Indigenous texts taught in schools

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.

Prescribed texts studied at school are not engaging our students and don’t reflect our diverse society

High school students read a range of self-selected texts in their everyday lives but they remain disengaged when it comes to set texts prescribed for study in the classroom, according to a three-year research project conducted in Australian secondary schools.

The choice of what to read outside the classroom seems almost infinite for young people these days, from interactive micro fiction and real time chats about online gaming, to lengthy hard copy texts. However, inside the classroom students of English are still subject to the text selection decisions of their teachers and curriculum administrators.

The public discourse about slavery in Australia recently put a spotlight on what is being taught and read in our schools, and the need for English classrooms to be inclusive, sensitive and uninhibited toward the dark and complex events of Australian history.

English curriculum policy in fact mandates that text selection reflect the diversity of Australia’s multicultural society, as well as the diversity of storytelling mediums beyond the novel.  However, policy objects do not always become reality in the classroom.

So what texts are students reading and studying at school? Are they representative of our diverse population? Do they manage to explore the range of and type of texts now available to our online savvy young people?

What ten years of text-lists from the Senior Victorian English curriculum tell us

We conducted a content analysis of ten years of text-lists from the Senior Victorian English curriculum. We investigated 360 texts listed for study between 2010-2019, and collaborated with experienced secondary English teachers and literature academics to better understand the types of texts being set for study.

Silencing Indigenous Voices & sexual diversity

Of the 360 texts across the ten-year sample, we found only a single novel by an Indigenous creator, Larissa Behrendt’s Home.

Despite the proliferation of extraordinary Indigenous literature and cinema over the past two decades (Anita Heiss, Bruce Pascoe, Kim Scott, Tony Birch, Alexis Wright, Tara Jude Winch, Melissa Lucashenko, Claire Colman, Warwick Thornton, Rachel Perkins and many others), we found an almost total exclusion of ‘black literature’, poetry, plays and cinema. Instead, we found many stories that engaged with themes of colonisation, Aboriginal Australian identity and Australian history.  However, most were created by non-Indigenous authors, filmmakers, playwrights and poets.

Only 4% of all texts were by Indigenous creators. We believe this reflects what Jeanine Leane calls the ‘white consciousness’ of the Australian classroom and curriculum.

Our study also considered the presence of sexual and gender diversity in text selection. Recent decades have seen issues of gender and sexuality brought into mainstream discussion. Issues around the gay marriage plebiscite, domestic violence, and women in senior leadership positions have provided the background for expansive community debate. Despite this, research continues to show the persistence of heteronormative texts in Australian Curricula.

Our study found that creators of the 360 texts on the lists were primarily male (64% male to 36% female). While it was heartening to find that novels had an equal proportion of authorship, the figure for poems and films created by women was a mere 20%.  Our study of character sexuality also found an overwhelming percentage were heterosexual. Of the 402 protagonists identified, 78% were heterosexual, 18% had no identifiable sexuality and just 4% were identifiably homosexual.

Texts that deal with sex and sexuality must be inclusive, affirming, and offer students the

chance to constructively explore themes of sexuality, according to curriculum guidelines.

We suggest that the lack of inclusive texts reflects the argument made by writer Alice Pung namely, the view of a universal, shared sexual morality opposed to the presence of ‘deviant’ sexuality, or “good literature versus ‘bad morals’” and that text selection practices, perhaps unknowingly, excludes sexual diversity from the curriculum.

Adapting for 21st century storytelling

Our study also found that English text-lists are dominated by the printed word, largely ignoring 21st century forms of storytelling. Almost 85% of the texts listed for study were print-based (novels, plays, short-stories, poetry, biographies). Storytelling in digital forms was totally absent from the lists.

This is particularly surprising given the enormous popularity of new forms of narrative. The past twenty years has seen the popularity of digital storytelling increase dramatically. Podcasting has blasted into the zeitgeist, with over 550,000 different shows now available for download. Story-based videogaming has also changed the media landscape, with commentators highlighting the similarities between traditional literature and this digital form as one explanation for their enormous success.

Even social media, despite its reputation as a vacuous form of entertainment, is increasingly being utilised to provide another means for authors and creators to share stories about their worlds.

Including these new media forms in the English curriculum will allow students to study how they are formed and function, and provide new ways of understanding our world.

What should we do now?

If the study of literature is to remain relevant, we believe it is time for educators to escape the comfort of their own literary histories. We suggest English teachers consider the value of selecting for their students:

  • A greater range of text types, including multimodal and digital texts.
  • More stories set in contexts from outside the Western world, including across the Asia–Pacific region.
  • The representation of characters with a diversity of sexualities.
  • A careful consideration of the gender of authors, playwrights, directors and poets, especially across the text types.
  • More texts created by Indigenous Australians.

Literature enables a diversity of stories in a range of forms to be reflected on and brought into public consciousness.  Paying closer attention to what is being offered for study in our schools can help us create a Literature curriculum that is relevant and engaging for today’s young people.

Alex Bacalja is a lecturer in language and literacy at the University of Melbourne. He coordinates the English Method and Literacy subjects within the Master of Teaching (Secondary) program. Alex has worked for over a decade in secondary schools across Melbourne in both teaching and leadership roles. Alex’s research focuses on contemporary literacies, including the digital literacies taught and practiced in school and work environments.

Lauren Bliss is a lecturer in Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. Her research is focused on gender and the construction of the ‘spectator’ in film theory, as well as discourses and theories of objectification and the gaze. Her book The Maternal Imagination in Film and Film Theory is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.

For those who want more, here is our full paper What counts? Inclusion and diversity in the senior English curriculum