Indigenous education

Now, more than ever, we need change in Indigenous education

This week (May 27-31) is National Reconciliation Week. The theme this year is ‘Now more than ever’. We need change in Indigenous education now more than ever. We share our research on excellence in Indigenous education where we ask big questions about what is needed to shift Indigenous education from gaps to excellence.

Excellence is a concept that has been used across education as a way of describing an aspiration to be outstanding in the delivery of schooling imperatives. Recognised as a culturally constructed term, the common thread in understanding excellence is striving to be the very best at whatever the endeavour is. 

When we look at the language and aspiration in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education policy and practice, the dominant framing is that we aim to ‘close the gap’. 

The Excellence in Indigenous Education project started with this observation and a curiosity about how deficit language impacts the way that educational leaders and practitioners conceive of and enact their work in schools. 

Our research

We commenced our pilot study in 2019 with three secondary schools in Queensland’s urban, regional and remote areas. And we asked big-picture questions about what Indigenous people, school leaders, and practitioners think excellence in Indigenous education looks like. We also asked for practical examples of what excellence in Indigenous education looks like in practice. These questions were asked through face-to-face collaborative yarning. 

We recently published findings in the Australian Educational Researcher journal from Indigenous voices in the pilot study as we know it’s vital to centre the voices of mob in policies that affect us. 

Key findings

There were distinct themes that emerged from the analysis when we explored how people conceptualised excellence in Indigenous education. 

Theme one: the young person – identity and building young people up

The conversations with participants about excellence in Indigenous education showed the importance of the young person’s experience. This study emphasised the interwoven themes of culture, identity, and empowerment for young people; illustrating a reimagined narrative of Indigenous education. The participants agreed that a strong identity is crucial for Indigenous students’ resilience and success in educational settings. They argued that understanding one’s culture and identity is a protective factor and a source of pride and belonging in an environment that often marginalises Indigeneity. The consensus was clear: knowing and embracing one’s cultural identity transforms negative perceptions into positive educational experiences. The study also focused on the importance of supporting the aspirations and achievements of Indigenous young people by building them up. Empowerment through education was seen as key, with community engagement and school-based initiatives appearing to play vital roles. 

Theme two: school culture and leadership

The culture of a school and the effectiveness of its leadership was the second theme to emerge. Schools should be welcoming and inclusive to Indigenous students, staff, families and community. It was made clear that the way educational leaders engage with the community is crucial and they need to be authentic, purposeful, and relational. However, not all Indigenous peoples in this study reported an inclusive culture in their schools but those that did have inclusive leaders expressed that they had the freedom to think and work ‘outside the box’ within an educational context.

Our study highlighted the need for culturally competent leaders in Indigenous schools who can implement a shared model of leadership.

Theme three: relationships

The third significant theme in our study was relationships, this finding aligns with Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing being and doing. The theme of relationships also links in with identity. Engagement with Indigenous students and families should be grounded in relationships, not just school priorities. Positive relationships and high expectations between educators and students can be a strong motivator for students to be engaged at school. Additionally, relationships need to stem out into the broader community and with community Elders. The unique knowledge Indigenous people bring to these relationships can have a significant impact on Indigenous excellence in schools and Elders have voiced that they know what’s best for our kids as we have lived experience and can share the knowledge we have with young people. However, schools should not take the knowledge and time shared by the community for granted. 

Strengthening Indigenous voices

Since completing the initial research, we have undertaken a further study to expand the data to foreground the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on excellence in Indigenous education. Using a community sampling method, we invited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members to participate in an online survey. Within two weeks of launching the survey, there were over 200 responses, with voices captured from over 90 mobs from all states and territories across Australia. We are currently analysing these data but thought we would share some of the important messages shared with us to date. 

When asked, “What does excellence look like in Indigenous education?” the responses are rich and diverse. Central tenants to the responses were the importance of culture, strengths-approaches, well-being and understanding truthful histories. 

What participants shared:

“…..when I talk about excellence in education it is from an Indigenous perspective and what I know is what is good for First Nations students, is good for everybody because it’s about relational practice, strength based, individual and high expectations. The difference with Indigenous education is acknowledging that not telling the full story of Australia’s history by negating First Nations valuable contribution is damaging to all Australians so Indigenous Education needs to also encompass new Learning, Unlearning and then Relearning about who we are as Australian, including all the untold First Nation’s story, which requires ongoing truth-telling, deep listening, deep understanding and then authentic action through First Nations voice.” 

“Students identifying and achieving individual educational, personal and cultural goals with teacher and community/family support”

“Excellence in Indigenous education is prioritising self-determination and the well-being of our mob in classrooms. Not just thriving academically, but socially and emotionally too – excellence is more than good grades. Feeling proud of who you are in the classroom and feeling supported and strong so you can be the best version of yourself – this view of excellence in Indigenous education supports the development of strong Indigenous futures and this benefits the nation as a whole.”

“To me Indigenous education should involve respect, valuing, appreciating and celebrating First Nations culture and traditions. By doing this allows the process of understanding, following protocol and opportunities for community involvement to create ongoing learning that has been part of this country for over thousands of years. Indigenous education should be everyone’s business.”

Excellence in Indigenous education

“Excellence in Indigenous education reflects a commitment to honouring Indigenous cultures, languages, and knowledge systems while promoting academic success, cultural pride, and community well-being.”

As much of the strategic direction in education centres around policy, it was important to gauge participants’ perspectives on whether it was important for Indigenous education policy to aspire to excellence. All survey participants shared that they either agreed or strongly agreed that it was important to aspire to excellence in Indigenous education policy. Shifting the narrative in education policy from “gap-gazing” to aspirations of excellence is timely. Some participants shared these perspectives in their vision for excellence in Indigenous education for future generations:

Aspiration to excellence

“ …..Closing the Gap education outcomes are scrapped and, in turn, deficit discourses. Indigenous students are no longer a ‘problem to be fixed’ but able to practice culture and engage meaningfully in education systems that suit them and their needs.” 

“We should stop saying ‘closing the gap’. Yes it should be a policy, should drive funding priorities and be made accountable through reporting. But the overt deficit thinking means whilst we aim to build Aboriginal people up through programs, we tear us down in the minds and thought processes of ‘well to do’ others. Need to shift from the mainstream thinking if we succeed, we’ve done something amazing.”

To understand some practical ways forward, we asked, How can schools work with local Indigenous communities to create a culture of excellence in Indigenous education? It appears from the preliminary analysis that there is a strong emphasis on Indigenous-led solutions, respectful relationships, providing space to beginning heard and valuing Indigenous families and communities to create this culture in schools. Participants shared: 

“Value community as equal and that know best for their children”

“Let the Indigenous communities lead the process- they are the knowledge holders of creating the excellence and for it to be meaningful and not tokenistic”

“Listen to the voices of our Indigenous young people in classrooms and their families – create space for input from Indigenous families. Also, celebrate success stories of Indigenous students (beyond attendance rates).”

We anticipate to publish the findings of this larger study over the next few months. 

How to make a start

Things educators and policymakers could do to get started in transforming excellence in education:

  • Make identity-affirming practices a priority in all schools. Some examples of identity-affirming practices are aiming to have your Indigenous staff ratio equivalent to your Indigenous student numbers, incorporating local perspectives and knowledges across all aspects of the school, and ensuring diverse Indigenous peoples and role models are represented in all aspects of the curriculum. 
  • Consider how Indigenous leadership is incorporated in school settings. We know that Indigenous leadership is vital in moving Indigenous education forward. Yet, the Indigenous-identified roles are usually among the school’s lowest ranked. Consider how Indigenous leadership can be elevated structurally in education moving forward.
  • Embed relational approaches by making space for people to connect and share – this means having fewer transactional interactions and spending more time building relationships over time.

Left to right: Marnee Shay is an Aboriginal educator and researcher and an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Queensland. Jodie Miller is an associate professor at the  University of Queensland. Her work focuses on improving the educational outcomes of students most at risk of marginalisation in school, particularly in the fields of Mathematics and Indigenous education. Danielle Armour is a Kamilaroi woman and senior lecturer at UQ, she has worked in Indigenous education for over 20 years. Suraiya Hameed is an interdisciplinary leader, educator and researcher specialising in Educational Leadership at University of Queensland. She researchers within the areas of Educational Leadership, Global Policy and Education & Equity, Inclusion, Diversity and Culture.

How To Transform Our Understanding Of First Nations Cultures To Abundant Futures

Big hART’s Creative Learning Producer, April Phillips, and Scott Rankin CEO reflect on the elements, process and approach of co-creating an ambitious First Nations led education project with the community of Ieramugadu (Roebourne), in the Pilbara W.A.

In the education sector, First Nations content and knowledge is widely accepted as rich, layered and highly important. However, most often this content is situated as: ‘a long, long time ago,’ steeped in broad generalisations, and seen through a deficit lens. Rarely do we ask; how might we present and build on this rich content and ideas, so as to privilege First Nations ‘cultures and histories’ as also strong and future focused? And also, how can we deliver learning in such a way as to move beyond the deficit lens? 

Through this retro positioning, we can lose sight of what is here now and strong and abundant, as well as what might be coming next. Cultural continuity in the past is remarkable, but so too is future continuity. Being able to acknowledge and present the lived experiences in the now, that will be taking us tens of thousands of years beyond now, holds inspiring educational potential. In partnership with the community of Ieramugadu, a new educational platform for this kind of approach has emerged, co-created with Big hART.

Big hART/ Ieramugadu partnership

Big hART, a social change and arts not-for profit was founded in 1992 with a purpose to illuminate hidden narratives. Nations are narrations (E. Said), and they are emergent and ‘told’ into being. And if you are excluded from, or demonised in that ‘telling,’ you are open to abandonment, hurt and trauma. The phrase, ‘it is harder to hurt someone if you know their story,’ underpins Big hART’s work.

Over a decade ago Big hART was invited by senior women to come to Ieramugadu and work with their young people, and tell the hidden stories. One of the first ideas they shared was, ‘heritage is a future leaning concept, it is our young people.’ This became a foundational piece of learning for Big hART, and set the tone of the Yijala Yala project. It has given rise to many opportunities for co-creation with the community. One such project was NEOMAD.

NEOMAD and NEO-Learning

NEOMAD, is a Gold Ledger Award winning First Nations sci-fi interactive comic, produced by Big hART, created by artist SUTU (Stu Campbell) and the community of Ieramugadu (Roebourne). More than forty young people worked alongside SUTU to develop digital skills, complete the images and ensure the magic of illuminated colours, recorded sounds and local languages were embedded in every page. Set in 2076, NEOMAD is an exemplar of the positivity that shines when First Nations are privileged with future continuity as well as past. The project champions a rare narrative – First Nations young people maintaining cultural work in the context of childhood freedoms, navigating dual worlds, and living fast paced adventures – all under the care and watchful eye of Elders. 

Once people read it, they say, “NEOMAD should be in all schools!” 

Bridging worlds: a support framework for futurism

Air dropping NEOMAD comics into every school in Australia could have been one way to reach our audience. And why not? Kids love it and the comic will surely bring future-focused fun to the classroom. However, ‘context’ has emerged as a step before the comic is read. The all-important introduction is the make-or-break moment, in amplifying the impact for both teachers and students. 

What we uncovered was a tentative hesitation amongst teachers, in knowing how to present First Nations futurism, in the present day, when reconciliation is still a long way off. This led to investigation informed by teachers: how might we take the conversation of futurism wider than NEOMAD alone? What would happen if we adopted a futuristic mode – live virtual education to bring co-learning to both teacher and students, in a safe, dynamic, fun parallel place? As a result, Big hART has developed a ‘supported learning’ offering, funded by the Telstra Foundations #Tech4good program.

Future focused in content and delivery 

In the NEO-Learning classroom, each student and their teacher arrive at a virtual destination. In the virtual classroom we spend time together, hear how to pronounce nation names – ‘Ngarluma’ and ‘Yindjibarndi’ from custodian Patrick Churnside via sound pods; we make predictions in the chat; we listen, read, look closely, share what we notice, download, vote and dance. 

“We have never done anything like this before,” they say.

Co-creation and self-determination is key

NEO-Learning is now a national offering, featuring a flow of additional content from the I Ieramugadu community, mentored in a new, on country Digital Lab. Big hART supports and champions local artists, many of whom are still in school. Artists make work based on their own lived experience, with new technical skills, alongside their peers. This after school learning isn’t a compulsory burden on young people, the learning is social, fun, grounding and good. The learning journey in digital art making is informed by mutual respect between artist mentors, young content creators and Elders. 

Shifting Perceptions 

There is a hunger in schools for new ways of knowing. Through NEO-Learning, First Nations digital artists, showcasing new technological modes, are helping to rewire ‘past tense’ assumptions about culture. And when strong digital art lands in a student’s world, the response is overwhelmingly positive and affirming. Young people recognise peer to peer learning as an act of generosity. As it catches on, young people try walking in each other’s shoes – running shoes, dancing shoes, space shoes, and imaginative futurist shoes – lets arrive before we leave!  

Find out more about NEO-Learning here

April Phillips is a Wiradjuri-Scottish woman of the Galari people. She works across disciplines as an audience specialist, digital artist, virtual educator and researcher. Currently the Creative Learning Producer at Big hART, April has been part of the NEO-learning development team since early 2020. April has contributed to international graphic anthropology research under the topic of ‘childhood play’ in the living memory of adults. She is associated as a community member of the Graduate Certificate of Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage; a graduate of the Bachelor of Creative Arts and Design and has partially completed a Masters of Education at Charles Sturt University.

Scott Rankin is a nationally renowned public speaker, writer, director, cultural commentator and co-founder of Big hART. His theatre, documentary and television projects have won multiple awards. Scott was the 2018 Tasmanian Australian of the Year, is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania and is a PHD candidate at the Queensland University of Technology.

Black Lives matter; We matter

So, I lie awake not being able to sleep, as the fire of my Ancestors burns inside me for change. I roll over trying to hide from it all, as I am tired, having just worked a full-time week, raising my gorgeous kids and teaching them from home, working and living for my Community, my Mob, my family. We have just come out of Reconciliation week, the theme, In this together. Big times. And the phone calls start rolling in. “What are we going to do?” “Isn’t it terrible what is happening in America?” “I think we should put on an event or protest.” “We have to do something.” These are from our amazing Non-Indigenous, Other Australians, our allies. I love them dearly.

But what they seem to forget, is that for most of us Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders this is our fight every day. This has been our fight for over 230 years. This will continue to be our fight until we get old and pass over, and beyond.

Many of us speak about this, and want change all the time. We do Welcomes and Acknowledgements to Country when asked, because we want change. We help with Reconciliation Action Plans, Employability plans, Statements of Commitment, organise events, answer many questions and help you to understand your privilege.

Meanwhile we know very little has changed in the school system, for our kids; if anything it has become worse. We are scared it will never be right for our kids and the generations to come. What you can hear in my voice is desperation.

You see :

  • More of our kids are in out of home care than there ever has been.
  • More of our kids are incarcerated than there ever has been.
  • More of our kids are de-identifying because it is safer.
  • More are turning down scholarships because their non-Indigenous friends look on them with shame.

Please understand I am talking about Victoria.

But guess what, what we need is our kids to thrive, be proud, and to get through the education system, we need this just like all mothers and fathers do, like all grandmothers and grandfathers do.

And our kids are striving ahead despite all this, they are strong in who they are and strong in what they want their future to be.

People talk about the system being broken; it was never right from the beginning. A dominant system has landed itself on Country and believed it was going to work. Can people see that it cannot? What else will it take? Massive bush fires? That’s happened. A virus that could possibly have changed our lives for ever? That’s happened. Maybe change isn’t a bad thing. Maybe change is just what we need.

I have many of my Non-Indigenous allies saying they feel helpless, what can they do? I am sorry, I look back and I think, “Helpless?” Then you don’t see me. You don’t see us. You mustn’t see how helpless we feel. Not helpless in who we are, but helpless that there are too few of us to make change. Too few with so many responsibilities and expectations upon us.

This is for our allies, what is your declaration and commitment to us, to change? You don’t need to do it all, maybe start with one small thing. As you are part of the system, you are part of the majority. You can also speak out for change. We need you.

Just so that you are clear, I cannot speak for a whole race of people, but I will give you some ideas from me.

  • We can no longer be the only ones fighting for change, we need your voice in it. Change it.
  • Any workplace that you are in, make sure you engage with us from the beginning, and make our employment meaningful and long term. Change it.
  • Our voice should be in decision making from the start. Change it.
  • Read anything you can get your hands on written by us, recorded by us. Our voices. Learn. Change it.
  • Many of us still live in poverty. Change it.
  • You also need to fight back for curriculum change, and ways of teaching for all kids. If you are a teacher please read the amazing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and First Nations people that write in Education. Like anything else you don’t know, you research it. Go to your schools and ask the hard questions. Support them. This is a big one, because this could bring about systematic change at the highest level and could bring about the greatest change.  Change it.
  • Don’t just stand back and be a bystander. Change it.
  • We know the cultural interface place is hard, guess what? It is also hard for us. Be brave. Be open to learn. Change it.
  • If you ask Elders or our people for advice, actively listen. Make the change. Change it.
  • Understand not everyone sees the world like you do. To many of us, going out into the world feels like walking into an aliens’ land, in our own Country. Our worldview is different. And we prefer it. Understand this. Change it.
  • Treat our Elders with respect. On this Country their word is lore/law. Change it.
  • And lastly, but not least. Don’t see us as disadvantaged. We are strong. We are proud. We love. We honour family. We honour Country. And we will continue to fight and fight until we do not have breath. And then we will fight and fight some more. Understand this. Change it.
  • Have your declaration and commitment ready. We want to hear from you.

 What are you willing to do? Be brave. Help us make change.

Kathryn Coff is a proud Yorta Yorta woman living on Jaara Country. She is a respected member of her local Aboriginal community in Castlemaine and currently manages Nalderun Aboriginal Services in the Mount Alexander Shire. She chairs various meetings in community and sits on the Shire’s Indigenous round table.  Her commitment to moving into a space were the Indigenous Relational worldview is included in education for all students has seen her working in kindergartens, primary and secondary schools and led to her appointment in 2018 as Indigenous Practitioner in Residence at La Trobe University. Currently doing Higher Degree Research into Indigenous Relation worldview in Education, Indigenous pedagogy and two way mentoring. In 2017/8, Kathryn received an Emerging Leader award from Indigenous Fellowship for Leadership. Recently Kathryn was appointed to the Board of Koondee Woonga-gat Toor-rong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Led Philanthropic Fund. Kathryn believes that when Aboriginal communities are supported by non-Indigenous Australians who have open hearts and minds, amazing things can happen for the whole community and the way forward is together, walking side by side.

Before we begin again, I want to tell you why last year was horrendous

The education year is about to begin but I can’t let 2018 go. Not yet.

I want to share with you how last year was for me, a Kamilaroi woman, a former schoolteacher and now a university lecturer and educational researcher. My urge to share is simply because I need to be persistent and I have to keep on trying to communicate how it is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, like me, in Australia today.

I consistently investigate the biases and taken for granted assumptions upheld in our society in my work as a researcher and I want to tell you that last year was absolutely horrendous for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  And yet, it was also a significant year where we celebrated the strength and persistence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and we began discussions about truth telling and acknowledging the detrimental shared history of colonial Australia.

This time of the year, the lead up to January 26th, is always a nightmare for me. But last year the nightmare did not stop after January 26th. It went all year. Nowhere was safe.  Every month, we were reminded that our bodies were political, our lives in ‘need of saving’ by the coloniser and implicit and explicit racism splashed across many forums on a daily basis.  There was no escape. Let me explain.

The January 26th debate

I purposefully do not name this day.  The debates that occur about it on social media forums every year are an excellent example of White Privilege in action, ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know their place in wider Australian society. 

Last year it was headlines such as “Why I’m proud of Australia and you should be too” and “Australia day: Most Australians don’t mind what date it’s held, according to new poll”.  This year we got Australia Day debate: Poll reveals most Aussies want celebrations to stay on January 26.  

Within every one of the discourses triggered by these headlines is the reminder that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need to “get over it” and “move on”.  But it doesn’t take into consideration the arguments of how January 26th is a recent date set nor recognise that the detrimental effects of colonisation continue

The shared history is inconvenient and again, not something that can be changed, so we are told let’s just “forget it”. Let’s dismiss the history of genocide and massacres and “move on”. 

Malcolm Turnbull said the date would not change while he was Prime Minister and it didn’t.

Ironically Malcolm Turnbull, along with his predecessor, Tony Abbott, espoused a wish to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their Closing the Gap reports.


Talking of Closing The Gap, February marked the tenth year of the Closing the Gap initiative. Yet again, the annual report saw few of the goals achieved.  The National Indigenous Reform Agreement, more commonly referred to as Closing the Gap, was introduced in 2008 with the intention to address the inequities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods encompassing health, education and employment. 

But in 2018, once again the reports were not positive.  Once again, the failure to achieve the targets was lamented and once again data was provided as to why governments can’t close the gap.  And the money spent, a reported $130 billion (paywalled) over the years, raised further discussions. 

Few commentators acknowledged the complexities of policy making and the lack of Indigenous voice being involved in the decision-making.  The call to be heard in the Redfern Statement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was lost. Some politicians even placed the lack of progress squarely with the communities (paywalled).  Such notions emphasise the political agenda of self-empowerment (that is, blaming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perceived failures and current conditions on the idea that the people do not take up the opportunities made available to them) and silences the Indigenous right for self-determination

So the Australian Government abandons the policy and moves on to another review with new targets as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples wait and remain silenced.


Yes we were only into March when an all-White panel on the morning show, Sunrise, advocated the further removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their homes for their well-being.  One of the commentators suggested a second Stolen Generation was necessary.  The segment caused outrage throughout Indigenous communities and led to protests outside the studio.  The audacity of the panelists to feel they could speak about Indigenous issues from a position of knowing caused instant reaction.  However, it also illustrated the enactment of privilege.  Our political bodies are consistently the subject of discussion and this instance, sought to remind us that colonial Australia was not afraid to voice their solutions for the perceived ‘problem’. 

Formal complaints were made to the Australian Communications and Media Authority about the mistruths shared within the segment and in September, Sunrise was found in breach of the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice.  But it was all too late.  The perpetuation of stereotypes and mistruths were already out there being normalised and re-interpreted within colonial Australia; further pushing any chance of reconciliation back.


In April, the dilemma of silencing and the inconvenience of Indigeneity in colonial Australia continued as Australia hosted the Commonwealth Games.  Indigenous protestors were in the news again. Protesters re-established the mantra of the ‘StolenWealth Games’ first used in 1982 protests.  Media discourses perpetuated the inconvenience of the protestors and the makeshift camp, Camp Freedom, highlighting the number of caravans, tents and so forth.

Organisers of the games emphasised how they were using fencing to ‘cage in’ protestors. The protest and activism was an inconvenient truth upsetting the celebrations of colonisation.


This marked one year since the Uluru Statement of the Heart, which the Turnbull Government subsequently rejected. In the outright rejection political voices aired their concerns of a perceived “third chamber of parliament” as reasoning for the dismissal, ignoring the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  The extensive consultation process that had been funded by the Federal Government became another point of critique about the perceived exorbitant funding extended to Indigenous affairs. 

Advocacy for the Uluru Statement of the Heart has been maintained seeking to further the recommendations made.  Still, the call for a voice and space to speak into what happens in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs seems ‘a step too far’ for government with the now Prime Minister Morrison again dismissing the renewed push

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples having a say in policy and actions that affect them is actually written in policy but, as always, it is all just words.


Reconciliation week falls at the end of May/early June.  The 2018 theme was ‘Don’t keep history a mystery’ and it kept the notion of ‘truth telling’ front and centre.  Embedded within the recommendations in the Redfern Statement and the Uluru Statement, the week challenged non-Indigenous Australia to question how much they don’t know about the shared history.  Denial of the historical past needs to be addressed.  We cannot have reconciliation without it.  For goodness sake, this year was the first time that Reconciliation Week had been celebrated in Tasmania!  We have a long way to go.

Still in June, another news frenzy occurred where students at a university in Australia decided to dress in blackface.  There has been a rise in this practice in recent years with models, sporting teams and so forth all being called out on their racism (or ignorance).  Although, I would suggest it is hard to argue ignorance when there has been such an influx of condemnation of such behaviours on social media and the repercussions shared on the news including suspension and so forth.  It is a position of privilege that you can feign ignorance of the stereotypical assumptions linked to blackface and post to a social media platform photographic evidence of your actions.  But even better is the almost instant disclaimers that in no certain means were the actions intending to be racist or malicious.   


But then came July and the world seemed bright if just for a while as we recognised the achievements and contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women during NAIDOC week with its wonderful theme, Because of her, we can.  It was a powerful theme championing the often-silenced women who have, persistently and with great strength, fought for equal rights.  The week provided opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to voice their appreciation of their mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and ancestral mothers but also, allowed space for recognition of the various achievements in all fields and disciplines. 

As an Aboriginal woman, the theme was empowering and yet humbling; reminding me of the women who faced such adversity in the past with tenacity, grace and pride.


In August we came crashing down with the appointment of the once self-proclaimed Prime Minister of Aboriginal affairs, Tony Abbott, as Special envoy for Indigenous affairs.  Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples shared their frustrations about the appointment and the irony of yet another white male being positioned as a knower about Indigenous affairs.  Recognition of the dramatic reductions in funding to Indigenous health, employment and so forth while he was Prime Minister seemed to counter the notion of closing the gap and yet, here he was returning to focus on attendance of remote Aboriginal Australia in schools (paywalled).

Abbott’s focus tends to be on remote Aboriginal communities and yet, the largest Aboriginal population in Australia is actually found in New South Wales where the majority live in towns and cities. So why focus on remote communities?  And why should Tony Abbott have an input into overhauling Indigenous education?


Yet another media frenzy around race and representation exploded in September with the publication of a political cartoon of Serena Williams featuring a stereotypical exaggeration of racial features.  The alignment to Bill Leak’s political cartoon in 2016 of an Aboriginal man not knowing his son was soon raised and again, our politicised bodies became the subject of many a forum. 

Australia’s ignorance regarding race was exposed in national and international media.  But as usual, the denial by the cartoonist and the interpretation by the editor emerged in support of their colleague and no progress was made in Australian racial relations.  Reflection on why it may be perceived as racist and/or sexist did not occur.  Instead, we were told it was the PC world gone too far.  Within weeks, the world had moved onto the next big news story but at least one Aboriginal researcher was still reeling in a year of constant disruption.


This was not a month of reprise.  Instead, the government took it to another level with One Nation’s leader, Pauline Hanson, bringing forward her ‘It’s okay to be White’ motion to the Senate.  And worse still, the motion was almost passed with government members voting for it.  It was a slap in the face to me.  The controversial motion spoke to the perceived anti-White racism on social media and the challenge on Western civilisation.  Commentators drew connections of the motion to the White Australia Policy.  Again, the positioning of the coloniser as the dominant norm was established placing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander on the margins.


Some positive news for educators arrived in November with 90+ elaborations released to assist classroom teachers to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures in the Science classroom.  Indigenous educationalists and scientists assisted in developing the list; contributing their own knowledge to help in closing the cultural gap.  Yet, this action could not escape the criticism and scaremongering of some commentators.

For years there has been advocacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures to be embedded rather than ‘bolted on’ to the curriculum.  And yet here came the resistance.


Abbott started up on what to do to improve attendance in Indigenous education.  He wants the introduction of police officers within the school setting and a review of the Australian Curriculum to simplify it (read as let’s get rid off the cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities and just focus on numeracy and literacy). You know how it goes.

I could not wait for the year to be over.  It is, well and truly.

Let’s start again soon, shall we?

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”.

The image featured on this post is from Adobe Stock

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.