Indigenous education policy

Want Indigenous university students to succeed? Here’s how

Recommendations in the Universities Accord reveal a focus on increasing enrolments of under-represented groups including  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. 

Enrolling students is just one part of the piece.  Our research identifies what factors contributed to Indigenous students’ graduating from university. We conducted a study with 308 Indigenous university graduates to understand and identify success factors. Economic conditions, social environment, and individual characteristics were the most crucial factors that contributed to Indigenous university completions.

Emphasis on financial support

Increasing Indigenous student enrolments at universities  must be accompanied by an emphasis on the financial support and resources needed to ensure both the economic conditions and the social environment at university are fostering success. Financial stability while completing a degree is essential, meaning the financial support offered at universities may need to be reviewed to ensure Indigenous students are having opportunities to access financial support, if needed. There also needs to be a focus on supportive networks and access to counselling.

In our study, we developed the Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) model which highlights what universities should focus on. Our findings could be used to address the concerns raised in the Accord report.  

What is Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) Model?

The Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) model is a framework used to investigate the factors that influence the completion of university degrees, specifically for Indigenous Australian students. The model comprises five categories: individual characteristics, health and wellbeing, economic conditions, physical environment, and social environment. It emphasises the critical role of external factors (economic, physical, and social) as well as individual attributes in influencing student success in higher education. 

Figure 1. Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) Model (Pham et al. 2024)

Effectiveness of the Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) 

We examined five factors: individual characteristics, health and wellbeing, economic conditions, physical environment, and social environment. We found that economic conditions proved to be the most influential factor on Indigenous graduates’ completion, followed by the social environment factor and then individual characteristics. The health and wellbeing factor and the physical environment factor both had less influence on completion compared to the other three factors. 

Importantly, the HESF model effectively identified the economic conditions, social environment, and individual characteristics as critical aspects, emphasising the need for support from educators, peers, and institutional services within Australian institutions. A key element of the economic conditions is the provision of financial support, particularly in the form of tuition and living expenses, to enable students to focus more on their studies and reduce stress, which align with Accord Priority Action 3

Social environment

The social environment cannot be overlooked. It influences the learning environment which needs to be “safe and secure learning” and have “good facilities” for learning to occur.

The study also highlighted mental health issues as significant factors leading Indigenous students to consider withdrawing from their studies. We suggest that university policymakers and educators could use the findings from the HESF model to identify potential weaknesses within their institutions and provide comprehensive support for Indigenous students at all levels of university education. Additionally, we proposed the potential expansion of the HESF model’s application to explore retention and success challenges in diverse settings beyond higher education. This will further enhance its utility and impact. 

The HESF model’s research-based approach provides evidence to support the recommendations made in the Accord report. By demonstrating the effectiveness of addressing specific factors in improving Indigenous students’ success, the model can help build a case for implementing the strategies and initiatives proposed in the report.

Importance of Comprehensive Support for Indigenous Student Success

Our research offered valuable insights into the factors influencing Indigenous student success in higher education and identified challenges faced by Indigenous students in completing their degrees. The findings from the HESF model can guide universities and policymakers in developing targeted support services and interventions to address the specific needs of Indigenous students. For instance, the model underscores the importance of financial support (as part of improving economic conditions), social support networks and mental health services. These areas are not only emphasised in the Accord report as needing attention but are also highlighted as concerns in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance framework.

Last, the HESF model can be used as a tool for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of support services and interventions aimed at improving Indigenous education outcomes. By tracking progress across the five factors, universities can assess the impact of their initiatives and make data-driven decisions to refine their approaches, aligning with the Accord report’s emphasis on accountability and continuous improvement.

From left to right: Thu Pham is a senior research assistant in the Indigenous Research Unit at Griffith University. Her research areas include leadership in higher education and Indigenous students’ success. Thu’s doctoral research study focused on leadership to support quality improvement in Vietnamese higher education. She is on LinkedIn.

Levon Blue is an associate professor at The University of Queensland in the Office of the Deputy-Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Engagement. Her PhD focused on financial literacy education practices in a First Nation community in Canada. She is a member of Beausoleil First Nation in Canada. Her research area includes financial literacy education and higher education with Indigenous peoples. She is on LinkedIn.

Angela Baeza Pena is a lecturer at Carumba Institute at Queensland University of Technology. She is Diaguita First Nation from Chile. Her PhD focuses on understanding the experiences of teachers and Indigenous community members in providing Indigenous education in rural and remote areas. Her research area includes Indigenous education, teacher professional development and higher education with Indigenous peoples. She is on LinkedIn.

Peter Anderson is a professor and the Director Indigenous Research Unit at Griffith University, Walpiri and Murinpatha First Nations of Australia. His research theorises the understandings of the organisational value of academic freedom in Australian universities and more broadly in the polar south. His research areas include organisational leadership, Indigenous peoples’ education and teacher and academic professional development. He is on LinkedIn.

Melanie Saward is a proud descendant of the Bigambul and Wakka Wakka peoples. She is a lecturer of creative writing in the School of Creative Practice at QUT, a PhD student, and an author. Recently, she has published a Springer Brief titled: “Higher Degree by Research: Factors for Indigenous student success”.

‘My attitude COMPLETELY changed’: why universities should move new teachers from resentment to respect for Indigenous Australia as we vote on the Voice

Editor’s note: One of the biggest challenges in Australian education is how we embed an understanding of Indigenous cultures and knowledges. As Australia approaches a vote on The Voice, universities have a responsibility to change Initial Teacher Education (ITE)  to incorporate cultures and knowledges appropriately. Students enrolled in ITE already have views on what they will learn in their compulsory courses – and those views are confronting. How can educators move students from uncomfortable and scared, to be bold and prepared? This is a longer blog post than usual – but in it, Quandamooka scholar Dr Mitchell Rom explores how we might produce a teaching workforce that places sufficient value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives.

In June this year, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) released its final report Building a culturally responsive Australian teaching workforce as part of its Indigenous cultural competency project. This national report is a progressive step in the right direction towards raising awareness and understanding of how to better support Indigenous students in schools. The term “cultural competency” is defined in the report as, “When organisations and individuals…expand their cultural knowledge and resources in order to better meet the needs of minority populations” (Cross et al., 1989, as cited in AITSL, 2022, p. 35). The term “cultural responsiveness” is also used in the report which stated that “Being ‘culturally responsive’, in the context of Australian schools, is the ability to respond to the diverse knowledges, skills and cultural identities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” (AITSL, 2022, p. 9). 

Prepared over three years, the report suggested that ITE should play a key role in developing the cultural competency and responsiveness levels of pre-service teachers or future teachers in Indigenous education. It stated “It is critical that ITE programs prepare teachers for the wide range of students they may teach, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” (AITSL, 2022, p. 17). The report further recommended that “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content should be included as a mandatory unit of study or indeed, mandatory cross-curricula focus, within ITE programs” (AITSL, 2022, p. 6). Having recently completed my PhD in ITE and compulsory Indigenous education, I agree with these statements and the importance of ITE programs. However, the recent report unfortunately does not acknowledge that the Indigenous education space at university is filled with colonising and complex challenges for academic teaching teams and pre-service teachers. Before looking to ITE programs as one of the answers to improving the cultural competency of teachers, it is important to consider the varied challenges linked to Indigenous education courses in these programs.

Study findings

My PhD study was grounded in the context of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (APST), Graduate Standards 1.4 and 2.4, which were introduced by AITSL in 2011. These two national standards emphasise teaching Indigenous students (1.4) and teacher skills and knowledge around reconciliation in schools (2.4) (AITSL, 2011). Universities have now turned their attention to preparing our future teachers to be able to meet these national standards and develop cultural competency in this area through offering Indigenous education courses.

The study specifically focused on the key learning, teaching and education policy challenges situated in contemporary Indigenous education courses at university. The study involved 174 non-Indigenous pre-service teachers from an elite Queensland university who were studying a compulsory Indigenous education course. It also involved five academic teaching staff from the same course, as well as myself as a Quandamooka teacher who has taught in three Indigenous education courses across two Queensland universities. The research identified, through a storying methodological approach (Phillips & Bunda, 2018), a total of 11 key challenges across three interrelated areas of the university. These three areas included key challenges within the university classroom space (lecture or tutorial context), the broader university institution, as well as with education policy, namely APST 1.4 and 2.4 by AITSL.

Pre-service teacher journeys in Indigenous education

Pre-service teachers can have varied experiences of studying Indigenous education at university. The study found that some pre-service teachers were willing to engage with Indigenous education from the initial commencement of the course. For example, one pre-service teacher shared “At the beginning of the course, I felt excited and ready to expand my views and knowledge”. Another pre-service teacher noted “I felt increasingly comfortable with the way everything was taught and became more understanding, appreciative and open minded about Indigenous ways of knowing, being & doing”. Some pre-service teachers began the course displaying resistance towards Indigenous education and then were able to change their attitude and position as the course progressed. In addition to this, some pre-service teachers remained resistant learners throughout the entirety of the course, despite the efforts of teaching teams and national policy agendas such as APST 1.4 and 2.4.  Overall, the research found that many Queensland pre-service teachers experienced challenges navigating a compulsory Indigenous education course within their ITE program.

Stepping into the course, 126 pre-service teachers shared that they had mixed initial views towards learning Indigenous education. One pre-service teacher stated “I was wary [the course] would be wrapped in anti-Western rhetoric and would focus on demonizing Western culture”. Another pre-service teacher shared “I didn’t have a high opinion or high expectation from the course title alone and felt apprehensive going into this course mainly due to what people had said about previous semesters (most people told me this course sucked)”. Other words used to describe student feelings towards beginning Indigenous education included “uncomfortable”, “borderline apathetic”, “unimpressed”, “confused”, “confronted”, “dreading it”, “pointless”, “guilty”, “very hesitant” and “unprepared”. Moreover, 66 pre-service teachers shared that they had limited engagement, knowledge and understanding with regards to Indigenous education prior to university. In the study, pre-service teachers shared that “I’d never had much to do with Indigenous studies in my schooling so I wasn’t sure what to expect in this course” and “My experiences [with Indigenous studies] at school were mostly tokenistic”.

Within the university classroom, nearly 40 pre-service teachers showed a level of resistance towards studying the course. One pre-service teacher commented on the compulsory nature of the course and stated “I was not looking forward to beginning the course and was extremely unhappy it was compulsory since I knew I’d be thought of as a middle-class white male that oppressed everyone”. In relation to being introduced to the concept of white privilege in class, another pre-service teacher shared “I didn’t like how the tutorials made me feel. It felt like the teaching staff would make activities that addressed how white privileged I was and almost make me feel shit about being white”.

As the course progressed during the semester, a number of pre-service teachers were able to shift their attitudes regarding Indigenous peoples and education. For example, one pre-service teacher wrote “My perspectives, understandings and attitude around Indigenous education have COMPLETELY changed but I also believe that this was attributed to the study habits and attitudes I brought into tutorials and lectures”. Another pre-service teacher shared “In class, I was continually faced with situations where I would think ‘But that’s not my fault’, but was able to stop and transform my understanding so that I could use my white privilege to ensure the deserved respect is given to the first peoples of Australia”. These student experiences demonstrate learning, understanding and growth in this contested learning and teaching space. I am confident these non-Indigenous pre-service teachers will continue to work to strengthen Indigenous education as allies.

Unfortunately, the study also highlighted various inconsistencies in relation to pre-service teacher development. In the final week of studying the course, one pre-service teacher mentioned “I would say that the nature of this course has made me look at Indigenous education more negatively”. Another pre-service teacher shared “Right now, I feel confused and this course has left me more scared of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students than I was before”. On finishing the course, one hesitant pre-service teacher wrote “While I write this in the final week of the course, I still do not feel like I’m prepared to meet [APST] 1.4 & 2.4”.

Moving forward

Some pre-service teacher experiences shared above highlight an education system that is gradually shifting towards a greater respect for Indigenous education matters. While this is positive, the findings also reflect a current system (particularly in relation to some schools in Queensland), that does not place sufficient value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives. This is reflected in many pre-service teacher comments around their previous learning and their own ill-preparedness to commence the Indigenous ITE course. In light of this, and the broader study findings, education stakeholders including AITSL need to be aware that improving cultural competency requires an understanding of the complex challenges situated in compulsory Indigenous education. It also requires a recognition that there are key challenges that sit external to the control of academic teaching teams including, in particular, pre-service teachers arriving at university ill-prepared from schools and remaining resistant to studying Indigenous education. Broadly speaking, for these challenges to improve, educational institutions at all levels (from primary schools to universities), and those who lead and work in these social institutions need to continue to shift and change. This is needed so that by the time our pre-service teachers commence Indigenous education studies at university, they are more equipped to navigate these spaces and become culturally competent and responsive practitioners. One way of doing so is by placing greater value on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in schools. This includes ways of thinking that seek to challenge the colonial status quo. By doing so, this will support our future teachers to be more effectively prepared when working with Indigenous students in our schools and therefore will continue to strengthen Indigenous education.

Mitchell is a postdoctoral researcher interested in Decolonial studies, Education and Health. His PhD focused on the key learning, teaching and education policy (Australian Professional Standards for Teachers 1.4 and 2.4) challenges situated in the contemporary Indigenous Australian education space at university. He initially trained as a secondary school teacher in the disciplines of English and History in Queensland and studied Education for over a decade. He also taught at university, published and worked across various levels of education. As a Quandamooka researcher, Mitchell is interested in discussing social matters with like-minded scholars for positive community change. Mitchell is an advocate of strength-based thinking and decoloniality. Contact him on LInkedIn.

Image in header is Ren Perkins, a PhD student undertaking research with and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers, in action.

Patience, persistence and persuasion: the how-to of Indigenous curriculum practice

‘I can’t breathe’.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gathered global momentum these words became a familiar refrain; forever linked to the African American man whose life was extinguished by police on a city street in 2020. Few recall the same words uttered by an Aboriginal man in a police cell in Sydney in 2015, as his life too was violently terminated. This is but one example to illustrate that much of the truth of Indigenous history and colonialism remains unknown by many Australians thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that all Australians needed better education on Indigenous Australian history. This lack of knowledge also permeates higher education with many non-Indigenous staff under-confident in Indigenous matters.

Since 2017 the Universities Australia Indigenous Strategies have committed all Australian universities to ensuring university students develop cultural capability through Indigenous content embedded in disciplinary curricula. The work required to achieve this often falls to Indigenous staff, some like myself who have dedicated learning and teaching roles but also other Indigenous colleagues who have more conventional teaching and research roles.

My role: I have been lucky enough, for almost the last decade to be focused on work to Indigenise curriculum or embedding Indigenous curriculum. While this work includes policy work, research and publishing, as well as disciplinary and institutional service, a large part of my role is working with largely non-Indigenous academics in various disciplines on Indigenising their curriculum.

It is in this context that I use my 3P approach that draws on persuasion, patience and persistence.

My practice involves a lot of conversations and talking as I work with colleagues to make new meaning. This dialogic approach is purposeful, and I use it to address ignorance and to collaborate on creating engaging Indigenous curriculum. Through these conversations I aim to (re)animate disciplinary silences (Bodkin-Andrews, et al. 2018) and (re)fill absences in curriculum to produce university graduates who can not only better serve Indigenous peoples and communities but also build a stronger, more just nation.

Persuasion: The skill of persuasion can be required in a range of circumstances, both individual and institutional, at times requires more effort than others. I often use persuasion to challenge existing thinking and open dialogue with colleagues. Below are some examples of how I use persuasion.

  • Colleagues unconvinced Indigenous content needed in curriculum

Persuasion might be required to support colleagues who don’t think there is space in their curriculum or who want to embed Indigenous curriculum into their courses but who don’t quite know how. We talk about the possibilities, about resources that might be sought or approaches that could be taken. On other occasions persuasion is required to help manage fear. Some of my work is persuading teachers (and administrators) to continue rather than be immobilised by uncertainty or by occasional negative feedback.

  • Serving on Committees

Persuasion may be required at institutional level to convince a committee of the need for policy change to support Indigenous curriculum implementation or to create an award to recognise staff achievement.

  • Convincing Indigenous colleagues their work is valuable

Conversely, sometimes I find myself persuading Indigenous colleagues that their work is valuable and valued, although it may seem invisible in their school, department, faculty or university. Support your Indigenous colleagues who are often doing amazing work under difficult circumstances (Locke, et al. 2021, Thunig & Jones, 2020).

Patience, along with traits such as openness, respect and curiosity, are considered important for student learning but is less often considered as a teacher trait or considered necessary for organisational change. The academy is a place where patience -and its associated requirement of time – is not necessarily considered as a virtue. Academic time is constrained by things like timetables, semesters and increasingly by workload formulas, as well as performance and productivity requirements. The time I spent in conversations with colleagues requires patience and time.

Wasting time? I am aware though of the commodification of time that represents money – the idea that time is money, and the increasing compression and control of time. Consequently, I worry about whether I am I using my time wisely, if conversations that are so integral to my work are a useful way to spend my time, or if I am simply wasting time. These reflections are associated with feelings of guilt, being rushed, and can be a source of stress.

Or an investment? Using my conversations with academic colleagues as a point of reference, the topics we discuss are very similar and they fall into two major categories – fear of getting ‘things’ wrong and a lack of confidence in whether Indigenous curriculum is something the individual should be doing. Although the topics of conversation are similar, each individual experiences them in their own way – similar to students really. It is difficult to know at the outset whether the time will be ‘wasted’ or how many of those single hours taken for meetings it will take for confidence to build or understanding to develop. In this respect, I consider the time spent as an investment, recognising that any productivity gains, within the Western constraints of modern educational spaces, in this deeply interpersonal work, require that patience.

Persistence is both the overarching and underpinning factor, without which patience and persuasion have limited capacity to galvanize change. The ability to persist and the act of persisting in the face of adversity and indifference is critical. Across the sector, Indigenous persistence has been the key to creating space, initially for Indigenous people in universities and more recently for advocating for change in curriculum.

No opportunity lost: Resolve is required to have the same conversation with different colleagues – justifying the need to Indigenous curriculum despite existing national and institutional policy commitments, knowing that it is often the second or third conversation which causes a shift in thinking that will ultimately result in change and better curriculum for students.

Groundhog Day: Persistence also manifests as the capacity to return to teaching Indigenous studies classes, for example, knowing that there will be resistant students, racist comments and misinformation to address. Like Groundhog Day, each year, each semester delivers a fresh set of learners who will not know that you have heard these same arguments regularly or be unaware of the hurt that can be caused by even inadvertent racism. It’s been a while since I taught in a classroom myself but not so long since I have tended the wounds of Indigenous tutors enraged or cut to the quick by student comments.

The Key to Sustainable Indigenous Curriculum Development

Indigenous academics feel the strain of advising their colleagues on Indigenising curriculum and are sometimes captive to university quality and workload processes, which fail to account for the nature of this work (Bullen & Flavell, 2017).

The work of developing Indigenous curriculum is part of a role which I enjoy immensely. It is less so for many Indigenous academics who are attempting to develop their own careers while juggling the dual demands of servicing the needs of (sometimes) unknowing non-Indigenous colleagues and the teaching of Indigenous studies where they are confronted with (and by) challenging and uncertain students.

Professor Susan Page is an Aboriginal Australian academic whose research focuses on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experience of learning and academic work in higher education and student learning in Indigenous Studies. Her current role is Director of Indigenous Learning and Teaching at Western Sydney University. She has collaborated on several competitive research grants, received a national award for Excellence in Teaching (Neville Bonner Award) and is published in Indigenous Higher Education. She recently co-edited a special edition of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, Ō tatou reo, Na domoda, Kuruwilang birad: Indigenous voices in higher education.

Be brave: how to Indigenise the curriculum

Acknowledgement: I acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the lands on which I live and work and pay my respect to Elders past and present. Western Sydney University acknowledges the Darug, Eora, Dharawal (also referred to as Tharawal) and Wiradjuri peoples and thanks them for their support of its work in their lands. I also acknowledge the important feedback provided by Associate Professor Corrinne Sullivan on this article.

This year’s theme for National Reconciliation Week is Be Brave. Make Change. Coincidentally being brave has motivated me throughout my tertiary teaching career as I have sought to tackle colonial hegemony in the curriculum. It is also my ‘go to’ phrase when approached by fellow educators who wish to decolonise or ‘Indigenise’ their curriculum but don’t know how or where to start. It is our job as educators to challenge the engrained power structures and ways of knowing that have privileged many of us, to varying extents, for so long. This is, understandably, a daunting prospect.

I have a hunch that the anxiety felt by educators (particularly non-Indigenous educators like myself) is partly rooted in a misconception that decolonising and Indigenising are the same. Yin Paradies (2020), Aboriginal-Asian-Anglo Australian of the Wakaya people and anarchist radical scholar explains that ‘Decoloniality/decolonisation is about deep awareness of colonial pasts, cognisance of present colonial conditions and striving for “a future … free from the colonial past”’ (quoting Ming Dong Gu 2020 ). Colonisation functions via multiple and intersecting power structures such as racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, capitalism and other ‘isms’. While a manifold task, the acknowledgment of the ongoing impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and re-centring of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experiences, perspectives and knowledges is urgent in the decolonial project.

In the Australian educational context, decolonising curriculum requires us to unsettle, challenge, and eventually dismantle the power structures of colonial systems that shape the way educational institutions create and share knowledge. Indigenising curriculum is the embedding of Indigenous histories, voices, experiences, knowledges and ways of learning into our teaching. These are ‘too often unknown, hidden and silenced’ (Bodkin-Andrews et al. 2018) due to ongoing settler colonialism.

At this point, I’d like to acknowledge the elephant in the room and ask: can we ever truly decolonise our curriculums if the very institutions in which we teach and learn are continued manifestations of settler-coloniality? While the answer is obvious, I’m hopeful that we can Indigenise our curriculums as a step toward a decolonial future.

Tips to Indigenise curriculum

Tip 1: Reflect and critique

I prompt you to start by looking at the way your subject/discipline has perpetuated colonial power structures in the past, and continues to do so in the present. I then ask you to consider how you perpetuate and privilege colonial/Western structures of knowledge and power in your teaching. You can begin by asking yourself the following:

·         What issues or topics are covered in my teaching/subject?

·         What theoretical and conceptual lenses are they approached from?

·         Who’s voices, scholarship and perspectives are included – who’s are not?

·         What are the gaps and silences in the teaching content?

·         What assumptions are being presented?

·         What are students asked to do?

·         What are teaching staff asked to do?

For those of us who teach into the arts, humanities and social sciences, these questions may be answered quite easily. For those who teach maths or physical sciences, the relevance may be unclear. Perhaps a ‘way in’ for teachers of STEM subjects, is to focus not so much on the learning content, but on the methods of teaching/learning. These can be Indigenised (and decolonised) too.

Tip 2: Survey your curriculum

My next tip is to systematically work through all aspects of the curriculum to identify specific places where colonial content, methods, and theoretical and conceptual lenses can be challenged and alternative knowledges and forms of knowledge making can be embedded. This means looking at lesson plans, reading lists, supplementary teaching material, assessment tasks, guest speakers, case studies, and field work/excursions. Conducting a whole-scale survey ensures a ‘check-box’ or tokenising approach is avoided: instead of inserting one week or one topic area on ‘Indigenous issues’, Indigenous teaching/learning practices, issues, ways of knowing and understanding are embedded throughout.

Tip 3: Make changes

The next step I suggest is perhaps the most anxiety provoking. This is to make the curriculum changes. Remember that this is an ongoing process so changes can (and should) be made over time. It is imperative to ensure the changes you implement are informed, meaningful and respectful, so take your time, do your research, seek feedback, and invest in continued interrogation and critique of your teaching practise.

Changes you make may include the embedding of experiential learning activities, centring of student voice (e.g. yarning), and incorporation of Indigenous perspectives and issues. Many educators are rightfully anxious about ‘speaking for’ Indigenous and other groups who they do not identify/belong. If you have the networks and resources, guest speakers and teaching collaborators are a great way of overcoming that barrier. If this is not possible, there is a plethora of multimedia and web material developed and presented by Indigenous Australians, and readings and other resources that are written by Indigenous Australians and/or prioritise Indigenous voices. I also often use contemporary Indigenous art as a ‘way in’ for my students to examine contemporary issues. Checking-in with Indigenous colleagues or your networks for feedback and advice is also important.

Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali has been developed to ‘support schools and early learning services in Australia to develop environments that foster a high level of knowledge and pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and contributions’. The implementation of Reconciliation Action Plans, Professional Learning for educators and curriculum resources are the key foundations of the program and another great place to start.

A means of transformational learning

In my experience, Indigenising curriculum has facilitated profound transformational learning experiences for students, providing them with knowledge and understanding that they have taken into their future careers and everyday lives. I have taught nearly 3,000 university students in the past four years who have entered careers in urban planning, criminology and policing, social work and community welfare, heritage and tourism, law, psychology and teaching. For many, my subject was the first time they had been presented with these ideas and perspectives. As one student noted:

…this was the first time since either primary, high-school or even other social sciences units within University that I learned that cultural imperialism is not a past event, but rather a perpetual mega-structure that sustains the social structure of ‘whiteness’; a structure used to marginalise, perpetuate disparities of ascriptive differences, and sustain the privileges of those who prosper under the ‘white’ identity.

Some of the students have subsequently acted upon this new knowledge and understanding. A student I taught in 2021 now volunteers in two Aboriginal organisations and has stated:

Without [this] syllabus I would not have found my vocation as an active and unwavering advocate for Indigenous rights, narratives, cultural differences and political and/or representative voices.

Another student (criminology/law) will now embed the learning in their future career:

The information around different groups and especially marginalised groups will help me accommodate and implement practices more suitable and sensitive to these people. An example of this could be through knowledge of culturally sensitive meetings and dispute resolution services that cater to many different languages and cultural practices. A member of the Indigenous community may opt for a more culturally appropriate option if given the chance due to the differences between Indigenous and white Australian practices.

Final thoughts

The most recent Australian Reconciliation Barometer report indicated that 89% of non-Indigenous respondents and 93% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents support formal truth-telling processes in relation to Australia’s shared history. It also found that 83% of non-Indigenous respondents and 91% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents agree that it is important for Indigenous histories and cultures to be taught in schools – as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. Australians’ are therefore on board with a shift in our education sector that privileges alternatives histories, perspectives and ways of knowing. One of the barriers seems to be that educators lack the knowledge and training on how to achieve this and are therefore anxious about making a start. While my tips are not hard and fast ‘rules’ (I am still learning too), I hope they have provided some inspiration and momentum. I leave you with the words of Yin Paradies (2020), ‘the best way to make amends for colonial pasts is for everyone to mend and make decolonial futures in the present’.

Alanna Kamp is Lecturer in Geography and Urban Studies in the School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University, Research Fellow in the Young and Resilient Research Centre, and member of the Challenging Racism Project and Diversity and Human Rights Research Centre. Alanna has taught at WSU for 14 years and since 2020 has been the unit coordinator of People, Place and Social Difference, a 1st year core unit with over 1200 students annually. She won the inaugural Western Sydney University Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor Academic Award for Excellence in Indigenous Teaching in 2021.

Taken for a ride? How the education vehicle breaks down for First Nations people

The ‘education is the key’ mantra is often used as a metaphor in remote First Nations communities to indicate the importance of learning to achieve some measure of socio-economic advantage. It is fair to say that First Nations people have bought into education and training ‘vehicle’ with enthusiasm. The Year 12 completion data coming out of Closing the Gap Report in 2019 suggest that gaps are closing. The rates of people holding certificate qualifications in remote communities are also increasing at a fast pace.

But the vehicle appears to break down as it heads along the road towards jobs, economic participation and income. I have been using Census data to research the impact of First Nations students completing Year 12, with a special focus on income and what I found is disturbing.

My research extends the work of projects conducted by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (now called Ninti One) between 2011 and 2016, in which I was  I was also involved.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation projects

The CRC-REP projects confirmed that education is important for First Nations people living in remote communities, but not necessarily because of jobs and careers. Education is important because it helps keep language and culture strong. It assists young people maintain a connection with Country and ensures that they have a strong identity. At the same time the projects confirmed the importance of education, they also raised questions about the efficacy of education and training as the key to economic participation by First Nations peoples.

Back in 2013 it was assumed there is a connection between going to school regularly, completing Year 12, getting a job and living a happy and successful life. It was often argued as common sense. For example, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013 stated “…you need to have an education if you’re going to take advantage of… this wonderful economic nirvana…”

A slightly more sophisticated argument sees benefit from education in terms of human, social and identity capital. But is that economic nirvana being realised for First Nations students from remote communities, particularly for those who have completed Year 12? One could expect so, given the public investment in boarding and scholarship programs designed to give remote First Nations people a quality education and complete their secondary education.

My research on Census data

In the last three Censuses there is evidence of strong growth in Year 12 completion rates for those First Nations people who speak an Indigenous language, as shown in the table below.

The number of Year 12 completers among language speakers increased by 362% in ten years. For English speakers, the growth was also a healthy 85%, compared to non-Indigenous growth of just 28%. If the common sense logic is right, we would expect that growth to take people to jobs.

And the good news is that jobs for year 12 completers have grown, but, as the table shows, the total number of jobs for First Nations people has not changed in 10 years.

So the net impact of all this education in terms of jobs for First Nations people is nil.

Meanwhile for non-Indigenous people there were more than an extra 4000 jobs for those working in very remote parts of the country.

But surely there is some economic benefit to attaining year 12?

I put that question to the test by comparing the median incomes of year 12 completers based on their status as First Nations people or non-Indigenous and whether they speak English only or another language as well. The table below, based on 2016 Census data shows what I found.

This table explains why the education vehicle has not lived up to its expectations for First Nation people. Some might say it has broken down altogether.

To be fair, First Nations Year 12 completers do get a relative income benefit compared to their Year 11 completer counterparts, around $300 per week if they speak English only, but the benefit dwindles to nothing for those who do not speak English very well.

By contrast, non-Indigenous people who speak another language appear to not lose out to the same extent because of their second language. Indeed the highest income earners in this table are non-Indigenous people who also speak a language other than English. There is also apparently no meaningful income benefit from stepping up from Year 11 to Year 12 either, for this group.

So what is going wrong?

Far from arriving at economic nirvana, First Nations people who have invested in their Year 12 education vehicle, have broken down well short of this glorious place. The income differentials are shocking. But why is this so?

In the CRC-REP research, we proposed several reasons for the differences. One reason we offered was related to agency. People make choices about the kind of work they want to engage in, and it isn’t always based on money. But this new data is somewhat disturbing as it suggests that some languages are treated more favourably than others, which may raise questions about racism and assimilation’s continuing role in educational institutions. The data shows that English has a higher value than Indigenous languages. But being able to speak another language that isn’t an Indigenous language is potentially more valuable than speaking English alone.

Just as disturbing is the evidence emerging from several studies that boarding and scholarship programs can have a detrimental impact on First Nations young people’s wellbeing. The large income differential offers another explainer as to why First Nations people in remote communities don’t bother to get on board the Year 12 vehicle. It just doesn’t pay!

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

Image is by John Guenther

Effective teaching methods that work for Indigenous students: latest research

What does effective teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students look like? Thousands of research studies have been dedicated to finding answers to this question. But much of what we think we know, or hear, about Indigenous education remains mired in myths and legends.

Governments have been surprisingly frank about the failure of their Closing The Gap policies to deliver better health, education and employment outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The search for better ways continues.

My colleagues and I are particularly interested in looking for what works in Aboriginal education, and most importantly, how do we know what works?

As part of the larger ‘Aboriginal Voices’ project we decided to analyse research studies on Aboriginal education from 2006-2017. We carried out several systematic literature reviews following rigorous and replicable protocols  across a range of key issues.

The review I want to tell you about is one that looked for evidence of pedagogies that engage, support and improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

This review sorted through approximately 2000 research studies and, after applying the systematic review inclusion/exclusion protocols, analysed the remaining 53 research studies.

So, what did we find?

Most studies are localised small-scale qualitative case studies focused on engagement

Most research studies were localised small-scale qualitative case studies producing evidence of successful programs that engaged and/or supported Indigenous students in the classroom and in many cases, these were the aims of the program. The assumption appears to be that if Indigenous students are engaged in their learning then their educational outcomes will improve but without empirical evidence to support this, this can only be considered as conjecture.

Wholesale literacy and numeracy programs where Indigenous students are a subset

Eighteen research studies identified pedagogical approaches for specific skills such as literacy and numeracy revealing mixed results in terms of success. In many of these studies, Indigenous students were a subset of a larger group usually connected by socio-economic status (SES), achievement levels and location. Any successes reported in these programs occurred for all students and therefore did not shed light on any specific pedagogical approaches that improved Indigenous student outcomes.

Not surprisingly research studies that focus on practical skill improvements like literacy and numeracy tend to receive large-scale funding as results are more readily quantifiable and reportable in terms of government policy priorities. Moreover, programmatic approaches to literacy and numeracy appear to have become the default approach for Aboriginal student learning in preparation for vocational pathways.

Specific pedagogies identified as effective

Yes we did find 21 studies of pedagogies identified as effective in improving Aboriginal student engagement, support and /or educational outcomes.

Most described effective, innovative pedagogies such as

  •  ‘Pedagogies of wonder’. This involves adults listening to the wonder of the children about their own history, culture and context and trusting children to research this rich resource.
  • Generative pedagogies  Here, culturally safe spaces were created for Indigenous girls to engage with their everyday experiences of oppression, through writing.
  • Place-based pedagogies (also here) that take students out of the classroom and onto ‘country’ and involve Rangers, teachers and community members in a collaborative approach to teaching and learning were successful in engaging students .
  • pedagogies prioritising local Aboriginal voices that involve listening to voices in the community and understanding the values and cultural elements that inform students in their engagement with a formal education context.

These teaching methods engaged and supported Aboriginal students rather than ‘improved educational outcomes’ and while it could be argued that culturally responsive approaches such as these create conditions for improving educational outcomes, there was no empirical evidence to make this causal connection.

The seminal extensive research project Systemic Implications of Pedagogy and Achievement in NSW public schools (SIPA) provides an exception. While Aboriginal students were a subset of a larger group, researchers focussed on results for specific groups, coding and measuring student assessment tasks utilising the NSW Quality Teaching Framework [QTF].

In terms of outcomes, researchers provided solid evidence that high quality assessment tasks not only improved all students results but contributed to closing the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. While not identifying specific pedagogies to improve educational outcomes, they noted pedagogical approaches that contributed to poor outcomes particularly for Aboriginal and low SES students such as ‘defensive teaching’, low expectations and a focus on behaviour management rather than effective teaching and learning of curriculum content.

Contributing factors to effective teaching

Many of the studies [43] discussed pedagogies in relation to other contributing factors to effective teaching such as student engagement, teacher professional learning and curriculum.

Engagement strategies identified the importance of:

  • individually paced learning,
  • culturally safe learning environments,
  • providing transport, food and community-based staff working in the school,
  • opportunities for Aboriginal student voices,
  • local community involvement in the school,
  • teacher understanding about their students ‘out-of-school’ lives, and
  • school as a place of belonging and relevance.

Teacher professional learning included the need for:

  • increased teacher confidence and efficacy through actively learning about local Aboriginal culture, history and the impact of colonization,
  • a shift from behaviour management to subject knowledge,
  • time and resources to adequately reflect on and improve their practice, and
  • ongoing engagement with Aboriginal parents and communities.

Students and parents highlighted the importance of:

  • culture,
  • positive relationships,
  • needing to learn about the literacy demands of schools and how to code-switch between home and school,
  • support for student behavior,
  • schools and teachers rejecting deficit views of Aboriginal people, and
  • affirming Aboriginal student’s cultural identity.

Knowing the community is critical

While only 14 research studies focussed on context, most studies referred to this as an important consideration especially in remote and very remote schools. This suggests that the issues for students and the challenges for teachers are largely context dependent and so critical and nuanced understandings of each particular community are crucial. It also points to the invisibility of urban-based students and communities. If a study was conducted in an urban area, the location was not mentioned or considered a factor in the study. Given that urban Indigenous populations are increasing exponentially, this highlights a concerning gap in the research design and priorities.

Deficit thinking

Concern about school and teacher deficit thinking about Aboriginal peoples and cultures that also appear to permeate policy and practice, was evident in a number of studies, some of which contextualized this within ongoing issues of race and racism. Some studies also critically analysed the construction, problematisation and reproduction of knowledge noting that Aboriginal aspirations were not often included in definitions of what success might look like for these students and their communities, or how it might be measured.

The challenges are many and the answers complex

Consequently, while these research studies contribute to the conversation about ‘what works’ for Indigenous students, there certainly needs to be an evidence-based systematic approach to developing pedagogical approaches to improve Aboriginal student outcomes. In saying this, the combination of diverse Aboriginal contexts each of which are embedded in local place and knowledges, and the complexity of ‘measuring’ pedagogies given the multitude of complex, layered and nuanced variables that impact on the teaching/learning process, makes this an extremely challenging task. 

Need for a national vision

What we found throughout this review and the other systematic reviews conducted in this project, is what is missing or under-researched more than what was discovered or proven. It is clear to us that a national vision is needed. This vision needs to decolonize the parochial targets, outcomes and obsession with ‘measurement’ that currently restrains Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers and policy makers working together on the holistic project of improving Aboriginal student outcomes.

The Aboriginal Voices project will continue this work by developing culturally responsive approaches to schooling informed by local Aboriginal students and their families, who continually foreground the significance of Country, culture, language and identity to their success, emphasising the importance of success as ‘Aboriginal’.

Dr Cathie Burgess is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney currently teaching and coordinating Aboriginal Studies curriculum courses, Aboriginal Community Engagement and the Master of Education: Leadership in Aboriginal Education. She has extensive teaching and leadership experience in secondary schools with expertise in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal education, and implementing innovative literacy strategies. Cathie’s research involves community-led initiatives positioning Aboriginal cultural educators as experts through projects such as Learning from Country in the City, Aboriginal Voices: Insights into Aboriginal Education, Community-Led Research, The Smith Family’s Learning for Life program and the Redfern Aboriginal Family Cultural Program.

Image by courtneyk

The trickery used to marginalise and silence Indigenous voice in education

Indigenous education policy, reviews and reports have consistently sought for the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in all levels of decision-making. However, actions and evidence suggest otherwise: the silencing and marginalisation of Indigenous peoples continues. My research focuses on the various mechanisms put in place that counter the goodwill intentions shared by policy makers and politicians, specifically in Indigenous education policy. I believe there is trickery at play. There is allusion to the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but it is not really happening.

The good intentions of politicians

Quite often the will and want to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is foregrounded in political speeches and/or reports from Prime Ministers. Here, we find assertions from people in positions of political authority who say they want to address the gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. For example, International human rights charters such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples advocate for the inclusion of Indigenous voices. The political elite continually refer to these rights and say they espouse such desires.

What is really happening politically

In the lead up to the 2016 election, the National Congress of Australia’s First Nations Peoples released the Redfern Statement: An urgent call for a more just approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. Here, the Congress highlighted the lack of Indigenous representation at a national level where decision-making and policy about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is made. By 2017 and with the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the call for Indigenous voices to be heard was made. However, the instant dismissal of the Uluru Statement of the Heart acted to silence Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and contradicted the sentiments shared by politicians and Prime Ministers elsewhere within the public arena.

The good intentions of education policy

Within the Australian Curriculum and more specifically, its cross curriculum priority, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, there is opportunity for these cultural gaps to be redressed. There is space to allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be engaged in and with the teaching and learning offered in schools.

It requires schools, principals and educators to build partnerships with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities. This is not a new innovation. Since the initial reports regarding Indigenous education, there has been a call to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures into teaching and learning.

What is really happening in education

However, policy and therefore, policy makers ignore the premises of a partnership where relationships need to be nurtured to be maintained; where trust needs to be built. This can’t happen when the schooling systems engaged in educating many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children usually work on three-year cycles, whereby teachers and principals transition in and out of community.

Further assumptions are located within the current Indigenous education policy, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy 2015, where the lack of Indigenous representation within the Australian teaching workforce is also ignored. Indigenous people have no power or real influence on what is and is not taught in schools or more importantly, what is deemed necessary and what is not. In what has already been described in many papers as a content heavy curriculum and ignored in recent reviews and reports, the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures can easily be seen as ‘bolted on’ and ignored.

My experience as an Aboriginal teacher

I was a classroom teacher for almost 20 years with my final years being within schools with high Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student populations. As the only Aboriginal teacher within these schooling environments, my colleagues and the principals often called on me to be the mediator between the schools and the communities.

I was torn. My role as classroom teacher was seen by the school as a means to communicate with communities about the school’s expectations and yet, the community saw my role and position as a means to speak into the school space. The tug of war minimised my own voice. The schools and the principals failed to see what was happening and did not attempt to build relationships with the communities because they simply relied on me to be the go-between for them. This essentially, widened the gap between the school and the community. In turn, this made Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice within the planning and decision making almost an impossibility. Due to the actions (or should that be inaction?), the school had silenced the community.

Let’s flip the system

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to indeed have a voice in the decision making that effects them, there is a need to flip the system and to transform the ways in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are viewed by wider Australia. That is, Australia needs to acknowledge the biases and assumptions held within colonial Australia and allow for truth telling and conciliation of the past. This begins through education.

As Indigenous peoples we need to be more assertive. We need to harness the international human rights charters and use them to privilege our voices. We need to speak into policymaking on Indigenous Affairs and call out politicians for their empty rhetoric. We need to have more of a say in what is taught within schools. Our children are dependent on it. Our future is dependent on it.


Melitta Hogarth is a Kamilaroi woman who is also the Indigenous Education Lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland within the College for Indigenous Studies, Education and Research.  Prior to entering academia, Melitta taught for almost 20 years in all three sectors of the Queensland education system specifically in Secondary education.  Melitta’s interests are in education, equity and social justice.  She recently completed her PhD titled “Addressing the rights of Indigenous peoples in education: A critical analysis of Indigenous education policy”. She can be found on Twitter  @melitta_hogarth

Melitta is presenting on her research at the 2018 AARE Conference.  On Monday 3rd December at 4pm she is presenting on ‘Musings of an aboriginal researcher’ and is chairing a Symposium on Wednesday 5th December on ‘Education research that engages with multiple voices: Flipping the Australian education system’.

The image featured on this post is from Adobe Stock

Boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can have very damaging effects: new evidence-based research

For many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students living in remote communities across Australia, ‘choice’ in secondary education is limited to either not going to school or going away to a boarding school far away from home.

Setting aside for a moment the issue of choice, the ‘good’ of the decision to go to boarding school is seldom questioned, it is taken as a given. Indeed, the ‘good’ is reflected in significant investments in scholarship programs, hostel infrastructure, transition support services and Abstudy to encourage the ‘choice’ to go away. Governments are reluctant to invest in local secondary schooling options

But why is this so? Surely there is a good theoretical foundation and an evidence base that shows how much better off individuals and communities are from the improved education that students will receive from a boarding school experience.

Evidence of the impact of boarding schools on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

Until about 2012 there was almost no research conducted which showed the impact of boarding schools on remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Since then an emerging body of work is being generated that mostly raises questions about the ‘good’ of boarding, and indeed points to some major concerns.

At the 2017 AARE conference a number of researchers presented a synthesis of their findings and proposed a ‘theory of change’ which shows the complexity of the boarding context and possibility of unintended and undesirable outcomes of boarding. These outcomes, based on findings from the authors point to the possibility of social distress, mental ill-health, substance abuse, loss or confusion of identity, culture and human capital, among other outcomes.

Two other government inquiries/reports, “From surviving to thriving Educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students” and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s Study Away Review, highlight concerns in relation to preparation, travel, funding for accommodation, health and wellbeing, growing expulsions, loss of culture, and poor parent and community engagement. The Study Away from Home report points to a 40% increase in demand for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding places in the 4 years to 2016. Another report, the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education, will also likely address some of these issues when it is released. How could the ‘good’ have been so badly misread?

Apart from the lack of evidence-based policy, the failure of boarding to realise its hopes can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the theoretical foundations of boarding school initiatives.

Our research on boarding outcomes remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We have been working on this very issue and presented our initial findings at the 2017 AARE conference in Canberra at the end of last year. Here’s what we found, based on our analysis of boarding outcomes viewed through the lenses of social, human and identity capital. Very briefly, the three capitals can be explained as follows.

Human capital

The concept of human capital can be traced back to the 18th Century economist, Adam Smith, who described ‘acquired abilities’ as an investment that costs the individual but which ‘repays that expense with a profit’. This idea was applied to economics in the early 1960s through scholars such as Schultz and Becker. These economists argued that individuals make decisions about education based on the economic return from their investment in knowledge. Becker put forward models that calculated the likely return of staying in school.

In short, the longer an individual stays in education the greater the return on investment. The push to see more young people go to boarding schools can be seen as an attempt to increase economic productivity through education.

Social capital

The idea that people gain value from their network of social relationships is not new. However, theorisation of ‘social capital’ is relatively new and certainly post-dates theorisation of human capital. Pierre Bourdieu was the first to theorise social capital. Bourdieu brought together concepts of economic, social and cultural capital. His theory suggests that social and cultural capital can be bought. That is, an economic investment may allow individuals to access the wealth associated with social structures, which would otherwise not be accessible. However, while arguing for the convertibility of various forms of capital, Bourdieu asserts that the group acts to protect its accumulation of the capital.

We see these apparently opposing dynamics working in the context of boarding scholarships. Scholarships are an attempt to buy the cultural and social capital inherent in the institutions of boarding schools, particularly elite schools. However, the social groups of home community and boarding school will act to protect their accumulated capitals, which inhibit the exchange which would otherwise allow the student from the community to ‘walk in two worlds’.

For young people—particularly those from remote communities—the challenges associated with building social relationships (part of social capital) in a foreign environment, and the challenges associated with investing to build knowledge (part of human capital) in a boarding school would undoubtedly be enough to break them.

Identity capital

But on top of that, like all young people, at this very point adolescent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will be experiencing (as Erik Erikson suggests) ‘identity confusion’.

The theory of identity capital was developed by James E. Côté and Charles G Levine. Their short definition is as follows:

In sum, the term “identity capital” denotes “investments” individuals make, and have, in “who they are.” These investments potentially reap future dividends in the “identity markets” of late modern communities. (Côté & Levine, 2002, p. 147)

How these theories work in the context of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We wanted to know how the assumptions of capital theories actually work in the context of boarding for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. We examined the literature from policy and research documents and compared the two. The results of that comparison are shown in the table below.


Capital How it should work for remote students attending boarding schools How it can work (based on the evidence)
Human Capital Theory

•Individuals make a choice to invest in their education because of the perceived and actual return on the investment

•Communities benefit through increased productivity

•Education leads to improved employment pathways and higher income

•Individuals may perceive a net cost to education and therefore choose not to invest

•Communities may lose human capital if students choose not to return to communities

•Pathways from education and training to work may be avoided in favour of alternative livelihood options

•Income benefit may not materialise

Social Capital Theory

•Investment in social capital gives access to wealth through social structures

•Communities strengthen through links to external sources of power


•Identification with powerful social structures may lead to exclusion from community power structures

•External sources of power act to protect and control resources to the exclusion of communities

•Lost opportunities to engage in the local cultural economy

Identity Capital Theory

•Investment in identity capital affirms role development consistent with ontologies associated with schooling

•Agency/choice/self-investment leads to improved health and wellbeing outcomes


•Conformance to educational identity expectations/aspirations may lead to identity confusion/crisis

•Conflicting identities may lead to ill-health and loss of cultural identity



Our research is a red flag for policy makers and service providers of boarding school for remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

We are not suggesting that these are the only theories we could apply to this issue, but offer this analysis as a starting point to critically examine assumptions of those involved in policy and service delivery for boarders. What our analysis suggests is that the theoretical assumptions applied to boarding provision are often incorrect.

For some, the assumptions may work, but our concern is for those where the ‘good’ of boarding turns into a ‘bad’ for students, communities and families. To that end, along with the evidence and the recent reviews cited above, the analysis serves as something of a red flag and should cause all involved in what is akin to an experiment, to beware of the negative consequences of pursuing a policy that limits choice for remote families and may have profoundly dire results.


John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.



Bill Fogarty is currently the A/C Deputy Director of the National Centre for Indigenous Studies at the ANU in Canberra. He has a long history of research and work in Indigenous Education and is currently a Chief Investigator on a number of large research projects including the Australian Research Council funded ‘Deficit Discourse and Indigenous Education’ project.


Note: The blog post image is Yirara College in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, a Lutheran boarding school for Aboriginal students. Students from remote communities go all over Australia to boarding schools.

In the Northern Territory about 700 Aboriginal students would go to boarding schools within the NT and another 1000 or so would go to interstate boarding schools.


This is Ampilawatja school, a remote school in the NT. This is typical of schools (where they are available) in remote regions.


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Why and how to use different teaching methods with Indigenous students

For decades there has been an overrepresentation of Indigenous students across Australia in disciplinary school records. Suspensions, exclusions and a range of other negative reports fill the school records. As a result low attendance, low retention and under achievement have been the more commonly reported trajectories for Indigenous Australians.

The explanation often given for these unfavourable results for Indigenous students is that there is a cultural mismatch, that is a child’s home culture and the school culture hold conflicting expectations. This mismatch gives rise to poor understanding of Indigenous student behaviour and aspirations. Indigenous students differ from non-Indigenous students not only in the background knowledge that is assumed by their schools, but also in the strategies they use to approach and solve problems.

Teachers who are not fully aware of these differences in approaches or who “play down” cultural differences, preferring instead to argue about ability and equity are ill-equipped to build on their students’ knowledge and experiences. Indeed, research shows that teachers, schools and the public in general, hold a ‘deficit view’ towards to Indigenous students and their families, that is a view that individuals from some cultural groups lack the ability to achieve just because of their cultural background.

How we reviewed the research literature

In an effort to understand what works in the classroom to better engage Indigenous students and minimize behavioural responses my colleagues, Linda Llewellyn, Brian Lewthwaite, and I conducted a review of the research literature. This included all peer-reviewed literature published in English, both Australian and international with the aim of identifying strategies that support the behaviour of Indigenous students.

We used methods designed to examine all literature that:

  1. mentioned an Indigenous or marginalised primary or secondary school context;
  2. claimed to improve behaviour support or management of Indigenous students;
  3. included an Indigenous voice in the suggested actions.

Much of the published literature was advice literature rather than empirically based studies that showed what actually improved behavioural outcomes for Indigenous students. The Australian literature in particular was replete with strategies to support Indigenous student behaviour, but lacked empirical evidence. Only five studies were specifically based on the topic directly, and of these three suggested strategies, but little evidence was offered for the specific strategies.

What previous research says.

Overall, the review revealed a number of themes

Teachers need an understanding of power relations and the deficit paradigm.

A deficit paradigm is a view that has long been deeply embedded in the culture of Western schools and still held by some teachers, administrators and others in positions of power. It assumes that poor student performance or behaviour stems from problems with the students or their families that must be “fixed”.

Teachers also need to know that the power relations that were experienced by Indigenous families historically in Australia have left a mostly negative influence which has filtered into the realm of education, one that continues to have an influence today. Failure to understand this historical element may result in unnecessary conflict as cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings.

In addition, research has shown a fundamental difference between Western (Balanda) and Yolgnu (Indigenous Australian people inhabiting north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia ) cultures in the context of education and world views. The difference between ‘purposeful’ for Balanda and ‘meaningful’ for Yolgnu may help teachers understand student behaviour. For example, Yongnu students might not be able to transfer classroom learning to other contexts outside of the classroom, as they might connect meaning only to the school context. Therefore it is important for teachers to emphasise process and principles with clearly applicable examples for Yongnu students. Also Yongnu students might not be willing to learn from those with whom they do not have a trusting, close relationship because learning is centred on personal relationship rather than on an information orientation. All in all, teachers must reflect on their own cultural orientations and identify their ideology and beliefs honestly.

The teacher must be a warm demander

Warm demanders are teachers who develop relationships with their students and do things to let their students know they care for them. Successful teachers of Indigenous children have an interest in the lives of their students. They employ humour by directing deprecating humour at themselves and not at children. They also explain jokes and avoid sarcasm, and direct humour to the whole class, not at individual students.

Relationships are a priority in schools successful with Indigenous students. In order for classroom behaviour support to be successful teachers should also know or be willing to learn: the culture and characteristics of students, their learning strengths, successful teaching methods for Indigenous students and proactive behaviour support strategies.

The review showed that specific strategies need to be used with Indigenous students.

Methods used by successful teachers of Indigenous students

  • increase wait time after asking questions or making requests
  • provide opportunities for group work
  • scaffold learning to encourage student participation, even in direct questioning
  • provide opportunities for movement
  • provide flexibility
  • use storytelling and implement activity based learning.
  • as indigenous students may not have value in work for work’s sake tasks need to be enjoyable and be seen to be applicable in the context of their lives.
  • allow autonomy and leadership skills. One of the few Australian empirical studies found two teachers achieved “classrooms where Adult/ pupil teacher interactions are characterized by sensitivity, respect and allegiance to common goals … [by] catering for Aboriginal student differences and needs, while focusing student creativity and energy towards self-enhancing goals”.
  • staff working in Indigenous ways; which in one study they refined into six quality teaching pedagogies in common with Aboriginal epistemologies: self-direction; self-regulation; social support; connectedness to the world; narrative and cultural knowledge.
  • use culturally based behaviour support and management strategies. Time spent on proactive behaviour support strategies decreases disruption. Proactive strategies documented in international research literature included making behaviour expectations clear and teaching students how to meet expectations. Australian research emphasized that teachers should avoid spotlighting students and must provide social support as the key pedagogy to develop self-direction.
  • frame requests in a way that will engage students and do not rely on worksheets.
  • use reactive strategies that are culturally appropriate. For example reward acceptable behaviour with consistent and short-lived rewards to shape behaviour rather than punishing hard. Individual praise can cause the opposite effect so shared group rewards or individual praise in private are preferable. And the time to teach ‘Balanda’ values is not in the middle of a conflict. Following conflict, punitive measures may not be productive. Students should be asked to consider the importance of their responsibility to community. Teachers may lose credibility if they use excessive authority, shouting, sarcasm or being bossy and threats, punishments and use of authority won’t work. Moreover, proactive approaches must be adopted at a whole-school level.
  • create links with community by involving community members and forming friendships with parents and carers. Better outcomes are likely as the trust between family and teacher develops.

In conclusion, while the advice literature offers numerous suggestions, as I see it, Australian research evidence is still lacking. If we are serious about improving the outcomes of our Indigenous students we need to fund and carry out much more research in this field.


BOONDr Helen Boon is a Senior Lecturer in the areas of educational psychology, special needs and behaviour management at James Cook University. Helen has a strong research interest the education of at risk students, and the factors that help them to become resilient including their parenting.  Helen initially trained in the sciences  and taught Chemistry and Mathematics for a number of years.  Preferred research methods are mixed methods,  including SEM and Rasch modelling. She is currently working on an ARC funded project examining the most effective pedagogies for Indigenous students.

Shocking evidence of US-style racial bias in Australian schools

Australian research is almost silent on how disciplinary practices in our schools are affected by racial bias. 

In the United States there is ample evidence that children from minority groups are more likely to labelled as having behaviour disorders. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with having a mild intellectual impairment, learning disabilities or emotional disturbance, and placed in special education classes.

Research from the US consistently shows that African American, American Indian and Hispanic students are more likely to be overrepresented if they are:

  • male,
  • from a low SES background,
  • live in a high-density urban area, and
  • where there is a high proportion of students from minority groups.

Similar trends have been noted in the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.

The lack Australian research on this issue is not because we somehow have escaped the problem but because Australian education systems are remarkably eclectic in the ways in which they report data.

Sophisticated longitudinal and geographical analyses tracking trends in diagnosis and placement are currently impossible. We remain ignorant of magnitude, cause and effect. But there are indicators and if you can see the tip of an iceberg, logic suggests that you would make a serious effort to alter direction.

What DO we know?

The NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) publishes an extensive array of educational data. Whilst they are riddled with inconsistencies and blind-alleys, DEC does at least publish some statistics disaggregated by Indigenous status.

These data show that Indigenous students are significantly over-represented in long school suspensions (5-20 days) and in separate special educational settings. DEC doesn’t draw that conclusion themselves but it is clearly evident when Indigenous students make up only 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012 but account for:

24.4% of long-suspensions,

14.6% of enrolments in primary school support classes,

12.6% of enrolments in secondary school support classes, and

12.8% of enrolments in special schools.

These numbers tell us far less than we need to know. For example, is the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students in school suspensions and special educational settings increasing or declining over time? Are there discrepancies that might indicate institutional bias or is Indigenous over-representation in these data simply a reflection of social disadvantage?

I looked for evidence of trends emerging. What I discovered has made me believe urgent attention is needed.

Let’s start with the use of suspension: the strongest predictor of later special education placement and school failure.

Long-school suspensions: 2008-2012

Indigenous students accounted for 6.3% of total enrolments in NSW government schools in 2012, but received 24.4% of long-suspensions (averaging 11.8 days), up from 22% in 2008.

They were 5.1 times more likely to receive a long-suspension than non-Indigenous students (up from a risk of 4.3 in 2008), and 6.1 times more likely than non-Indigenous students to receive a repeat long-suspension (no change from 2008).

There was a 35.1% increase in the number of Indigenous students receiving a long-suspension between 2008 and 2012.

This is almost twice the increase in long-suspensions received by non-Indigenous students.

This is a serious problem because suspension is an ineffective and often harmful response to student disengagement that does nothing to address the underlying causes of disruptive behaviour.

As I mentioned earlier, suspension is also the most robust predictor of special education placement and later school failure. If that’s true, then high rates of suspension may be impacting Indigenous enrolments in special education. Let’s have a closer look at this part of the iceberg…

Enrolments in separate special educational settings

longitudinal analysis  of enrolments in separate special educational settings (1997-2007) found that Indigenous enrolments in support classes and special schools are increasing faster than enrolments of non-Indigenous students, and faster than Indigenous enrolments in mainstream.

In other words, the rise in Indigenous special education placements cannot be explained by Indigenous population growth.

This research also found that Indigenous students were already over-represented in separate settings back in 1997, and that the degree of over-representation has increased significantly since. Particularly worrying was the finding that the disproportionate over-representation of Indigenous students had accelerated in the 6 years since the Review of Indigenous Education (2004).

Enrolments in NSW government special schools

So, we know that Indigenous students are over-represented in special schools and that their enrolments are increasing relative to non-Indigenous students. This doesn’t appear to have stirred much in the way of public outcry, so I investigated whether Indigenous disproportionality differs by special school type.

There are three broad types of special schools in the NSW government school sector:

  • Traditional special schools enrolling students with moderate to severe intellectual impairment, physical and sensory disabilities, and autism;
  • Mental health special schools enrolling students with emotional disturbances, severe psychiatric disorders, or behaviour disorders; and
  • Juvenile justice special schools within juvenile justice detention centres.

In 2009, traditional special schools enrolled just over two thirds of special school students, mental health special schools enrolled almost one quarter, and juvenile justice special schools enrolled just under 10 per cent.

Indigenous representation varied significantly by school type with 1 in 4 kids in mental health special schools and almost 1 in 2 in juvenile justice special schools identifying as Indigenous. Less than 6 from every 100 students in Traditional SSPs were Indigenous.

This means that Indigenous disproportionality in special schooling is explained by over-representation in particular types of special schools; namely mental health special schools and juvenile justice special schools.

Now, I know that still might seem unremarkable to some, so I looked a little more closely at mental health special schools. There are two broad types in this group:

  • special schools for students with verified mental health issues, and
  • special schools for students with disruptive behaviour.

The former requires a confirmation of disability (under the category of mental health problems) prior to entry, the other doesn’t.

Indigenous students accounted for 18.8% of enrolments in the type that requires confirmation of disability and 27.1% of enrolments in the type that doesn’t.

In my field of research, that’s more than the proverbial tip of an iceberg.  It’s the equivalent of a smoking gun.

At the very least, these trends tell us that our school disciplinary practices are affected by racial bias and that we need to more carefully examine how discipline is applied, to whom, what for and in what ways.


Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). She is presenting this research at the NSW Aboriginal Education Council’s 50th Anniversary Conference, Saturday August 30, 2014.