AARE conference

“How are the children?” One powerful question to ask in early childhood education

A presentation from the Early Childhood SIG at #AARE2021 with Deborah Pino-Pasternak, Claire McLachlan and Dimity Franks.

The Masai tribes of Africa use the traditional greeting “Kasserian Ingera,” which translates to “And how are the children?” This greeting demonstrates the emphasis Masai warriors place on the wellbeing of the children in their tribe. As early childhood educators and educational researchers we too have a responsibility to protect and respect the children of our tribes. The Masai tribes know there are times where they are faced with challenges that preclude them from caring for their young, just as early childhood educators face barriers that prevent them from educating children in ways that best support their growth, development, and learning.

The recent AARE conference on Monday 29 November allowed three early childhood researchers to reimagine ways of thinking and working in complex and uncertain times to support the learning and welfare of children. Claire McLachlan, Deborah Pino-Pasternak, and Dimity Franks reminded us of the importance of keeping children at the forefront of early childhood education research. Although focusing on different aspects of child development and learning, all highlighted the importance of planning to support children in the early years of school.

Early childhood is a time for learning, a time for discovery and wonder. It lays the foundation for who we become in the future. So how do we prepare children for what is ahead, without quashing their curiosity and enthusiasm for learning?

Sustained shared thinking

Professor Claire McLachlan is a collaborator of the ‘Data, Knowledge, Action’ project which explored the use of sustained shared thinking (SST) to deepen young children’s learning in play-based and child-centred ways. Sustained shared thinking is defined as:

An episode in which two or more individuals work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2002)

Initial inquires found this type of interaction to make up a very small proportion of the teacher-child interactions that occurred each day at the two kindergarten centres in the study. Once the kindergarten teachers became more confident with using skills to develop SST interactions, they found it powerful in building a comprehensive picture about a child’s learning. Teaching teams observed that the more they knew about children, and the better connected they were with them, the better able they were to adjust and differentiate strategies across a range of diverse learners. When teachers work toward these shared sustained thinking interactions with intentionality and purpose, there is strong potential for all children to benefit.

Transition to school

Starting big school can be a daunting time for children. Associate Professor, Deborah Pino-Pasternak shared her insights into how to support children in their transition to school to set them up for success. The key, she claims, is the association between the home environment, parenting, and self-regulation.  Home environment considered the amount of shared activity in the home and levels of chaos, while parenting behaviours included closeness, conflict, autonomy support and control. Children’s abilities to regulate their cognition, motivation, emotions, and pro-social behaviours were reported by classroom teachers.

Home environments and parenting styles that encouraged autonomy and less negativity and control, were found to be conducive to the development of social and cognitive regulation. Children with high levels of self-regulation were identified as having positive academic outcomes.

Parents who were closer to their children were more likely to provide greater opportunities for autonomy support and less likely to exert control and engage in conflict (Deborah Pino-Pasternak)

Ultimately, home environments make a significant contribution to the development of self-regulation in early childhood. It is important therefore for teachers to work with families to support children’s transition to school as this could be instrumental to their later success.

Developing self-efficacy in the early years

Self-efficacy is a key aspect of social and emotional learning that is central to developing the confidence, resilience and independence required to be a successful learner. Dimity Franks spoke about the importance of teaching skills in self-efficacy in the early years of school to support children’s learning and wellbeing. Rather than measuring ability, self-efficacy explores one’s perception of their ability to achieve something ie whether they think they can complete something successfully or not. It is the difference between children who jump in and commence a task quickly, and those that say, “I can’t do that”.

One teacher in the study commented,

People underestimate its importance. There is a lot of anxiety among children at the moment, so what could be more important than teaching them to believe in themselves? (Tamara, teacher)

Of most significance in this presentation was the finding that the main source of self-efficacy for children in the early years of school is their physiological and emotional states, such as mood, and levels of stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Previous research into self-efficacy that relates to secondary and tertiary students found mastery experience to be the key source of self-efficacy.

These three presentations remind us that early childhood is a special and unique stage of development and should be valued as such. It is important for teachers to use age-appropriate pedagogies and practices to guide the learning of young children. Families too play an important role in setting up future leaders for a successful start in life. Parents, teachers, researchers, and the early childhood community should continue to work together and ask the question “And how are the children?”  

Dimity Franks is a Lecturer in Early Childhood at the School of Education at Edith Cowan University.

What #AARE2021 meant to me: identity, community, disruption, hope

AARE Conference Wrap: in the shadow of the virus, AARE2021 shines a light (header image from the Acknowledgement of Country at the start of the conference, screenshot by Nicole Mockler)

How can I capture, in a little over a thousand words, such a spectacular conference?

The beauty of AARE conference is that while nearly a thousand delegates come together for the one conference, we all experience a thousand different conferences. So any conference wrap is necessarily a wrap of one person’s conference, and what I offer here are some vignettes from Pat Norman’s conference: a tiny glimpse of a rich and broad week (and I wish I could have got to more).

There are four key themes that I saw emerge from this conference, and I would like to (very) briefly address each of them: identity, community, disruption and hope.


The question of our identities as teachers and researchers was a recurring motif in many sessions.

The Educational Administration and Leadership SIG held a most civil symposium canvassing the identity of the ‘Pracademic’. Scott Eacott argued that we must be careful to avoid hierarchies that reify one construction of knowledge over others, and Deb Netolicky countered that pracademia is a useful way to conceptualise identity:

“It can create possibilities for reimagining who we work with and how, building connections, strengthening networks, reimagining boundaries. The space matters more than the noun that describes the individual.”

In that same session, as she grappled with her own identity as a researcher and a Steiner CEO, Virginia Moller said that the value of knowledge claims isn’t where they originate, but whether they make sense of the world. Well that sounded just beautiful to me!

Kristina Turner highlighted the way personal experience, lifelong learning, and a heightened sense of accountability animates both social entrepreneurs and teachers – and I’d venture similar drives can be found amongst the attendees at AARE as well!


I think a sense of community also animated attendees at the conference.

How is it possible to create such a sense of community online? I felt like we were actually there together, in the flesh. Perhaps it’s because our community was so clearly excited to see each other, to work together after so long apart. Perhaps it’s because of the brilliant coordination of Amanda Heffernan and Stewart Riddle – thank you both for your incredible dedication!

We saw beautiful collaborations between supervisors and students, academic partners and practitioners, and between friends made through scholarship.

Catriona Mach described her duoethnography with Julie Choi, Nicole Mockler presented her vast corpus analysis of media representations of teachers alongside her honours student Elizabeth Redpath who extended that analysis through the pandemic. 

Jessica Gerrard and Helen Proctor invited us not to think of participatory politics as automatically including a progressive impulse: it is possible for conservative forms of participatory politics to exist, and that democratic citizenship is something that must be worked for.

Jen Clutterbuck and Rafaan Daliri-Ngametua synthesised their PhD data to introduce the concept of ‘zombie data’: excessive, purposeless, and redundant data that we are forced to collect. What a notion! Zombie data spent the next four days roaming the digital conference floor (and so enamoured was I with the notion that I had to add it to my slides).

Perhaps the most wonderful expression of community I saw was the support that scholars like Jess Holloway wrapped around a generation of amazing PhD candidates. What a privilege to hear about the exciting research of Rafaan, Stephanie Wescott, Sarah Langman, Tanjin Ashraf, Madeline Good, Sarah McManus, Pashew Nuri, Sarah Gurr, and so many more. I can’t wait to read more of their work!


Many of those researchers just mentioned spoke in a panel about disruption,andhow could we not discuss disruption with the very large COVID elephant in the room (though Bob Lingard literally used an image of an elephant as a metaphor for structural inequality in schools).

Disruption takes many forms. Meghan Stacey apologised for the neighbours drilling through concrete while she and Mihalja Gavin unpicked the disruption of Local Schools, Local Decisions

Babak Dadvand noted that his neighbour liked to start their whipper snipper every time he had to meet someone on Zoom. Fortunately, his neighbour allowed us peace while we learned about the paradoxes and complexities principals face negotiating equity and excellence.

In his Neil Cranston Lecture, Scott Eacott explained that productive disruptions often come from looking outside of our fields, rather than being inward looking and insular. He explained: 

“Society does not have education, society is educative.”

We learn from society, it teaches us, it pushes us to new things, and as Scott reminded us, “education is embedded and embodying of its context.” And those contexts are subject to power and negotiation: policy moments crafted in mobile relations beautifully theorised in a symposium featuring Kal Gulson, Steven Lewis, Glenn Savage, Jessica Gerrard, and Radhika Gorur.

Perhaps another reason disruption was so core to the conference, pandemic notwithstanding, is because research and education are inherently disruptive enterprises. As Jessica Gerrard said:

“The logic of our discipline is a projection of something, a transformative moment, a something in the future that is coming…”


The notion of the future that we are bringing to life sits nicely with this final theme, and the theme that I think captures the whole of the conference: hope, and the transformative power of research.

Recounting her experiences as a classroom teacher, Catriona Mach explained: 

“My affect has become consumed and exhausted by unhelpful practices of neoliberalism, but there is hope and helpful practices associated with research knowledge and mentor/mentee relationships”

Those relationships extended right through the conference. Scott Eacott, recently promoted to full Professor, observed that soon there will be a generation of professors in the field of Educational Administration and Leadership research who will have studied under scholars who also completed their PhDs in Australia. What does that say, he asked, for the future of Australian research? Good things, I think, if this conference is our litmus.

In his Radford Address, Martin Nakata showed us that change is possible: that we can support and build the capabilities of Indigenous students if we really are committed to it. Showing us the work being done at James Cook University, Nakata has seen the gap close on the pass/fail rate, and now his sights are set on the front-end gap: Indigenous learners in school who want to go to university.

The conference was book-ended by two incredible keynotes: Nikki Moodie’s opening plenary and Raewyn Connell’s closing. Moodie challenged us with the question: “what does it mean to have a purposeful life? A purposeful Indigenous life?” In her stirring imagining of self-determination, Moodie explained: 

“Reimagining education research isn’t just about creating space for Indigenous knowledge, but also asking what Indigenous empowerment of Indigenous lives means.”

Nikki’s keynote reminds me that the acts of teaching and of research are identity-forming ones, at the same time as they are socially transformative. That goes for us as individuals, and for the individuals with whom we work and for whom we care: how do we come to exist in the world, and what does that world look like? Research is also an act of reimagining because it prompts us to ask what should that world look like? Or, to put the problematic in Connell’s words:

“Whose past do we look back to, and which of the possible futures do we look towards?”

Connell ended her keynote with that famous invocation: “Another world is possible”.

Back in April, 2020, Arundhati Roy speculated that the pandemic might be a portal, and we can walk through it without the baggage and prejudices of the past. I doubt I’m alone in wondering whether the transformative potential of COVID-19 has been lost. However, it did show us that another way of living is possible – for better or worse – and it showed us how valued and valuable teachers and researchers are.

In the shadow of the pandemic, whenever it may end, this year’s AARE conference has been a bright reminder of the power of reimagining, the hopefulness that comes with research, and the goodness of community when we come together. That is a portal that is open to us every day, and every day we take our steps towards another world.

Dr Pat Norman is a researcher, teacher and liaison librarian at the University of Sydney. His doctoral thesis explored teacher professional identity, professional ethics, and policy enactment in the context of neoliberalism. He is interested in the politics and sociology of education, social theory, and is obsessed with science fiction. He tweets at @pat_norman

How our messy research journey survived floods, fires and COVID19

See this presentation in real time today (December 2, 2021) in the Schools and Education Systems SIG at 10am

Large research trials are complex and difficult to manage at the best of times. At AARE 2021 this week, around 900 papers have been presented, many reporting clean and tidy findings from research studies. Twenty minutes doesn’t provide enough time to tell the full story.

And it’s not one that researchers are encouraged to tell.

I want to use my experience as the project manager of the largest randomised controlled trial in Australian education research history to expose the messy, unpredictable, challenging, and at times down-right insane rollercoaster of conducting school-based research.

In 2018, the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre was awarded $17.1M in funding from the Paul Ramsay Foundation to undertake a comprehensive and rigorous program of research examining the impact of Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR) on teacher and student outcomes.

Our massive, four-arm randomised controlled trial began in 2019 and is in the throes of final data collection right now. Over the past three years we have had to contend with several catastrophes of epic proportions including the Black Summer Bush Fires, state-wide flooding, a global pandemic followed by the local Delta outbreak. 

Now throw in a touch more flooding, and a teachers’ strike to boot.

And yet, despite these challenges, we have (just about) successfully completed this research, gathered incredible amounts of data and published ground-breaking findings. We’ve also learned lessons about the realities of school-based research that I believe would be valuable to share.

We set out in 2018 to recruit 200 NSW government primary schools, with four teachers from each to participate in this research trial. Our first major challenge was recruiting schools. When baseline data collection began in Terms 1 and 2 2019, we had just 125 schools. This necessitated a split-cohort design, with a second cohort of 80 schools planned for 2020.

To manage the huge scale of baseline and follow-up data collection we built up our team of research assistants to more than 50. We almost made it through the follow-up data collection in Term 4 2019 when catastrophic bushfires broke out throughout NSW. 20 of our research schools were closed, which meant constant reshuffling of school visits and monitoring bushfire locations to ensure the safety of our research assistants. Remarkably, we were able to collect data from 124 of 125 schools.

The bushfires continued to hamper our efforts into the start of 2020 as we finalised cohort 2 recruitment and prepared for baseline data collection. Adding to the emergency situation, the fires were followed by significant flooding across many parts of regional NSW, again affecting a number of our research schools (one school was literally wiped off the map).

We’d almost completed baseline data collection for cohort 2 when, in March 2020, COVID-19 forced state-wide school closures. The decision was made to postpone the trial to 2021. However, with the baseline data already collected and comparable control group data from the previous year, we were uniquely positioned to repurpose the data to complete one of the world’s earliest empirical studies on the effects of COVID-19 on student learning

We maintained strong relationships with our research schools throughout this incredibly challenging year and, with support from the NSW Department of Education, we were able to get follow-up data to see what, if any, impact COVID had on student achievement.

As a strong sign of support for our work, most of the 2020 schools signed up again to participate in 2021. Everything started smoothly, baseline data were collected, teachers participated in QTR, then Delta hit on the eve of the Term 2 holidays.

Despite an entire term of remote learning, we are back in the 80 schools right now collecting follow up data. Changing government health orders over the last few weeks meant asking teachers to collect student data on our behalf, then being able to send research assistants to visit schools after all. It’s meant rapid scaling up and scaling down of our team, organising training and support for teachers, as well as organising logistics for research assistants to visit schools.

It has required incredible flexibility, adaptability and coordination in a very short time period, while COVID continues to impact schools. Next week we’re heading to the last of the schools, though right now we are juggling schedules around the planned industrial action.

Since 2019, 205 schools, 757 teachers and more than 10,000 students have participated in this study. To date we’ve visited schools to collect; 1,102 full lesson observations, more than 45,000 PATs, 15,000 student surveys and 1,700 teacher surveys. We’ve published significant findings and world-leading research.

Conducting research of this scale has required constant evaluation and refinement and has led to several important learnings. 

Research with schools is hard and complex. It’s costly and it’s taxing. Both on workloads and on wellbeing. I think it’s important to recognise that.

Contingency planning is critical. Things will go wrong. We could not have anticipated a global pandemic, but having plans for quickly responding to school closures or emergency situations helps when the unexpected happens.

Effectively navigating institutional constraints and regularly refining processes are essential for work of this scale. Our processes look a lot different now to when we began in 2019.

Stakeholder relationship management is crucial. Ensuring buy in from department executives and funding body representatives, school leaders and teachers – and even research support staff – will help when things invariably go pear-shaped. 

Schools do want to engage in meaningful research. It’s important that the research has explicit links to school priorities, has reasonable expectations of participants, provides access to useful data that schools can engage with and, finally, includes a capacity building dimension for teachers or leaders.

We are blessed to have a supportive funding partner and a significant and rare amount of funding which has enabled us to postpone, restart, repurpose data, and persevere. Research is difficult and it is messy. Learning from experience is important.

Wendy Taggart is the senior project manager in the School of Education, College of Human and Social Futures, University of Newcastle. This work is from a paper co-authored with Jenny Gore, Andrew Miller, Jess Harris and Leanne Fray.

How to recognise an attack of the zombie (data)

​​The authors are presenting their research on recognising ‘Zombie Data’ across its lifecycle in education systems at the AARE conference today PPIE SIG 3 Concurrent Session 5

“We collect it [the data] all throughout the year and I’ve never actually seen what happens with it. Where does it go and what is it used for?” (Primary Teacher)

We inhabit a world infiltrated by zombie data. Check your phone – contact details of forgotten people, games you have long stopped playing (although impressive high score!), photos of places you don’t remember, and downloaded TikToks you will never watch again. These data, gathered with little or forgotten purpose, that are no longer relevant to current lives exist as zombie data. In our education systems, zombie data devour time, space and energy. 

We seek to provide recognition of how such data are generated and the consequences of their existence. Vast amounts of data are created in classrooms and schools, retained in physical and virtual files. Individual’s digitalised data becomes part of the representation of populations and even when anonymised their datafied doppelgangers continue to walk in the world informing policy, practices and propaganda.

Defining Zombie data

We found excessive, purposeless and redundant data – ‘zombie data’. Those in the technology, economics, business, and “regtech” fields indicate an awareness that zombie data, while considered dead, ‘lurks around…waiting to be called to life again” (Datastreams, 2017). Such data has also been referred to as “huge waves of numbers without meaning or relevance” (Balleny, 2013) that create datasets “without any purpose or clear use case in mind” (Kaufmann, 2014 in D‘Ignazio & Klein, 2020).  

Zombie data reside in school systems, lurking in the infrastructures used to manage student and school data. These data are called to life and used as evidence to inform practices and policy beyond their original purpose. Study A found that policies enacted in classrooms are informed by, and result in, the production of data by students. Many of these data are deidentified, stripped of context and become publicly available on government open data sites, as reported in Study B. They remain disconnected from their previous lives ready to walk through the world at the drop of a politician’s bright idea or reporter’s query. Zombie data are seldom recognised, and we offer this warning to all, to consider the role we have in creating and maintaining such beings. 

While we were expecting zombie data to be situational, that is situated within the specific conditions of particular sites within an education system, we heard the same concerns raised across the panoramic view of our combined studies.

How do you recognise Zombie data?

The first criteria of zombie data is excessiveness. When it came to the collection of data in classrooms, a secondary student commented, “Make less… don’t try and get any extra information if you don’t need it.” A classroom teacher said, “data for data’s sake is what is killing education and killing the learning process.” A school leader reflected this view when they acknowledged that, “I have collected data this year that was a complete waste of my time and everyone else’s.” Senior bureaucrats also recognised the problem of excessive data, “What do you do with all that data, that ever-growing amount of information and pattern recognition processes, and how do you serve that up and consume that as a principal with reducing limited amounts of free time – how do you consume that?” At every level, from student through to bureaucrat, excessive data was both recognised and refuted. As an identifiable form of zombie data, such ‘excess’ carries considerable implications that are vital to consider.  

The second criteria of zombie data is that it is without purpose. Students were frustrated by their participation in the creation of purposeless data. “I was super angry that they were making me do this test for no good reason. There’s no reason for this test, it’s just so the government can keep bragging rights.” Teachers were likewise frustrated, “I already know what they [students] can’t do. I don’t need to keep pre-testing, pre-testing; I know where the kids are at, I know where they’re struggling. So, I purely do them [pre-tests] to tick a box.” Bureaucrats recognised the issue of the misalignment of data and purpose, or lack of purpose, “We are interested in getting all this information and making meaning out of it, generating knowledge – the problems that stand in the way are the quality of the data for that purpose.” The lines of tension in relation to the purpose(less) of data, are indicative of how zombie data manifest across its own lifecycle from classroom through to system contexts.

Redundancy is the third criteria used to identify zombie data in education. Data that may have had an initial function but is no longer of use. It is perhaps the most problematic of zombies, the ongoing “obsessiveness that we have about data” was explained by ‘Roger’, a senior bureaucrat who said that ‘if you torture numbers long enough they’ll confess to anything.” These data are then used for “confirmatory evidence”. As another senior bureaucrat explained, “Another way in using data is that confirmatory evidence scenario where a position is believed to be true or otherwise and then data is found to support that.” Such data may have been made redundant, devoid of its original function and then ‘tortured’ back to life. Once brought back from the dead, zombie data can threaten to haunt those in schools as this school leader expressed, “If the data is not good and it’s released out into the community, then that impact comes back onto our school.”

Combatting zombie data

While we have fun with the term ‘zombie data’ we do so with acknowledgment to the tragic history of the term zombies from 18th Century Haitian slave culture. We draw on the modern evolution archetype ‘zombie’ that developed through Haiti’s folklore and contemporary pop culture.  

We encourage educational practitioners to recognise the problematic creation and use of zombie data across the different stages of data’s life. Data gestate within evidence-informed policies prior to coming into being. The ‘birth’ of data is identified by looking to the actions of those who ‘do’ the assessments, perform behaviours, and arrive at school – identified in study A as the ‘data producers’, that is, the students. Teachers record assessment, behaviour, attendance, and enrolment data, in data infrastructures and by their actions (and those of the technocrats) data become digitalised. Once digitalised, data can lurk, in legislative archives, open data sites and old newspapers – and wait. To combat zombie data, we need to ensure all data are not excessive, they are purposeful, and they are allowed to rest in peace.

Where did we get our data? We determined the moments of data zombification across data’s lifecycle across our two research projects. By doing so, a panoramic view from classrooms to the governing bureaucratic centres of state education in Queensland, Australia, is created. In study A (Rafaan’s), data were gathered from 52 students from across Years Three to Nine in 19 focus group discussions, interviews with 27 teachers, seven school leaders and year-long observations from within a range of participants’ classrooms, professional learning communities (PLCs) and teacher preparation days. These data were then considered in conjunction with the 68 interviews conducted throughout study B (Jennifer’s) with school leaders and senior bureaucrats in Queensland’s state government run, public education system.

Dr Jennifer Clutterbuck is a sessional academic, her educational career spans early childhood classrooms, school leadership and policy roles throughout the public education system in Queensland. Dr Clutterbuck’s research focuses on the inhabitants (human and non-human), and the happenings within the topological spaces created as policy, data and digital infrastructures interact. In 2020, Jennifer received the Grassie and Bassett Prize in Educational Administration from The University of Queensland for her doctoral thesis. Her recent publications focus on the role of data in shaping the lives of those within education. Twitter: @Jenclutterbuck

Rafaan Daliri-Ngametua commenced her career as a middle years classroom teacher, working in both public and private schooling contexts. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the School of Education, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia where she teaches assessment and pedagogy in undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Her research focuses on the nature and effects of the datafication of assessment and learning on student, teacher and school practices. In 2021, Rafaan was the recipient of the Carolyn D Baker memorial research prize as well as the UQ Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty Tutor Award for sustained excellence in teaching. She was also selected as a Global Change Scholar for the UQ Global Change Institute. Twitter: @RafaanDNgametua

How to reimagine research for self-determined Indigenous futures

An excerpt from Associate Professor Nikki Moodie’s keynote, opening the 2021 AARE conference on Monday November 29.

Indigenous education research – in its broadest sense – is so oriented to addressing the harms that the western schooling system has visited upon us, and the urgent work of attenuating the most immediate challenges – that there is little space to do work that imagines otherwise, or even sometimes to see the answers that Indigenous people have been offering for so long.  The great challenge before us is to imagine schooling futures, education and work futures that in and of themselves are Indigenous. What does it mean to have an Indigenous future? To step into the vision that our ancestors had for us, to be good ancestors to people who come after us, and to have the skills and capabilities to live full, meaningful, contemporary Indigenous lives?

In education, health, economics and policy research overall we see comparatively less focus on self-determination or even cognate ideas of Indigenous Lifeworlds or cultural continuity, and such a prevalence of work either mapping the damage or some small attempt to heal the damage. It is possible that when we turn away from the idea – not just the language – of self-determination, we end up diminishing Indigenous rights as either ‘cultural’ or ‘racial’ constructs. This turning away does little except to depoliticise the basic land-relation that defines both Indigenous and non-Indigenous life on this continent.

Sometimes we might see the language of self-determination in policy and practice, but often only as a euphemism for consultation, as a last-ditch effort to save a failed policy or program. So self-determination as a concept has been off the table for a while, for a myriad of reasons. But self-determination is about Indigenous rights, and Indigenous rights in education require difficult thinking about what it is that schools, universities and governments are obliged to do for all citizens, and what it is that Indigenous people have the right to exert authority over. 

But even if the language is contested, self-determination remains a right enshrined in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to which Australia is a signatory. And it contains a useful entry point to the nature of the collective self that Indigenous societies mobilise. 

New targets in the new Closing the Gap policy, and the greater involvement of the Indigenous service delivery sector in the development of those targets, may indicate a deepening recognition of the ways in which Indigenous Lifeworlds are different to the lives of White and non-Indigenous people of colour in Australia. Particularly with regard to engagement in education and employment, greater recognition of Indigenous languages and connection to Country may allow deeper conversations about what it means to pursue an Indigenous future in the Australian settler state. Whilst there has been a move away from comparing Indigenous people to non-Indigenous people in the newest iteration of Closing the Gap, and characteristics of the non-Indigenous population are not necessarily established as parity goals, this policy still has some distance to travel before it is able to accurately represent the challenges that Indigenous people face – and the aspirations that we hold to empower ourselves.

Too often, research in Indigenous education begins by establishing the “context” – listing the statistics, describing the government policy, and marking the urgency of the need for reform. 

We lay out some gains that have been made, how Indigenous people are ‘making it work’, how we’re adapting to the system and slowly getting better outcomes. But these inequalities are design features of a system that – in its most benign state – was never focused on our aspirations. Any achievements we eke out of this system are achievements in spite of, not because of settler colonial benevolence. What the research and data on education show is that we are indigenizing, adapting the settler institutions that govern our lives to achieve a best-fit in systems that render participation in society in a very particular way. But that requirement that we ‘make do’ – that we seek a best fit – itself does harm. Other ways are possible, and those other ways of imagining research that supports cultural continuity, Indigenous collective and relational authority, perhaps are yet to see their fullest expression in our research endeavours.

The caveat to that is that Indigenous people – land councils, nations, community groups, businesses – are making decisions on the basis of evidence, are directing research, and are collecting the data they need to govern their own lands and people. How we support those voices, those decision-makers, their aspirations, hopes and pathways for their own children and communities gives us the opportunity to reimagine education research in its rightful place – in service of the aspirations of Indigenous collectivities, in Australia and around the world.

How we educate for self-determination – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – opens up possibilities beyond anti-racism and cultural awareness, as we all move towards treatied relations, in recognition of the Indigenous right to determine our own futures. 

Associate Professor Nikki Moodie is a Gomeroi woman and sociologist based at the University of Melbourne. Nikki holds a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Political Science from the University of Queensland, and a PhD in Sociology from the Australian National University. After an early career in the public service, she moved into research focusing on higher education, social networks and Indigenous governance. Nikki is the current Program Director of the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity, a 20-year philanthropic program focused on Indigenous-led social change.