Indigenous curriculum

Patience, persistence and persuasion: the how-to of Indigenous curriculum practice

‘I can’t breathe’.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gathered global momentum these words became a familiar refrain; forever linked to the African American man whose life was extinguished by police on a city street in 2020. Few recall the same words uttered by an Aboriginal man in a police cell in Sydney in 2015, as his life too was violently terminated. This is but one example to illustrate that much of the truth of Indigenous history and colonialism remains unknown by many Australians thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that all Australians needed better education on Indigenous Australian history. This lack of knowledge also permeates higher education with many non-Indigenous staff under-confident in Indigenous matters.

Since 2017 the Universities Australia Indigenous Strategies have committed all Australian universities to ensuring university students develop cultural capability through Indigenous content embedded in disciplinary curricula. The work required to achieve this often falls to Indigenous staff, some like myself who have dedicated learning and teaching roles but also other Indigenous colleagues who have more conventional teaching and research roles.

My role: I have been lucky enough, for almost the last decade to be focused on work to Indigenise curriculum or embedding Indigenous curriculum. While this work includes policy work, research and publishing, as well as disciplinary and institutional service, a large part of my role is working with largely non-Indigenous academics in various disciplines on Indigenising their curriculum.

It is in this context that I use my 3P approach that draws on persuasion, patience and persistence.

My practice involves a lot of conversations and talking as I work with colleagues to make new meaning. This dialogic approach is purposeful, and I use it to address ignorance and to collaborate on creating engaging Indigenous curriculum. Through these conversations I aim to (re)animate disciplinary silences (Bodkin-Andrews, et al. 2018) and (re)fill absences in curriculum to produce university graduates who can not only better serve Indigenous peoples and communities but also build a stronger, more just nation.

Persuasion: The skill of persuasion can be required in a range of circumstances, both individual and institutional, at times requires more effort than others. I often use persuasion to challenge existing thinking and open dialogue with colleagues. Below are some examples of how I use persuasion.

  • Colleagues unconvinced Indigenous content needed in curriculum

Persuasion might be required to support colleagues who don’t think there is space in their curriculum or who want to embed Indigenous curriculum into their courses but who don’t quite know how. We talk about the possibilities, about resources that might be sought or approaches that could be taken. On other occasions persuasion is required to help manage fear. Some of my work is persuading teachers (and administrators) to continue rather than be immobilised by uncertainty or by occasional negative feedback.

  • Serving on Committees

Persuasion may be required at institutional level to convince a committee of the need for policy change to support Indigenous curriculum implementation or to create an award to recognise staff achievement.

  • Convincing Indigenous colleagues their work is valuable

Conversely, sometimes I find myself persuading Indigenous colleagues that their work is valuable and valued, although it may seem invisible in their school, department, faculty or university. Support your Indigenous colleagues who are often doing amazing work under difficult circumstances (Locke, et al. 2021, Thunig & Jones, 2020).

Patience, along with traits such as openness, respect and curiosity, are considered important for student learning but is less often considered as a teacher trait or considered necessary for organisational change. The academy is a place where patience -and its associated requirement of time – is not necessarily considered as a virtue. Academic time is constrained by things like timetables, semesters and increasingly by workload formulas, as well as performance and productivity requirements. The time I spent in conversations with colleagues requires patience and time.

Wasting time? I am aware though of the commodification of time that represents money – the idea that time is money, and the increasing compression and control of time. Consequently, I worry about whether I am I using my time wisely, if conversations that are so integral to my work are a useful way to spend my time, or if I am simply wasting time. These reflections are associated with feelings of guilt, being rushed, and can be a source of stress.

Or an investment? Using my conversations with academic colleagues as a point of reference, the topics we discuss are very similar and they fall into two major categories – fear of getting ‘things’ wrong and a lack of confidence in whether Indigenous curriculum is something the individual should be doing. Although the topics of conversation are similar, each individual experiences them in their own way – similar to students really. It is difficult to know at the outset whether the time will be ‘wasted’ or how many of those single hours taken for meetings it will take for confidence to build or understanding to develop. In this respect, I consider the time spent as an investment, recognising that any productivity gains, within the Western constraints of modern educational spaces, in this deeply interpersonal work, require that patience.

Persistence is both the overarching and underpinning factor, without which patience and persuasion have limited capacity to galvanize change. The ability to persist and the act of persisting in the face of adversity and indifference is critical. Across the sector, Indigenous persistence has been the key to creating space, initially for Indigenous people in universities and more recently for advocating for change in curriculum.

No opportunity lost: Resolve is required to have the same conversation with different colleagues – justifying the need to Indigenous curriculum despite existing national and institutional policy commitments, knowing that it is often the second or third conversation which causes a shift in thinking that will ultimately result in change and better curriculum for students.

Groundhog Day: Persistence also manifests as the capacity to return to teaching Indigenous studies classes, for example, knowing that there will be resistant students, racist comments and misinformation to address. Like Groundhog Day, each year, each semester delivers a fresh set of learners who will not know that you have heard these same arguments regularly or be unaware of the hurt that can be caused by even inadvertent racism. It’s been a while since I taught in a classroom myself but not so long since I have tended the wounds of Indigenous tutors enraged or cut to the quick by student comments.

The Key to Sustainable Indigenous Curriculum Development

Indigenous academics feel the strain of advising their colleagues on Indigenising curriculum and are sometimes captive to university quality and workload processes, which fail to account for the nature of this work (Bullen & Flavell, 2017).

The work of developing Indigenous curriculum is part of a role which I enjoy immensely. It is less so for many Indigenous academics who are attempting to develop their own careers while juggling the dual demands of servicing the needs of (sometimes) unknowing non-Indigenous colleagues and the teaching of Indigenous studies where they are confronted with (and by) challenging and uncertain students.

Professor Susan Page is an Aboriginal Australian academic whose research focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experience of learning and academic work in higher education and student learning in Indigenous Studies. Her current role is Director of Indigenous Learning and Teaching at Western Sydney University. She has collaborated on several competitive research grants, received a national award for Excellence in Teaching (Neville Bonner Award) and is published in Indigenous Higher Education. She recently co-edited a special edition of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, Ō tatou reo, Na domoda, Kuruwilang birad: Indigenous voices in higher education.

Be brave: how to Indigenise the curriculum

Acknowledgement: I acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which I live and work and pay my respect to Elders past and present. Western Sydney University acknowledges the Darug, Eora, Dharawal (also referred to as Tharawal) and Wiradjuri peoples and thanks them for their support of its work in their lands. I also acknowledge the important feedback provided by Associate Professor Corrinne Sullivan on this article.

This year’s theme for National Reconciliation Week is Be Brave. Make Change. Coincidentally being brave has motivated me throughout my tertiary teaching career as I have sought to tackle colonial hegemony in the curriculum. It is also my ‘go to’ phrase when approached by fellow educators who wish to decolonise or ‘Indigenise’ their curriculum but don’t know how or where to start. It is our job as educators to challenge the engrained power structures and ways of knowing that have privileged many of us, to varying extents, for so long. This is, understandably, a daunting prospect.

I have a hunch that the anxiety felt by educators (particularly non-Indigenous educators like myself) is partly rooted in a misconception that decolonising and Indigenising are the same. Yin Paradies (2020), Aboriginal-Asian-Anglo Australian of the Wakaya people and anarchist radical scholar explains that ‘Decoloniality/decolonisation is about deep awareness of colonial pasts, cognisance of present colonial conditions and striving for “a future … free from the colonial past”’ (quoting Ming Dong Gu 2020 ). Colonisation functions via multiple and intersecting power structures such as racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, capitalism and other ‘isms’. While a manifold task, the acknowledgment of the ongoing impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and re-centring of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experiences, perspectives and knowledges is urgent in the decolonial project.

In the Australian educational context, decolonising curriculum requires us to unsettle, challenge, and eventually dismantle the power structures of colonial systems that shape the way educational institutions create and share knowledge. Indigenising curriculum is the embedding of Indigenous histories, voices, experiences, knowledges and ways of learning into our teaching. These are ‘too often unknown, hidden and silenced’ (Bodkin-Andrews et al. 2018) due to ongoing settler colonialism.

At this point, I’d like to acknowledge the elephant in the room and ask: can we ever truly decolonise our curriculums if the very institutions in which we teach and learn are continued manifestations of settler-coloniality? While the answer is obvious, I’m hopeful that we can Indigenise our curriculums as a step toward a decolonial future.

Tips to Indigenise curriculum

Tip 1: Reflect and critique

I prompt you to start by looking at the way your subject/discipline has perpetuated colonial power structures in the past, and continues to do so in the present. I then ask you to consider how you perpetuate and privilege colonial/Western structures of knowledge and power in your teaching. You can begin by asking yourself the following:

·         What issues or topics are covered in my teaching/subject?

·         What theoretical and conceptual lenses are they approached from?

·         Who’s voices, scholarship and perspectives are included – who’s are not?

·         What are the gaps and silences in the teaching content?

·         What assumptions are being presented?

·         What are students asked to do?

·         What are teaching staff asked to do?

For those of us who teach into the arts, humanities and social sciences, these questions may be answered quite easily. For those who teach maths or physical sciences, the relevance may be unclear. Perhaps a ‘way in’ for teachers of STEM subjects, is to focus not so much on the learning content, but on the methods of teaching/learning. These can be Indigenised (and decolonised) too.

Tip 2: Survey your curriculum

My next tip is to systematically work through all aspects of the curriculum to identify specific places where colonial content, methods, and theoretical and conceptual lenses can be challenged and alternative knowledges and forms of knowledge making can be embedded. This means looking at lesson plans, reading lists, supplementary teaching material, assessment tasks, guest speakers, case studies, and field work/excursions. Conducting a whole-scale survey ensures a ‘check-box’ or tokenising approach is avoided: instead of inserting one week or one topic area on ‘Indigenous issues’, Indigenous teaching/learning practices, issues, ways of knowing and understanding are embedded throughout.

Tip 3: Make changes

The next step I suggest is perhaps the most anxiety provoking. This is to make the curriculum changes. Remember that this is an ongoing process so changes can (and should) be made over time. It is imperative to ensure the changes you implement are informed, meaningful and respectful, so take your time, do your research, seek feedback, and invest in continued interrogation and critique of your teaching practise.

Changes you make may include the embedding of experiential learning activities, centring of student voice (e.g. yarning), and incorporation of Indigenous perspectives and issues. Many educators are rightfully anxious about ‘speaking for’ Indigenous and other groups who they do not identify/belong. If you have the networks and resources, guest speakers and teaching collaborators are a great way of overcoming that barrier. If this is not possible, there is a plethora of multimedia and web material developed and presented by Indigenous Australians, and readings and other resources that are written by Indigenous Australians and/or prioritise Indigenous voices. I also often use contemporary Indigenous art as a ‘way in’ for my students to examine contemporary issues. Checking-in with Indigenous colleagues or your networks for feedback and advice is also important.

Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali has been developed to ‘support schools and early learning services in Australia to develop environments that foster a high level of knowledge and pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and contributions’. The implementation of Reconciliation Action Plans, Professional Learning for educators and curriculum resources are the key foundations of the program and another great place to start.

A means of transformational learning

In my experience, Indigenising curriculum has facilitated profound transformational learning experiences for students, providing them with knowledge and understanding that they have taken into their future careers and everyday lives. I have taught nearly 3,000 university students in the past four years who have entered careers in urban planning, criminology and policing, social work and community welfare, heritage and tourism, law, psychology and teaching. For many, my subject was the first time they had been presented with these ideas and perspectives. As one student noted:

…this was the first time since either primary, high-school or even other social sciences units within University that I learned that cultural imperialism is not a past event, but rather a perpetual mega-structure that sustains the social structure of ‘whiteness’; a structure used to marginalise, perpetuate disparities of ascriptive differences, and sustain the privileges of those who prosper under the ‘white’ identity.

Some of the students have subsequently acted upon this new knowledge and understanding. A student I taught in 2021 now volunteers in two Aboriginal organisations and has stated:

Without [this] syllabus I would not have found my vocation as an active and unwavering advocate for Indigenous rights, narratives, cultural differences and political and/or representative voices.

Another student (criminology/law) will now embed the learning in their future career:

The information around different groups and especially marginalised groups will help me accommodate and implement practices more suitable and sensitive to these people. An example of this could be through knowledge of culturally sensitive meetings and dispute resolution services that cater to many different languages and cultural practices. A member of the Indigenous community may opt for a more culturally appropriate option if given the chance due to the differences between Indigenous and white Australian practices.

Final thoughts

The most recent Australian Reconciliation Barometer report indicated that 89% of non-Indigenous respondents and 93% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents support formal truth-telling processes in relation to Australia’s shared history. It also found that 83% of non-Indigenous respondents and 91% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents agree that it is important for Indigenous histories and cultures to be taught in schools – as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. Australians’ are therefore on board with a shift in our education sector that privileges alternatives histories, perspectives and ways of knowing. One of the barriers seems to be that educators lack the knowledge and training on how to achieve this and are therefore anxious about making a start. While my tips are not hard and fast ‘rules’ (I am still learning too), I hope they have provided some inspiration and momentum. I leave you with the words of Yin Paradies (2020), ‘the best way to make amends for colonial pasts is for everyone to mend and make decolonial futures in the present’.

Alanna Kamp is Lecturer in Geography and Urban Studies in the School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University, Research Fellow in the Young and Resilient Research Centre, and member of the Challenging Racism Project and Diversity and Human Rights Research Centre. Alanna has taught at WSU for 14 years and since 2020 has been the unit coordinator of People, Place and Social Difference, a 1st year core unit with over 1200 students annually. She won the inaugural Western Sydney University Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor Academic Award for Excellence in Indigenous Teaching in 2021.