Taking learning back

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7 December 2018

Researchers in a remote community are witnessing the benefits of ‘on-country’ education for Aboriginal students – and their non-Aboriginal teachers.

Aboriginal children have observably higher levels of confidence, self-esteem and general wellbeing when learning in an ‘on- country’ school setting, a Murdoch University study has shown.

Associate professor Libby Lee-Hammond and Elizabeth Jackson-Barrett spent 18 months with a remote community school in the Burringurrah community, in the Gascoyne region in Western Australia.

The researchers made eight trips to nearby country with Aboriginal children and their teachers, exploring places of cultural significance with the guidance of traditional owners. During on-country lessons, students participated in activities such as making cultural artefacts, learning to draw maps of their journey from school, and painting.

Such practice refocuses attention away from deficits or gaps in Aboriginal educational achievement to instead emphasise cultural competency, says Lee-Hammond.

“Presently, schooling in Australia tends towards separating Aboriginal children’s learning from their identity,” she says. “[With learning on country] we seek to enable Aboriginal culture to occupy a central position in the curriculum.”

She cites the example of seeing a girl from kindergarten instinctively pick up a rock, spit
on it and start drawing.

“She said, ‘This is a paint rock, miss’ – and it was ochre. I asked her how she knew how to do that and she said her nanna had shown her.

“She has all this [cultural] knowledge, but when does that ever manifest within the four
walls of the classroom?”

An important benefit of on-country learning is that Aboriginal children are able to exhibit mastery over skills learned and practised, says Lee-Hammond.

“She was the expert, and other kids were learning from her. That’s important for children – feeling they have something to contribute and bring back to learning.

“If you ask them months later what we did [on country], they’ll be able to tell you in detail. But if you ask them what worksheet they did last week, they probably won’t remember.”

Promisingly, results from the study also showed improved literacy and numeracy skills for students thanks to greater recall while learning on country. And when asked to report how supported they felt in learning, students rated lessons in the classroom 4.1 out of 6, compared to 4.8 (“outstanding”) for on-country learning.

Losing knowledge

Buy-in from the nearby community was critical to the Burringurrah project’s success, says Lee-Hammond.

“The community is concerned about the kids. It had been asking for this kind of thing for a long time and wasn’t getting any traction from schools.

“There’s a fear this knowledge will get lost when people pass away. If it isn’t shared, it’s really hard to get it back.”

On-country lessons also proved educational for the teachers.

“Sadly, even though teachers are in these remote places, they often don’t get the induction process they need to really understand the local community,” says Lee-Hammond. “They get an induction from the education department rather than from the Aboriginal community.

“[Non-Aboriginal] staff at a childcare centre told us they were afraid to approach Aboriginal people for information. They’re worried they might say the wrong thing.

When on country, teachers and elders could have informal conversations that enabled teachers to take their own cultural experiences back into the classroom, incorporating them into lessons to facilitate better learning.

“And students are recalling more information because it’s something they’ve experienced with their body, negotiated through conversation, or drawn a picture of.”

Maningrida College’s rangers program

Since receiving federal government funding in 2013, Maningrida College in Arnhem Land has run a Learning on Country (LOC) cadetship program in partnership with the Bawinanga Djelk Rangers.

The rangers are traditional landowners and djungkay (managers) who work to keep the sea and land in western Arnhem land healthy, and communities strong.

In partnership with Maningrida, the rangers teach students practical skills on country as a means to possible employment. The students simultaneously work towards completion of a Certificate I or II in conservation or land management.

Shane Bailey, Maningrida’s LOC coordinator, who introduced the program as a curriculum elective, says six students from Maningrida’s initial cohort have graduated with a Certificate II from Charles Darwin University.

Maningrida was the first remote school to achieve this honour, and the local community was overjoyed. More than 400 people visited the school to celebrate.

Five years on, Maningrida has had more than 30 Certificate I completions
and nine Indigenous students have graduated from Year 12, in part by
earning Northern Territory Certificate of Education and Training credits from their ranger cadetship.

Following Maningrida’s success, the federal government has committed to funding four additional LOC sites in Arnhem Land, bringing the total to nine.

Maningrida principal Daryll Kinnane says the community and college holds the LOC program in high esteem because of its capacity to provide culturally relevant learning opportunities.

“Community ownership and engagement with the LOC program flourishes due to the Bawinanga Rangers partnership and collaboration with local traditional owners and elders," says Kinnane.

In short

  • Learning on country puts Aboriginal culture at the heart of the curriculum.
  • Students feel they can exhibit skills and contribute to learning.
  • Improved literacy and numeracy skills have been witnessed.

By Kate O’Halloran

The article originally appeared in the Australian Educator Summer 2018.