Research Briefs Spring 2023

The Faculty of Education has a proud tradition not only of producing great educators, psychologists and information studies professionals, but great research

Faculty of Education - 08 May 2023

The Faculty of Education has a proud tradition not only of producing great educators, psychologists and information studies professionals, but great research. Here are some recent stories you may have missed about UAlberta education researchers and the important work they do to improve teaching, learning, policy and professional practice in Alberta, in Canada and around the world.

Fyrefly a bright light of support for 2SLGBTQ+ youth

To appreciate the success of the University of Alberta’s Fyrefly Institute for Gender and Sexual Diversity, just look to the numbers.

Formerly known as the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services, the non-profit organization housed in the Faculty of Education serves more than 10,000 people in communities throughout Alberta — all participating in robust programming to help 2SLGBTQ+ youth grow into healthy, happy and resilient adults.

Just one of Fyrefly’s programs —supporting homeless gender and sexually diverse youth — is the Community Health Empowerment & Wellness Project (C.H.E.W).

It serves a population that feels unsafe in city shelters, where the youth are often bullied or beaten up. So they just “float” outside, sleeping wherever and whenever they can, says project co-ordinator Corey Wyness, known on the street as “the gay Yoda” for his role as the wise mentor who fixes everything.

“Last year C.H.E.W. had almost 6,000 touch points, where we met or welcomed somebody and did something for them,” says Fyrefly’s executive director, Glynnis Lieb.

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Alberta elementary students’ reading skills rebound with expert help

After declining in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic three years ago, the reading ability of a group of Alberta elementary students has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels following an intervention program designed by a University of Alberta literacy specialist and his team.

“This is the first time we have seen positive data for students’ performance following the pandemic, so there is reason for optimism,” says George Georgiou, professor in the Faculty of Education.

Georgiou has been measuring the reading performance of students in Alberta since 2008, while introducing an intervention program of evidence-based teaching practices to help those struggling to read.

When he tested students in the fall of 2020, he found that only the performance of those in grades 1 to 3 had declined since the pandemic began. The performance of older children in grades 4 to 9 had either remained the same or improved.

The skills of those in the lower grades were, on average, eight months to a year below grade level, says Georgiou, adding that remote learning and a lack of direct intervention for the struggling readers had taken a negative toll.

With his intervention program, consisting of face-to-face mentoring by teachers four times a week for half an hour, 80 per cent of the children improved their reading level by about a year and a half in 4.5 months. The program was field tested with 352 struggling readers in grades 2 and 3 from the Greater St. Albert Catholic, Black Gold, Fort Vermilion and Lakeland Catholic school divisions. The field testing was co-ordinated by Georgiou's doctoral student Kristy Dunn.

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Education professor encourages tomorrow’s teachers to reshape the system

Giselle Thompson is committed to disrupting classical academic ideas and, in the tradition of Black feminist writer bell hooks, does so by centring love and joy in the classroom. She puts care and concern for her students above all else, making sure they know they matter and are valued.

“Those things come first,” says Thompson, a Black-Caribbean feminist scholar and education professor at the University of Alberta. “Before assessments, before grades, before tests, before exams. “That’s how I disrupt my classroom from the jump.”

Thompson joined the Faculty of Education last July as assistant professor of Black studies in education, specializing in social justice and international studies. She began teaching last semester, and some of her students will go on to become teachers themselves.

One of 12 new tenure-track Black scholars hired last year as part of the U of A’s Black Academic Excellence Cohort Hire, Thompson says her own encounters with anti-Black racism in K-12 and post-secondary schooling have shaped her research and her teaching.

“I’m following in the tradition of previous Black scholars who have studied their own lived experiences,” she says.

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Leading advocate steadfast in vision that ‘no child is left behind’

In January of 2022, Canada rang in the new year with a landmark $40-billion settlement for Indigenous youth harmed by the country’s discriminatory child welfare system, which had severed them from their communities for decades.

Indigenous child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock — who first filed the human rights complaint against the federal government in 2007 — welcomed the historic settlement, but warned it was just “words on paper” and that “we have to see the government actually deliver this stuff.”

Sure enough, as the calendar turned to 2023, it appeared those words on paper were indeed in jeopardy. The agreement was rejected by the Human Rights Tribunal last October, after it ruled that the $20-billion cap for compensation of individuals would leave out many eligible survivors.

As the federal government ordered a judicial review of the settlement, the Assembly of First Nations grappled over what to do next.

That’s when Blackstock once again stepped into the national spotlight, imploring the assembly to make sure “no child is left behind.”

Since founding the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society in 1998, Blackstock has become Canada’s leading champion for the rights of Indigenous children and families. The society “works to ensure the safety and well-being of First Nations youth and their families through education initiatives, public policy campaigns and quality resources to support communities,” says Blackstock.

For the past decade, her tenacious advocacy has been fuelled by evidence-based research centred in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education. In 2012 she founded the First Nations Children's Action Research and Education Service (FNCARES) in partnership with her society.

“Over the years, we've spent a lot of time doing public education, equipping the average citizen with things they can do to make a difference in implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action,” says Blackstock.

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Open education resources offer benefits to both students and instructors

Library and information studies professor Michael McNally writes:

“Open educational resources or OER are high-quality, reusable teaching and learning materials that are made freely available. OER can take a wide variety of forms from videos to 3D printed objects, but one of the most common formats is textbooks. These materials, which are normally created by academics and in many cases peer reviewed, can often supplement or even replace traditional textbooks. But why spend part of your summer looking for an OER to replace a textbook?

The benefits of OER are numerous. From the student perspective, OER are freely available, ensuring that everyone can access course learning materials. Research has shown that students will forgo purchasing required learning materials because of cost. A 2017 study out of British Columbia surveyed 320 students and found that more than half had avoided purchasing a textbook in the past year. The University of Alberta’s Student Union notes that roughly one in seven students has selected courses based purely on textbook costs. Unsurprisingly, not purchasing required learning materials is associated with poorer academic performance.

OER are not lower quality resources. A rich empirical literature demonstrates use of OER is not associated with lower learning outcomes for students. Instructors using OER have also found pedagogical benefits such as being able to more easily customize materials and content. OER have been found to both inspire instructors and be a source of new teaching methods.”

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Feature image: Dr. Glynnis Lieb, Executive Director, Fyrefly Institute for Gender and Sexual Diversity (photo credit: Laura Sou)