Preface: This post was written almost in its entirety in December last year and February this year, at the beginning of the school year. I never posted it because I felt it was too pessimistic – Donald Thomson’s grim prognosis, which I’ve quoted below, rang too true. Looking back, I can see why I felt that way: most of it was written when I was deep in the throes of culture shock-induced depression about my inability to make a positive difference for my students. On top of that there was the mango madness of the “buildup”, which takes its toll on just about everyone who lives in the tropical north, especially transplanted southerners. I’ve left the post almost entirely unchanged, because it still has much of value in it (even though I now disagree with some of the things I wrote), and it provides a nice overview of my reflections on the challenges facing me. In Part 2 (hopefully later this week), I’ll talk about what I’ve learned over the subsequent eight months, and reflect on my successes (and failures!).
The Christmas school holidays gave me plenty of time to think about my experience teaching in Arnhem Land in the second half of 2012, and reflect on the many – and daunting – challenges associated with remote Indigenous education. The more I thought about it, the more all the little issues came back to one big one: the difficulty of creating an environment in which Yolngu (in my case) and other Aboriginal children can gain a successful level of Western (or Ngapaki*) schooling, whilst also maintaining a strong grounding in their own culture. I’ve been wrestling with this question ever since I arrived here, because at the moment it seems to me that many students are getting the worst of both worlds: they are steadily losing their own culture, but at the same time they are lost when it comes to making sense of mainstream Australia.
* The terms Ngapaki and Balanda are used to describe any non-Yolngu person.
My school is one of the few bilingual Indigenous schools left. The theory is that students should spend their first five years at school learning to speak, read and write in their first language, Yolngu Matha. (This is not in fact the first language for most students, but rather a common language understood by all Yolngu. Children first learn to speak in their respective parents’ clan languages, which are similar to Yolngu Matha.) By high school, they should be fluent in their own language (and culture), and receive the rest of their schooling in English, emerging confident and literate in both languages and cultures.
The bilingual model is controversial; it has been criticised by those who believe it disadvantages students by delaying the age at which formal instruction in English begins. On occasion, the NT Government has tried to impose English-only teaching, but the community has successfully resisted for many years. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual education does not disadvantage students; there may in fact be an advantage in learning in two languages. Nonetheless, the view of many teachers I have spoken to is that the bilingual model is not working. Very poor attendance and graduation rates in the secondary school would seem to bear that out.
However, my view is the problem is not one of language but of relevance and cultural appropriateness. Each day we are required to plough on with a curriculum that students seem to have little interest in, because it has very little relevance to their lives. (This problem is exacerbated by the introduction of the mandatory national curriculum, which is highly prescriptive and even further removed from the local experience of students.) Teaching the mainstream, it is easy to forget that a syllabus is not a value-free document; embedded in it are countless moral and philosophical assumptions, underpinned by a weltanschauung (worldview). Knowledge is not a set of facts that can be plucked from the air like apples from a tree; discrete particles of knowledge make sense only when they are incorporated into our existing knowledge base, based on an understanding of how the piece fits into the whole.
The Yolngu and the Western worldviews are in philosophical conflict; their explanations for natural and social phenomena radically different. Thus an understandable response from some has been to see the two as irreconcilable. The anthropologist Donald Thomson, the first white person to live among and understand the Yolngu, wanted to create reserves that sealed Indigenous people away from the influence of missionaries and other whites, explaining that,
“Culturally the highly specialized and complex organisation of the Aborigines is unstable when it comes into contact with civilization. It begins to crumble, and chaos follows in every case. The Aboriginal is unable to grasp the philosophy of our life; he sees, and is attracted only by the ‘flashy’ and superficial, the less important, the material things – tobacco, clothes, alcohol, and objects of material wealth. He will sacrifice everything to gain possession of these, and when he gets them he loses his own interest in his own culture, he loses his grip, he can get neither backward nor forward, and he dies, ultimately, in a dreadful state of spiritual and cultural agnosticism, adrift in a no man’s land between the world of the white man and the black.” (Thomson, pp. 191-93)
These words were written in the 1940s. In some ways they were remarkably prescient; in others, overly pessimistic. If Thomson were alive today, I think he would be pleasantly surprised at the resilience the Yolngu people have shown. Where so many others have lost their traditional culture, the Yolngu have remained relatively strong. Part of the explanation might be that the Methodist missionaries of North East Arnhem Land, whilst introducing Christianity, did not seek to wholly suppress Yolngu values and culture, but rather to marry two belief systems (McMillan, p. 288).
Finding a way to bridge the divide is the great challenge of today: how to preserve as much of the traditional knowledge as possible, whilst also equipping Yolngu to deal with the outside world. This is a practical necessity, as Richard Trudgen points out, summing up the view of many elders he spoke to while researching his book about the loss of pride, identity and purpose afflicting many Yolngu:
“It would have been good if Balanda [white people] had never come and we still lived according to the old ways… But Balanda are here now taking over our lands, resources jobs, everything. We must know their ways so we can survive.” (Trudgen, p. 123)
McMillan expands on the theme:
“A certain level of educational success is necessary for Yolngu to practise the kind of self-determination that will bring pride and meaning back to many people’s lives. Too many jobs have been taken over by white people, too many decisions are made by white people without reference to the wishes and interests of the traditional owners of the land. The ability of future generations to maintain their culture and their place in the modern world is being severely compromised by low attendance rates at bush primary schools and inadequate opportunities to pursue secondary education in a culturally appropriate environment [my emphasis]. Sure, the kids would prefer to be out hunting, fishing and kicking a footy around, but a Balanda education is essential if the communities are to overcome the burden of having to employ Balanda town clerks and accountants, electricians, plumbers and builders, medicos and teachers, shop-keepers and entrepreneurs.” (McMillan, p. 288)
So how do we begin to turn things around? I want to focus on the words culturally appropriate environment in the above passage. The message that has been stressed again and again by my principal and by experienced staff and community members since I arrived is that our teaching needs to start from where our students are at, rather than where a syllabus document says they should be. This means two things. First of all, respecting the knowledge that students have acquired through their traditional culture, rather than seeing them as empty vessels and their culture as a barrier to education. I’ve already spent a day and a half of this term involved in cultural awareness training, learning about things like gurrutu, the complex kinship system which explains how all Yolngu are related to one another. In turn, I’m using the knowledge I’m gaining here to construct a gurrutu matrix for students in my class, to understand how they’re related to one another (and also to me – I’m part of the equation because like many all Ngapaki who live here for a little while, I’ve been “adopted” into a family). I’m also spending time getting students to talk and write about themselves: their clan and totem, their skin name, their homeland, and so on. By doing this, I am hoping to show students that I respect their culture and beliefs; this will establish trust and allow them to be more receptive to the ideas I want to convey to them.
Secondly, we have to take the time to establish exactly where students are on the learning continuum, and teach accordingly. NAPLAN and other data shows that many Indigenous students in Year 9 have literacy levels equivalent to an average Year 3 student. In my experience, that’s quite accurate. The problem is, as my principal has pointed out, there’s a strong tendency to teach where students should be up to i.e. at age level. Thus many students who fall behind are never able to catch up, because they miss all the intermediate steps between where they are and where they should be. I’m not saying we should ignore the curriculum. But must go through the learning continuum, which means working our way back to where students are. After all, no one would try to teach a child to swim or ride a bike before he can walk. So why are we pressured to make students do things they’re not ready for? That only builds an environment in which failure is guaranteed.
The task ahead of educators in this context is daunting, because the logical conclusion to the problems I’ve outlined is that Ngapaki educators who want to make a difference need to become at least reasonably literate in Yolngu language and culture – a hugely difficult undertaking with such a transient workforce in remote communities. But that’s the challenge I’ve set myself.
I take heart from a discussion I had late last year with a very senior elder and teacher, a bicultural and bilingual lady who “walks in both worlds”. She believes it’s possible to bridge the gap between the two worlds. But it doesn’t start by devaluing one culture, by teaching students that their culture is inferior. To be strong in one, they have to be strong in both. In my next post, I’ll talk more about how I’ve tried to do this with my students this year.
A. McMillan, An Intruder’s Guide to East Arnhem Land, Niblock Publishing, 2007.
D. Thomson, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, The Miegunyah Press, 2004.
R. Trudgen, Djambatj Mala – Why Warriors Lay Down and Die, Aboriginal Resource & Development Services Inc, 2000.