Looking beyond bush foods and dot art in the classroom

Lisa Buxton with Notre Dame Dean of Education, Professor Marguerite Maher

7 December 2015

There is a need to look beyond bush foods and dot art when teaching Aboriginal culture, with new research from The University of Notre Dame Australia highlighting a concerning gap in teachers' cultural knowledge.

Research by Lisa Buxton as part of her Master of Philosophy Thesis found many Sydney teachers, when interviewed, believed they either did not have the knowledge or lacked confidence in teaching Aboriginal children and teaching about Aboriginal history and culture as per the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

Teachers maintained that they would value more knowledge in order to facilitate their teaching and, in some cases, counter their fear of causing cultural offence.

In her thesis Classroom teachers meeting the new Australian professional standards for teachers specifically standards 1.4 and 2.4, Ms Buxton explores teachers' views on their effectiveness in meeting those two standards, pertaining to Aboriginal teaching and knowledge, five years after their introduction.

Ms Buxton said there needed to be more focus on Aboriginal concepts and authentic perspectives rather than on surface level content. "Participants in this research were all experienced, successful teachers, but they did not feel confident nor competently equipped to meet these two teaching standards," Ms Buxton said.

"Teachers acknowledged that they take the same elements of Aboriginal culture and teach it on the same level of knowledge over and over again, potentially trivialising Aboriginal culture. We need to move beyond the bush food and dot art and give students a more experiential understanding of Aboriginal culture to enhance cultural understanding, not just for the Aboriginal Children, but for all students."

Ms Buxton, a Yugambeh and Bundjalung woman, is the Leader of Learning for Aboriginal Education at the Sydney Catholic Education Office. She interviewed 32 teachers from the Eastern region of Sydney, and all but three had completed their training prior to the introduction of the mandatory professional standards in 2010.

"Based on their teacher training and what they have been offered since, it was a combination of either not having the knowledge or not being confident in teaching a culture they felt they weren't qualified to teach," Ms Buxton said. "And in some cases they took the Aboriginal perspectives out of the program due to a fear of causing offence to Aboriginal parents and community. Teachers also discussed what they perceived of as their lack of knowledge on how to forge authentic partnerships with Aboriginal parents and community."

Ms Buxton said Aboriginal concepts could be taught through story and narrative and by exploring the different elements of cultures. "In Aboriginal ways of learning and seeing, simply knowing the information and passing it on is not enough," she said. "Children and young people are supported, encouraged and challenged to own their learning, to make it a part of their lived experience and to reflect on what they have learnt."

Ms Buxton said it was not just teaching about a Dreaming story and reading it to the kids, but exploring what knowledge is contained within the story: the concept of the Dreaming and how teachings of the Dreaming are passed on. "Emphasis could be placed on elements about the natural environment, rules for living and spiritual connections to country. This would allow students to build up their own emotional library on which they can draw from what they are learning, as they develop their understanding, concepts are felt, rather than just known. Teachers as a facilitators of this learning need to go through those activities first before they expect kids to be able to understand."

Ms Buxton found that many of the teachers, despite their experience, had not been offered professional development opportunities in the area of Aboriginal education. She said this lack of knowledge affected their confidence which was further hindered by the lack of resources and access to reliable and authentic resources beyond the internet. "And there is nothing stopping all Australians accessing the knowledge and from learning from Aboriginal culture, connecting to country – affinity with and protection of the land and the learnings embedded within it, for example," Ms Buxton said.

Notre Dame's Dean of Education, Professor Marguerite Maher said Ms Buxton's findings were important because they hold implications for systems which are considering what professional learning their practicing teachers need in order to meet the two new standards, particularly at the highly accomplished and lead levels. Additionally the findings hold implications for teacher education courses where graduates, too, need to meet these two standards.

"And it is remarkable in that not only is Lisa an Aboriginal woman who was prepared to step out of her Academy into our Western Academy and complete a Master's with us, she has done so to the highest standard," Professor Maher said.

Theresa Kyne: Tel (02) 8204 4141; Mob: 0407 408 177; theresa.kyne@nd.edu.au