen.”
Professor Hayes’ passion for learning and her observations about human behaviour have steered her teaching and research career. Her time as a science teacher for almost 10 years has also informed her research which has largely focused on conquering inequity in schools.
One defining moment in her teaching career occurred after reading a research article published by the Primary English Teaching Association of Australia comparing streaming and mixed ability classes.
“It was compelling. It was well written. It changed my practice. I became this advocate for mixed ability classes, which I knew from my own experience was a more desirable way of working with kids. And here I had the evidence for it.”
Another telling moment was when Professor Hayes started her secondary school teaching science career in the Disadvantaged Schools Program. “Being a teacher in the DSP meant that I was really influenced by that program, which was a deeply research evidenced-informed program,” she says.
These experiences helped motivate Professor Hayes’ to enter academia where she completed a master’s degree and then a PhD in 2000. Doing the higher degrees opened a world of research for her. Google Scholar reveals a plethora of research articles Professor Hayes has co-authored with colleagues on topics including productive school leadership, and alternative education and social justice in schools.
Professor Hayes’ research has also encompassed writing a 2019 biography with colleague Craig Campbell on Jean Blackburn, who fought for and developed socially just education policies. She was one of the key architects of the former Disadvantaged Schools Program that Professor Hayes taught in.
“I didn’t know her at the time. “Of course, I knew her reputation. Her influence, particularly on the Disadvantaged Schools Program, provided a deep understanding of issues related to inequity in education in both establishing the field of research in Australia, including the methodology,” Professor Hayes explains.
“Jean did not just recognise the problem, she contributed to the methodological research practices that you need in order to investigate the problem?”
Through her work, Professor Hayes is keen to write for a wide audience including teachers, parents and the general community. Her new book, Great Mistakes in Education Policy And How to Avoid Them in the Future, is written for a broader audience.
“We wanted policymakers, parents, anyone interested in education to feel like they could pick it up, read it and feel better informed about what’s going on in education and what direction we need to head on,” Professor Hayes says.
While the book, co-authored with Professor Hayes’ English colleague Ruth Lupton, focuses on policy mistakes, its aim is not to cast blame. Rather the book seeks to identify five education policies, why they need reforming and how this can be done. In particular, the authors examine the testing of students and ask what are students learning? How is the testing dominating students’ learning?
Debra Hayes is also the Professor of Education and Equity at Sydney University. The faculty’s commitment to social justice has resulted in an overhaul of teaching degrees at Sydney University. Next year, more subjects will be added that will have as their underpinning theme “learning from country”.
“I think what we’re committed to is preparing our students to work in the most challenging contexts,” Professor Hayes says.
“If we are preparing our students to work in the most challenging contexts where there are high levels of poverty, high levels of difference, then they’ll (graduates) will be good to work anywhere.
“When you come at it from that perspective, then we are preparing our students to work in settings where there are deep structural inequities.”
When Professor Hayes was growing up, she and her family would visit Grafton where her family is from. She would make a beeline for the courthouse where she could scour the huge leather-bound books that contained handwritten records of births, deaths and marriages. Professor Hayes spent copious hours in the Grafton Courthouse picking over the records to piece together her family history.
“So, anything that involves a bit of research and learning, I just love doing.”