In 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd released his ‘Closing the Gap’ report in which he acknowledged that ‘Too many Indigenous Australians experience unacceptable levels of disadvantage in living standards, life expectancy, education, health, and employment. Education is seen as the key to breaking the cycle of indigenous disadvantage by creating an informed indigenous community with intellectual and technological skills.
But many indigenous students are failing and drop out of school if they see school as a waste of time. Issues as absenteeism and suspensions result in many students falling back into unemployment and poverty. What can teachers do to break this cycle of indigenous disadvantage?
Indigenous students face many challenges but the biggest challenge they face is exclusion in education. Traditionally education has been focused on Anglo-Saxon perspectives and ways of knowledge, often excluding or marginalising Aboriginal perspectives. Nola Purdie and Sarah Buckley point out that lack of recognition of Indigenous culture and history in schools is a significant cause of non-attendance in schools (Purdie & Buckley).When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students do not see their own culture valued in schools, then they will not feel included in education.
But many of the problems in schools as misbehaviour, poor grades, absenteeism and non-attendance have been attributed by teachers to the disadvantage of the students. Noel Pearson warns us that teachers are susceptible to the use of a student’s background and their disadvantage as an ‘alibi’ for school failure (Pearson, 2009). When we begin blaming student’s disadvantage, we develop what Neil Harrison calls a ‘deficit discourse’ in which we see Aboriginals as ‘victims’ of their disadvantage (Harrison, 2011).
Teachers need to change this attitude by setting high expectations for students. Chris Sarra believes that teachers can promote high expectations when they challenge absenteeism and misbehaviour by visiting parents to find out why students did not attend school and make the effort to explain to parents the importance of education. Teachers can promote high expectations when they also reflect on our own classroom practices to consider what they might need to do differently to improve student learning (Sarra, 2011). We need to create a positive classroom environment where students feel culturally safe and without any fear of rejection, but feel encouraged, respected and diversity is welcomed.
If we are to address problems of misbehaviour and absenteeism, we need to develop a learning environment that recognises Aboriginal Culture. Mick Dobson notes that schools are seen by students not as an integral part of Aboriginal communities but as an entry into an alien environment (Dobson). The reasons for this are because Aboriginal students do not see their own culture reflected in textbooks or in the learning experiences provided by teachers. Neil Harrison recognises that many Aboriginal students are not convinced that school is worthwhile because they cannot see themselves in the pictures of the future painted for them by teachers (Harrison 2011).
To promote inclusion we must develop a cultural awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and perspectives. We can begin this by recognising and celebrating Aboriginal culture and history in ceremonies as “Acknowledgement of Country” recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the traditional custodians of the land. Participation in events as NAIDOC week will also allow students to not only appreciate Aboriginal culture but to celebrate diversity and help to prevent the racist stereotypes that develop due to ignorance of Aboriginal culture and history.
Keeping students engaged in learning means that what we teach has to be relevant and meaningful so that students can see clear links between their lives and the learning. For learning to be meaningful, Students should learn in the context of their local community. The NSW Quality teaching model recommends that pedagogy that promotes intellectual quality also requires that teachers link the work of their students to personal, social and cultural contexts outside the classroom. For example, teaching on a subject as the First World War I would use local community examples as the cenotaph or war memorial.
Inclusion also means embedding Aboriginal perspectives in what we teach. The NSW Board of Studies has made it mandatory that Aboriginal perspectives are taught across the curriculum. Using the example of the First World War, I would incorporate indigenous perspectives by using resources such as ‘Too Dark for the Light Horse’ which tells us about the stories of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders during the First World War. This resource is helpful as it not only allows students to explore Aboriginal perspectives of going to war, but it also provides an insight into issues that impact Aboriginal Australians today such as racism and prejudice. It also allows students to see that Aboriginal history did not end at 1788, but that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders continue to play an important part in Australian society and history.
As teachers we also need to demonstrate a cultural sensitivity in which we avoid making assumptions. The knowledge that we transmit to students is from our own non-aboriginal perspectives. One assumption is that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are from the same group or ‘nation’ which is incorrect as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are a diverse group of nations scattered around Australia. Teachers must display a cultural sensitivity in the materials that we choose that may portray what Colin marsh describes as a ‘museum approach’ to Aboriginals culture as primitive and ‘noble savages’.
We also need to be sensitive to different learning techniques. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have strong oral traditions of passing down stories and knowledge verbally, this has led to weaknesses in literacy and numeracy skills. Aboriginal students may also speak more than one dialect and speak English as a second language teachers have to be careful not to make assumptions about Aboriginal student’s skills. We need to distinguish between language difference and learning difficulties, and the cultural differences in protocols and behaviours (Hanlen, 2011).
If we are to help our students learn then we need to look at student-centred classrooms and learning techniques that encourage learning. It is recognised that Aboriginal students learn best by doing rather than by theory. Neil Harrison recognises that students learn by imitating others (Harrison 2011). Teachers need to differentiate their teaching methods which include avoiding the overuse of textbooks and provide authentic learning experiences which deal with real life situations or themes that students can relate to. But this also requires that teachers encourage learning strategies as collaboration or group work where students can work together on projects rather than independently where they feel isolated from other students.
To teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students literacy and numeracy skills, Noel Pearson suggests that explicit phonics-based reading instruction is imperative for Aboriginal students (Pearson, 2009, p53). Neil Harrison suggests that although the aim is to get students to read the whole text and then to focus on how letters and sentences fit together, with Aboriginal students it is important to avoid ‘big jumps’. Teachers should build the story or text in smaller, graduated steps so that the meaning is ‘negotiated and clarified’. By explaining words and spelling them out with students, teachers can scaffold reading material that helps students to grasp the meaning of words and construct sentences to help students develop confidence in their own learning ability.
If we are to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage, then it has to be with the collaboration of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. In outlining what works for closing the school completion gap for indigenous students, Sue Helme and Stephen Lamb recognise that the involvement of the indigenous community in planning and providing education. In assessing what does not work, identify problems as a one size fits all and ‘top down’ government approach that ignores community input (Helme & Lamb, 2011).
Involving the local community in all aspects of education as curriculum planning and school events provides the local community with a voice in education. If we are to teach Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, then the Aboriginal community have the right to be consulted. The NSW Board of Studies recognises that if when teaching Aboriginal perspectives that it is vital that local Aboriginal history and culture be included (NSW Board of Studies, 2008).
The most important partners in education are the parents of Aboriginal students who have enduring relationships with their child. Because parents want to see their children succeed at school, parents are important stakeholders in their child’s education and are useful allies to teachers as parents will want to know if there are any problems at school as misbehaviour and absenteeism. Parents can also play an important role in helping to address learning problems such as reading. For example, if students are having hearing problems as Otitis Media or ‘Glue ear’ teachers should collaborate with parents to develop a support plan for students learning.
As including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the classroom is mandatory, it is important to include the Aboriginal community in all steps of curriculum planning and events celebrating Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal Elders can play an important part in passing knowledge about Aboriginal culture and perspectives in the classroom particularly about sensitive issues as the stolen generations, native title as deaths in custody. As Aboriginal Elders are well respected in the Aboriginal community, involving Aboriginal Elders allows students to see that Aboriginal culture is valued. However teachers need to contact Aboriginal representatives through appropriate channels. The NSW Department of Education has Aboriginal support staff as an Aboriginal Education Worker or an Aboriginal Education Officer who have access to resources and who know the appropriate people to contact.
I think if there is one thing to be gained from the research is that if we are to close the gap on indigenous disadvantage, then we have to begin to stop looking at Aboriginal Australia as separate from mainstream of Anglo-Saxon Australia. For too long, Aboriginal Australia has been treated as apart or as historic Australia. Students need to see that there are not two Australia’s but one Australia where students are proud of their Aboriginal identity.
But embedding Aboriginal perspectives should be a natural process where we instinctively accept diversity in our classrooms and we acknowledge that there are perspectives apart from non-aboriginal perspectives of the world. Including Aboriginal and other perspectives or world views should not be forced but that teachers should look at all topics from other points of view.
Teachers need to develop a cultural awareness in the classroom. Teachers play an important role in student perceptions of education. We need to create classroom environments that are positive, encouraging, welcoming and appreciate and recognise diversity. Students are intuitive enough to realise when teachers appreciate them or reject them. Teacher attitudes contribute greatly to students attending school and feeling included in the classroom.
Research shows that it is interaction with the local community, parents and elders that helps teachers in the classroom. If we are going to teach Aboriginal perspectives, then we need to involve Aboriginal community to make real connections between the classroom and students. As Aboriginal Elders and parents play an important role in our student’s lives it makes sense to involve them in teaching and issues inside the classroom.
But if we are to close the gap, teachers must look at themselves and ask ourselves how can we help to close the gap, to make education fun and relevant for students. If our students are to be active and informed citizens as decreed by the Melbourne Declaration of 2008, then we have keep our students engaged in school so that education can succeed in providing students with the skills for the future to close the gap in indigenous disadvantage.
Australian Government, Department of Education, Science and Training ‘What Works: The Work Program. Core Issues – Student Engagement, Attendance, Participation and belonging’
Australian Government ‘Closing the Gap on Indigenous Disadvantage: the Challenge for Australia’, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, February 2009.
Australian War Memorial ‘Too Dark for the Light Horse’ Australian and Torres Strait Islander People in the defence forces.
Dobson, Mick ‘To the Front of the Bus’ Closing the Gap Conference in ‘Around the Globe’ Monash Institue for the study of Global Movements, Vol 7, No.1 Autumn 2010, pp7-13
Harrison, Neil ‘Teaching and Learning in Aboriginal Education’, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2011
Helme, Susan & Lamb, Stephen ‘Closing the school completion gap for indigenous students’, Closing the gap clearing house, Resource sheet no.6, January 2011.
Howard, Damien ‘Family, Friends and Teachers: Why Indigenous Students Stay at or Leave School’, the Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, Volume 30th, Number 2 (2002), accessed 12th August 2012.
Hanlen, Wendy ‘Teaching Indigenous Australian Students’ in ‘Inclusion in Action’ edited by Phil Foreman, third edition, Cengage Learning Australia Pty Ltd, 2011
Marsh, Colin ‘Studies of Society and Environment: Exploring the Teaching Possibilities’, Published by Pearson Education Australia, 2008
NSW Board of Studies ‘Working with Aboriginal Communities: A Guide to Community consultation and protocols’, Revised edition 2008
NSW Department of Education and Training ‘Quality Teaching in NSW public schools’ May 2003
Pearson, Noel ‘Radical Hope’ Quarterly Essay 35, 2009
Purdie, Nola and Buckley, Sarah ‘School attendance and retention of Indigenous Australian students’, Closing the Gap Clearing House, Issues Paper No.1, September 2010
Sarra, Chris. ‘Time for a High Expectations Relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia’, Keynote address on 18th October 2011 at the Strong Start Bright Futures Conference, Darwin http://chrissarra.wordpress.com/