Indigenous Australian Education: A Reflection and an Invitation
If I was to join Bear Grylls on an adventure, I would likely tap out somewhere between the parachute drop and eating anything with six legs. If I did last more than a week, the cameraman would be dragging my starved body to the nearest and greasiest fast-food restaurant the poor soul could find. Because, while I was taught to read, write, multiply and divide, I was not taught to thrive in the natural environment. Imagine if we were. Imagine if our schools and universities turned their capabilities towards the mountains, trees, and rivers. We would find a world swimming with subtlety and limitless in intricacy. To master this landscape would require serious education. It would require teachers with deep knowledge and profound teaching skill. It would require years of dedicated learning, effective teaching, and hours of practice. This, I believe, is the appropriate lens for considering the learning and teaching of Australia’s First Nations Cultures and individuals.
Traditionally, Indigenous Australians lived in a unique context. The Australian Landscape can be brutal, and we should not assume that the social and spiritual world of Traditional Australia were any less nuanced than todays. In the face of these realities, this article considers the education a young Kaurna boy or Narindjeri girl might have experienced to allow them to survive and flourish. If we were to lean into this style of education, we might create more space for the gifts of Indigenous Australians to enhance our culture today. Further, we might create more opportunity for First Nation Australians to continue to thrive and flourish in our modern society.
Learning in Traditional Indigenous Australian culture is and was profoundly relational. When a young girl is taught how to forage, track an animal or the rites of womanhood, she is instructed by a handful of aunties and community members she has known since she was born. Indeed, it would likely be the same women who attended her birth, who nurtured her (and maybe even her mother) as an infant. These women are pillars of her community and transmit the big and small lessons of life through a deeply established relational connection. Contrastingly, a modern Australian student might experience over a dozen teachers in a school year, each of whom she may know very little about beyond the four walls of the classroom.
There is nothing wrong with this. However, we must realise it is only one style of education. A style reflecting a modern, western worldview where education is compartmentalised, removed from everyday life, and outsourced to professionals.
This is not necessarily better or worse than a Traditional First Nation approach to education, but it is different. The differences may become problematic, however, when we consider how important it is for students to perceive their teachers as credible and the important role relationship plays in education. If a First Nation student is used to deep and long-lasting relationships in education but is confronted with four different and anonymous teachers before lunch time, we might not be surprised when she is a little confused or uncomfortable with the style of education she is experiencing.
Further, education for traditional First Nation Australians was immediately relevant and meaningful. When a young man was taught to carve a spear or craft poisons and medicines from the Australian bush, they were taught skills that kept them and their family alive, healthy, and happy. The eternal question of “when we will ever use this” was answered by the hand-made fire warming the camp, the meat roasting on the coals and the song lines directing the group to a spring in the desert. In this context, learning was successful, or your family would not survive to the next generation. Thus, education among the First Nations peoples was fire-hardened and selected to precisely match the world the youth inhabited. There is no room for second chances when a brown snake bites, when a bush fire comes or when you fail to notice the crocodile in the shallows. Learning, therefore, had a direct relationship to success in the ‘real world’.
At its best, Western education also achieves this. At its worst, it does not. If a young Anangu boy fresh from Yalata arrives in an Adelaide school expecting their lessons to serve the same practical function, we can sympathise when the lessons on spelling and fractions do not satisfy their desire to deeply understand and succeed in the Western world. This is not to say these lessons are not important: they are. However, there are many steps between being taught percentages and this knowledge having a direct ability on success or failure in the practical and economic world. There are very few steps, however, between learning how to find water, and its benefit. It may be this less immediate connection to success and practicality that causes some First Nation people to question the relevance of Western education (Trudgen, 2017).
When considering the relational, practical nature of First Nation Traditional education, I believe we should respond in at least two ways. Firstly, as advocates of education, we should admire its success. Education in Indigenous Australian language groups was developed over many generations to brilliantly address the needs of the culture. If it were not successful, the Yolngu, the Anangu, and the Ngarrindjeri would not be the oldest surviving cultures in the world. Let us admire and be proud of Traditional Australian Education, pioneered by our First Nation Peoples.
Secondly, we should view this style of education as an invitation to critique mainstream teaching and learning. There is much quality writing and discussion on how to provide education to best serve the needs of our First Nation students. I believe a path forward lies at the heart of Indigenous Australian teaching and learning. I believe if we angle our education towards deep and quality relationships and learning that truly answers the question of ‘how do I succeed in the modern world?’ Australian education would be enhanced, and we would see improved outcomes for our First Nation students.
This is not to say there are many technical strategies a teacher might adopt when teaching an Indigenous Australian student, such as use of narrative, learning on country and involving the community. However, I believe a positive path forward lies a layer deeper, a layer more universally human. As teachers, let’s nurture relationships that can meet the deep relational expectations of First Nation education and culture. As schools and educators, let’s remember our First Nation students expect education to be as nourishing and beneficial as a lesson on fire building on a cold night, or fishing in the creeks of the Adelaide Hills. From this place of admiration, authenticity and relationship, all students, First Nation or otherwise, will have every chance at a holistic, meaningful, and fulfilling education.
Trudgen, R. (2017). Why warriors lie down and die: Towards an Understanding of why the aboriginal people of arnhem land face the greatest crisis in health and education since european contact. Why Warriors Pty Ltd