Indigenous education policy

Taken for a ride? How the education vehicle breaks down for First Nations people

The ‘education is the key’ mantra is often used as a metaphor in remote First Nations communities to indicate the importance of learning to achieve some measure of socio-economic advantage. It is fair to say that First Nations people have bought into education and training ‘vehicle’ with enthusiasm. The Year 12 completion data coming out of Closing the Gap Report in 2019 suggest that gaps are closing. The rates of people holding certificate qualifications in remote communities are also increasing at a fast pace.

But the vehicle appears to break down as it heads along the road towards jobs, economic participation and income. I have been using Census data to research the impact of First Nations students completing Year 12, with a special focus on income and what I found is disturbing.

My research extends the work of projects conducted by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (now called Ninti One) between 2011 and 2016, in which I was  I was also involved.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation projects

The CRC-REP projects confirmed that education is important for First Nations people living in remote communities, but not necessarily because of jobs and careers. Education is important because it helps keep language and culture strong. It assists young people maintain a connection with Country and ensures that they have a strong identity. At the same time the projects confirmed the importance of education, they also raised questions about the efficacy of education and training as the key to economic participation by First Nations peoples.

Back in 2013 it was assumed there is a connection between going to school regularly, completing Year 12, getting a job and living a happy and successful life. It was often argued as common sense. For example, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013 stated “…you need to have an education if you’re going to take advantage of… this wonderful economic nirvana…”

A slightly more sophisticated argument sees benefit from education in terms of human, social and identity capital. But is that economic nirvana being realised for First Nations students from remote communities, particularly for those who have completed Year 12? One could expect so, given the public investment in boarding and scholarship programs designed to give remote First Nations people a quality education and complete their secondary education.

My research on Census data

In the last three Censuses there is evidence of strong growth in Year 12 completion rates for those First Nations people who speak an Indigenous language, as shown in the table below.

The number of Year 12 completers among language speakers increased by 362% in ten years. For English speakers, the growth was also a healthy 85%, compared to non-Indigenous growth of just 28%. If the common sense logic is right, we would expect that growth to take people to jobs.

And the good news is that jobs for year 12 completers have grown, but, as the table shows, the total number of jobs for First Nations people has not changed in 10 years.

So the net impact of all this education in terms of jobs for First Nations people is nil.

Meanwhile for non-Indigenous people there were more than an extra 4000 jobs for those working in very remote parts of the country.

But surely there is some economic benefit to attaining year 12?

I put that question to the test by comparing the median incomes of year 12 completers based on their status as First Nations people or non-Indigenous and whether they speak English only or another language as well. The table below, based on 2016 Census data shows what I found.

This table explains why the education vehicle has not lived up to its expectations for First Nation people. Some might say it has broken down altogether.

To be fair, First Nations Year 12 completers do get a relative income benefit compared to their Year 11 completer counterparts, around $300 per week if they speak English only, but the benefit dwindles to nothing for those who do not speak English very well.

By contrast, non-Indigenous people who speak another language appear to not lose out to the same extent because of their second language. Indeed the highest income earners in this table are non-Indigenous people who also speak a language other than English. There is also apparently no meaningful income benefit from stepping up from Year 11 to Year 12 either, for this group.

So what is going wrong?

Far from arriving at economic nirvana, First Nations people who have invested in their Year 12 education vehicle, have broken down well short of this glorious place. The income differentials are shocking. But why is this so?

In the CRC-REP research, we proposed several reasons for the differences. One reason we offered was related to agency. People make choices about the kind of work they want to engage in, and it isn’t always based on money. But this new data is somewhat disturbing as it suggests that some languages are treated more favourably than others, which may raise questions about racism and assimilation’s continuing role in educational institutions. The data shows that English has a higher value than Indigenous languages. But being able to speak another language that isn’t an Indigenous language is potentially more valuable than speaking English alone.

Just as disturbing is the evidence emerging from several studies that boarding and scholarship programs can have a detrimental impact on First Nations young people’s wellbeing. The large income differential offers another explainer as to why First Nations people in remote communities don’t bother to get on board the Year 12 vehicle. It just doesn’t pay!

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

Image is by John Guenther

Effective teaching methods that work for Indigenous students: latest research

What does effective teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students look like? Thousands of research studies have been dedicated to finding answers to this question. But much of what we think we know, or hear, about Indigenous education remains mired in myths and legends.

Governments have been surprisingly frank about the failure of their Closing The Gap policies to deliver better health, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The search for better ways continues.

My colleagues and I are particularly interested in looking for what works in Aboriginal education, and most importantly, how do we know what works?

As part of the larger ‘Aboriginal Voices’ project we decided to analyse research studies on Aboriginal education from 2006-2017. We carried out several systematic literature reviews following rigorous and replicable protocols  across a range of key issues.

The review I want to tell you about is one that looked for evidence of pedagogies that engage, support and improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

This review sorted through approximately 2000 research studies and, after applying the systematic review inclusion/exclusion protocols, analysed the remaining 53 research studies.

So, what did we find?

Most studies are localised small-scale qualitative case studies focused on engagement

Most research studies were localised small-scale qualitative case studies producing evidence of successful programs that engaged and/or supported Indigenous students in the classroom and in many cases, these were the aims of the program. The assumption appears to be that if Indigenous students are engaged in their learning then their educational outcomes will improve but without empirical evidence to support this, this can only be considered as conjecture.

Wholesale literacy and numeracy programs where Indigenous students are a subset

Eighteen research studies identified pedagogical approaches for specific skills such as literacy and numeracy revealing mixed results in terms of success. In many of these studies, Indigenous students were a subset of a larger group usually connected by socio-economic status (SES), achievement levels and location. Any successes reported in these programs occurred for all students and therefore did not shed light on any specific pedagogical approaches that improved Indigenous student outcomes.

Not surprisingly research studies that focus on practical skill improvements like literacy and numeracy tend to receive large-scale funding as results are more readily quantifiable and reportable in terms of government policy priorities. Moreover, programmatic approaches to literacy and numeracy appear to have become the default approach for Aboriginal student learning in preparation for vocational pathways.

Specific pedagogies identified as effective

Yes we did find 21 studies of pedagogies identified as effective in improving Aboriginal student engagement, support and /or educational outcomes.

Most described effective, innovative pedagogies such as

  •  ‘Pedagogies of wonder’. This involves adults listening to the wonder of the children about their own history, culture and context and trusting children to research this rich resource.
  • Generative pedagogies  Here, culturally safe spaces were created for Indigenous girls to engage with their everyday experiences of oppression, through writing.
  • Place-based pedagogies (also here) that take students out of the classroom and onto ‘country’ and involve Rangers, teachers and community members in a collaborative approach to teaching and learning were successful in engaging students .
  • pedagogies prioritising local Aboriginal voices that involve listening to voices in the community and understanding the values and cultural elements that inform students in their engagement with a formal education context.

These teaching methods engaged and supported Aboriginal students rather than ‘improved educational outcomes’ and while it could be argued that culturally responsive approaches such as these create conditions for improving educational outcomes, there was no empirical evidence to make this causal connection.

The seminal extensive research project Systemic Implications of Pedagogy and Achievement in NSW public schools (SIPA) provides an exception. While Aboriginal students were a subset of a larger group, researchers focussed on results for specific groups, coding and measuring student assessment tasks utilising the NSW Quality Teaching Framework [QTF].

In terms of outcomes, researchers provided solid evidence that high quality assessment tasks not only improved all students results but contributed to closing the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. While not identifying specific pedagogies to improve educational outcomes, they noted pedagogical approaches that contributed to poor outcomes particularly for Aboriginal and low SES students such as ‘defensive teaching’, low expectations and a focus on behaviour management rather than effective teaching and learning of curriculum content.

Contributing factors to effective teaching

Many of the studies [43] discussed pedagogies in relation to other contributing factors to effective teaching such as student engagement, teacher professional learning and curriculum.

Engagement strategies identified the importance of:

  • individually paced learning,
  • culturally safe learning environments,
  • providing transport, food and community-based staff working in the school,
  • opportunities for Aboriginal student voices,
  • local community involvement in the school,
  • teacher understanding about their students ‘out-of-school’ lives, and
  • school as a place of belonging and relevance.

Teacher professional learning included the need for:

  • increased teacher confidence and efficacy through actively learning about local Aboriginal culture, history and the impact of colonization,
  • a shift from behaviour management to subject knowledge,
  • time and resources to adequately reflect on and improve their practice, and
  • ongoing engagement with Aboriginal parents and communities.

Students and parents highlighted the importance of:

  • culture,
  • positive relationships,
  • needing to learn about the literacy demands of schools and how to code-switch between home and school,
  • support for student behavior,
  • schools and teachers rejecting deficit views of Aboriginal people, and
  • affirming Aboriginal student’s cultural identity.

Knowing the community is critical

While only 14 research studies focussed on context, most studies referred to this as an important consideration especially in remote and very remote schools. This suggests that the issues for students and the challenges for teachers are largely context dependent and so critical and nuanced understandings of each particular community are crucial. It also points to the invisibility of urban-based students and communities. If a study was conducted in an urban area, the location was not mentioned or considered a factor in the study. Given that urban Indigenous populations are increasing exponentially, this highlights a concerning gap in the research design and priorities.

Deficit thinking

Concern about school and teacher deficit thinking about Aboriginal peoples and cultures that also appear to permeate policy and practice, was evident in a number of studies, some of which contextualized this within ongoing issues of race and racism. Some studies also critically analysed the construction, problematisation and reproduction of knowledge noting that Aboriginal aspirations were not often included in definitions of what success might look like for these students and their communities, or how it might be measured.

The challenges are many and the answers complex

Consequently, while these research studies contribute to the conversation about ‘what works’ for Indigenous students, there certainly needs to be an evidence-based systematic approach to developing pedagogical approaches to improve Aboriginal student outcomes. In saying this, the combination of diverse Aboriginal contexts each of which are embedded in local place and knowledges, and the complexity of ‘measuring’ pedagogies given the multitude of complex, layered and nuanced variables that impact on the teaching/learning process, makes this an extremely challenging task. 

Need for a national vision

What we found throughout this review and the other systematic reviews conducted in this project, is what is missing or under-researched more than what was discovered or proven. It is clear to us that a national vision is needed. This vision needs to decolonize the parochial targets, outcomes and obsession with ‘measurement’ that currently restrains Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers and policy makers working together on the holistic project of improving Aboriginal student outcomes.

The Aboriginal Voices project will continue this work by developing culturally responsive approaches to schooling informed by local Aboriginal students and their families, who continually foreground the significance of Country, culture, language and identity to their success, emphasising the importance of success as ‘Aboriginal’.

Dr Cathie Burgess is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney currently teaching and coordinating Aboriginal Studies curriculum courses, Aboriginal Community Engagement and the Master of Education: Leadership in Aboriginal Education. She has extensive teaching and leadership experience in secondary schools with expertise in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal education, and implementing innovative literacy strategies. Cathie’s research involves community-led initiatives positioning Aboriginal cultural educators as experts through projects such as Learning from Country in the City, Aboriginal Voices: Insights into Aboriginal Education, Community-Led Research, The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program and the Redfern Aboriginal Family Cultural Program.

Image by courtneyk

The trickery used to marginalise and silence Indigenous voice in education

Indigenous education policy, reviews and reports have consistently sought for the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in all levels of decision-making. However, actions and evidence suggest otherwise: the silencing and marginalisation of Indigenous peoples continues. My research focuses on the various mechanisms put in place that counter the goodwill intentions shared by policy makers and politicians, specifically in Indigenous education policy. I believe there is trickery at play. There is allusion to the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but it is not really happening.

The good intentions of politicians

Quite often the will and want to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is foregrounded in political speeches and/or reports from Prime Ministers. Here, we find assertions from people in positions of political authority who say they want to address the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. For example, International human rights charters such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous voices. The political elite continually refer to these rights and say they espouse such desires.

What is really happening politically

In the lead up to the 2016 election, the National Congress of Australia’s First Nations Peoples released the Redfern Statement: An urgent call for a more just approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. Here, the Congress highlighted the lack of Indigenous representation at a national level where decision-making and policy about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is made. By 2017 and with the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the call for Indigenous voices to be heard was made. However, the instant dismissal of the Uluru Statement of the Heart acted to silence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and contradicted the sentiments shared by politicians and Prime Ministers elsewhere within the public arena.

The good intentions of education policy

Within the Australian Curriculum and more specifically, its cross curriculum priority, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, there is opportunity for these cultural gaps to be redressed. There is space to allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be engaged in and with the teaching and learning offered in schools.

It requires schools, principals and educators to build partnerships with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities. This is not a new innovation. Since the initial reports regarding Indigenous education, there has been a call to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures into teaching and learning.

What is really happening in education

However, policy and therefore, policy makers ignore the premises of a partnership where relationships need to be nurtured to be maintained; where trust needs to be built. This can’t happen when the schooling systems engaged in educating many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children usually work on three-year cycles, whereby teachers and principals transition in and out of community.

Further assumptions are located within the current Indigenous education policy, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015, where the lack of Indigenous representation within the Australian teaching workforce is also ignored. Indigenous people have no power or real influence on what is and is not taught in schools or more importantly, what is deemed necessary and what is not. In what has already been described in many papers as a content heavy curriculum and ignored in recent reviews and reports, the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures can easily be seen as ‘bolted on’ and ignored.

My experience as an Aboriginal teacher

I was a classroom teacher for almost 20 years with my final years being within schools with high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student populations. As the only Aboriginal teacher within these schooling environments, my colleagues and the principals often called on me to be the mediator between the schools and the communities.

I was torn. My role as classroom teacher was seen by the school as a means to communicate with communities about the school’s expectations and yet, the community saw my role and position as a means to speak into the school space. The tug of war minimised my own voice. The schools and the principals failed to see what was happening and did not attempt to build relationships with the communities because they simply relied on me to be the go-between for them. This essentially, widened the gap between the school and the community. In turn, this made Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice within the planning and decision making almost an impossibility. Due to the actions (or should that be inaction?), the school had silenced the community.

Let’s flip the system

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to indeed have a voice in the decision making that effects them, there is a need to flip the system and to transform the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are viewed by wider Australia. That is, Australia needs to acknowledge the biases and assumptions held within colonial Australia and allow for truth telling and conciliation of the past. This begins through education.

As Indigenous peoples we need to be more assertive. We need to harness the international human rights charters and use them to privilege our voices. We need to speak into policymaking on Indigenous Affairs and call out politicians for their empty rhetoric. We need to have more of a say in what is taught within schools. Our children are dependent on it. Our future is dependent on it.

 

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is also the Indigenous Education Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland within the College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research.  Prior to entering academia, Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”. She can be found on Twitter  @melitta_hogarth

Melitta is presenting on her research at the 2018 AARE Conference.  On Monday 3rd December at 4pm she is presenting on ‘Musings of an aboriginal researcher’ and is chairing a Symposium on Wednesday 5th December on ‘Education research that engages with multiple voices: Flipping the Australian education system’.

The image featured on this post is from Adobe Stock

Boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can have very damaging effects: new evidence-based research

For many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students living in remote communities across Australia, ‘choice’ in secondary education is limited to either not going to school or going away to a boarding school far away from home.

Setting aside for a moment the issue of choice, the ‘good’ of the decision to go to boarding school is seldom questioned, it is taken as a given. Indeed, the ‘good’ is reflected in significant investments in scholarship programs, hostel infrastructure, transition support services and Abstudy to encourage the ‘choice’ to go away. Governments are reluctant to invest in local secondary schooling options

But why is this so? Surely there is a good theoretical foundation and an evidence base that shows how much better off individuals and communities are from the improved education that students will receive from a boarding school experience.

Evidence of the impact of boarding schools on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

Until about 2012 there was almost no research conducted which showed the impact of boarding schools on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Since then an emerging body of work is being generated that mostly raises questions about the ‘good’ of boarding, and indeed points to some major concerns.

At the 2017 AARE conference a number of researchers presented a synthesis of their findings and proposed a ‘theory of change’ which shows the complexity of the boarding context and possibility of unintended and undesirable outcomes of boarding. These outcomes, based on findings from the authors point to the possibility of social distress, mental ill-health, substance abuse, loss or confusion of identity, culture and human capital, among other outcomes.

Two other government inquiries/reports, “From surviving to thriving Educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Study Away Review, highlight concerns in relation to preparation, travel, funding for accommodation, health and wellbeing, growing expulsions, loss of culture, and poor parent and community engagement. The Study Away from Home report points to a 40% increase in demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding places in the 4 years to 2016. Another report, the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, will also likely address some of these issues when it is released. How could the ‘good’ have been so badly misread?

Apart from the lack of evidence-based policy, the failure of boarding to realise its hopes can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the theoretical foundations of boarding school initiatives.

Our research on boarding outcomes remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We have been working on this very issue and presented our initial findings at the 2017 AARE conference in Canberra at the end of last year. Here’s what we found, based on our analysis of boarding outcomes viewed through the lenses of social, human and identity capital. Very briefly, the three capitals can be explained as follows.

Human capital

The concept of human capital can be traced back to the 18th Century economist, Adam Smith, who described ‘acquired abilities’ as an investment that costs the individual but which ‘repays that expense with a profit’. This idea was applied to economics in the early 1960s through scholars such as Schultz and Becker. These economists argued that individuals make decisions about education based on the economic return from their investment in knowledge. Becker put forward models that calculated the likely return of staying in school.

In short, the longer an individual stays in education the greater the return on investment. The push to see more young people go to boarding schools can be seen as an attempt to increase economic productivity through education.

Social capital

The idea that people gain value from their network of social relationships is not new. However, theorisation of ‘social capital’ is relatively new and certainly post-dates theorisation of human capital. Pierre Bourdieu was the first to theorise social capital. Bourdieu brought together concepts of economic, social and cultural capital. His theory suggests that social and cultural capital can be bought. That is, an economic investment may allow individuals to access the wealth associated with social structures, which would otherwise not be accessible. However, while arguing for the convertibility of various forms of capital, Bourdieu asserts that the group acts to protect its accumulation of the capital.

We see these apparently opposing dynamics working in the context of boarding scholarships. Scholarships are an attempt to buy the cultural and social capital inherent in the institutions of boarding schools, particularly elite schools. However, the social groups of home community and boarding school will act to protect their accumulated capitals, which inhibit the exchange which would otherwise allow the student from the community to ‘walk in two worlds’.

For young people—particularly those from remote communities—the challenges associated with building social relationships (part of social capital) in a foreign environment, and the challenges associated with investing to build knowledge (part of human capital) in a boarding school would undoubtedly be enough to break them.

Identity capital

But on top of that, like all young people, at this very point adolescent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will be experiencing (as Erik Erikson suggests) ‘identity confusion’.

The theory of identity capital was developed by James E. Côté and Charles G Levine. Their short definition is as follows:

In sum, the term “identity capital” denotes “investments” individuals make, and have, in “who they are.” These investments potentially reap future dividends in the “identity markets” of late modern communities. (Côté & Levine, 2002, p. 147)

How these theories work in the context of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We wanted to know how the assumptions of capital theories actually work in the context of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We examined the literature from policy and research documents and compared the two. The results of that comparison are shown in the table below.

 

Capital How it should work for remote students attending boarding schools How it can work (based on the evidence)
Human Capital Theory

•Individuals make a choice to invest in their education because of the perceived and actual return on the investment

•Communities benefit through increased productivity

•Education leads to improved employment pathways and higher income

•Individuals may perceive a net cost to education and therefore choose not to invest

•Communities may lose human capital if students choose not to return to communities

•Pathways from education and training to work may be avoided in favour of alternative livelihood options

•Income benefit may not materialise

Social Capital Theory

•Investment in social capital gives access to wealth through social structures

•Communities strengthen through links to external sources of power

 

•Identification with powerful social structures may lead to exclusion from community power structures

•External sources of power act to protect and control resources to the exclusion of communities

•Lost opportunities to engage in the local cultural economy

Identity Capital Theory

•Investment in identity capital affirms role development consistent with ontologies associated with schooling

•Agency/choice/self-investment leads to improved health and wellbeing outcomes

 

•Conformance to educational identity expectations/aspirations may lead to identity confusion/crisis

•Conflicting identities may lead to ill-health and loss of cultural identity

 

 

Our research is a red flag for policy makers and service providers of boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We are not suggesting that these are the only theories we could apply to this issue, but offer this analysis as a starting point to critically examine assumptions of those involved in policy and service delivery for boarders. What our analysis suggests is that the theoretical assumptions applied to boarding provision are often incorrect.

For some, the assumptions may work, but our concern is for those where the ‘good’ of boarding turns into a ‘bad’ for students, communities and families. To that end, along with the evidence and the recent reviews cited above, the analysis serves as something of a red flag and should cause all involved in what is akin to an experiment, to beware of the negative consequences of pursuing a policy that limits choice for remote families and may have profoundly dire results.

 

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

 

 

Bill Fogarty is currently the A/C Deputy Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the ANU in Canberra. He has a long history of research and work in Indigenous Education and is currently a Chief Investigator on a number of large research projects including the Australian Research Council funded ‘Deficit Discourse and Indigenous Education’ project.

 

Note: The blog post image is Yirara College in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, a Lutheran boarding school for Aboriginal students. Students from remote communities go all over Australia to boarding schools.

In the Northern Territory about 700 Aboriginal students would go to boarding schools within the NT and another 1000 or so would go to interstate boarding schools.

 

This is Ampilawatja school, a remote school in the NT. This is typical of schools (where they are available) in remote regions.

 

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Why and how to use different teaching methods with Indigenous students

For decades there has been an overrepresentation of Indigenous students across Australia in disciplinary school records. Suspensions, exclusions and a range of other negative reports fill the school records. As a result low attendance, low retention and under achievement have been the more commonly reported trajectories for Indigenous Australians.

The explanation often given for these unfavourable results for Indigenous students is that there is a cultural mismatch, that is a child’s home culture and the school culture hold conflicting expectations. This mismatch gives rise to poor understanding of Indigenous student behaviour and aspirations. Indigenous students differ from non-Indigenous students not only in the background knowledge that is assumed by their schools, but also in the strategies they use to approach and solve problems.

Teachers who are not fully aware of these differences in approaches or who “play down” cultural differences, preferring instead to argue about ability and equity are ill-equipped to build on their students’ knowledge and experiences. Indeed, research shows that teachers, schools and the public in general, hold a ‘deficit view’ towards to Indigenous students and their families, that is a view that individuals from some cultural groups lack the ability to achieve just because of their cultural background.

How we reviewed the research literature

In an effort to understand what works in the classroom to better engage Indigenous students and minimize behavioural responses my colleagues, Linda Llewellyn, Brian Lewthwaite, and I conducted a review of the research literature. This included all peer-reviewed literature published in English, both Australian and international with the aim of identifying strategies that support the behaviour of Indigenous students.

We used methods designed to examine all literature that:

  1. mentioned an Indigenous or marginalised primary or secondary school context;
  2. claimed to improve behaviour support or management of Indigenous students;
  3. included an Indigenous voice in the suggested actions.

Much of the published literature was advice literature rather than empirically based studies that showed what actually improved behavioural outcomes for Indigenous students. The Australian literature in particular was replete with strategies to support Indigenous student behaviour, but lacked empirical evidence. Only five studies were specifically based on the topic directly, and of these three suggested strategies, but little evidence was offered for the specific strategies.

What previous research says.

Overall, the review revealed a number of themes

Teachers need an understanding of power relations and the deficit paradigm.

A deficit paradigm is a view that has long been deeply embedded in the culture of Western schools and still held by some teachers, administrators and others in positions of power. It assumes that poor student performance or behaviour stems from problems with the students or their families that must be “fixed”.

Teachers also need to know that the power relations that were experienced by Indigenous families historically in Australia have left a mostly negative influence which has filtered into the realm of education, one that continues to have an influence today. Failure to understand this historical element may result in unnecessary conflict as cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings.

In addition, research has shown a fundamental difference between Western (Balanda) and Yolgnu (Indigenous Australian people inhabiting north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia ) cultures in the context of education and world views. The difference between ‘purposeful’ for Balanda and ‘meaningful’ for Yolgnu may help teachers understand student behaviour. For example, Yongnu students might not be able to transfer classroom learning to other contexts outside of the classroom, as they might connect meaning only to the school context. Therefore it is important for teachers to emphasise process and principles with clearly applicable examples for Yongnu students. Also Yongnu students might not be willing to learn from those with whom they do not have a trusting, close relationship because learning is centred on personal relationship rather than on an information orientation. All in all, teachers must reflect on their own cultural orientations and identify their ideology and beliefs honestly.

The teacher must be a warm demander

Warm demanders are teachers who develop relationships with their students and do things to let their students know they care for them. Successful teachers of Indigenous children have an interest in the lives of their students. They employ humour by directing deprecating humour at themselves and not at children. They also explain jokes and avoid sarcasm, and direct humour to the whole class, not at individual students.

Relationships are a priority in schools successful with Indigenous students. In order for classroom behaviour support to be successful teachers should also know or be willing to learn: the culture and characteristics of students, their learning strengths, successful teaching methods for Indigenous students and proactive behaviour support strategies.

The review showed that specific strategies need to be used with Indigenous students.

Methods used by successful teachers of Indigenous students

  • increase wait time after asking questions or making requests
  • provide opportunities for group work
  • scaffold learning to encourage student participation, even in direct questioning
  • provide opportunities for movement
  • provide flexibility
  • use storytelling and implement activity based learning.
  • as indigenous students may not have value in work for work’s sake tasks need to be enjoyable and be seen to be applicable in the context of their lives.
  • allow autonomy and leadership skills. One of the few Australian empirical studies found two teachers achieved “classrooms where Adult/ pupil teacher interactions are characterized by sensitivity, respect and allegiance to common goals … [by] catering for Aboriginal student differences and needs, while focusing student creativity and energy towards self-enhancing goals”.
  • staff working in Indigenous ways; which in one study they refined into six quality teaching pedagogies in common with Aboriginal epistemologies: self-direction; self-regulation; social support; connectedness to the world; narrative and cultural knowledge.
  • use culturally based behaviour support and management strategies. Time spent on proactive behaviour support strategies decreases disruption. Proactive strategies documented in international research literature included making behaviour expectations clear and teaching students how to meet expectations. Australian research emphasized that teachers should avoid spotlighting students and must provide social support as the key pedagogy to develop self-direction.
  • frame requests in a way that will engage students and do not rely on worksheets.
  • use reactive strategies that are culturally appropriate. For example reward acceptable behaviour with consistent and short-lived rewards to shape behaviour rather than punishing hard. Individual praise can cause the opposite effect so shared group rewards or individual praise in private are preferable. And the time to teach ‘Balanda’ values is not in the middle of a conflict. Following conflict, punitive measures may not be productive. Students should be asked to consider the importance of their responsibility to community. Teachers may lose credibility if they use excessive authority, shouting, sarcasm or being bossy and threats, punishments and use of authority won’t work. Moreover, proactive approaches must be adopted at a whole-school level.
  • create links with community by involving community members and forming friendships with parents and carers. Better outcomes are likely as the trust between family and teacher develops.

In conclusion, while the advice literature offers numerous suggestions, as I see it, Australian research evidence is still lacking. If we are serious about improving the outcomes of our Indigenous students we need to fund and carry out much more research in this field.

 

BOONDr Helen Boon is a Senior Lecturer in the areas of educational psychology, special needs and behaviour management at James Cook University. Helen has a strong research interest the education of at risk students, and the factors that help them to become resilient including their parenting.  Helen initially trained in the sciences  and taught Chemistry and Mathematics for a number of years.  Preferred research methods are mixed methods,  including SEM and Rasch modelling. She is currently working on an ARC funded project examining the most effective pedagogies for Indigenous students.

Shocking evidence of US-style racial bias in Australian schools

Australian research is almost silent on how disciplinary practices in our schools are affected by racial bias. 

In the United States there is ample evidence that children from minority groups are more likely to labelled as having behaviour disorders. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with having a mild intellectual impairment, learning disabilities or emotional disturbance, and placed in special education classes.

Research from the US consistently shows that African American, American Indian and Hispanic students are more likely to be overrepresented if they are:

  • male,
  • from a low SES background,
  • live in a high-density urban area, and
  • where there is a high proportion of students from minority groups.

Similar trends have been noted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

The lack Australian research on this issue is not because we somehow have escaped the problem but because Australian education systems are remarkably eclectic in the ways in which they report data.

Sophisticated longitudinal and geographical analyses tracking trends in diagnosis and placement are currently impossible. We remain ignorant of magnitude, cause and effect. But there are indicators and if you can see the tip of an iceberg, logic suggests that you would make a serious effort to alter direction.

What DO we know?

The NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) publishes an extensive array of educational data. Whilst they are riddled with inconsistencies and blind-alleys, DEC does at least publish some statistics disaggregated by Indigenous status.

These data show that Indigenous students are significantly over-represented in long school suspensions (5-20 days) and in separate special educational settings. DEC doesn’t draw that conclusion themselves but it is clearly evident when Indigenous students make up only 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012 but account for:

24.4% of long-suspensions,

14.6% of enrolments in primary school support classes,

12.6% of enrolments in secondary school support classes, and

12.8% of enrolments in special schools.

These numbers tell us far less than we need to know. For example, is the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students in school suspensions and special educational settings increasing or declining over time? Are there discrepancies that might indicate institutional bias or is Indigenous over-representation in these data simply a reflection of social disadvantage?

I looked for evidence of trends emerging. What I discovered has made me believe urgent attention is needed.

Let’s start with the use of suspension: the strongest predictor of later special education placement and school failure.

Long-school suspensions: 2008-2012

Indigenous students accounted for 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012, but received 24.4% of long-suspensions (averaging 11.8 days), up from 22% in 2008.

They were 5.1 times more likely to receive a long-suspension than non-Indigenous students (up from a risk of 4.3 in 2008), and 6.1 times more likely than non-Indigenous students to receive a repeat long-suspension (no change from 2008).

There was a 35.1% increase in the number of Indigenous students receiving a long-suspension between 2008 and 2012.

This is almost twice the increase in long-suspensions received by non-Indigenous students.

This is a serious problem because suspension is an ineffective and often harmful response to student disengagement that does nothing to address the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour.

As I mentioned earlier, suspension is also the most robust predictor of special education placement and later school failure. If that’s true, then high rates of suspension may be impacting Indigenous enrolments in special education. Let’s have a closer look at this part of the iceberg…

Enrolments in separate special educational settings

longitudinal analysis  of enrolments in separate special educational settings (1997-2007) found that Indigenous enrolments in support classes and special schools are increasing faster than enrolments of non-Indigenous students, and faster than Indigenous enrolments in mainstream.

In other words, the rise in Indigenous special education placements cannot be explained by Indigenous population growth.

This research also found that Indigenous students were already over-represented in separate settings back in 1997, and that the degree of over-representation has increased significantly since. Particularly worrying was the finding that the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students had accelerated in the 6 years since the Review of Indigenous Education (2004).

Enrolments in NSW government special schools

So, we know that Indigenous students are over-represented in special schools and that their enrolments are increasing relative to non-Indigenous students. This doesn’t appear to have stirred much in the way of public outcry, so I investigated whether Indigenous disproportionality differs by special school type.

There are three broad types of special schools in the NSW government school sector:

  • Traditional special schools enrolling students with moderate to severe intellectual impairment, physical and sensory disabilities, and autism;
  • Mental health special schools enrolling students with emotional disturbances, severe psychiatric disorders, or behaviour disorders; and
  • Juvenile justice special schools within juvenile justice detention centres.

In 2009, traditional special schools enrolled just over two thirds of special school students, mental health special schools enrolled almost one quarter, and juvenile justice special schools enrolled just under 10 per cent.

Indigenous representation varied significantly by school type with 1 in 4 kids in mental health special schools and almost 1 in 2 in juvenile justice special schools identifying as Indigenous. Less than 6 from every 100 students in Traditional SSPs were Indigenous.

This means that Indigenous disproportionality in special schooling is explained by over-representation in particular types of special schools; namely mental health special schools and juvenile justice special schools.

Now, I know that still might seem unremarkable to some, so I looked a little more closely at mental health special schools. There are two broad types in this group:

  • special schools for students with verified mental health issues, and
  • special schools for students with disruptive behaviour.

The former requires a confirmation of disability (under the category of mental health problems) prior to entry, the other doesn’t.

Indigenous students accounted for 18.8% of enrolments in the type that requires confirmation of disability and 27.1% of enrolments in the type that doesn’t.

In my field of research, that’s more than the proverbial tip of an iceberg.  It’s the equivalent of a smoking gun.

At the very least, these trends tell us that our school disciplinary practices are affected by racial bias and that we need to more carefully examine how discipline is applied, to whom, what for and in what ways.

 

Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). She is presenting this research at the NSW Aboriginal Education Council’s 50th Anniversary Conference, Saturday August 30, 2014.