Bilingual education needs to be extended, not scrapped

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Yirrkala School recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its bilingual education program.

The release of the draft report of the NT government’s review of Indigenous education has generated a lot of alarm in remote Indigenous communities. Yet again Aboriginal people have been singled out for treatment that no one would even contemplate proposing for other social groups – specifically, closing remote education centres and forcing all secondary age children to go away to boarding school, which a former student of mine said reminded her of the sort of thing that went on with the Stolen Generations. Furthermore, author Bruce Wilson proposes scrapping bilingual education, thereby denying Aboriginal children the right to be educated in their first language as well as English. Did someone say “assimilation”?

I’m not going to offer a comprehensive critique of the Wilson review here; I’m just one of many people working on formal responses to the review as part of the consultation process, and some very good responses have already been written by Margaret Clark and Kriol Kantri. Furthermore, I’m far from an expert on bilingual education. So I’m going to mainly confine my remarks to my own experience of working in one of the few remaining bilingual schools and what I’ve learned in the 18 months I’ve been teaching in the NT, in which time I’ve had the good fortune to learn from highly experienced educators who have devoted much of their lives to Indigenous and bilingual education.

Yirrkala School has been a trailblazer for innovative approaches to education, recently celebrating 40 years of offering bilingual education to students. The school’s bilingual program has been built up carefully over decades, with its Literature Production Centre producing countless resources for use in the classroom. The prevalence of bilingual education has undoubtedly assisted the Yolngu of Yirrkala and surrounding areas in maintaining a strong cultural identity, with great efforts being made to document and preserve many aspects of traditional culture, as well as pass it along to the next generation. Leaving aside for just a moment the question of whether bilingual education is the best way for students to learn English, it should be defended as a fundamental right of Indigenous peoples who wish to maintain literacy in their traditional languages.

Now, as to whether English-only education leads to better outcomes for students… Bruce Wilson feels confident enough to make his recommendations “based on the view that Indigenous children learn English in the way that other children learn English…” (p. 7) However, the evidence does not support this, and it is extraordinary for Wilson to make this sweeping claim without referring to the research. Margaret Clark does a fantastic job of explaining why “English only” doesn’t meet remote Indigenous children’s needs so I won’t replicate what she’s said. I will explain briefly how the bilingual process works in our school and why I think it’s essential.

In the bilingual program, students first learn to read and write in a simplified version of their clan languages known as Yolngu Matha (with regular exposure to oral English). This approach reflects the fact that students speak almost no English when they being school; cultural considerations aside, it makes perfect sense to commence their education using a language they understand and use in very context. Students begin formal English literacy instruction in Year 4. Students who have attended school regularly (80 per cent or more, on average) are generally able to make this transition. English instruction in all classes up to Year 10 utilises the Walking Talking Texts program, developed specifically for Indigenous students learning English as an additional language.

Last year two separate groups of evaluators praised our school’s dedicated teachers and sophisticated whole-school approach to bilingual education, particularly the ESL/EALD program in the early years, where an experienced bilingual teacher worked closely with an English teacher to engage students and build a strong foundation for learning. Students approached English in a fun and practical way, such as through cooking, without the pressure of trying to learn words they didn’t understand.

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During last year’s bilingual celebrations, participants reflected on the school’s success in training and mentoring bilingual teachers.

One of the evaluator teams was doing a study looking at effective teaching practice in remote Indigenous schools right across northern Australia. They were impressed with our school’s rigorous bilingual program, and by contrast described visiting remote schools as part of their study where Indigenous students, despite being educated in English from day one, were leaving school as young adults unable to string together more than three English words. Their “native” language was Creole.

The problems with an English-only approach were expressed clearly in the 2007 Little Children are Sacred report (perhaps the most misused report in Australian political history; full of very good recommendations, yet used to justify John Howard’s “intervention” into NT Aboriginal communities): “Schools teaching and instructing in English alone… develops a failure syndrome for many children as they return home at the end of the school day often unable to remember what was taught that day – which causes them to become depressed.” (p. 147)

However, even with the bilingual program there is a clear ceiling most students at Yirrkala reach with their English literacy: they generally struggle to get beyond what we call the Level 3 or 4 ESL benchmark, where language moves away from an informal and conversational nature to language of a more abstract, written quality. This means that students can’t access higher-order language and concepts, and locks them out of the basic language required for vocational pathways, let alone the “secret” English language of intellectual knowledge and power. If you have a look at any school curriculum, there is a huge intellectual leap expected of students in Year 8 and 9, and that is clearly a stumbling block for nearly all remote Indigenous students.

What is the importance of bilingual education here? One of the interesting findings my former principal related to me was that, although students only begin formal English instruction in reading and writing in Year 4, by Year 6 their first language written literacy already lags their English. This may offer a clue into why their English language proficiency plateaus – they don’t have an understanding of equivalent higher-level concepts in their own language, meaning absorbing those concepts within their conceptual framework is more difficult. Unsurprisingly, as students get into the middle years we typically start to see a drop off in attendance and engagement, as learning content becomes dramatically more challenging just as first language support falls away. This is not the only factor affecting student retention but it is a very important one.

One of my biggest difficulties as a middle years teacher is conveying complex concepts to students in what is not only a foreign language, but also an alien cultural framework. For example, I’m currently teaching my students a unit on advertising; it is full of concepts such as “audience” and “consumer” which do not readily correspond to Yolngu experiences and traditions. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach such things. It does mean we need to look at the best way of doing it meaningfully. Rather than more English-only instruction, what’s actually needed is more first language support. We have Yolngu assistant teachers working in all primary classrooms, but the funding for these positions at the secondary level was cut several years ago (one position was reinstated this year to work across the two middle years classes).

Unfortunately Bruce Wilson puts this issue in the too-hard basket, concluding that “The lack of trained first-language teachers reduces its likely effectiveness and the level of resourcing required for effectiveness means it is not sustainable.” (p. 61) In other words, it’s expensive and difficult and therefore we won’t commit to it. That’s not nearly good enough, given the priority Wilson attaches to improving Indigenous education outcomes. Yirrkala has a strong history of training and mentoring bilingual teachers, often with little institutional support. A renewed emphasis on the importance of bilingual teachers should be a major recommendation of Wilson’s final report.

I must confess I was initially a bit sceptical about the bilingual approach; “common sense” would seem to indicate it makes sense for students to learn in English from day one of their schooling. But as I’ve observed the way students in my school learn and the difficulties they face, it has become apparent that maintaining (and strengthening) bilingual education programs is essential to give students the opportunity to succeed at school, as well as maintain knowledge of their own languages and culture.

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From the desert to the sea

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My roundabout path to teaching in remote Arnhem Land

One of the first questions people ask me when they find out what I do is what motivated me to teach in a remote Aboriginal community.

The story begins in 2007, when I took part in a digital literacy volunteer project in central Australia, which saw prospective teachers spend a month in remote communities working with young people to develop their literacy skills. As I recall, not being a particularly adventurous person, and far more comfortable in urban settings, I was dragged along somewhat reluctantly by my girlfriend, who had been part of the program the year before. It was a month-long commitment to volunteer in a community called Papunya, two and a half hours west of Alice Springs. I wasn’t so sure about the educational value of such a project – how could we have an impact in only a month? – but I was interested in seeing a very different part of Australia, having never been to the Northern Territory before, or even ventured more than a few hundred kilometres inland anywhere in Australia, and at the time it seemed preferable to spending a month freezing in Canberra ahead of the final semester of my teaching diploma. I guess I also hoped it would help me gain more practical experience before I began my professional career.

I remember just looking out the window for hours on the flight out to Alice and marvelling at the landscapes. They seemed so barren and yet the patterns and colours were changing constantly. As we got further from the coast the landscape became drier and drier; thus I was surprised as we got closer to Alice that spots of green started to appear. What was this mysterious desert oasis we had arrived at? On the bus into town I marvelled at the exoticness of the place, the wide open spaces. 

Looking around Alice over the next couple of days I was struck by the contradictions of the place: such a lovely little community in many ways, and yet such a segregated and violent place. Whitefellas railed against Aboriginal public drunkenness, and yet I visited watering holes where hundreds of respectable citizens drank themselves into a frenzy.

Getting to know everyone on the first night at the infamous Melankas hotel and backpackers lodge (since demolished), I was a bit dubious about what I’d signed up for. Most of the people I’d be working with were much younger teaching students who seemed more interested in getting pissed than working with Aboriginal kids. (I was one of those slightly arrogant and aloof “mature age” students who had some “real world” experience.) But over the next few weeks I would form close bonds with all these people.

As we drove out to Papunya I didn’t know what to expect. We stayed in unused teacher housing, which was pretty basic but comfortable enough. The community was so small you could walk around it in about 10 minutes. It consisted of a shop, the school, a health clinic, a church and a few dozen houses, many of them uninhabitable. We arrived for the last few days of the school term. I was attached to an early primary class with an inspiring Steiner-trained teacher, who got her class engaged with lots of singing and games. That was a great introduction for me, allowing me to meet some of the kids we would be working with over the holidays and also get an idea about the realities of teaching in a remote community. 

Once the holidays started our program began and we worked hard to get the kids interested. They were very keen to check out our equipment and play with the cameras. Getting them to write things down and develop stories was much harder. Most of the stories were very literal and factual; my big triumph came towards the end when I got a group of kids to get “in character” and develop a bit of a narrative. As I recall, it involved a group of boys pretending to be enforcers shaking people down for money, so it was perhaps not an ideal script, but whatever works, right? 

Over the next few weeks I spent a lot more time kicking the footy and playing basketball than I did working with kids on the computers, but in a short time I was able to build great relationships with all the kids I worked with. As teachers we try to teach all kids but it’s those special relationships you form with a few kids that really stick in your memory. From Papunya I especially remember a little boy named Tristan, who I sat next to in his class and helped with his work. He would copy me in cute ways, like taking his jumper off when I took mine off. He went out to an outstation for most of the time I was there so I didn’t get to see him again. He would be in about Year 7 now and from time to time I think about how he might be going.

There was another gorgeous little kid named Kristof with striking green eyes. He would never be seen walking around without clutching his small football. Towards the end of our stay I let Kristof and his friend have a look around the house we were staying in – an empty teacher’s house, spartan but without doubt infinitely superior to the place the boys lived in. They wandered around, inspecting the place like a pair of curious little sniffer dogs. It was very cute, watching them look in the cupboards and the fridge. After a minute, they just sat down at the table and found some paper and pencils and started drawing. They were so happy and so safe in that moment and yet all the statistics tell us that their life prospects are bleak indeed. To this day, thinking of those beautiful and innocent boys melts my heart and reminds me how important it is to strive to ensure that they, along with every other child, have the opportunity to gain an education and life their lives to the full.

Image“In the gaunt splendour of that world, man finds himself delivered over to a glacial freedom that has no human meaning.”

I already believed in Aboriginal rights and the importance of preserving Indigenous culture, but it was only in Papunya that I began to appreciate the special relationship Indigenous people have with the land. My most profound experience was when I went for a walk one day by myself to the neighbouring Honey Ant Hill, a place of spiritual significance. It wasn’t a long way but it was quite a steep climb. As I walked, I revelled in the quietness. When the wind stopped, I couldn’t hear a sound. I began to imagine myself as someone living on this land. There were very few trees – where would I find shade? What about food and water? Whenever anyone disparages Aboriginal people, I wonder to myself how any of us would go surviving in a hostile environment such as this for a few days, let alone maintaining a society for thousands of years, and the challenge of educating members of the community about the many things they would need to know to survive.

As I climbed to the top of the hill, a huge eagle rose up in front of me and soared far into the sky above. In the distance the magnificent Mountt Edward dominated the landscape. The words of the Russian revolutionary writer Victor Serge in his novel The Case of Comrade Tulayev came to mind: “In the gaunt splendour of that world, man finds himself delivered over to a glacial freedom that has no human meaning.” In Serge’s case it was a character describing Siberia, and yet that line applied just as well to this mysterious place in the desert where I found myself. I’m not a religious person but this was a very spiritual moment for me.

My sense of curiosity and wonder deepened further as learned more about Papunya’s remarkable art movement, particularly the story of Geoffrey Bardon and the western desert art movement, which I learned about through a film at a museum during a trip into Alice one weekend. Having experienced some of the landscapes, I gained a greater understanding of the messages the artists were trying to communicate through their paintings.

Image My experiences helped set me on the road to where I am now

Too often it seems Aboriginal voices and perspectives are ignored in the mainstream, and nowhere is this clearer than with the Northern Territory “intervention”, which was announced during our time in Papunya. For days, our group discussed and debated what was happening, pored over any newspaper we could get hold of and tried to make sense of what was happening. One day some people from the government (including people in military uniforms!) turned up to explain what the intervention was about. We had all seen many of the problems first hand now, but my gut instinct was that imposing solutions in a top-down way and frightening communities was not the way to help.

One of the things that makes me optimistic about humanity is that if you throw a random bunch of people together, most of the time they’re able to get along and solve problems. Our group were all quite different people but I quickly came to realise that was a strength: we all had different areas of expertise and skills to offer, and the communal way of living over the next month made life just like living in a big share house. Cooking and cleaning were shared tasks. We had no TV so we would just sit and talk at night and play card games. Life was simple, and that was fine with me. I haven’t kept in close touch with any of the people I volunteered with, but in a few weeks we shared an intense experience and I’m sure if I get the chance to catch up with anyone else from my group we’ll have a lot of reminisce about.

Even though we were ostensibly going out to the desert communities to educate Indigenous kids, I suspect I learnt far more than they did. I know that my experiences shaped me in important ways as a person, highlighting the centrality of education and cross-cultural understanding to social progress, and helped set me on the road to where I am now, which is teaching in Yirrkala, an Aboriginal community in north-east Arnhem Land. I’m still with my girlfriend Clare – we are now married with two kids, and a third on the way, and hoping they will benefit from being exposed to Yolngu culture from a young age.

A major aim of the program I took part in was to get graduates to come and teach in the Territory, and to stay for longer (many teachers in remote areas don’t even last a year). In my case it took five years to get back to the NT, but I’ve been here for more than a year and hope to be here for a while yet. What I’ve described above was really just the prologue – my real story is now unfolding a little more each day.