Insights boosts the teacher education

The silver tree hanging around her neck stretches its branches just like the international network that brought Kathleen Mahon from Australia to Sweden. Kathleen is a teacher who started doing research in higher education pedagogy, and during a visit to Borås she was so taken by the university that she wanted to move here.

Thanks to the international research network Pedagogy, Education and Praxis (PEP), senior lecturer Kathleen Mahon came to Sweden. Leaning back in her chair, she sips on her coffee and searches for the words to describe the feeling when she visited the University of Borås for the first time.

Kathleen Mahon
: in Borås.
Family: Partner living with me here in Sweden. Siblings and parents living in Australia.
Works as: Senior Lecturer in higher education (with a focus on pedagogical practice) in the Department of Educational Research and Development.
Background: I grew up in Australia and moved to Sweden at the end of 2016.
Professional background: Secondary English teacher, and Outdoor Education Teacher, Teacher Educator. My research is mainly in teacher education and in teaching and learning in higher education.
Common theme in your career: My career has been as an educator, although I have worked in different educational contexts: secondary schools, Aboriginal community school, outdoor education centres, and universities. In all of these contexts I have become involved in professional learning of teachers (for example, through in-service programs as a head of department and deputy principal in schools, and higher education teaching and learning programs and initial teacher education in universities).
Favourite place in Australia: Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland.
Favourite place in Sweden: Any forest away from traffic, and especially after it has snowed.
Tips to Swedes wanting to travel to Australia: Allow time to travel around as the distances between places can be vast, and every state in Australia has its own unique beauty and character. The best time to visit Tasmania is in the Australian summer/Swedish winter. The best time to visit the desert or the far north is in the Australian winter/Swedish summer.

 “I was invited to a symposium in Borås in 2015. At that time, I was an editor of the book ’Exploring education and professional practice’ with colleagues in PEP. When I came here, I was taken by the environment and the sense of community at the university. It’s hard to describe but it was just something about the atmosphere… I met so many interesting people and I enjoyed the stimulating and critical conversations that went on for the time I was here.”

It did not take long; the year after she had the chance to come back on a short-term contract. And when it opened up with a permanent position, it felt natural to stay.

Kathleen Mahon is doing her research within the area of higher education pedagogy and the professional learning of teachers, with a special focus on how university conditions affect teaching and learning.

“I am interested in what promotes and prevents good teaching and learning in higher education. How do we create possibilities for learning and how do we sustain the arrangements that are conducive to learning and good teaching practice? How do we do it when it comes to existing conditions within the university? My research is close to practice and often in collaboration with teachers and students. I do interviews and classroom observations and have reflective conversations and discussions with the teachers. This means that I have an action research approach where researchers and, for example, teachers together formulate questions and critically examine practice.”

She explains that her research is generating insights into some of the physical, pedagogical, economic, social, and political barriers to learning in universities, but also what is needed to overcome and/or minimise barriers. A barrier could for example be large class sizes that affect possibilities for interaction between students, or a competitive working environment that can affect collegiality and people’s willingness to take risks.

“This is significant when we consider the important roles that universities play in society, for example generating knowledge to help solve some of the major problems of our time, preparing people well for various professions, and contributing to societal debate.”

At the moment, Kathleen Mahon is involved in two international projects related to praxis and education. One project is examining how praxis is enacted, enabled, and constrained in universities within different national contexts. Working with colleagues in five different countries (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Australia, and Colombia), the conditions for university teaching and learning are investigated using a participatory action research approach.

The international research network Pedagogy, Education and Praxis (PEP) has members from universities in Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Colombia, the Caribbean, Australia, and New Zealand. The network, which gathers researchers in pedagogical work, was established in connection to a conference in pedagogical work in 2005. The purpose of the network is to promote the exchange and generation of ideas and support research collaborations about education in different national contexts. A key aim is to inform educational practice and policy to bring about educational change.

In the last 10 years, the research of the PEP network has been guided by five research questions:
1. What is educational praxis?
2. How, in different national contexts, is good professional practice (‘praxis’) being understood and experienced by teachers?
3. How, in different national contexts, is good professional development (praxis development) being understood and experienced by teachers?
4. How, in different national contexts, are the changing cultural, social, political and material conditions for praxis and praxis development affecting the educational practices of teachers?
5. What research approaches facilitate praxis and praxis development in different international contexts?

“Each participating university has its own particular focus, based on the conditions and needs of that university and national context. However, comparisons of conditions across international borders are giving rise to many insights that are relevant to transforming conditions and teaching in all contexts.”

The other project involves an analysis of the research, consisting of over 200 publications, conducted by members of PEP since 2007.

“The research of the network has been guided by five research questions [see facts box], and now we are looking back systematically over that work to provide some comprehensive answers to the questions. The outcome of this process will be a book focusing on praxis and pedagogy in a range of educational contexts, based on the research outcomes and the theoretical contributions of the network.” 

You can tell that the network is, and has been, extremely important to Kathleen Mahon. She describes the group of approximately 50 people as a family.

“You cannot emphasise enough the importance of establishing collaborations across national borders in order to raise questions together about pedagogical work. For me, the focus of the PEP is directly related to my research, and through PEP I have the space to interact with other researchers who think about and research, similar questions in their context.”

Around her neck is a necklace with a tree that spreads its big crown.

“Trees have always meant a lot to me on a personal level, and they have also come to symbolise education for me. One Aboriginal elder once told me about education in her society in terms of a big tree, and she accentuated the importance of a solid, well-nourished foundation (the roots) as well as the community (the trunk). I liked this way of thinking about education. It was a simple yet powerful metaphor that relates to my research, where I try to understand how we promote, but unfortunately also sometimes hinder, growth through formal education.”

When I came here, I was taken by the environment and the sense of community at the university.

Kathleen Mahon was not set on becoming a researcher at first. She started working as a teacher and has also been a school deputy principal, before teaching teacher students at the university.

“Teaching at university made me interested in research. I started thinking about what it was in the environment and the conditions at the university that made us teach in certain ways, and how we could make it better.”

She takes a deep breath and states that her most fundamental motive behind her reason is precisely that: to make things better.

“We live in a society where we can do so much better, especially in terms of making our lives more sustainable, and our society more socially just. I want to contribute to the work that universities are doing to make society better. Part of this involves contributing to the professional learning of the people, students and colleagues alike, who are part of the university community, and the creation of conditions that support the learning and knowledge we need to do better!”

To help creating learning opportunities is important to Kathleen Mahon.

“There are people, both good researchers and writers, who make other people stop and think. I want to be one of them! A person who can reach others and encourage them to question what they really do and why. What happens when we do this? What are the consequences of what we do? And these questions are also concretely linked to my research. What do we do as a university, as academics, when we teach, and when we teach in particular ways? Why is it that we do these very things?”

Text: Johanna Avadahl
Photo: Suss Wilén, Ida Danell
Translation: Linda Lindstedt

Read more about

Kathleen Mahon

Pedagogical work

The network PEP (External link)