For everyone Good heart, powerful action

Rona Glynn-McDonald on set, creating resources for Common Ground, an online space for Australians to learn more about First Nations knowledge, language and culture.

Back in decades past, many of us were taught that our nation’s history began the day Captain Cook set foot on Australian soil. Now, many children attend a Welcome to Country and smoking ceremony at the start of each school year. Recently, I watched a museum curator ask a class how the world began, and a white boy proudly put his hand up and declared that it was created by Bunjil the Eagle. 

How things have changed. But have they changed enough? Are we equipping our students – and indeed our teachers – across the state with a deep and rich understanding of our First Peoples’ culture and knowledge?

“I’ve worked in this area for 30 years and I’m buoyed by how far we’ve come,” says Professor Mark Rose, a Gunditjmara man from Western Victoria. “But I think there’s more to be done. Curriculum success in this area still relies on accidental heroes and I’d rather it was more mainstream than that.”

Professor Rose would know. He is Pro Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Strategy and Innovation at Deakin University, Vice-President of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc (VAEAI), as well as being on the board of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) and chair of the Indigenous advisory committee with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

Certainly, strides have been made since ACARA began working on introducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures as a cross-curriculum priority area in 2011. The national curriculum provides a framework that VCAA, with the support of VAEAI, has reworked into something Professor Rose feels is even stronger. The resulting Victorian Prep–10 curriculum was mandated in government and Catholic schools in 2017. 

“The curriculum provides a framework, including many elaborations which support teachers to deliver Indigenous education in all areas of the curriculum,” says Professor Rose. “There are many elaborations to draw from – 55 in science alone.”

Educator, architect and First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria member Rueben Berg agrees, saying the step towards teaching Indigenous knowledge and culture across the curriculum has been an exciting step. “It ensures it’s not siloed, like, ‘OK, kids, today we’re going to learn about Indigenous people’,” says Berg.

“We want kids to run home and tell their parents they learnt something exciting about their country today,” says Professor Rose. “We want them to have access to continuing cultural knowledge of the land on which they live.”

Interestingly, both Berg and Professor Rose feel there shouldn’t be too much educational focus on the brutal history of colonisation – at least until later school years – with both suggesting it is better digested and analysed by a young adult mind, once a foundation has been set.

“We want kids to run home and tell their parents they learnt something exciting about their country today,” says Professor Rose. “We want them to have access to continuing cultural knowledge of the land on which they live.”

Berg, who generally conducts cultural awareness workshops with adults, has volunteered to speak at his kids’ school several times. “I’d like to see that happen more; that kids are introduced to Aboriginal people to help tackle stereotypes, so they’re not just thinking that Aboriginal people are from up north. We’re a diverse community. I hope they have other Aboriginal people talking to the kids as well, so they get varied perspectives.”


Sharing the diversity of Indigenous cultures is one of the reasons Rona Glynn-McDonald founded Common Ground, an online platform that shares Indigenous stories and learning materials with wider Australia.

“For me, as a Kaytetye woman, I’m really proud of my own culture, and I was really lucky to grow up in the Central Australian desert where I was surrounded by rich First Nations cultures and leaders from across the region,” says Glynn-McDonald.

“But when I left the Territory and came to Melbourne, I started to recognise that there were so many Australians who had no idea what the world’s oldest living cultures really looked like. Most people had never had the chance to connect with that.”

Launched two years ago, Common Ground has already supported 450,000 Australians to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Glynn-McDonald’s next step was to create a space where kids can connect with First Nations knowledge, so last year she launched the Bedtime Stories Challenge.

“We want to make it easy for teachers, because we know they’re so time poor, and it’s not easy teaching this stuff when you don’t have the knowledge yourself.”

“It’s about challenging families and classrooms to connect with dreaming stories and hear new languages, knowledge systems and ways of being – and even the way First Nations communities use dreaming stories to stay connected to the morals and ethics that guide our existence,” she says.

“Every year we’ll record new stories, which we’ll share with schools so they can provide these stories to young people – and start conversations in classrooms about what they can learn from these stories and even stories from elders in their own communities.

“We want to make it easy for teachers, because we know they’re so time poor, and it’s not easy teaching this stuff when you don’t have the knowledge yourself.”

Left (L-R): Rona Glynn-McDonald, Rueben Berg, Professor Mark Rose.

Rueben Berg says he is seeing more people in his workshops take “an active interest in what they can actually do about some of these things; not just listen, but want to work out what the next steps are” and, for teachers, there is the opportunity for powerful action.

However, as Professor Rose outlines, “Many teachers fear engaging with Aboriginal stuff not because they’re racist but because they’re scared of making a mistake.”

One way to tackle this issue is to bring Aboriginal educators into the school, says Professor Rose. “Reach out to the Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (LAECG), local Aboriginal community members who have an interest and commitment to Koorie education.”

Glynn-McDonald agrees that to educate young people on First Nations cultures, we need to include education from local custodians and elders.

“It’s a huge challenge in the education space to do that, because the connections aren’t always there,” she says. “But for us to move forward as a society that really celebrates First Nations peoples, we have to make the effort for grassroots connections where we are.”

Where it’s not possible to bring in external educators, all those interviewed agree it’s far better to dive in than avoid Indigenous education for fear of getting it wrong. As Professor Rose says, “If people are of genuine mind and good heart – as teachers are – they should just give it a go.”

    * mandatory fields


    Filed under

    Latest issue out now

    As we gear up for a state election, the AEU is focused on holding the Andrews government to account when it comes to fair funding for public education and a plan for addressing staff shortages that respects and values the profession. Read more in our Term 3, 2022 edition of AEU News.

    View Latest Edition