Theorising Aboriginal Education:
Surely it's time to move on?


Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley & Ron Watt




Every teacher with a serious professional interest in Aboriginal education in this country has heard of, and has at some level been influenced by, the notion of 'Aboriginal Learning Styles'. 'Learning styles' theory is now thoroughly embedded into the pedagogical practices of almost every Australian institution with a brief for Aboriginal education; in fact, in all probability that means every educational institution of this nature.

What is meant by 'Aboriginal Learning Styles'? Basically, this theory claims there are significant differences in the ways in which 'Aborigines' and 'Whites' learn. These differences mean that teachers involved in the teaching of Aboriginal students, whether children or adults, must alter or modify their classroom teaching approaches and practices in order to be successful.

Stephen Harris is rightly credited with developing and popularising this theory in Australia in his seminal work from 1980 Culture and Learning: Tradition and Education in Northeast Arnhem Land. In this immensely influential book Harris posits 'five major Aboriginal learning strategies' which are scaffolded by their apparent opposite number, non-Aboriginal learning styles.

  • Learning by observation and imitation rather than by verbal instruction: or learning by looking and copying, not by talking.
  • Learning by personal trial and error rather than by verbal instruction with demonstration: or, learning by doing, not by talking plus demonstration.
  • Learning in real life, rather than by practice in artificial settings: or learning by real life, not by 'practice'. Closely related to this is learning 'wholes', not sequenced parts, or learning by successive approximations of the efficient product.
  • Learning context-specific skills, versus generalisable principles: or, learning skills for specific tasks rather than learning generalizable principles.
  • Person-orientation in learning, not information-orientation: or focus on people and relationships rather than on information. This is related to the absence of the institutionalized office of teacher in Yolgnu society.

Since the publication of Culture and Learning, and since its initial enthusiastic reception by workers in the field, the notion of 'Aboriginal Learning Styles' has greatly expanded its sphere of influence. It is important to note that at the time it was written, Harris' work challenged both the view that Aborigines were incapable of being educated, and the alternative view that they should be educated merely to assimilate them into Australian society.

However, Harris' work implicitly challenges not only the ineducability thesis but also the assumption that Aboriginal children are suffering from 'cultural deprivation' and that the overarching aim of education should be to compensate for their 'deficient' backgrounds. At that time most schooling for Aboriginal children disregarded, indeed, actively suppressed, traditional knowledge and learning, concentrating exclusively on western content and learning. Under the assimilation policy, an often evangelical fervour had been brought to the task of teaching Aboriginal children white society's ways of living. The corollary of this was a conscious effort to stamp out Aboriginal lifeways.

At the time of publication, Harris' theoretical work breathed new life into Aboriginal education. Not only were Aborigines viewed as just as educable as the next person, but also Aboriginal cultural mores and practices were legitimated, indeed, for virtually the first time since colonisation, they were conscripted into the service of education. At the same time a seemingly neutral scapegoat was found for the shameful across-the-board failure of Aboriginal schooling in this country-Aborigines had different learning styles to those of white people, learning styles which had hitherto been either unknown or ignored. The diagnosis having been made, that Aboriginal children had failed to learn much in Western classrooms because of a mismatch of their learning styles and Western teaching styles, the prescription for health became beautifully clear and simple-change classroom practices and the shameful situation would be reversed. That Harris and his followers apparently genuinely believe such a reversal to be possible without changing the structures of subordination and domination in which Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations in this country have been embedded since the first wave of invasion by the British, is a measure of their astonishing naivety.

Over the years 'learning styles theory' has been regularly updated, including recently by Harris himself in his rather controversial book Two-Way Aboriginal Schooling, Education and Cultural Survival. In this book Harris identifies what he holds to be the 'basic' differences between Aboriginal and Western belief systems - religious versus positivistic thinking; relatedness versus compartmentalisation; cyclic versus linear concepts of time; being versus doing; closed versus open society; contrasting views of work and economics; contrasting views of authority.

The underlying binarism and reductionism of Harris' approach is apparent here as these two sets of belief systems are presented as by and large mutually exclusive and virtually oppositional. The two 'basic' categories of persons who occupy this continent are perceived as having cultural differences of such profound significance as to render mutual understanding or meaningful exchange, whether in or outside of Australian classrooms, as exceedingly difficult if not impossible. That many Aboriginal people in remote areas may not be interested in Western-style jobs - see the euphemistic 'contrasting views of work and economics' - because for the most part they are only offered the most menial, degrading jobs at the bottom end of the economic heap, is not even considered. Such reduction of the enormous socio-political problems brought about by the ongoing effects of colonisation to mere 'cultural differences' is characteristic of the approach of Harris and his followers. Equally, the increasingly populist viewpoint of indigenous Australians as 'spiritually rich' by comparison with their 'spiritually impoverished' Western counterparts is ultimately a deeply conservative view. The popular perception of Aborigines as less materially-oriented than other Australians smooths the path of their material dispossession more than just a little. That the field about which Harris and his adherents write may be historically and socially constituted, rather than merely culturally-constituted, appears to have largely escaped these writers, or has influenced them only marginally.

Moreover, cultural explanations founded on the traditionally-oriented are deemed as pertinent to all Aboriginal pupils despite the diversity of Aboriginal ways of life and the diversity of educational contexts. Merridy Malin, in her recent study of an urban Aboriginal family and an 'Anglo' family in Adelaide, has argued that there are enduring Aboriginal characteristics and behaviours which bring Aboriginal children into conflict with 'Anglo' teachers and influence Aboriginal pupils' underachievement in education. The enduring nature of the characteristics are constructed as cultural and as isolated and removed from processes and structures of domination and subordination. Malin's findings, prefigured by those of her mentor Harris, support the orthodoxy of cultural dissonance and cultural difference as the sine qua non of inequitable outcomes for Aborigines in education. Her findings are also consistent with those of Harris insofar as she also largely ignores the material conditions of contemporary Aboriginal existence. Neither writer seriously attempts to analyse the field of Aboriginal education in terms of its location within the broader field of economic, social and political power in this country.

This commitment to an ideology of unchanging Aboriginal society and a monolithic essential Aboriginality coexists uneasily with the reality of contemporary Aboriginal life and the diversity of expressions of Aboriginality-see for instance the works of Eva Johnson, Tracy Moffatt, Destiny Deacon, Tiddas, Archie Roach, Archie Weller, Gordon Bennett, Trevor Nickolls, Lin Onus, Pat O'Shane, Michael Mansell, Irene Watson, Paul Hughes. Equally, the ideology of an unchanging society based on a kind of primordial Aboriginal cultural essence totally disregards the contemporary contexts in which Aboriginal realities are now constituted.

In addition, Harris' and others' lists of Aboriginal 'learning styles' and attitudes are extraordinarily apt descriptors of the behaviours of many of the non-Aboriginal working class pupils we have taught on and off over the past twenty years. What Harris actually describes are informal learning behaviours which take place outside classrooms. Such informal learning behaviours are not the exclusive prerogative of Aborigines. However, it is true that the ruling classes within our society are better attuned, via complex processes which tend to reproduce inequalities within our society, to the formal constraints of Western classrooms.

It is also quite mistaken to assume that Aborigines did not/do not make use of formal learning techniques. For instance, many Aboriginal ceremonies of both the past and present involve highly structured, critical, compressed periods of formal learning, during which the complexities of kinship and law are first inculcated and then examined.

The lack of recognition, on the part of these theorists, of differences of class, gender and culture within the two groups described as 'Whites' and 'Aborigines' is highly problematic. While 'Whites' and 'Aborigines' continue to be presented as undifferentiated categories, and continue to be subject to these theorists' totalising, homogenising discourse, cultural explanations about Aborigines' academic failure will continue to prevail. And while 'cultural reasons' for Aboriginal academic failure continue to hold sway, more overtly political explanations will continue to be disregarded.

Such a position, despite its surface attractions and the obvious sincerity of its exponents, serves to maintain the status quo-that is, the unacceptably low achievement levels of Aboriginal students within the Australian schooling system. The failure of these theorists to connect the academic difficulties or failures to any broader social reality demonstrates the inadequacy of that theory. Unfortunately 'learning styles theory' seems to accept equal educational opportunity as a given.

Minority group students are disempowered in very much the same way that their communities are disempowered in interactions with wider social institutions, and effective education programs for minority students must be based on such an understanding. 'Learning Style Theory' attributes educational failure to Aboriginal students' inability to handle 'White' styles of learning, and 'White' inability to accommodate Aboriginal learning styles in classrooms. This argument comes perilously close to 'blaming the victim.' Some time ago Stanner argued that the major problems besetting Aborigines since colonisation were homelessness, powerlessness, poverty and paternalism. While advances have been made since Stanner presented his Boyer Lecture, these relations of power and oppression endure to this day, and more accurately account for the continuing failure and underachievement of Aboriginal children in our schools than any explanation based on differences in 'learning styles'.

Aboriginal learning styles, and its aftercomers, 'cultural domain separation' and 'two-way schooling', are embedded in a particular view of culture as a set of practices frozen, as if in a museum, and thus rendered outside of the forces of history, politics and power. Ultimately, this view of culture allows Aboriginal people not to look at one another directly in the eye if they do not so wish, to have song and dance, emus, goannas, kangaroos, bushtucker and boomerangs, didgeridus and clapsticks and so forth, but no history. This view construes culture and history as uncontested terrain, and therefore completely apolitical and ahistorical.

Education programs for Aboriginal students, if they are to have any real chance of success, must assist Aboriginal people to reclaim that history. A recent example of a unified curriculum approach undertaken at Batchelor College-an all-Aboriginal tertiary institution in the Northern Territory-on the theme of Mabo, shows how this can work in practice.

The fifteen students enrolled here in second year English in 1993 were all first language speakers of Aboriginal languages, having English as their second, and in some cases, third, language. At the time the students' on-site second year English workshop was being planned, Mabo was a very hot issue nationally, being constantly aired on television and radio broadcasts, and on the front pages of the newspapers and other print media. The High Court's ruling on the Mabo claim had the potential to significantly alter the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country, yet this group of students understood little about the implications of the decision, in particular being impeded by the quasi-legal language in which much of it was framed. In this, it should be added, they probably did not differ significantly from many other Australians, but since the Mabo decision had the potential to affect their everyday lives, there was a demonstrable need for them to be well-informed about it, and to be able to clearly articulate their position.

A program of reading and media screenings on the topic of 'Mabo' was devised for these students. The video Land Bilong Islander was shown, as was an episode of the ABC's current affairs program Lateline devoted to the Mabo case. A transcript of the Lateline program was later incorporated into the teaching program, with the students acting out the script. This latter activity generated a good deal of insight into the adversarial nature of many of the responses to the Mabo decision. Cuttings from newspapers, including Henry Reynold's 'Black-White Watershed' from the Weekend Australian, were analysed in depth and discussed. Written work about the Mabo decision was set and discussed. The students were asked to collect their own cuttings about the case and bring them to College to pool for group discussion. Various texts about Land Rights were introduced, and an extract from Frank Hardy's novel The Unlucky Australians was critically examined and reviewed by students. The purpose of this activity was to provide the broader historical context of Aboriginal Land Rights necessary for understanding the Mabo case. Needless to say, this unit of work generated a high level of critical engagement and successful learning on the part of the students.

Because of the dearth of definitive written Aboriginal history texts, and the absences from the 'official' texts of Aboriginal perspectives on history, much Aboriginal fiction should be read as history, and needs to be deployed in both secondary and tertiary education programs for Aboriginal people. Genuinely liberating education programs for Aboriginal people will give them access to Aboriginal history. Ironically, this can often happen most effectively by reading novels written by Aboriginal writers. Short stories and novels such as those written by Archie Weller, Sally Morgan and Mudrooroo Nyoongah, and the works of playwrights like Jack Davis, Robert Merritt and Eva Johnson go a long way towards filling the gaps and silences in recent recorded history. An overview of the themes of many contemporary Aboriginal short stories and novels will confirm their historical veracity. Weller's short stories for example, collectively constitute a strongly regional account of our intersecting histories. The characters and scenarios of Archie Weller's books are instantly recognisable to those conversant with 'the facts of the case'. For instance, Western Australia has the highest rate of Aboriginal incarceration in Australia. Weller however does not present us with dry statistics and boring 'facts', but challenges the reader with the human face of dispossession and alienation. Mudrooroo Nyoongah's work provides the reader with similar insights. The works of Marcia Langton, Jackie Huggins and Roberta Sykes also need to be included on any tertiary reading list, as do the films of Tracey Moffatt.

Similarly, encouraging Aboriginal students to write their own autobiographical accounts, situated as they must be in time and place, can also be very powerful means of reclaiming those lost or incomplete histories. It is relatively easier to write about what you already know, or with which you are intimately familiar. Students are almost always highly motivated in this endeavour, important connections are made, and if they are willing to share the results, an invaluable resource of literature is produced for further use in the classroom.

Clearly, should 'Learning Styles' theory lose its place as the dominant discourse about Aboriginal schooling in this country, Aboriginal education would not be left in a theoretical vacuum, should this occur. However, attention to curriculum alone is not enough. Some real structural impediments to Aboriginal education continue to exist, and these need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. An extreme example of this is the continuing lack of proper high school education facilities in every large Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, while, as Chris Walton has demonstrated, predominantly non-Aboriginal towns of exactly the same size or even smaller are equipped with high school education facilities.

If we are really to make a difference, it is necessary to work on multiple fronts. Political lobbying for secondary school facilities and education programs for Aboriginal students in remote areas of Australia may well be the most important current priority for those disquieted by the status quo in Aboriginal education.

Gender is also a crucial issue in relation to Aboriginal education which is totally disregarded within 'learning styles theory'. This is surprising, especially as in some circles there exists a discourse about 'girls' learning styles' which parallels that of 'Aboriginal learning styles'. Moreover, 'learning styles' discourse offers absolutely no explanation for why, at every level of Aboriginal education from early childhood to tertiary, girls and women are outstripping boys and men, in terms of their overall educational achievement. Any properly-researched approach to Aboriginal education needs to take this issue on board.

It is time to move on to an educational theory and practice which at the very least poses the urgent sociopolitical questions with which Aboriginal people must contend. Aboriginal education can no longer afford to ignore these broader issues. There are serious problems currently besetting Aboriginal education in this country and it behoves all of us who are professionally or personally involved with Aboriginal education to rise to this challenge.

Christine Nicholls, Australian Studies, Flinders University.
Vicki Crowley, Aboriginal Studies, University of South Australia.
Ron Watt, School of Education, Batchelor College.

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