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How much First Nations' culture, history and perspectives were you taught at school - are Australian students getting adequate access to Indigeneity?
Georgia Mokak

9 May 2017 - 4:09 PM  UPDATED 9 May 2017 - 4:15 PM

Australia’s true story has a history that is over 60,000 years old. A history of evolution, development and significant people. A history that is generally excluded from our school education system, despite learning about the past being a compulsory academic discipline. While the current curriculum provides the opportunity to reconfigure Australia’s poor understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders history, culture and perspectives, there is still very little utilisation in primary and secondary schooling.

Lead by the report, Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians (MCEETYA), the Australian Curriculum was released in 2008 by the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, to set the direction for Australian schooling for the next decade from its commencement in January 2013. Within the national curriculum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures as one of three content areas of particular significance as part of the cross-curriculum priorities.

In 2008, MCEETYA highlighted the significance of Indigenous content in the following statement,

“As a nation, Australia values the central role of education in building a democratic, equitable and just society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse and that values Australia’s Indigenous cultures as a key part of the nation’s history, present and future” 

Currently, a school student’s access to knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and perspectives depends entirely on the commitment, enthusiasm and energy of the individual school, principal and teacher. Depending on the enthusiasm of the school and teacher, a student’s engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and perspectives range anywhere from a quick screening of Rabbit Proof Fence to a comprehensive program and learning on country with the local mob.

Depending on the enthusiasm of the school and teacher, a student’s engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and perspectives range anywhere from a quick screening of Rabbit Proof Fence to a comprehensive program and learning on country with the local mob.

All Australian students deserve to have a genuine opportunity to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to gain a rich and well rounded knowledge of Australia’s true history, and develop a respect for diversity and an understanding of cultural difference, and enrich students’ ability to participate positively in the ongoing development of Australia.

Christopher Pyne’s view towards the ACARA cross-curriculum priorities that “it’s difficult to see in maths and science how those three themes are necessarily relevant”, ignores the evidence that the best way for students to learn about Indigenous peoples, cultures and histories is through genuine, relevant and embedded content across all levels and subjects. It is statements like Pyne's which only prove how important it is to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and perspectives into classroom pedagogies. Clearly, the Former Minister for Education was unaware that there are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have longstanding scientific and mathematical knowledge and traditions across physics, astronomy, environmental science, chemistry, number systems, navigation and more.

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Granted, a significant number of non-Indigenous teachers reported that they felt unskilled and anxious about teaching Indigenous culture and perspectives in their classrooms. But rather than putting the 'Jillora' and dot painting in the 'too hard' category, it is essential that our teachers participate in cultural competency training to develop culturally appropriate content and communicate this knowledge to their students. Teachers can now benefit from a new online resource that tackles a number of common issues regarding cultural sensitivity when talking about Indigenous peoples and culture or teaching Indigenous studies.

The resource was launched at an Australian Council of Deans of Education forum last year, to coincide with the call to boost the recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers. Dr Peter Anderson, the Director of Indigenous Education and Leadership at Monash University said that, “Most teachers are a little tentative about engaging with this space… They don’t want to cause any offence, or say the wrong thing”. This initiative also aims to help all teachers identify and respond to racism, understand their own prejudices and boost their expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

With more Indigenous students ever recorded in Australian schools and our Indigenous population growing faster than any other group in the country, younger generations must be correctly informed on First Nations' history and affairs. Being ignorant on the affects of European invasion, Aboriginality and 'light-skinned-ness', or who the man on the 50 dollar note is, cannot remain in the national conversation. Indigenous education should not be a token at the education system's leisure when all children have the right to an education. 

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