Indigenous students

Into this silence the children said – we are not the problem we are the solution

“…And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices ever shared, no one dared disturb the sound of silence…”

(Excerpt from Sound of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel, 1965)

There is a silence echoing within government chambers,  as the need to address the disparities in Indigenous education is not spoken about. Indigenous education policy seems to be at a standstill. 

It has been almost a year with no review or evaluation of national strategies for educating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy, the agreement between Australia’s education ministers, was made in 2015 and was supposed to “guide the education of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people from birth through to further education and employment pathways”. But it now seems redundant. It has been a year with no superseding policy and no action plan.

To me the silence is unforgivable. There are around 300,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children under the age of fifteen in this country today, and by 2031 around half of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will be under 25 years old. I am advocating for them.

Talking without speaking, hearing without listening

The government promised a “refresh” of the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, more commonly referred to as Closing the Gap.  However, a set of draft targets was released in December of 2018, ten months ago, suggesting what could be enacted.  That’s all we got.

And when we look at these draft education specific targets, they are simply a reimagining of the goals as set out in previous iterations of policy.  That is, the focus again falls on Numeracy and Literacy, Year 12 qualifications, attendance and so forth: same focus, similar goals, similar written words.

Then there was the review of the Melbourne Declaration on educational goals for young Australians.  The goals were set in 2008 within the first iteration and they also have not been met. Previous signatories and former education ministers have publicly lamented this lack of progress. 

The truth is the priority areas (or whatever they are called now) have not changed since 1975, The Report to the Schools Commission by the Aboriginal Consultative Group in June 1975 highlighted, way back then, the lack of progress in Indigenous education.  The fact that the priority areas remain stagnant and merely rephrased is something I wrote about in 2016.

The chasm

You could think all this failure and stagnation around educating First Nations people would inspire action and innovation to truly begin addressing the inequities.  Dominant voices within government espouse to wanting to “try something new, to change the way we work as governments – to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians”.

 And yet, never has there been so large a gaping chasm between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian Government than present times. Our voices and the Uluru Statement from the Heart have been silenced, denied and rejected.

Still waiting

To add insult, according to the commitments made within the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy in 2015, was the promise that: “This strategy will be reviewed in 2018, which is a significant year in measuring progress against COAG’s Closing the gap targets. An evaluation will consider the effectiveness of the strategy as a framework.”

Well 2018 has long gone and we are still waiting to see the review.

The evaluation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014  was completed in November 2014 by ACIL Allen Consulting ,with the Strategy being endorsed and released late 2015. 

How much longer do we have to wait?

All we get is silence. 

We can wish

It is hard not to be cynical and postulate sarcastic laments. But we can wish.

Perhaps the delay is because, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserts in his Prime Minister’s foreword in the Closing the Gap Report 2019, “the main area of change needs to be in how governments approach implementation of policies and delivery of services.  Stronger accountability can be achieved through co-designed action plans that link targets to policy action, funding decisions, and regular evaluations”. 

Perhaps the government has been compiling an actual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Advisory Group made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educators whose ‘business’ is education and know how targets can be achieved. 

Perhaps the government has finally listened and recognized that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth bubble, those under the age of 15, makes up over a third of the total Indigenous population.  This inevitably means that a large number of the population will be of school age.  Surely this must have some influence on the urgency of addressing the inequities and ‘closing the gap’.

The reality is that if a new iteration of the policy is not released soon, any momentum will be lost as was suggested in the Evaluation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010-2014.  Without the policy, and making schools and systems accountable as well as governments, our kids and their educational attainment, their dreams of a future become silenced. 

Imagine

More recently, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike released the Imagination Declaration asking ministers “to imagine what’s possible…[and that,] it’s time to think differently”.

If you haven’t read it, you should. Be inspired.

As the children said, “We are not the problem, we are the solution … We urge you to give us the freedom to write a new story.’

But here we sit and wait for any response from government.  We wait for government to provide the next policy. And one last wish that if do we get one there will be no fudging to backdate it to include 2019, as the year is almost over.

The children, teachers and schools wait for an end to this silence.

Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is Senior Lecturer in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne.  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”.

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

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.