Friday, September 26, 2014

Aboriginal History and Culture in Australian Schools

This is an essay I completed for my Grad. Dip in Secondary Education. I'm including it here with an apology for its wordiness (oh academia why are you so obtuse?) because I think its issues need a good airing.

As a student teacher I have made it a priority to incorporate Aboriginal historical and cultural content into my classes. The rewards of doing so are not just better student engagement particularly from Aboriginal kids and their friends. We have also attained a better treatment of the subject at hand. Discussing traditional owners as stakeholders, the conflicts over Australian sovereignty including the massacres of the 1800s, the treatment of Aboriginal servicemen in WW2  and on many more occasions, our classes are real and honest and useful. To use a possibly unfashionable term, we have come closer to the truth of things by raising Aboriginal perspectives. 

As dull as official curriculum documents are I'm really glad they currently contain encouragement and protection for teachers who incorporate Aboriginal history and culture in their teaching. This essay will bring you up to speed on how we got here.

Australian curriculum development has a distinctly partisan political nature. Nowhere is this more evident than in the inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives in the development of a national curriculum. Progress has been made primarily under Labor governments and subsequently halted under Liberal governments, though not necessarily gone backwards. 
In the early years of the Rudd Labor Government, Australia was also represented at the Victorian level by the Bracks-Brumby Labor governments. This period of early 2000's was a time of acknowledging a significance to Aboriginal culture and its importance in education that in the previous Howard years was viewed as contentious. It created the opportunity to revisit the goals of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy published in 1989 by the Hawke Labor Government.

The only driver of policy change to emerge in the Howard Liberal years was The National Report on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1991). This report made recommendations for increased Aboriginal involvement in teacher training. (Kelly, C., 2013) It may be that over time this led to a shift in graduate teacher attitudes which played a role in later pushes for change from within education faculties and bureaucracies. That push required a changed government to be in place to respond.

Under Rudd-Labor, the Victorian Essential Learning Standards were published in 2005. They proposed a three part approach to education in which subject knowledge along traditional disciplinary lines (ie. History or Mathematics), personal and social development, and interdisciplinary capacities such as critical thinking and creativity were each given equal priority. These ideas would later become expressed slightly differently by the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and their publication in 2008 of the Melbourne Declaration. (Howes, D, 2012) (Ministerial Council on Education Training and Youth Affairs, 2008)

In the Melbourne Declaration, a statement by every Education minister in Australia at the time, we have nothing as detailed as the cross curriculum priorities to follow but we see their early seeds. Asian languages are given special mention, and sustainability is elsewhere described as a core value. Indigenous cultures are specifically mentioned with the objective that students will “recognise the value of Indigenous cultures and possess the knowledge, skills and understanding to contribute to, and benefit from, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.” (Ministerial Council on Education Training and Youth Affairs, 2008)

Achieving this objective began poorly. In 2009 over two hundred Aboriginal leaders and academics wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Julia Gillard complaining that Aboriginal perspectives were inadequately represented in the draft national curriculum. (Ferrari, J. 2009) The letter noted that the draft curriculum “relegates Indigenous peoples and their knowledges to the category of historical artifacts in the History course” and that this and other aspects reflected “institutional racism.” (Statement on Inclusion, 2009) Cosigning the letter were “University of South Australia education professor Peter Buckskin, head of the Stronger Smarter Institute Chris Sarra, University of Technology Sydney law professor Larissa Behrendt, Canberra University education lecturer Kaye Price and president of the NSW Aboriginal Educational Consultative Group Cindy Berwick.” (Ferrari, J. 2009)

About this time other indirect drivers for curricular improvement emerged with the Closing the Gap funding in 2009 and the Review of Australian Directions in Indigenous Education completed in 2008. Both of these were primarily concerned with educational outcomes for Aboriginal students (ACARA, 2013). The connection between the inclusion of Aboriginal history, culture and perspectives into the curriculum and Aboriginal engagement with schooling is well established and provides one reason for this direction. When the National Report on Schooling in Australia reviews large numbers of raw data such as student retention rates this connection has a powerful significance. 

A more basic rationale for cross curricular inclusion of Aboriginal perspectives is simply national gratitude for the privilege of hosting the worlds oldest continuous culture with all the academic fruit that bears. Aboriginal science, for example their sophisticated land management and meteorological systems, is increasingly being recognised outside of Aboriginal communities for its understanding of the Australian context. Ray Norris, the Chief Research Scientist in the CSIRO Department of Astronomy & Space Science, is also a Professor with the Department of Indigenous Studies (Warawara) at Macquarie Uni who argues that Aboriginal traditional knowledge can often be the best demonstration of the empirical nature of science. For example while European science was denying the connection Aboriginal communities had observed and charted the relationship between phases of the moon and tides. (Norris R, 2014)

From a humanities (my own methods) perspective, understanding Aboriginal history, struggle and survival is critical for understanding Australia now. For one thing sovereignty in Australia is a contested matter and there are many sound legal challenges to our nations legitimacy. Aboriginal people never conceded sovereignty, nor was any war upon them declared by the British. Rather than a treaty or a surrender, Terra Nullius is the legal basis of our nation and it was declared a legal fiction in 1992. This might not affect teachers of other disciplines but it is a huge consideration for teaching humanities which must admit the lack of integrity in our legal system. It's a dilemma graduates of an Australian humanities curriculum need to understand.

There are other ways in which Aboriginal and British settler interactions in the past were formative of current Australia. The right to testify in court even if you didn't believe in an afterlife was won so that Aboriginal Australians could be witnesses. In fighting for that right arguments were made that a court had no legitimacy to try a person who couldn't testify within it. We have here the genesis of a liberal-democratic concept of the citizen – first being articulated in relation to Aboriginal people – that the law is justified only when it offers protection in return for obedience. It should be considered impossible to teach humanities without discussing historical cases like these somewhere betweens years eight to ten.

From September 2013 there has no longer been a Labor Federal government in power in Australia. There is some basis for hope regarding the continued inclusion of Aboriginal histories and cultures in a National curriculum. In December 2013 the Department of Education launched a commitment to develop a Reconciliation Action Plan to be completed by June 2014. The Plan has yet to be shared publicly but the preceding information contains positive statements. (Paul, L. 2013) There is also a yet to be shared Review of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) a strong developer of Aboriginal Inclusion in the National Curriculum. The Terms of Reference for the review however should if adhered to lead to an expansion of AIATSIS' role. (Department of Education, 2013)

On the other hand the Abbott government has shown itself to be fiercely proud of the Howard social agenda including the privileging of Australia's Anglo-Saxon and Christian heritage. Criticisms of the national curriculum by the new Education Minister Christopher Pyne while in opposition singled out cross curriculum priorities and Aboriginal histories and cultures in particular. In fact the cross curricular attention to Aboriginal science and the Aboriginal experience of settlement was described as an “overemphasis.” with a clear preference for more detail to be given to British traditions and a positive treatment of Australia's Anglo-Saxon heritage. The Howard era term, “the black – arm band view of history” by which progress on reconciliation was resisted was also revived. (Pyne, C., 2010). The appointment of Kevin Donnolly to a review of the National curriculum may foreshadow what changes will come. Donnolly has stated that ''The fact that the national curriculum stipulates that every subject must be interpreted through a prism involving indigenous, Asian and sustainability perspectives needs to be revisited,'' (Smith, A., 2014) and is a long standing advocate for an essentially whiter history curriculum. (Jabour, B, 2014)

The future of Aboriginal Histories and Cultures as a cross curricular priority may ultimately rest on a contest of political will. On the one side the Minister seems openly opposed and in that regard has the support of their party. On the other side a great many institutions such as ACARA, AIATSIS, Reconciliation Australia, and many others, having worked hard to achieve it's inclusion won't be content to let it disappear. Fortunately if reducing Aboriginal histories and cultures place in the curriculum will require adroit political management, the Abbott government is not evidencing that capability so far. Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures


ACARA, (2013), National Report on Schooling, Part 7: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, Viewed on 04/08/2014 at

Department of Education (2013) Review of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Viewed on 04/08/2014 at

Pyne, C., (2010) Transcript- Doorstop -1- March -2010 (Webpage) Posted on March 3, 2010, Viewed on 04/08/2014 at

Jabour, B, (2014) History wars: the men behind the national school curriculum review, The Guardian (Newspaper), Australian edition, January 10th viewed on 04/08/2014 at

Smith, A, (2014,) Aboriginal history ''crucial'' for national curriculum, says schools submission, Sydney Morning Herald (Newspaper), March 28 viewed on 04/08/2014 at

Paul, L., Secretary Dep. Of Education (2013) Statement of Comittment to Develop a Reconciliation Action Plan (letter) viewed on 04/08/2014 at
Ministerial Council on Education Training and Youth Affairs, (2008) Melbourne Declaration on the Educational Goals for Young Australians, December, Viewed on 04/08/2014 at

Norris, R., 2014, Aboriginal people – how to misunderstand their science, The Conversation, 21 April 2014, viewed at on 04/08/2014

Kelly, C., (2013), Reconstructing the Australian story: Learning and Teaching for Reconciliation
School of Education, College of Design & Social Context, RMIT

Statement on Inclusion (letter), 2009, viewed at on 04/08/2014

Ferrari J., (2009), Aboriginal leaders seek role in national curriculum
The Australian (Newspaper) October 26

Howes D, 2012, Ausvels: A Principled And Pragmatic Curriculum Framework, Primarily English, Volume 1, Number 2, pp 3-10 viewed on 04/08/2014 at