Dja Dja Wurrung man and former school teacher Dr Aleryk Fricker offers valuable insights into how best to embrace First Nations culture in the classroom.
First Nations cultures are the oldest continuing cultures in the world. Our ancestors have lived through ice ages, mega-droughts, and the extinction of mega-fauna – and, all the while, have thrived in some of the most extreme conditions in the world. This continuation of culture was made possible by the thousands of generations of teachers who ensured that our young people were equipped with everything they needed to be successful in their own right, as well as having the capacity to maintain this teaching and learning cycle for future generations.
Prior to colonisation, we had developed complex, diverse, sophisticated and effective methods of teaching and learning. With the invasion of the Australian continent in 1770, and the subsequent and ongoing genocide of First Nations people, these methods have been largely disrupted. First Nations children were positioned as sub-human; they were not considered to have any intelligence, only provided with an education up to a Year 3 level, and expected to become domestic and manual labourers.
Non-Indigenous children were provided with the Eurocentric colonial construction of education, whereby the existence of First Nations peoples was largely ignored, and what little was included positioned them as wretched, and dying out. This meant that the colonisation of Australia brought with it the establishment of colonial constructions of education that remain with us today, and which continue to have a negative impact on First Nations and non-Indigenous students alike.
“We need to be able to lead the way in reforming what our classrooms look like and how they operate, so that the school itself is not a reason to not attend.”
In recent times, there has been a focus at a federal level to address the widening gap of academic achievement between First Nations and non-Indigenous students. Disappointingly, most of the discourse and policy has been dominated by a misplaced assumption that the education gap is only related to attendance and retention of First Nations students. This, however, is only part of the issue. Of course, school attendance is a key element in student success, but we need to consider the factors that lead to this educational disengagement in the first place.
The issue of school attendance intersects with many other issues – but, as teachers, we need to consider those factors within our control that can support First Nations student engagement. We need to be able to lead the way in reforming what our classrooms look like and how they operate, so that the school itself is not a reason to not attend.
It is from this strengths-based approach to First Nations education – and the understanding that schooling in Australia today is a colonial construct, which works to perpetuate poor performance among our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students – that we, as teachers, can consider how to begin the process of decolonising our classrooms and what that might look like.
The five principles
This process can be considered in five broad categories: policy, curriculum, pedagogy, education places and spaces, and community engagement. These elements are all closely linked, and each has a role to play in supporting the outcomes of all students, regardless of cultural context.
In Victoria, First Nations education policy has been taken seriously. In 2016, the state government entered into a partnership with the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated (VAEAI) to implement the Marrung Aboriginal Education Strategy. This is a 10-year plan that sets the expectations, governance and accountability for the Victorian education system. It is not perfect – but it is the best so far.
One of the challenges with this policy – at least anecdotally from my engagement with current teachers – is that it is rarely engaged with beyond the leadership level in schools. Implementation of this policy within the classroom is going to be a key part of the necessary reform to better support First Nations students.
The second reform relates to curriculum. Curricular across Australia have all been heavily influenced by, as W.E.H. Stanner put it, ‘The Great Australian Silence’ – meaning that First Nations content is severely limited in the curriculum and remains largely untaught. For teachers, we need to ensure that we make space for this content by ‘browning’ our curriculum. This, in turn, allows First Nations students to see themselves. The need for this was painfully articulated in the recent documentary In My Blood It Runs and should be a focus for all teachers.
The next reform relates to pedagogy. We have the oldest pedagogical processes in the world. We know that they work, and we also know that they often support the holistic development of a child – not just the academic. Teachers need to make space to implement these pedagogical processes in our classrooms, including Yarning Circles, 8 Ways, and On Country Learning. A simple Google search will provide a wealth of resources.
The fourth reform focuses on places and spaces within the school grounds. This needs to be considered in two main ways. The first is the visibility of First Nations contexts – usually easily achieved through such moves as displaying the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander flags, Acknowledgement of Country plaques, or First Nations artworks and murals. These increase the visibility of First Nations cultures, which has a powerful impact on all students, regardless of their cultural contexts. The second relates to the educational design of the learning spaces – specifically, considering whether the spaces enable us to implement First Nations pedagogical approaches.
The final reform relates to community engagement. We know that students do better at schools that are active community hubs. As teachers, we need to ensure that we are engaging with the local First Nations community to support the learning of all students. They are our knowledge-keepers, and we all have much to gain by engaging with local First Nations Elders, artists and other leaders, as well as parents and carers. Again, in Victoria, VAEAI is a key organisation for schools to connect with, as they can support the engagement between schools and their local First Nations communities.
By decolonising the school environment, we have the power to change the outcomes for First Nations students for the better, and educators have a crucial role to play.
Artworks and images by Scott Rathman Scott is an Arrernte descendant who enjoys creating artworks in public places to gently remind people that Aboriginal people are still here and that their culture is still as important today as it has always been. He has created murals for schools around Australia. See more of Scott’s work at facebook.com/ScottRathmanART