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Indigenising Education

By R D Wood

In today’s public discourse education is often instrumentalised. That is to say, many of the debates see it as an investment that needs to come good in order to be worthwhile. And indeed it is. As Fabrizio Carmignani writes, ‘an extra $1 of education expenditure increases Australian GDP by $21’. If that is not a good investment I do not know what is. Generally though, when politicians and commentators speak about education it is often merely a stepping-stone rather than a place to dwell in for its own sake. It is a qualification for something else, hence an instrument. The reason for being educated however might not be primarily because it will get you a better job and more money or because there will be some payoff down the road. We need to change this idea of education because the reason for being educated is that it is good in and of itself. It doesn’t have to offer more than what it already does.

One way in which this is particularly acute is in regards to people who live in remote communities. There is, of course, a growing Indigenous middle class in Australia and this form of social mobility is to be encouraged. But there also exists a sizeable gap between educational outcomes in suburbs and cities, and, remote and regional communities. This is one gap that is spoken of when ‘we’ aim to close it. There is an expectation that remote Indigenous people assimilate to an Australian standard, which is a contested ideal in and of itself, and one that many non-Aboriginal people have difficulty with also. But, if your community has been changing and growing in its own way for a very long time, why would you respond to a confused educational system that does not listen properly? In other words, English and its lessons have to make a case for themself precisely because many people already speak Tiwi or Kriol or any other such language that is more fitting for their own lives.

Rather than problematize Aboriginal communities a priori and see them as something needing to change, we could realise that this is a dialogue, that ‘we’ stand to gain as much as ‘them’ when that dialogue is open. In that way there is an awful lot of teaching that needs to happen cross-culturally, and the government’s role might not be about forcing communities to reach some goal they deem to be worthy. If you simply want to learn how to catch a fish then maybe NAPLAN is not a good use of your time. Why wait until retirement for a truly reconciled life?

This means engaging with people on the ground so that they can live good lives as they meaningfully define them. For me, that involves reading because I think reading helps make a good life. For others, that might involve accounting because knowing how much money you are owed gives you a sense of responsibility and engagement. The fundamental philosophical point however is that we need to listen to people and recognise their actions as expressions of themselves that might best serve them. Truancy is only a problem if you expect forcing people to come to school will make them better people. Lore and law systems are strong in a great many places and people could feel proud not only of resisting colonial influences but for also maintaining their traditions in an autonomous sense.

One area though that needs to be firmly engaged with is bilingual teaching. In that way, we need to encourage care for and engagement with Indigenous languages, which is something Victoria and New South Wales are struggling towards with revitalisation and teaching efforts. This is not only for students who learn Marra or Ngarla in their family home. It is also about teaching community teachers, mainly white, about how to interact in a specific and appropriate way. We need then a ‘hybrid education system’ that can speak both kinds of languages. And not as a shallow attempt to engage with both in a half-hearted way, but as a thorough teaching praxis and methodology that shows us reinvigorated ways of conceiving relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

At the level of content, we need to promote local knowledge within a national framework at every level of education. Australian children need to learn Australian history, Australian languages, Australian literature. We might need to ask then: what is Australian? Turnbull and his conservatives might like to claim that Edmund Barton is a great Australian, and of course he is. The black armband brigade might propose that we need to learn about Jandamarra, and well we should. We can study them both. In both cases, the emphasis needs to be on local content within a cohesive national framework. We have to get the balance right. That might mean Yolngu language on Yolngu country or Vietnamese in Cabramatta. Indeed, the Schools First initiative talks at length about the virtues of school autonomy but this needs to be better reflected in curriculum. For example, of the fifteen possible texts for the Victorian Certificate of Education ‘English Literature’ subject in 2016, only four are Australian. It is not much better in each of the other states either. That proportion needs to be reversed so we can support local publishers and authors too, so we can recognise our Indigenous roots and resist the bland importation of multinational educational tools. That way we might come to a better, higher form of education that is suitable to the country itself.



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  1. Terry2

    Interesting article : let me just give a comparison with one of our near neighbours, Papua New Guinea.

    Children and adults in a Papuan coastal community with which I am familiar generally have a working knowledge of and can communicate in four languages : Melanesian tok-pisin (pidgin English) the lingua franca of PNG generally : Motu the language of the Papuan people : ples-tok (place talk) the language unique to that geographical area and generally spoken within the village community and of course English, the language of commerce and education and taught and spoken exclusively in school.

    My point being that the various indigenous languages are flourishing to a greater or lesser extent depending on their value to the community hence ples-tok inevitably is diminishing as communities urbanise. However, English is the priority for education as it is the international language of commerce and communication and must receive a priority in PNG as it should in Australia.

  2. James Mason

    I’ve worked in many Aboriginal communities and have seen the many issues facing our First Nations People … The empathy and understanding in this article is the best worded and best explained I have ever read … many thanks RD. .. spot on !!!

  3. Matters Not

    Great article that again visits some of the important issues in the ‘education’ debate. This simple sentence:

    If you simply want to learn how to catch a fish then maybe NAPLAN is not a good use of your time.

    highlights the dilemma. Do we stand back and allow children to learn only what they are interested in at the time? If so, then we will certainly have much better fish grabbers, spear throwers, trackers, skate board riders and so on. On the other hand, other possible (important) areas for development will suffer. Never met an 11 year old who spontaneously wanted to learn Pythagoras’s theorem. For that to happen, outside influences were needed. First issue, do we sit back and allow children to make all the choices about what is ‘valuable’ now, and in the future, or do we intervene? I suspect that most would argue for some intervention. Indeed, I can’t think of any society or culture where outside influences aren’t consciously brought to bear – to determine the general course of a child’s ‘education’. The ‘degree’ of intervention of course will always be debateable.

    The second issue deals with the ‘purpose’ of education, broadly defined. Again it’s not clear cut. Freire summed it up nicely:

    Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world”

    If you agree that ‘education’ ought to embrace the practice of freedom , then what skills, attitudes and values ought to be developed to allow that to happen? What do they need to escape the limitations of their own backgrounds?

    Decisions, decisions. Value judgements galore. This article covers lots of ground and highlights the issues very well.

  4. Kaye Lee


    I used to refer to the more boring parts of maths that I was forced to teach my students as the housework – you don’t have to enjoy it but you do have to do it, and when we get that out of the road we can move on to more interesting stuff. So yes, we must give some direction, but we also must interest them, inspire them, make them curious, help them to enjoy learning rather than suffer it. If we make them do seemingly irrelevant stuff (with the view of keeping options open), we must also respect their needs and interests and combine it with stuff they do find relevant.

    PS Pythagoras is NOT boring though I do concede that people may have to be led to share my enthusiasm

  5. Matters Not

    KL, once visited a class where an Aboriginal youth could recite Pythagoras’s theorem word perfect but couldn’t accurately pick up ten (10) pencils when asked to so do. No concept of base, height and hypotenuse either- but he could recite …

  6. wam

    ‘bi-lingual teaching’ to an old cynic is already in every community school a monolingual teacher and a multilingual aid.
    I took 4 community Aborigines to Cobden in Vic.
    One of the things I took was Aborigines singing the round ‘fires burning’ and I played it too the vic children their reaction was a great shock. Instead of joining the laughed and ridiculed the ooga booga sound.
    Australians have a poor empathy for roman based languages but none for the completely foreign sounds of Asia and Aborigines

  7. Kaye Lee

    MN, that kid’s teacher gave him a broom and didn’t teach him how to hold it let alone do the housework.

  8. wam

    Recite is the education of religion and of Aboriginal culture. QED the bible exchange for???
    Recite is controlled and concentric
    Recite is the development of knowledge from person to person
    Recite is a skill for teaching
    Recite is a skill for all children in all languages
    Language that is unrecognised by the system doesn’t exist
    the system recognises english everthing else is foreign
    Should Guyula be able to speak in his language in the NT parliament
    Should all teachers have language lessons when teaching in a community

    ever heard of clapp hamann and lang??
    IP Lang taught me maths and I taught with Keith.who visited my school as an inspector and took my class the least able year 9 mix of urban and community Aborigines with 3 wild whites for an hour on linear programming he had little teams of three and piles of graph paper. they had a ball with company names, ingredients, products and profits.
    I had seen the Aborigines playing cards ticaround/kunz and know you don’t need arithmetic to play a very complicated arithmetic game
    a 40 card pack(no court cards
    )three pots
    2 cards digit value 0 wins 9, 8, etc a tie jack pots either to next game 2 card or into 3 card
    3 cards value 9 wins 8, 7 etc
    5 cards 3 cards total 0 and then 0 wins, 9, 8 etc
    How do little kids with no counting skill plays a game that missionaries couldn’t understand??Because the have maths skills beyond the teacher’s ken and reciting is important.

  9. Kaye Lee

    wam, I agree reciting is important when passing on history and cultural knowledge. I did not consider that when talking about the rote learning we inflict on kids. You make an important distinction.

    And yes, I have seen kids do amazing maths in all sorts of situations when made relevant to them. One kid’s father was a bookie. He didn’t understand fractions at all until I made them betting odds and he was astounding then. Another kid’s father owned the local fruit shop. He couldn’t do algebra and equations at all until I made them a bill at the fruit store that he had worked at for many years – quick as a lolly by golly.

    Kids are amazing people if you allow them to be. Our job is to make a safe place and to give them the tools they need to be amazing.

    And also to, as you rightly point out, respect, appreciate and preserve the burden of inherited knowledge that many people carry.

  10. Michael Taylor

    Given that there was no written language in traditional Aboriginal culture (though ‘art’ would be the exception), ‘reciting’ was all the go in an oral society. And they were damn good at it. Throuh stories handed down through the generations in one of the islands in the Torres Strait relating to when the ancestors first came to the island, anthropologists ‘calculated’ that they were first inhabited 12,000 years ago. It was many years before the archaeological evidence scientifically put a date on the arrival of the first inhabitants to the island. It was 12,000 years. Like I said, they were damn good.

    If anybody wants me to provide a link to that, sorry, but I don’t have one. It was handed down to me orally by one of my lecturers in my Aboriginal Archaeology class at uni.

  11. Matters Not

    Me, I have no problem with ‘reciting’ or ‘rote learning’, but I would hope, that when it comes to ‘education’, it comes after understanding . For example, I use mnemonics all the time if I really want to remember anything – but also understand.

    As for ‘cultural transmission’, that’s a separate issue. And that includes ‘religion’.

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