Meet Issiah B. Burckhardt, REDI PhD scholarship recipient

Issiah B. Burckhardt has been awarded a scholarship to undertake a PhD project supervised by REDI members Dr Tebeje Molla and Professor Amanda Keddie. His project, ‘Supporting the Educational Engagement of Learners of African Heritage from Families with Refugee Experience: A focus on Curriculum and Assessment in School and Community Services’, is part of a larger Australian Research Council (ARC) funded four-year Future Fellowship project investigating the issue of school engagement among African heritage students from refugee backgrounds.

Here Issiah discusses his project and the path that led him to Deakin.

Issiah Burckhardt

Briefly describe your project and why you chose this topic.

With this research project we want to identify the unique needs of students of African heritage in terms of their educational engagement and attainment. As arguably one of our most vulnerable newly welcomed Australian populations, African refugee families and their children undoubtedly face tremendous challenges, and we want to establish how we can best support them in fulfilling their potential.

Depending on what we discover empirically and in the literature, we’d like to figure out the types of approaches best suited to supporting the educational attainment and engagement of this cohort of learners by investigating:

  • school curriculum and learning materials from an ‘Afrocentric’ perspective
  • critically analysing assessment content and media
  • evaluating community assets such as educational services to better understand what is working and identify areas for improvement from the view of key stakeholders.

I chose this topic because I am passionate about helping young people maximise their potential through learning. This research intends to discover ways to do that while being sensitive to the challenging circumstances faced by students of African heritage.

What is your background, what challenges have you faced to get to this point?

As an Australian with Afro-Caribbean heritage, my first-hand experience of school education was fraught with difficulty. I attended school in Australia and England, and faced the challenge of overcoming racial bullying and violence while learning to navigate adolescence and develop academically. This experience was ‘character building’ to say the least and something I’m grateful to have survived unlike some of my peers who were not so fortunate.

After I attained my Master of Media degree from RMIT University, I set my sights on expanding my capability in the field of education. I liked and followed the work of Alfred Deakin Professor David Boud who is the Director of CRADLE at Deakin so I approached him about a PhD. He recommended that I first do a Masters in Education to become more familiar with the methods and terminology of education research.

Professor Boud agreed to supervise my Masters, which developed a three-part approach to understanding the use and functionality of analytic rubrics in summative assessment, and set forth some design principles for policy makers, assessors and educators for reducing bias and noise in academic assessment and decision making (Analytic Rubrics in Summative Assessment: Are Learners Due and Upgrade?).

Thanks to Professor Boud’s guidance and my thesis assessors, I received a distinction for my Masters thesis. At the same time I completed the Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Teaching and Learning. The pressure was on, because I did this during the COVID lock-downs but I managed to complete both qualifications with the support of family and friends and the accommodating staff at Deakin.

In recent years I have worked as a ‘Technical Philosopher’ at education technology start-up Genius.Tools providing consultation services, designed assessment systems, and developed courses for a range of organisations including City of Port Phillip, Multicultural Centre for Youth and RMIT University.

Why did you decide to do your PhD at Deakin?

I had been interested in doing a PhD for some time and was very excited when I discovered a competitive international scholarship was being offered by Deakin to pursue a PhD focused on the school engagement of African heritage refugee students. The support I received from the faculty during my Masters and Graduate Certificate and the relationships I’d developed with so many talented, hardworking intellectuals reinforced my decision to apply for the scholarship.

The ARC funded project is led by principal investigator Dr Tebeje Molla, a scholar who’s work and courage I truly admire, and who is now my primary supervisor along with Professor Amanda Keddie. I look forward to connecting and collaborating with new colleagues at REDI.

How did you feel when you found out you were awarded a scholarship?

Being awarded the PhD scholarship was a watershed moment. After all the hardships I had endured in my life and the challenges of doing two postgraduate degrees during lock-downs I felt super empowered and validated. I was, and still am, ecstatic and it’s driving a profound hunger in me to keep learning and doing my best work. I am grateful to my family, friends and colleagues for their support and I am glad to be of service to this cause – researching how we can best support one of Australia’s most vulnerable cohorts of learners with the talented team at REDI.

What are you hoping to achieve with your PhD research?

African families who take refuge in Australia want the best for their children. As Australians we collectively benefit from all of our young people making the most of their potential. We would like to develop a nuanced understanding of the factors at play in supporting students of African heritage to be engaged and inspired academically so that they can enjoy the quality of life they deserve.

This research could inform policy and curriculum development, and school and community services with a clear understanding of the resources that are best suited to supporting learners in a way that suits them. I think the impacts on the well-being of the young people themselves and the economy as a whole could be significant.

Find out more about the ARC project: Improving school engagement of African refugee students.

You can keep up to date with Issiah’s PhD journey on his blog at


News 20 September 2023