Everyone belongs? Rethinking the value of Harmony Day celebrations in schools

It’s Harmony Week and all over Australia, schools, along with community groups and workplaces are holding their annual multicultural celebrations. Traditional Harmony Days in schools are full of food and fun. Cultural dress ups are the norm. Students get a chance to perform their cultural dance and songs. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The history of Harmony Week

Harmony Week is a “celebration that recognises our diversity and brings together Australians from all different backgrounds”. Mid-March was chosen because it centres around March 21st, the ‘United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination’. This day commemorates the killing of 69 people by police at a peaceful anti-apartheid demonstration in 1960 in Sharpeville, South Africa. On this day the UN asks all people to commit to three key strands to the fight against racism:

  • Education: including teaching the history of racism, slavery, colonialism, racism and discrimination
  • Actions: Speaking out against intolerance
  • Becoming agents of change and having the courage and the will to act.

So how did we get from this to fashion parades and food stalls?

Not-for-profit organisation, All Together Now, details the history and the political agendas that led to the creation of Harmony Day in Australia. At the time, the Howard Government made the choice to focus on ‘harmony’, rather than the hard work required to challenge the root causes of discrimination and prejudice. The Harmony Day slogan is now “Everyone Belongs”, and word ‘racism’ isn’t used on the Harmony Day website or in the “Event Planning Guide for Schools”. 

The Problem with Harmony Week

  At Harmony Day celebrations, the food and entertainment are generally provided by migrants, First Nations people and people of colour, while White-Anglo community members are passive recipients of the labour. It’s hard to see how a day of celebrating dress, diet and dancing, is going to do very much to fight racism. 

The Australian Human Rights Commission proposes that Harmony Day hides structural and systemic racism. Harmony Day implies that Australia has achieved a post-race utopia in which racism doesn’t need to be discussed. It celebrates superficial representations of culture without deep engagement with challenging concepts such as unconscious bias, discrimination and colonial legacies, all of which are alive and well today. Harmony Day makes no mention of truth-telling about genocidal acts, stolen generations, the White Australia policy and other racist histories that shaped the nation.

Harmony Day is a comfortable and safe version of multiculturalism, described by some as “lazy multiculturalism”. But by nature, challenging racism must be uncomfortable, brave and accountable work. While we may feel compelled to protect school-aged children from this,   research tells us that it is never too early to talk with children about racism. Children aren’t born racist, but they learn racial identity from the adults around them.  Ideas around race are formed when children are just three, and babies notice racial differences as young as six months old. 

So, what works in anti-racist education?

We propose three ways that conversations about cultural inclusion and racial justice can be made more meaningful for young people.

Avoid the smorgasboard

A single day set aside for diversity celebrations emphasises the ‘otherness’. It sends a message that culture is trivial, not critical to people’s being and ever-evolving identities. If students are encountering a large range of diverse cultures in a single day, it’s unlikely that any meaningful learning is going to take place. All they’ll take in is the food and fun, and fail to recognise the challenges that people from racial minorities face. Targeted activities that engage deeply with cultures avoids the trivialisation of identities and allows us to notice, understand and appreciate difference.

Embed the learning in the classroom

The Australian Curriculum in Humanities and Social Sciences offers a solid model to start. Children in the early years learn about their local community and its history, the people who live there and their histories, and connect this with their own experiences and identities. As they progress through their primary schooling, they begin to explore Australia’s neighbouring countries and then places and cultures that are further afield. Unlike a smorgasbord approach, it allows for meaningful engagement with the cultures being studied.

Talk about race and racism

There is no greater opportunity to shape the values of future generations than by talking with our youngest citizens what racism is and how to stop it. While some argue that teachers and schools have to forego the safety of celebration-focussed events that have limited impact, we suggest that Harmony Day can be part of a larger learning program of anti-racist work.

One of the authors of this article (Rachael Jacobs) runs Deep Harmony, an arts-based anti-racism program in NSW Schools. The program engages primary and high school students in weekly workshops where they use drama and dance as a portal to arrive at deeper understandings about racism. The program was titled Deep Harmony in response to schools’ desire and commitment to keeping Harmony Day events on their school calendar. Jacobs found that it was too challenging for schools to ditch multicultural celebrations, so instead, designed a program that can take place in the lead-up to Harmony Day, ensuring that there is truly something to celebrate.

Make Harmony Day meaningful

Research suggests that teachers and principals understand and share the critique of Harmony Day, but are still reluctant to remove it from the school calendar. If we’re going to keep doing Harmony Day, schools need to consider the goals of the day, and be bold in adding some depth to the celebrations in order to achieve them. What we want is empathy, respect and understanding. Learning about something that is special to another person, understanding their classmates’ family history, and listening to stories from elders and grandparents can be beautiful and meaningful ways to add value to the day. It is essential to remind students that ridding the world of racism is ongoing work that we are all responsible for. Teachers can even try telling them the limitations of the day, then ask them to name what else they can do.

Let’s make this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination a genuine commitment to racial justice. It will require more than celebration, but ultimately it will be more meaningful.  

Rachael Jacobs lectures in arts education Western Sydney University. Her research areas include racial justice education and language development through the arts. She is a community activist, aerial artist, South Asian choreographer and she runs an intercultural dance company. As a community artist, Rachael facilitates projects in community settings, mostly working with migrant and refugee communities. 

Rachael Dwyer (she/her) is a Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her scholarship is focused on creating social change, through decolonizing, arts-based approaches to teaching, advocacy and research, and sharing her scholarship in ways that impact policy and practice. 

Will strange omissions from Chicago appear in Naarm this year?

We were so lucky to be sent to Chicago. So lucky. Each year AARE is invited to send a representative symposium to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) to showcase the quality of our research.

We were back at an international conference “in person” and ready to mobilise our digital research, reimagine academic networks IRL and expand thinking within the latest studies and ideas from the field that had seemed to become smaller and more in focus during the lockdowns in Melbourne.   

We, Kate and Sarah, are two academics who have worked in the field of anti-colonisation and anti-racism for years through art and design education, initial teacher education and through methodological practice of speculative a/r/tography. We are not people of colour but we hope our own contribution makes some difference to the work we do with The Science Gallery in Melbourne, Bengaluru and Atlanta, and within the ‘Learning with the Land’ research project. This SSHRC funded partnership (with Professor Rita Irwin, UBC) responds to the urgent need for innovative models of learning, teaching, and scholarship that create and examine human-land relationships as collective expression grounded in movement of thought (theory) and body (practices) by drawing on a transnational coalition of scholars, students, artists, and writers in education. And what we learned in the US at AERA is that Australia is in a very different place on race and colonialism.

Which is not to say we are perfect – or even getting there. But this conference revealed the deep race divides in the US as well as the need for explicit acknowledgement of the ‘very alive’ colonial project in education.

Let us set the scene. At every public event in Australia, academic or otherwise, we are welcomed to Country or we hear an Acknowledgement of Country. This ‘event’ invites us to acknowledge and respect the lands we meet upon through introducing and placing Peoples, places, cultures, histories and scapes that have continuously held knowledges in that Country. They are so rare in the US. AERA has a traditional acknowledgement of the Indigenous land but on this occasion it was followed by what American academics say was the first simultaneous land and cultural acknowledgement at the Opening Plenary performed by the Muntu Dance Company; an invitation to rethink learning with both land and culture through time, pointing a way to anti-colonial and anti-racist education. A good place to begin (Un)Learning Our Truths.

That was the title of the panel which continued – Dreaming Out Loud: Black, Asian American, and Pacific Islander Communities in Teaching and Teacher Education. In this session we saw Dr Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz’s ‘Archaeology of Self’ in action, an approach that resonates with our own speculative a/r/t/ographic work (Coleman & MacDonald, 2020; MacDonald et al, 2022) in teacher education. 

This panel invited us into dialogue with Asian and Black solidarity in teacher education, through querying the place of truth and the danger of the single story in the colonial project. The educators asked us to dream out loud with them in teacher education, and ask; how do we prepare teachers for teaching racial literacy in this world, especially if living in two worlds?

What was said was as telling as what remained unsaid. 

As Australian educational researchers, we were particularly struck by how we felt race and Indigenous scholarship were done so very differently in the American context. With race centred, we wondered why Indigeneity felt so marginalised in the questions we heard from the audience. 

‘What about me’ questions were hard to hear and made us uncomfortable, these must have hit the panelists like weapons. But, as Dr Cornel West pointed out, if racially marginalised academics are continuously auditioning for a place in academia, then perhaps it is difficult to know when and how to let others speak, particularly Indigenous academics.  

Coming into AARE 2023 and turning towards the theme of Truth, Voice, Place: Critical junctures for educational research, we want to draw your attention to the consequential questions to come out of this conference: Whose truth matters? Whose facts matter? Whose crises matter? 

This blog can only be a series of impressions of a conference of nearly 15000 delegates and 75+ concurrent sessions. We chose to curate our sessions by searching for those considering the future.  As Professor Emerita Gloria Ladson-Billings most noted for her work on critical race theory and culturally relevant pedagogy noted, “Dream-sharing and dreaming in public can be a dangerous thing to do”.

We were invited to take “Dreams for Digital Spaces” to the AERA conference, so we explored the conference through the keyword search of “dream*”. This curation of the program offered a place to locate our practice alongside other dreamers and change makers.  

In the discussion with Dr Cornel West, AERA President Rich Milner described “the attacks on education and democracy that we face in our nation and world”. This concern was parsed through scholarly inquiry that emphasised race, social justice, post truth politics and/or mental health. It was through this lens we curated each day of our conference.

Dr Cornel West, a progressive activist educator and Black scholar gave the first  AERA Lateral Learning Lecture for Equity and Justice. His oration of power was at once performative, introspective and a call to action. He centered justice and equity and planted the seeds for the week. It provided a platform for educational researchers to shift their lens, confront their racial bias and query the power of whiteness in and across the conference rooms and of course in education. To hear Dr West the overflow rooms were overflowing with colleagues working hard to get into positions that would  allow Dr West’s words to embrace us and land all around us. 

Gun ‘silence’ at AERA 

On an evening of networking and dinner meetings we found ourselves close to gun violence while being confronted by how close we were in the normalcy of the daily coverage of shootings. Hearing  “There’s an active shooter in the park” and being asked to turn around and leave an area was a reminder of the strict gun laws we often take for granted in Australia. Not widely reported in the media, we assume this was partly because it was storied as ‘youth riots’. We rang home to let our families know we were ok, and they couldn’t even find a mention of it on the news. The insignificance of black and brown young people’s lives drives home the racialised injustices of gun violence – providing a case in point of why race is at the fore of consequential educational research in pursuit of truth in America. While there was a session dedicated to the Uvalde school shooting at AERA, the general absence of conversation concerned with this aspect of growing up in America was striking. 

“Don’t defunk the odour of catastrophe” (Dr Cornel West, Opening Plenary, AERA 2023). Our somewhat controversial impression of our time in America is that its emphasis on anti-racism in relation to the significant impact of Black Lives Matter has sidelined the radical impact of colonialism in education across the globe. Arguably, we experience colonialism as an ongoing catastrophe that is alive and well across the colonies and America. Without acknowledgement of the colonial project at its critical juncture with racism, Indigeneity will continue to be pushed to the side. The inadequacy of current conceptualisations of race, racialisation, and the entwinement with colonialism is in need of attention – perhaps by Australian scholars who are at critical junctures of research that reckons with Indigeneity, race, whiteness, settler-colonialism, land, violence and justice in very different ways to America.

Whatever path we chart, we need to “not reduce the catastrophic to the problematic because once you think it’s just a problem, you think that your professionalism can come and manage the problem” (Dr Cornel West, Opening Plenary, AERA 2023).

Associate Professor Kate Coleman is co-lead of SWISP Lab with Dr Sarah Healy. Kate is the AARE co-convenor of the Arts Education Practice Research SIG, and CI on ‘The Learning with the Land’, SSHRC project at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Kate is an Academic Convenor for the University of Melbourne, Petascale Campus. Her research and teaching is positioned in the intersection of art, design, digital, practice, culture and data.

Dr Sarah Healy is co-lead of SWISP Lab with Dr Kate Coleman. She is an inaugural Melbourne Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. Best known for her contributions to the fields of critical affect studies, digital methods and the posthumanities, Sarah’s interdisciplinary program of research involves research collaborations with academics, artists, practitioners and educators from around the world.

Header image is of Chicago from an image by Jrbarc! 

Ditching school-based courses cuts passion and wonder. Shame the bureaucrats don’t see that.

The NSW response to cut more than 80 school-developed courses highlights a key flaw in current educational policy – a complete misunderstanding of schools, teachers and curriculum by bureaucrats who are sufficiently distanced from frontline teaching as to not see or feel the impacts of their decisions.

One of the key issues arising from the 2020 curriculum review is overcrowding or too much content in syllabuses, with many teachers struggling to meet individual student needs as they feel under pressure to cover large numbers of ‘dot points’ and course outcomes.

Too much content

School-based courses are not the problem per se but rather the overcrowding within discreet NESA syllabuses – too much content to cover in a limited time particularly in the highly prescribed Stage 6 courses where the HSC exams directly address course outcomes. So, the problem is one of prescription rather than the number of courses available. In fact, depth and breadth of subject selection is often a key factor in parental school choice. 

The SMH article (15 January, 2021) initially represents the ‘curriculum cleanup’ as one that will remove courses such as drone studies, puppetry and cartooning which the general public are likely to interpret as trivial. This unfortunately overshadows key points Jordan Baker goes on to make; that this clean up will not ease the burden on teachers and students, and that these courses are developed by schools to meet specific local student needs not met by general syllabuses. NESA (and previously the Board of Studies) has a long history of endorsing school-based courses, many of which were developed into state-wide syllabuses due to their success in meeting student and school needs. 

How one school fought racism

An example of the value of a school-developed course, is one we implemented in a school with a high population of Aboriginal students in the late 1990s when Pauline Hanson was elected to parliament. With this election came a significant increase in overt and vicious racism towards Aboriginal people in particular to Aboriginal teenagers like the kids we were teaching. This was aggravated by media reports of Aboriginal teenagers being arrested for swearing at racists with no apparent consequences for those provoking the incidents. Our students were angry and distressed and felt voiceless and powerless to express this reality on their daily lives. And so we implemented a school-developed media studies course where we could focus on understanding the media, how it is reported and how to address the misrepresentation of Aboriginal people. A key factor in this was identifying these ‘myths’ and the ‘busting them’ through learning how to clearly articulate facts, statistics and well-reasoned arguments rather than rely on emotional responses. We refused to refer to Pauline Hanson by her name, rather referring to her as ‘the fish & chip shop lady’.  For the students, this immediately disempowered her and her comments, dissipated the anger and allowed them to direct their energies into changing the discourse. The value of this was not only for individual students, but for buoying school morale and engaging local families and communities in school curriculum.

While but one example, many teachers can tell similar stories about the positive impact school-developed courses have, about being able to harness their passion into a course with direct benefit to students such as broadening their perspectives, developing critical thinking and practical (dare I say, job-ready) skills. These courses are not a burden to schools or teachers but rather enhance school culture and morale, often bringing families and communities into schools as local skills are drawn on to support course delivery.

Perhaps rather than the simplistic solution of scrapping what the department see as expendable courses, perhaps they could turn their attention to reframing key syllabuses to increase flexibility to better meet local needs including time to differentiate these courses to cater for all ability levels. Rather than prescription and compliance, let’s focus on a framework where ‘big ideas’ are placed at the centre, supported by a suite of options that promote creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, cross-cultural communication, empathy and relationality – all skills identified by many employers as essential for 21st century work practices. This is clearly the intent of the curriculum review as noted in the executive summary of the curriculum review:

The long-term vision is for a curriculum that supports teachers to nurture wonder, ignite passion and provide every young person with knowledge, skills and attributes that will help prepare them for a lifetime of learning, meaningful adult employment and effective future citizenship.

Unfortunately, while governments continue to be obsessed with assessing the ‘basics’ and comparing results between students, schools and education systems, the likelihood of seeing any innovation in curriculum design is slim, and so they continue to shuffle the deck using the same cards.

Associate Professor Cathie Burgess coordinates undergraduate and postgraduate Aboriginal Studies teaching methods, Aboriginal Community Engagement, Learning from Country and Leadership in Aboriginal Education courses. She has extensive teaching and leadership experience in secondary schools with expertise in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal curriculum and pedagogies, and implementing innovative literacy strategies to improve student outcomes. Cathie’s research involves community-led initiatives centring Aboriginal voices and positioning Aboriginal community-based educators as leaders through projects such as Learning from Country in the City, Aboriginal Voices: Insights into Aboriginal Education, Culturally Nourishing Schooling Project and Aboriginal Middle Leaders in NSW Schools.