|Posted on July 13, 2012 at 9:30 AM|
Education is one of the most important elements of Indigenous self-determination and cultural integrity, and yet it is also the institution most in need of reform. Nationwide, Indigenous students achieve consistently poorer results than their non-Indigenous counterparts. The problems that Aboriginal students face at secondary and tertiary levels of study are systematic, as well as psychological. Indigenous education is plagued by systemic bias and structural violence, as well as a pervading feeling of dependency and low self-esteem among students.
Is there an Indigenous Education Crisis?
There are three key reasons why an indigenous student is far more likely to fail school – unfair economic arrangements; unfocused curriculum; and a poor social policy. Quality education plays a very important and positive role in the upbringing of any child. It contributes to a greater interest in academic achievement and raises the self-esteem of the student. The fact that this learning process is being denied or hindered within Indigenous communities has a substantially negative effect on their development into adolescence and adulthood.
In 2008, the Productivity Commission found that “63.4% of year 5 Indigenous students achieved the national minimum standard” for reading and writing (McCann 47). This figure constitutes an educational crisis in the eyes of the commission. Further research indicated that Indigenous students are also well behind in numeracy; have less access to secondary schools; and are half as likely to proceed to year 12 as their non-Indigenous counterparts. The study, conducted by Fordham & Schwab, also found that Indigenous children suffer from higher rates of poverty, abuse and poor health; all of which serve to hinder the child’s ability to learn, and yet are perpetuated by the student as they enter adulthood, due to a lack of quality schooling (McCann 48).
Indigenous Education Policy
Australia’s Aboriginal education policy has undergone several changes since the 1930s. The program was originally written under the guidance of assimilation, and aimed to provide the same style of schooling for Aborigines as for the rest of the population. The integration policy, introduced in 1965, began to recognise the differences between Aboriginal culture and lifestyle, and the majority of Australians. Therefore, some differences in educational provision were granted, such as efforts to teach in the student’s native language. In 1973, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs outlines special programmes to be provided at all levels, in order to meet special needs and overcome social deprivation. While efforts have been made to cater for the differences in culture, between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, academic achievements among Aboriginal students in the past decade has remained shockingly low (Lippmann 14).
What are the problems facing Aboriginal Students?
Even if a policy was established that would objectively increase the quality and reception of education, the rate of change within the Aboriginal academic profile is so slow, the success of such a policy might take years to materialise, by which time it will have been discarded. There are several intrinsic factors contributing to this lack of “success”, that are difficult to address simultaneously, in a single policy. The first is the self-esteem of the child. A child’s self-concept is very important to their ability to “perform” in a classroom. Research indicates that Aboriginal children, in a mixed classroom, suffer from feelings of helplessness, inferiority and an expectation of failure. This is exacerbated by the attitudes of white Australians, who, while good-intentioned, expect less of Aboriginal students (at both a personal and national level). While racism is far less prevalent in contemporary Australian society, the negative stereotype of Aboriginal people has been consistently preserved over the decades. Discrimination, or at least the expectation of discrimination (even when not present), adds to the students feeling of hopelessness. Similarly, many Aboriginal parents resist sending their children to school at a young age, for risk of bullying and name-calling (16-17).
Another intrinsic factor in the failure of Aboriginal students is a feeling of separate identity. Schools are viewed by the community as yet another “institution, controlled and dominated by whites” (Lippmann 17), to mould children into white society. This feeling of distance is compounded by the European focused curriculum, in which 1788 is accepted as date of Australia’s foundation, and the country’s history is examined from a white perspective. Very little of the Australian curriculum is dedicated to traditional Aboriginal culture, and when it is, it treats Indigenous people as a collective, rather than hundreds of independent nations, each with their own values, customs and stories. Unlike white, middle-class Australia, individual achievement and self-esteem does not hold nearly as much importance as contribution to the community. There is a low correlation between academic performance and parental approval. This lack of “cultural emphasis” leads to an absence of pressure and reward for academic success on the part of the child (19).
How can these problems be addressed?
One area which needs to be pinpointed is the lack of congruity between school and home life; the former being largely irrelevant in the minds of Indigenous youth. The best strategy in countering this disparity is to encourage the community (in areas of Indigenous majority) to take control of the school, both at a curriculum and administrative level. This process of educational autonomy has been supported by Aboriginal leaders, but largely ignored by the Australian government. One example where the strategy was put into practice was in Townsville, where a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders opened a Black Community School. The first year of the operation saw dramatically increased enrolment and enthusiasm for the curriculum. Unfortunately, the school was not recognised by the Australian government, and received little funding (Sharifian 76).
On the other side of the spectrum, schools which operate with a minority of Aboriginal students need to cater more readily to the self-competence of Indigenous students. If the children can experience academic success, it will motivate them to continue their learning. The trap, however, is to treat the student as disadvantaged, which leads to feelings of inferiority, but rather as culturally different. The school also needs to better integrate the home and community life of the student. The use of Aboriginal teachers and Aboriginal liaison officers has been found to diminish the cultural divergence between home and school. The school curriculum also needs to more adequately present the Indigenous perspective on Australian history, to prevent alienation (Sharifian 78).
Teacher training is another important aspect in addressing the failures of Indigenous education. A curriculum, no matter how tailored and improved, is only as good as the teacher presenting it. If they are not flexible and understanding, they will be far less capable in accommodating Aboriginal students or indeed any minority or migrant. It is important that teachers are trained, not to teach at their students, but to open a dialogue and friendly rapport with them. The implementation of Aboriginal teachers greatly increases the students’ ability to connect to the curriculum. However, it is also important that student feel comfortable being taught by whites, since they represent the vast majority of Australian teachers, particularly in secondary and tertiary study (of which the vast majority of rural Indigenous students do not participate in).
The Application of Monoculturalism and Parrhesia
One of the potential solutions offered by the Australian Journal of Education is the integration of communal input and curriculums which speak directly to the aspirations of Aboriginal students and their families. Studies indicate that Western education is failing the Indigenous youth, and that perhaps the construction of a monocultural based institutions would be more effective in their ability to learn. The Centre for Public Health also argues that the application and teaching of Parrhesiastes could greatly help Indigenous students at a tertiary level (Eckerman 7).
Parrhesia is a Latin word which, roughly translated, mean “fearless speech”. It is characterised by a dialogue of frankness, truthfulness, critical thought (even at the risk of oneself), and duty. When applied to Indigenous education, especially at a university level, it is used to “change the status quo, so that more people may participate in and enjoy the rights of democracy” (Ewen 610). The application of Parrhesia, as championed by Shaun C. Ewen and the Centre for Public Health is about providing a “strong and rigorous voice” to Indigenous students in addressing unequal treatment, and a lack of academic structure and support. It also gives Indigenous students a feeling of self-determination and self-care, as well as a feeling of community with fellow Aboriginal students, which is just as important.