Moving on to... What?
Theorising Aboriginal Education


A Reply from Merridy Malin




 Yes, it is true that all those involved in Aboriginal Education need to move on as the record shows that little has changed in school education for Aboriginal students. And yes, maybe it's even time to reconsider 'learning styles' theory. But before we do let's set the record straight about what it is or isn't; what careful research and practice has shown it can do; and understand fully under what constraints it has struggled to operate from its inception.

The concept of 'Aboriginal learning styles', as described by Stephen Harris in his 1980 book, Culture and Learning, still currently dominates the discourse about Aboriginal education at all levels, with its theory that certain dichotomies can be shown as broadly characterising the major differences between Aboriginal and Western learning systems. But do these dichotomies in general, and the concept of 'Aboriginal learning styles' in particular, which no doubt could be shown to feed into populist viewpoints and stereotypical judgements, necessarily condemn Aboriginal students to an inferior education? Has 'Aboriginal learning styles' theory, that undoubtedly important theoretical development of the 1970s, now passed its use-by date? Is it, as these critics declare, leading educators up a theoretical blind alley by skewing the theoretical focus away from those social factors which are the 'real' causes of such educational failure?

Fundamentally I agree with Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt, and along with them regret, that 'learning styles theory' has, since its inception, been both popularised and theoretically reduced, and has sometimes been used to defend 'shoddy classroom practices'. But this is not a fault of the theory itself but rather a failing of practice. I also agree with these critics that there is inequality and oppression inherent in our current social structure, and it is my belief that, until this is removed, the general disempowerment of Aboriginal students in western schools is likely to continue. However, a difference between my beliefs and those presented in this critique is that I believe that the problem of schools failing Aboriginal students needs to be tackled on many fronts at once - at the very local individual level as well as the pervasive structural level; in individual teacher practice and collective government policy. Classroom teachers cannot just sit on their hands, waiting for the millennium. But unfortunately, I have not yet found, or been convincingly shown by these critics, a theory for simultaneously addressing the problems of the classroom and the society, and doing justice to both.

It is certainly regrettably true that 'learning styles' theory has not, in the past, addressed issues at the systems level. Nor has it claimed to do so. However, Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt, despite their convictions, have not presented us with a unified theory of pedagogy and society in their article to help us in this endeavour either. Nevertheless, they find it necessary to criticise Stephen Harris and myself for our 'astonishing naivety' in not understanding that the 'structures of subordination and domination in which Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations in this country have been embedded' need changing before Aboriginal students 'will learn much in Western classrooms'. Dare I say that it was not naivety or lack of understanding, but rather the fact that some of us are not prepared to wait for such profound societal change before seeking changes at the individual classroom level.

This article misrepresents both my work, and that of Stephen Harris, in a number of ways. A writer can't write about everything in every paper, or give equal emphasis to all important themes at all times. However, both Stephen Harris and myself, quite independently, have indeed frequently addressed the bigger, structural picture in publications not acknowledged by these critics. In separate works, in fact, we have referred to the socio-political and historical dimensions of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations. We have written of the importance of Aboriginal control of Aboriginal schools and of the Aboriginal independent schools' movement; of the urgent need for trained Aboriginal teachers and teacher educators. Stephen Harris's book Two Way Schooling, written in 1990, even included a chapter on 'The sociopolitical context of curriculum planning', which discussed how in two-way schooling the authority structures are the first aspect to be considered because ultimately these influence everything that happens in a school both in terms of the overt curriculum and the hidden curriculum. He categorically states that it is his belief that in a two-way school both planning and control must lie with the local Aboriginal community so that they can design their school around their own particular community needs and environment. Our most recent works include research papers seeking to delineate what contributes to the effectiveness of anti-racism programs, as well as an edited book for teacher education students-Historical, Practical and Moral Tales in Indigenous Education-which argues about the importance of history and politics in Aboriginal self-determination.

These critics also claim that I, again no doubt naively, simply ignore diversity among Aboriginal people and assume that certain cultural explanations are pertinent to all Aboriginal pupils. Once again, this is a gross misrepresentation of my work. I have always made it clear in all my writing that I am referring to a particular socio-economic group of Nunga students in the papers about my research in urban classrooms. The critique also chooses to ignore that substantial part of my doctoral thesis which provides detail of the historical, political and socio-economic context of the children and families of the study and of the families' responses to the racism that they encounter in their daily lives.

It is a great pity that this critique hasn't itself 'moved on' sufficiently, being based primarily on Stephen Harris' first book, while ignoring all that subsequent work which clarifies and indeed qualifies aspects of the original theory. For example, Stephen Harris himself has discussed several of the matters raised by this article in a paper written as long ago as 1984, but unfortunately not included in the critique. He explained then that what he was referring to as 'Aboriginal learning styles' was actually informal learning behaviours which take place outside of school. He argued that people from every culture use both formal and informal learning strategies but that their different technologies and economies demand different proportions of the two. In this same paper, Harris warned of the dangers in attempting to apply his Aboriginal learning style theory to classroom teaching in general, other than to introduce the fundamentals of the 3Rs or any other type of classroom skill or understanding.

In fact, learning styles hasn't featured as a central topic in any of Stephen Harris' writing since 1984, with the exception of a 1992 paper in which he criticises some of his own earlier work. Prior to this critique, therefore, Stephen Harris has, in fact, 'moved on'.

In their foray into 'the debate', and presumably to further theoretical development, the final section of these critics' article, describes a project of work which proved very successful at Batchelor College, a tertiary education institution for indigenous students in the Northern Territory. It is important, of course, that this example be publicised, but if it is to contribute to theory, more explanation is needed than a simple catalogue of the literature resources and curriculum topics used. A theory of Aboriginal education needs to be informed by contextualised explanations. In the Batchelor College case this would include descriptions of the actual pedagogy employed-particularly the social relations between teacher and student in the classroom. Would just any teacher, fresh off the street, have had the same success using the same topic and readings? And would it be as successful with all Aboriginal students? Applications to urban multi-ethnic classrooms would have provided a useful counterpoint, and would have gone some way towards demonstrating that Aboriginal people are not all culturally homogenous. They also 'listed' the works of several Aboriginal writers, artists, and professionals, many of which both Stephen Harris and myself also include in the readings offered to our undergraduate teacher education students, as important expressions of the diversity of contemporary Aboriginal life. There is no denying the truth of this assertion, however, this article does not enlighten us as to how these examples constitute a substitute theory to explain the failure of western schooling for indigenous students.

Interestingly, my classroom research did not mention 'learning styles', a theoretical construction which my critics have chosen to use somewhat loosely in order to make their criticism appear to be more powerful than it really is. In fact, much of the research that this article refers to as involving 'learning style' theory would more aptly fit under the rubric of 'cultural difference' theory, a theory which focuses upon communication patterns and learning contexts rather than exclusively on so-called 'learning styles'. I believe that 'cultural difference' theory still has something to contribute, although it is definitely not the final word in the struggle for equity in education. And its mechanisms still need further clarification which I offer here in my effort to extend the debate a fraction further.

The underlying rationale for this research is that a major contributor to the repeated school failure of particular ethnic minority group students is believed to be the cultural incompatibility existing between home and school. Such incompatibility could result in a number of problems, including the undermining of the identity of a student; miscommunication leading to ineffective teaching; or misunderstanding leading to conflict, racist stereotyping and discrimination. All of these types of problems have been extensively documented in research. In the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S.A., a number of such research studies were conducted by educational anthropologists who were working with teachers attempting to devise intervention strategies for the classroom. The two Kamehameha Early Education Programs (KEEP), one in Hawaii and the other in the Navajo community of Rough Rock, Arizona provide successful examples of this research.

In brief, in the KEEP program, cultural difference theory was combined with a Vygotskian theory of pedagogy. In Hawaii, the KEEP teachers and researchers devised a reading program based upon the 'talk story' conversation style common in Native Hawaiian homes but also incorporating intensive tutoring between the teacher and the small group or individual student. The reading attainment of the Native Hawaiian children in the program advanced from being the lowest in the country to above average according to U.S. national reading age norms as measured on standardised tests. The children passing through this program over the past two decades have maintained this success.

However, when the same strategy, employing the social organisation of the Hawaiian 'talk story', was applied to a similar age reading class in the Navajo community school, it proved to be a dismal failure. Only after specific research into the particular social contexts and organisation of communication and learning in the local community, and the application of this in the classroom, did the teachers and students in the program attain success. There are a number of factors proposed as an explanation for this but basically it was because the KEEP teachers and researchers avoided the stereotyping and restricted expectations that can plague the search for cultural compatibility. They understood that such a search is a long-term and complex process of determining the effects of culture on individuals and on their learning, so only after exhaustive research did they translate those theoretical findings into classroom practice.

Establishing cultural compatibility does not entail everything at school looking exactly like everything at home. Rather, it means some minimum, but necessary factors being incorporated, to varying degrees, into classroom routines. The process of finding the right ones for any particular group of students is, of course, a difficult one. Many cultural aspects can be ignored and this is where the criticism that proponents of cultural difference theory merely reduce culture, becomes invalid. In classroom applications it has to a certain extent to be reduced. Ultimately, however, the aim of the KEEP programs is to gradually 'accommodate' the students into school learning, without attempting to assimilate them.

Another crucial ingredient of the KEEP program is the Vygotskian approach to teaching and learning which includes the principle that effective teaching involves the learner in being assisted by an 'expert' in joint performance of the learning task. This assistance - or scaffolding, through modelling, questioning, providing feedback, and explaining or theorising - takes the students just beyond where they would go on their own until they can perform the task independently.

True, culturally compatible classrooms operate so that students can be compliant without violating a sense of their own identity, or without violating their understanding of what is appropriate behaviour for themselves and their teachers. They provide learning structures that do not offend cultural sensibilities but work with them. Theory states that all this combined can act as a substitute for the external motivation structures, such as anticipated employment, that are socially absent for minority groups who have faced a history of institutionalised discrimination. If these motivations can be sustained throughout their schooling, then the students will succeed, as the Kamehameha graduates will attest.

In Australia, no-one, to my knowledge, has rigorously implemented and monitored research on the scale of the KEEP program. The closest we have come to this can be seen in the work of Brian Gray and Julia Price at Traeger Park Primary School in Alice Springs. The Traeger Park program used virtually the same theoretical framework as the KEEP program, being strongly influenced by Vygotskian theory, while continually contextualising the teaching and learning. But the concept of cultural difference theory was never explicitly incorporated into this program.

A difficulty for cultural difference theory in mainstream urban schools is, of course, the fact that these students come from a variety of social and cultural backgrounds. Noreen Trouw has addressed this in a program which she initially designed for Aboriginal students but later employed in a class comprised of several different ethnic groups. She conducted formal evaluation research on her own teaching in an ESL program in a Darwin primary school in 1995. Her teaching strategies derived strongly from Stephen Harris' theory of 'Aboriginal learning styles' but incorporated ideas from Brian Gray's notion of 'natural language learning' which is distinctly Vygotskian; Michael Christie's notion of purposeful learning; a collection of socio-linguistic research on Aboriginal English, and Don Holdaway's conceptualisation of literacy development. The principles by which she operated in the classroom were 'to begin where the students were at' regarding their home socialisation and what was comfortable for them and gradually drawing them into the culture of literacy and the skills of reading. She found that all of her students developed significantly during the year, regardless of cultural background.

Sandra Hudspith's latest work, which describes an effective urban teacher of Aboriginal students whose teaching fitted with Basil Bernstein's notion of a visible pedagogy but where cultural considerations remained implicit although present, will also have much to contribute to furthering the research evidence that is needed to inform this, at present so-called, 'debate'. For, despite the criticism, cultural difference theory could provide a useful pedagogical theory that has yet to be thoroughly applied and tested in Australian classrooms. There are certainly promising signs that it may be effective with Aboriginal and English as a Second Language students. The main problem lies in their expense, complexity, and the difficulties inherent in their implementation and maintenance. I cannot accept that the very real successes of these programs should be ignored simply because they are based on a theory which does not offer a coherently integrated explanation of both society and pedagogy. After all, those Native Hawaiian graduates from the KEEP program who are now teachers and lawyers are tangible examples of how those unequal power relations inherent in our society may perhaps be able to be incrementally and slowly overcome at a classroom level. Here in Australia, there are individual teachers who are succeeding and they should be given our whole-hearted support from all quarters, not simply ridiculed for their alleged 'naivety'. With their collaboration, it would be more useful for all those who are concerned about the future of Aboriginal education to systematically monitor their pedagogy to discover what it is that they are doing right and use this in the development of those very necessary theoretical structures which Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt so ardently desire.

None of us can afford to assume a 'holier than thou' attitude. The task of developing effective educational programs for indigenous students needs concerted effort on all fronts, evolving adequate theory, translating it into practice and vice versa. In accomplishing this, we need to mount ongoing dialogue not only between indigenous and non-indigenous people and teachers and academics, but with parents, students, community leaders and politicians. There is also much to be done in recruiting more Aboriginal teachers, principals and university lecturers, in promoting anti-racism programs.

And so yes, let's keep the debate going forward.


Merridy Malin, School of Education, Northern Territory University

ARCHIVE: contents | editorial | issues | states | conferences | marketing


Education Australia Online