Developing New Research Partnerships to Support Adult Learners from Refugee and Migrant backgrounds

Community Fellow Hayley Black and Dr Julie Choi from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education are developing new methods for teachers and graduate educators, which they are keen to share and expand with both of their professions.

Hayley Black is an English language teacher at Carringbush Adult Education, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to empower adult learners from refugee and migrant backgrounds living in the Melbourne inner suburbs of Richmond and Collingwood. The students that she works with are often new migrants at the very beginning of their education and vocational pathways.

Hayley was selected to join the Melbourne Social Equity Institute's Community Fellows Program in 2018. The program aims to meet the research needs of community organisations to conduct small research-related projects in collaboration with university-based researchers, and is a key initiative of the institute's Community Engaged Research Program.

Hayley set out to undertake a project on digital literacy teaching strategies, with a particular focus on addressing students' need when accessing online government services. Dr Julie Choi, a Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education with expertise in additional languages and multilingual learners, was assigned to be Hayley's Academic Mentor for the project.

The role of the Academic Mentors is to provide Community Fellows with guidance and support throughout the development and delivery of their research projects. The relationship is often similar to that of a supervisor and an Honours-level student undertaking a thesis.

But for Hayley and Julie, the Community Fellows Program project became an opportunity to become collaborators, equal partners in research as well as well as friends, with their working relationship continuing well beyond the original scope of the project.

In particular, it has made them both consider and develop new thinking and methods for teachers and graduate educators, which they are keen to share and expand with both of their professions.

Since the Fellowship project, together Hayley and Julie have presented their research at the American Association for Applied Linguistics Conference, delivered a workshop for VicTESOL (a professional association committed to promoting excellence in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), and co-authored an academic journal article on the affordances and limitations of collaborative research in the TESOL classroom (forthcoming).

For Hayley, "even though it wasn’t mandatory, I think being encouraged and supported to engage in published outputs such as the journal article, conference paper presentation, conference poster presentation, workshops for teachers and presentations for my colleagues at Carringbush Adult Education were significant because many teachers don’t have the opportunity to participate in these scholarly activities."

Working as collaborators has also provided new and important opportunities for Julie, who says she feels honoured to have been asked to be a Community Fellows Program Academic Mentor and to have the opportunity to work so closely with Hayley: "Working with her has really given me an opportunity to experience the possibilities of working with communities and teachers, and what collaborative work entails. Like Hayley, I’d like to think more about what’s involved in creating these productive, meaningful and transformative partnerships."

The Community Fellows Program was originally conceived to deliver small, practical, research projects for small community organisations within a set time frame. But Julie sees the potential impact of this new partnership as being much larger and would like to revisit the data and events from their project: "there would be many useful findings to bring to teacher education. Actually, this is how teacher education should operate, i.e., teacher educators and teachers working side-by-side, with expert guidance and ongoing dialogues, which is how I am now thinking about this concept ‘collaborative/dialogic mentorship’."

The key feature of successful community-engaged research is a high level of community decision-making about the purpose, design, conduct and use of research – it moves beyond seeing members of communities as research ‘subjects’ to enabling them to drive the research agendas that concern them.

Hayley reports that this was seen in practice in the way Julie approached their working relationship: "Julie as the expert and mentor could have easily taken over any one of our presentations but she didn’t. I was either the sole presenter or first presenter or encouraged to present with my colleagues. This may seem like a small thing, but as a result, I gained a sense of ownership over the various projects and felt like I was involved in something very exciting and working towards making real change.

"I felt like I was listened to in the way we negotiated the weekly syllabus which requires so much flexibility due to the very dynamic nature of teaching and learning in my sector. I also liked the way we were able to take up roles that draw on our strengths. I realize now there is a lot we can do for low literacy learners as an organisation, but we have to work together collaboratively and I’m not always sure we all know what that means.  I’m trying to practice some of the ways we worked together and making suggestions in meetings to involve more teachers and students in the decision-making processes.

Hayley reflects that the experience of being part of the Community Fellows Program and the collaborative relationship that grew from it has "has given me depth and ways of thinking much more complexly about teaching and learning, which I think has changed me both professionally and personally. I’d like to pursue small research opportunities in the future and continue to deepen my knowledge of research practices.

At the Melbourne Social Equity Institute, we are looking forward to watching the new and exciting ways this research collaboration will continue to grow. Watch this space!