Reconstructing Aboriginal Education


A Reply from Gary Partington




Since the mid-1980s learning styles has come to occupy a place of hegemonic wisdom in Aboriginal education, displacing earlier views and being used to explain therelative success or failure of programs for Aboriginal students. Questioning this hegemony, Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt have cogently argued in issue 33 of Education Australia that it is 'time to move on'. The focus of the debate, as they see it, is a question of the relative merits of the culture based approach to instruction exemplified by Stephen Harris's learning styles paradigm developed in the 1980s, and their own proposed critical perspective.

In brief, Stephen Harris has argued that Aboriginal students have been unsuccessful in schools because their teachers have not adequately understood their need for different, informal learning styles. Even though it was developed from research conducted among traditionally oriented Aboriginal people at Milingimbi, this approach is now embedded in theories of instruction for Aboriginal people from around Australia because other researchers, such as Merridy Malin and Ian Malcolm, have investigated urban Aboriginal students' culture and language and, as a result, this approach now encompasses both urban and rural Aboriginal students. The research makes it quite clear that Aboriginal students are culturally different, and as a consequence these differences should be catered for in the classroom if the students are going to be successful.

There are, of course, both pedagogical and social justice issues involved in this approach. Teachers, it is argued, should utilise those styles of learning and any other socio-cultural attributes that can optimise Aboriginal students' potential for learning. Failure to do this not only neglects the particular needs of the students, but also disadvantages them in school. So, for example, teachers who ignore or are ignorant of the Aboriginal English dialect used by their students as a first dialect are reducing the students' capacity to build on prior learning, as well as judging these students inaccurately against a standard, Australian English, with which they are unfamiliar. They are, in fact, even disadvantaging them relative to other students in class.

This disadvantage will vary according to the extent to which the students have assimilated to the dominant culture. In communities where traditional cultures and languages are strong there is a greater need for an approach to education which both draws on and sustains that culture and language. One of the problems, of course, is the practice of appointing teachers fresh out of university to teach in such communities. In the absence of sufficient knowledge and experience to do otherwise, these new graduates teach a common curriculum using standard Australian English, which results in high dropout rates and failure to learn the content effectively. It can't be denied that the students need English and an understanding of the dominant culture in order to be successful in the wider society but the failure to adequately represent the local culture in schools makes them alien and irrelevant institutions.

It was in the light of these problems that Stephen Harris first introduced 'two way' education, by which students acquired a knowledge of both their first culture and language as well as the culture and language of the dominant society. Such an approach, it would seem, is clearly equitable and furthers the students' learning in both spheres.

There are problems, however, with this approach which need to be confronted. For example, if many of the young immigrants and refugees entering Australia achieve outstanding results at school, and if they can do this despite the considerable cultural differences, why can't Aboriginal students? Another argument is that of redundancy: people don't need two distinct cultures. They will operate in one culture in some social settings and the other culture in others. For example, they may use Aboriginal language in the home, but Australian English in the workplace. Eventually elements of their first culture may be lost, and the process of loss continues as they become more competent in English. Associated with this, of course, is status. For people tend to gravitate to the culture with the highest status, and over time it is likely that the dominant culture will come to replace Aboriginal culture, particularly in use outside the home.

The alternative which appears to overcome the weaknesses of the culturalist view of Aboriginal schooling is the critical perspective, as argued in their article by Christine Nicholls, Vicki Crowley and Ron Watt, that the powerless oppressed position of Aboriginal people in relation to the dominant non-Aboriginal population is the reason for their lack of success in school. The cultural perspective is a false one. The argument is that conquest, dispossession and two centuries of domination, exploitation and racism have combined to strip Aboriginal people of their dignity, culture and their will to succeed in an alien social environment.

Even where additional resources are made available to assist Aboriginal people to achieve equality with non-Aboriginal people, the assistance is given in such a way that it hinders rather than helps. This can be seen in the provision of schooling in remote areas of Western Australia. Although the schools are relatively well equipped and staffed, their teachers are almost solely members of the dominant culture, their resources are almost totally drawn from that culture, and they almost exclusively use English as the language of instruction. Factors such as these alienate the students from school, which they see as irrelevant. Continued membership of the oppressed group is seen as preferable to the loss of that membership and the acquisition of second rate membership of the racist dominant group. From this perspective it is possible to explain why Aboriginal people don't assimilate as readily as some other groups-they are denied access to positions by the racism and oppression that exists.

The important outcomes sought through schooling are empowerment, equality and freedom to choose, all of which are denied to most Aboriginal people at present as they operate in a dependent role in a welfare context. The solution is to remove the oppression and racism, develop instruction based on potentially liberating content and skills, and so empower the students who will subsequently succeed at school in the mainstream context. To achieve this, however, is not straightforward.

Many members of groups, such as Vietnamese refugees, have overcome multiple disadvantages of racism, poverty, and cultural and language difference to achieve at high levels in the education system. If this is taken as a testament to the liberating character of Australia's education system one can ask why all groups don't achieve to similar levels. In the light of the relative success of East and South-East Asian students, the failure of the schools to graduate Aboriginal students could be attributed to more racism, more oppression and less resources, but this is not a strong argument. In some quarters the racism against Asians continues unabated, just as it does against Aboriginal people. The poverty of many refugee arrivals has matched that of Aboriginal people, and in many cases they have received little financial support.

It is difficult to sustain the argument that teachers are engaged, whether consciously or unconsciously, in a program of exploitation and oppression. Many strive through a diversity of approaches to assist Aboriginal students to succeed and are well aware of the dangers of hegemony and excessive use of power in education. Consequently, it can be argued that neither the cultural view nor the critical perspective can adequately explain the failure of Aboriginal students to complete their schooling or to achieve high standards in sufficient numbers.

This simple dichotomy between culture and oppression as the underlying causes of failure oversimplifies the real issues confronting Aboriginal education. From a historical perspective, it is possible to identify a third option, grounded in psychology, which has been labelled the 'deprivation' theory and which is derived from beliefs that preceded 'learning styles' theory. Aboriginal students were considered to suffer learning disabilities arising from their apparently deprived backgrounds, and the solution to this was to focus on replacement of supposed inadequate cultural responses with more effective strategies. In general this consisted of assimilating Aboriginal students into mainstream culture.

While this approach is no longer acceptable as a general explanation for Aboriginal student failure at school, it persists (usually unofficially) in schools in Australia and contributes to the oppression which was identified in the preceding view of education. Despite its negative view of Aboriginal people and culture, however, it does have currency in those situations where Aboriginal (and also non-Aboriginal) students do come from deprived backgrounds caused, for example, by neglect at the hands of alcoholic parents or through other health problems. The mistake in the past has been to assume that the unique situation of such students is the common lot of all Aboriginal people. Yet clearly this is not the case. This fallacy is, however, repeated within both these alternative theories. Neither can really claim to have the answer to the ills besetting Aboriginal education, so we need to look to alternative solutions.

To argue for one or the other of these approaches is to miss the main issue-that none of them provides an adequate explanation of the situation of Aboriginal students and an alternative explanation within which the failure of a large proportion of Aboriginal students can be explained is needed. This alternative can be found in the way in which the individual student is constructed by the circumstances, events and contexts which exist in his or her social setting. From this perspective all the variables that contribute to an explanation of a situation are taken into account. Unlike the cultural, critical and deprivation perspectives, no prior assumptions are made about the relative importance of one influence or another. Rather, it is assumed that change is a permanent condition of people and situations, and any explanation is only a temporary refuge from this continuing flux.

From this perspective, the outcomes for Aboriginal students are a consequence of the actions of all the elements that have an influence on their situation, and these elements may vary from one situation to another. What holds true at one time may not always be the case. For this reason, when making educational decisions about Aboriginal students, we must consider more than cultural elements or the existence of oppression or deprivation.

Schwab identified four principal components of the curriculum process: the teacher, including the ways in which the teacher makes decisions, instructs, transmits knowledge, and so on; the students who are active participants in the educational process, supporting the teacher, resisting her efforts, or behaving neutrally; the milieu or social context within which the interaction between teacher and students occurs; and finally, the content of the curriculum. Change in any one of these elements will influence the outcomes of schooling and so it is quite apparent that the assumption of either a common set of inputs into, or a common outcome from, Aboriginal students' schooling is false: when Schab's components are taken into account, it is easy to see that schools need to operate in a state of considerable fluidity to effectively meet the educational needs of all students.

The considerable disadvantage being experienced by Aboriginal students cannot be attributed to any one factor. Change must come from examining the four elements in any specific situation to determine what is to be done. This requires a different approach from that which has traditionally prevailed in schooling. Although teachers must be concerned with their pedagogy and the content of the curriculum, they must also take into account the setting in which learning takes place as well as the students and their backgrounds. The methods of instruction and content must be adjusted to suit these elements.

From this perspective there will still be racism and stereotyping, as well as the neglect of students' backgrounds and cultures. But rather than make the assumption that all Aboriginal students are characterised by certain features, the teacher and the school will need to explore the characteristics of the individual case to determine what is most appropriate. This requires a closer relationship among the teacher, the student, the milieu and the content.

Viewing the schooling of Aboriginal students from this different perspective will not make the racism and oppression go away but the degree to which these influences occur, and the extent to which they inhibits the individual, will be seen to be quite variable. Some Aboriginal people thrive in the challenge of overcoming these inhibiting factors, while others succumb to live lives of failure and withdrawal. Even in remote, traditionally oriented communities, the extent to which individuals conform to the stereotyped set of values and behaviours varies considerably.

It is tempting to create a model of the student which fits the theory being promoted but there is great diversity among Aboriginal students. They differ in culture, wealth, level of health, family and community strength, and also in the degree of acceptance among the non-Aboriginals with whom they interact. Furthermore, individual characteristics vary: some are more talented, motivated, witty, voluble or athletic than others. The teacher needs to look at the individual person and setting rather than see a stereotype of the group. It is clear that one must examine the particular mix of factors which contribute to success and failure. Going further, teachers need to examine the meanings of these terms, because what they perceive to be success and failure may be perceived differently by students.

Cultures will continue to vary, oppression will persist, and students will come from deprived backgrounds but to argue a case for all Aboriginal students on the basis of relatively restricted categories is untenable. Instead we must operate flexibly to engage students in ways that are compatible with their characteristics, the characteristics of the teachers and the contexts within which learning takes place. At times it may be appropriate to focus on culturally appropriate instruction; at other times the elimination of racism and oppression may be an essential step in the process of education, and for some students compensatory education to rectify deprived circumstances may be needed. We need to engage all approaches in the education of Aboriginal students by assuming a holistic view of the participants in the process, the situation in which learning occurs and the curriculum content which is desirable.

Gary Partington, Mt Lawley Campus, Edith Cowan University

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