Theorising Aboriginal Education:
Exactly Where Are We Now?


A Reply from Bronwyn Parkin




There is no question, as Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt point out in issue 33 of Education Australia, that Stephen Harris' description of learning styles in Milingimbi in the 1970s has had, and still continues to have, a far-reaching effect not only on Aboriginal educators but on educators from as far afield as Thailand, Indonesia, Niu Gini and the Solomon Islands. I, personally, am only too happy to acknowledge the significant impact that Stephen Harris's thinking, writing, commitment and leadership has made on my own work in Aboriginal education.

Over the last two decades the notion of 'learning styles' has been taken over by many people and used to serve many causes. The concept has been interpreted and implemented in ways that have gone far beyond anything intended by Stephen Harris, to encompass far more than learning at Milingimbi. Lip-service is now paid to the concept in urban, rural and remote classrooms around Australia and 'learning styles' have even been embraced as a significant part of identity for many Aboriginal people. They have been used to explain in a generalised way just why Aboriginal children are not successful in school, and some Aboriginal people have come to believe that the acceptance of 'learning styles' will make all the difference in learning. Some teachers might even say that they prove that Aboriginal children cannot learn in a de-contextualised way.

Certainly it is time to assess their value in contemporary classrooms, but I would argue that if we are indeed 'to move on' as Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt urge us to, Aboriginal, or at least informal 'learning styles' or some modified learning theory needs to come along with us. For while the changing of learning styles in the classroom will certainly not bring about social change on its own, neither will the mere act of deepening of our understanding of 'relations of power and oppression'. Clearly teachers committed to social justice must take both factors into account in their pedagogy and must 'move on' together to make things happen.

I am intrigued by the authors' references to 'Harris and his followers', 'Harris and his adherents', and 'these theorists', all of whom remain, to all intents and purposes, completely anonymous. To whom are they referring? Are the authors hesitant about naming the few writers such as Michael Christie and Merridy Malin who have published on learning styles at some stage in their careers? Or is it simply that these 'followers' are just too numerous to mention? As the article points out, all committed educators involved in Aboriginal education in the 1980s would have been influenced by this theory. Shouldn't the authors themselves, therefore, confess to have been 'followers' and 'adherents' at some stage, and, to once being, as they say, 'astonishingly naive'? Certainly Christine Nicholls' own Word and Deed column, also in Issue 33 and co-authored with Stephen Harris himself, would seem to indicate a degree of continuing affinity at least with the concept of 'learning styles'.

It would seem that Stephen Harris and his followers are so amazingly homogenous that they don't need to be named, but that Aboriginal writers representing the diversity of expressions of Aboriginality can be so listed in abundance - although, unfortunately, not many of them are directly involved in education at all. The authors are at pains to demonstrate the obvious binarism in Stephen Harris' Two Way Schooling, yet they themselves are unable to see their own false binarism in setting Stephen Harris and his 'followers' in direct opposition to this other, more enlightened and diverse Aboriginal group, namely Eva Johnson, Tracy Moffatt, Destiny Deacon, Tiddas, Archie Roach, Archie Weller, Gordon Bennett, Trevor Nickolls, Lin Onus, Pat O'Shane, Michael Mansell, Irene Watson and Paul Hughes. Fortunately, this simple dichotomy is not really as rigid as these authors suggest. Paul Hughes is, in fact, currently carrying out further research into Aboriginal 'learning styles' and many Aboriginal people are committed to an ideology which embraces an Aboriginal cultural essence, including 'learning styles'. This is, they feel, a significant way of reclaiming lost heritage, and for this reason many Aboriginal education workers see the inclusion of so-called Aboriginal 'learning styles' into mainstream classrooms as an important goal - one which gives them the authority and the power to arbitrate in school settings. For this reason, when we question the validity of learning styles, we are also questioning the validity of the identity of many Aboriginal people. In reality, therefore, there is no clear line between those supposedly oppositional groups of innovators or 'followers'.

I do agree with the authors that so-called Aboriginal 'learning styles' are simply recognisable as informal learning behaviours found in many cultures, descriptions of which can be found in the writings of anthropologists from as far back as the 1930s. I also agree that the description of this way of learning matches that found in a wide range of Australian children in other informal settings. However, rather than using this as a reason for rejecting the theory, I would argue that this means the theory is even more widely applicable than previously supposed. The 'danger' implicit in the theory is simply that some teachers may restrict Aboriginal and other children to this way of learning, rather than encourage their abilities to verbalise and work decontextually. The important fact that traditional Aboriginal groups also learned in formal contexts, as Michael Christie himself has shown, is not widely acknowledged either in current accounts of Aboriginal learning styles or in these authors' criticism.

Unlike Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt, I do not believe that trying to understand the 'cultural reasons' for Aboriginal academic failure only serves as a distraction from the more important political reasons which hold back Aboriginal students. In fact, I don't think their position on the role of culture and cultural difference in education is really made explicit. Do they consider culture a secondary consideration? Do they, like Stephen Muecke, actually see the contemporary stereotyping of Aboriginal 'culture' as a burden? Does the notion of culture even have a place in their discourse of education or have they rejected it and its sophistications out of hand? My definition of culture, influenced by Judyth Sachs and Mary Kalantzis, sees cultural behaviours as the behaviours we choose from the limited range available to us as we develop within our social, political and historical context. In other words, they are the manifestations of that specific historical context; manifestations which are evident in our day-to-day life. While it is certainly helpful for teachers to be conscious of the historic roots of inequity in their classrooms, such knowledge does not on its own, give them strategies to address that inequity day by day. It is one thing to recognise the different positions of cultural practices within the classroom; it is quite another to know how to address those differences, at once aiming for inclusivity without perpetuating the status quo.

Just what the authors suggest could be used as an alternative to 'learning style' theory is a bit vague but I think they are claiming that assisting Aboriginal people to understand their history is itself somehow going to fill the 'theoretical vacuum' left behind when 'learning styles' theory is dislodged from 'its place as the dominant discourse about Aboriginal schooling in this country'. What they are arguing for, it seems, is a different curriculum content-the 'what' of school learning. I think their aim is for schools to give Aboriginal students the chance to claim their own place in this society; to become conscious of where they've come from and where they are going.

While laudable, I suggest that this aim will not bring about social change on its own and that it is certainly not incompatible with 'learning styles' theory in any case. Nor is this revelation the radical deviation they appear to believe it to be. Both 'learning styles' and critical understandings of history can be identified as ingredients in Stephen Lusted's definition of pedagogy as the intersection of three agencies: the learner (and how children learn); the teacher (and instruction); and the curriculum (that is, the joint construction of knowledge). The authors' description of critical literacy at work in Bachelor College does not by any means support the argument that 'learning styles' are irrelevant. It simply shows other examples of informal learning styles: learning by observation and imitation, learning by doing, looking at the whole, not just the parts. After all, critical literacy has to be taught somehow, and effective teaching will need to include some of these aspects of so-called informal learning.

I agree that to focus on the way children learn, the 'how' of school learning, is only part of the pedagogy triad and that is what Aboriginal 'learning style' theory has done. Not attending to what children learn risks creating colonised students who definitely do know their place, as a marginalised and powerless people. Clearly critical literacy is a useful tool and in the current thinking of enlightened educators it should also be an integral part of the curriculum.

However, I'd hate to think we were in danger of uncritically embracing critical literacy in the same way that the authors suggest teachers took over 'learning styles' in the 1980s! Of course Aboriginal people are enthusiastic about reconstructing their history but this in itself is not enough. There are other literacy and oral skills which will give them some control over their day to day lives and these too must be a crucial part of the curriculum. Allan Luke has argued that functional and academic capacities with text, as well as the ability to think critically, are the three crucial elements of critical social literacy. To raise people's consciousness without giving them the linguistic tools with which to participate in negotiating their future, only leaves them angry, marginalised and ultimately still powerless. It is not the teacher's role to determine the future of Aboriginal children. We all know they have to negotiate that themselves. One of the dilemmas for educators of Aboriginal children is that parents want their children to be powerful in the wider society, which means being able to negotiate and think critically. On the other hand, they want their children to respect and listen to Aboriginal elders in the 'Aboriginal way' and represent their views to the wider society. It is the teacher's goal to ensure that they have both a social consciousness and a range of powerful language skills sufficient that they themselves are players in the negotiations of their futures.

That is why the other two parts of the pedagogy triad are so important. There will be no negotiated knowledge and no shared curriculum unless teachers themselves understand and develop effective ways of instructing and negotiating. Teachers cannot do that unless they have an understanding of the ways children learn. Learning style theory is one attempt at describing how Aboriginal and other children learn in informal contexts. However, that does not mean it imposes a limit on the ways they can learn. It is simply the point at which negotiations can start.

Looking at the authors' argument more broadly, they are advocating a refocusing of our attention on critical discourse as part of the curriculum, rather than on learning theory. We need both learning theory and what I interpret broadly as critical discourse theory to have any chance of success in Aboriginal education. We also need a corresponding teaching theory which fits with ideas of a negotiated curriculum and ways that children need to learn to be successful in school. I am not convinced that the sole example of 'critical history' given by these authors is going to be of much help to the Early Childhood teachers with whom I work. There are, fortunately, other educators such as Jenny O'Brien, Barbara Comber and Jane Pitt working with Junior Primary children on critical literacy.

Educational critical theorists such as Allan Luke, Colin Lankshear and James Gee have contributed in a new way by focusing on the content and context of formal learning, and I have no doubt that these must be given a significant place. We cannot neglect any part of the pedagogy triad; the learner, the teacher, or the knowledge they create together. It's not either/or. There's no binary here. Certainly 'learning style' theory needs to be put into the perspective of all that we have learned since 1978. However, learning theory is still crucial. The school's inability to make use of and extend the way children from a variety of backgrounds learn successfully at home is still one of the fundamental reasons for student failure. I believe that schools still do not understand how to help children acquire the skills they need to be successful when the cultures, ways of talking and thinking that these children bring to school are not congruent with those of school. We still haven't got it right.

Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt say it's 'time to move on'. In depressed moments, I see all educators of Aboriginal students, more often than not, as going around in circles and welcome this 'debate' as a sign that we might at least be on a spiral. But we must 'move on' together, not in opposition to each other as the adversaries or 'followers' of rival camps. And with a broad range of vision, not a narrowly partisan one.

Bronwyn Parkin, Aboriginal Education, University of South Australia

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