Professor Kathy Mills awarded for excellence

Professor Kathy Mills has been awarded the Vice-Chancellor’s Staff Excellence Award for Excellence in Research and Research Partnerships.

A leading scholar globally, Kathy has won five ARC Research Fellow grants over her career, and recently won one of only two Future Fellowships awarded for education research partnerships nationally (2019-2022).

For many years, Kathy has been a passionate ambassador on the role of multimodal and digital technologies in improving literacy and other educational outcomes for students.

She has been credited for forging innovative international and national partnerships with government, industry and Indigenous communities, and creating a sustainable research impact that empowers students and supports enriched teacher pedagogies.

Previously a primary school teacher, Kathy decided during the 1990s to start pursuing her research interests into the different ways children learn to read and write, and exploring ‘multi-literacies’.

“Researchers in the field were starting to see that literacy and communication is almost always mediated by forms of digital technology - whether it is looking at information on a website, or on our mobile phone,” she said.

The digital world relies on multimodal communication – often combining text, imagery, animation, games, audio and video presentations.

“We began to realise that we need to teach kids how to be active participants in this digital culture, to prepare them for the future world of work,” says Kathy.

Sustainable research impact

According to Kathy, an empathetic approach is the key to fostering effective research partnerships. Empathy was especially important when she worked through a four-year collaboration with an independent Indigenous school in QLD in recent years.

“You can never completely put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but you can listen. So I did a lot of listening to their community, their stories and what’s important to them, and I learned so much from that.”

The school wanted to explore multimodal ways to boost student literacy skills, with an emphasis on Indigenous Australian ways of knowing and being.

Kathy says Indigenous traditions are also multimodal in different ways: “Indigenous dances for example, there’s something being communicated in the clothing worn, in the dance steps, in the instruments played – so this is a multimodal story also.”

To explore new ways of learning literacy, Kathy and a media artist worked alongside the teachers of the middle-primary classes to help children tell stories about the things they care about, using digital production methods.

The kids loved the activities. As word about the positive effect on them spread throughout the school, the principal asked Kathy to expand the project and work with teachers from prep to Year 8.

“Some of the products the kids made - whether it was film, a comic, animation or an IPad digital story - some them were really astounding,” she said.

“One group filmed a whole-class rap, about being people of the First Nation and their values such as family, land and culture.”

Kathy says the collaboration with the school principal and vibrant Indigenous community really deepened her own understandings. She learned not to underestimate culture – to see it as not just something on the periphery, but instead as the central platform from which learning can be built.

Improving educational and emotional outcomes

Another recent project for Kathy aimed to help primary school students build emotional expression skills through using digital and virtual-reality technologies. The project brought in a concept artist and got kids creating comics, animations and creative pieces featuring emoticons. This innovative collaboration was also supported by Big Picture Industries’ Inc., who run digital imagery programs, and ACU’s Professor Len Unsworth.

“We were working with a school in a low socio-economic (SES) community, where children often need more support with being able to express their emotions effectively,” she says. “Having experienced more adversity in life, they often need more resilience.”

Kathy says students from low SES backgrounds commonly experience poorer educational outcomes in general.  In addition, students’ ability to express emotions can also affect their emotional wellbeing, confidence at later stages of school, and long-term life outcomes.

The creative activities enabled students to play around with different mediums and access new pathways to learn the grammar and language of emotions, so improving their ability to describe how they’re feeling.

Kathy says the increased emphasis on tests such as NAPLAN in recent years has sometimes meant that the emotional development of a child is overlooked.

“Now with COVID-19, there has been more realisation that emotions are important – there are worries about the increase in mental health issues. So we are already on that agenda, and students need these skills now more than ever.”

Professor Kathy Mills

Professor Kathy Mills

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