Hélène Perrault, Dean of the Faculty of Education

Hélène Perrault: "This Faculty is an exciting place to be right now. Everybody’s talking about transdisciplinarity. This Faculty lives transdisciplinarity." / Photo: Owen Egan

Branching out, building bridges and uncovering buried treasures.

By Allison Flynn

In September 2008, when Dr. Hélène Perrault took over as Dean of the Faculty of Education, she brought with her a wealth of experience gathered since joining McGill as a Professor of Kinesiology in 1984.  An exercise physiologist with a research focus in cardiology and respirology, she’s been an Associate Member in the Respiratory Epidemiology and Clinical Research Unit at the Montreal Chest Institute since 2000. Between 2001 and 2005, she was a McGill Senator. In 2006, she became the Associate Provost (Planning & Budgets) and before that was Chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education for six years. She recently sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk about how her experience will influence her vision for a faculty that’s as diverse as her own varied background.

You’ve worn many hats since starting at McGill nearly 25 years ago.

I’ve had many roles at McGill. My trajectory has taken me through the Dept. of Kinesiology and Physical Education where my scientific work has looked at health practices and optimizing diagnosis and clinical management of chronic diseases through the use of exercise. Interestingly, I’ve been a professor, a Department Chair, an administrator, and I’ve served on a number of University committees.

The opportunity to work with the Provost more closely as Associate Provost (Planning & Budgets) was, as you can imagine, a tremendous experience in getting an overview of how the University functions and the various aspects of research, academic renewal, and strategic direction. It has also reinforced the fact that McGill is in such an excellent position as a leader in academia in Canada and internationally.

What was your first order of business coming on as Dean?

To listen. You have to understand the position you’re in before you can move forward. Of course, I’ve been in the Faculty for a long time, but having stepped out for the last two years, I had been an observer. I think the next step now is to reach out. It’s to let the community know what we stand for and to explain what we are all about … To explain the richness of this faculty, its diversity and to celebrate, I guess, the excitement that this diversity brings.

How have your different roles influenced your vision for the future of the Faculty?

It’s allowed me to optimize my strategies for positioning the Faculty of Education within the priorities of the University while highlighting its richness, bringing it greater visibility and helping to take it to the next level.  This Faculty is an exciting place to be right now. Everybody’s talking about transdisciplinarity. This Faculty lives transdisciplinarity. We have diversity in what we do. We have four academic units [Dept. of Educational and Counselling Psychology, Dept. of Integrated Studies in Education, School of Information Studies, Dept. of Kinesiology and Physical Education] that are very different, yet it’s a very rich interconnection.

So, the four departments complement one another?

Each of them touches on various aspects of human life … of applied human development.  We look at aspects of human development like cognitive function, neuroscience, emotional, social, psychological, and physical well-being. We look at life-long learning in all its aspects. All of this is within the same faculty. There are hidden treasures here.

Treasures? Could you elaborate?

Of course I can reveal some of them [laughing]. We have faculty members who have been developing research areas for the last 20 years or so. In the area of learning disabilities for example, we have neuroscientists and developmental biologists looking at trajectories for development that are world leaders in this field. The Dept. of Kinesiology is in a leadership position in developing some of the approaches and practices for utilizing exercise in treating and managing chronic diseases. We’re probably not tooting our own horn enough, but we’re in a leadership position. We’ve attracted new researchers who are making a huge difference. And this is true across all of our departments.

Does your background in kinesiology and the importance placed on physical well-being colour your approach?

Individuals need to take responsibility for their overall well-being – this includes mental, emotional and physical well-being along a continuum of health and throughout one’s lifespan. Our Faculty is perfectly placed for life-long learning and holistic approaches to overall well-being. My background has allowed me to combine my basic science training with clinical research and to practice interdisciplinarity. I’ve learned to listen to other areas, to understand, to enhance and foster links to other disciplines. I hope that we will be able to move on facilitating the implementation of those links by connecting to other faculties within the University, connecting links within the [local] community, and connecting to groups across the country. Perhaps this is something I can bring, being a facilitator.

Forging links within McGill is a priority then?

I think we need to be more visible within the McGill community. The Faculty of Education has ties with many faculties but they probably aren’t as widely known as they should be. We have very strong connections with the Faculty of Medicine at various levels – from medical education, to our connection through the learning disabilities areas, the neurosciences, child development, typical and atypical behaviours, all the way to the molecular and biological fields. We need to promote and continue developing links with the Faculty of Management through our work in health management and with the Faculty of Agriculture with respect to research in nutrition. We’re looking at enhancing our links with the Faculty of Science, for science education at all levels – elementary, secondary, higher education. We know that in the complex world that we live in we need to have a better understanding of all aspects of science to face the current challenges of a complex society.

What about outreach beyond McGill?

Outreach at all levels is important. We’re connecting with the greater Montreal community, to other university institutions, and contributing to projects that create partnerships and build bridges between the outside community and the educational experts in the Faculty. We’ve heard about the issue of drop-out rates. There are things we can do in partnership to improve the situation. We’ve embarked on regular meetings with the local school boards. We’re in line with the curriculum reform that Quebec is promoting and we are the leaders in trying to implement and optimize those changes. We look at it as an opportunity to enhance our contribution to the practices and to be in line with the community. That community includes the boards, our own student teachers and practicing teachers in the field. The same thing goes in extending our expertise to the larger Quebec and Canadian communities. Internationally, of course, our leading researchers are attracting the international students, and [the attention of] international leaders.

What’s in the works in terms of raising the Faculty’s visibillty?

There are a number of initiatives. One is happening just next week. We’ve organized a one-day transdisciplinary research training workshop to reflect on the issues of transdisciplinarity – its advantages, its opportunities and the barriers that exist in big institutions like ours in implementing this approach. So, we identified a number of people in the research community, both academics and those in policy positions from the major funding agencies, to share their experiences on the subject. We’re inviting all of McGill’s academics because I think that collectively we can learn from this and facilitate initiatives that might allow us to move a little further and a little bit more quickly in the future.

We are also exploring the possibility of establishing an institute for applied human development and well-being at McGill.

Is this a long-term plan?

Yes, we’re in the feasibility study phase. We’re exploring. Its core would be within Education, but it would connect with partners in Medicine, Management, Science, and Agriculture – those faculties where we have ongoing research collaborations and some known common interest for graduate student work. We certainly have some elements in place that make us think that it’s viable. But we need to learn more about what kind of structure and what kind of activities it could sustain.

Saying that you like to keep busy is an understatement.

We’re never too busy to do interesting things.

How do you squeeze exercise in?

This is a priority. You’d be amazed at the number of ideas that come to mind when you run up Mount Royal. And I run slowly, so I have more time for those ideas to come up.

Hélène Perrault’s first job

I shredded dossiers – patient files, in the archives of a Montreal hospital. I sat in a small windowless room filed with patient files. I think I was 16 or 17 at the time. I thought it was the greatest job because in between the shredder time, I could look at these patients files and I’d get excited about the diseases I was reading about. I was excited about being in the health environment. I was very proud of my job. I felt like I was contributing to the life of that hospital and I never regretted it. It made me want to learn more about what I was reading.