NATIONAL: JEFF MCMULLEN* reports from the Stronger Smarter summit.
Aboriginal education expert Chris Sarra.
An impassioned call to support the social and emotional well being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children has marked one of the largest and most important gatherings of educators in the “Stronger Smarter” movement gathering force across Australia.
As the ‘education wars’ rage on over the best way to teach Indigenous kids, Donna Bridge, a Yamatji woman and Principal of the Fitzroy Valley District High School in Western Australia, told teachers gathered in Brisbane for the 2012 Stronger Smarter Summit that what was paramount was to believe in the worth of these children as Aboriginal people.
Bridges is one of the most hard-working and highly respected Aboriginal educators, previously honoured with the prestigious Western Australia Primary Principal’s Award for the outstanding results at the East Kalgoorlie Primary School.
She is also one of the powerful advocates for Dr Chris Sarra’s Stronger Smarter program of creating “high expectations relationships” to build education success that focuses on the whole child, not the narrowest of outcomes.
While bluntly admitting that many Indigenous schools were not achieving the government’s national targets for literacy and numeracy, Bridges advocated a relentless national effort, persistently focussing on the genuine wellbeing of the child.
“It took 60 years to get to this situation today. It is not going to be changed overnight,” she said.
This frontline assessment from one of Australia’s Aboriginal education leaders was supported by one of the world’s acknowledged experts on Indigenous learning, Russel Bishop, Founding Professor of Maori Education at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand.
If Australian teachers took up all of the tools and the best approaches, Professor Bishop said, it might still take up to 10 years to build a highly successful and enduring education system for Indigenous children.
The evidence cited by Professor Bishop strongly supports an education approach that emphasises the relationship between a quality teacher, students and families.
Every school needed strong principals and clear agreed values that allowed no “deficit expectation” towards Aboriginal kids.
Teachers needed to live and breathe the belief that they were making a difference and this included a commitment to “treat the children as if they were your own”.
The Executive Director of the Stronger Smarter Institute, Dr Chris Sarra issued his own challenge to all Australian principals and teachers.
“I don’t care if you call it ‘Stronger Smarter’ in your community as long as you have high expectations relationships…Let’s stand up for our profession.
“We work hard and we work tirelessly…We need to tell the nation of the range of schools and people that demonstrates this high expectations relationship approach…Our approach,” Dr Sarra said, “ is about doing things with people, not doing things to people.”
The 2012 Stronger Smarter Summit saw a good deal of scorn towards the millions of dollars of government funds directed to a handful of schools trialling the Direct Instruction method of teaching now advocated by the Cape York Institute’s Noel Pearson.
This highly controversial and widely discredited rote learning approach, requires all teachers to work strictly to a script with students drilled to repeat only what is in their workbooks.
Dr Sarra noted that at Aurukun on Cape York, $7.72 million dollars had been invested in a trial of the Bereiter-Englemann learning model of Direct Instruction which he criticised as “at best a costly remedial program”. For that money, he said, you could provide a teacher for every one or two kids, but the results simply did not justify such a misdirected investment of education funding.
While Direct Instruction appears to have been heavily promoted by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, leading academics at the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), William Fogarty and Jerry Schwab, have compiled exhaustive international research detailing the shortcomings and glaring failures of this brand of instruction since its introduction in some overseas schools in the 1960s and 1970s.
While stressing that existing aspects of a highly targeted literacy and numeracy program are a necessary part of the curriculum for Indigenous students, the ANU researchers condemn the “lock step” focus on drill and rote learning.
“While early gains may appear as a result of the emphasis on decoding text, those gains evaporate and sometimes reverse in later primary years as learning requires comprehension and not just decoding.
“This inability to move beyond decoding to comprehension is particularly significant for children of low income and limited English-speaking families who may find themselves left behind. Recent research in Australia [on this rote learning instruction] reports increases in teacher attrition, decreases in student retention and completion, and a propensity for any indigenous or minority perspectives to disappear from the curriculum under such approaches.”
[ From Indigenous Education : Experiential learning and Learning through Country. W. Fogarty and R.G. Schwab, CAEPR. ANU, Working Paper 80, 2012]
The ANU researchers highlight the widespread educational evidence that Indigenous knowledge and local development aspirations must form a central component of Indigenous education.
The challenge is to allow for learning that is both locally relevant and transportable to other places. Fogarty and Schwab argue that “experiential learning”, the role of “learning by doing” and “learning through Country” can connect Indigenous students and provide a pathway to success.
At the Stronger Smarter Summit, outgoing Assistant Director of Indigenous Education in Queensland, Ian Mackie, was given a standing ovation after a frank and personal address targeting the previous era of low expectations that he said was responsible for the “equilibrium” of poor attendance, poor outcomes and poor retention”.