Decolonise The Curriculum: Australian Schools

This guest piece is from David Mountford,

Valuing Aboriginal Perspectives in an Australian Primary School

The State of Victoria, Australia, is forward thinking in terms of its efforts to decolonise the education system. Below is the ‘Our Vision’ statement outlined in Marrung, the Victorian Aboriginal Education Plan 2016-2026.

Victoria will be a state where the rich and thriving culture, knowledge and experience of our First Nations peoples are celebrated by all Victorians; where our universal service systems are inclusive, responsive and respectful of Koorie people at every stage of their learning and development journey; and where every Koorie person achieves their potential, succeeds in life, and feels strong in their cultural identity.

Note: Koorie is the name given to Aboriginal people of South-East Australia.  Marrungwas a collaborative undertaking between Aboriginal education groups including the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated and the Victorian State Government.

At my primary school in Melbourne, prior to taking up the opportunity of meaningful change offered through Marrungfour years ago, the 900 overwhelmingly white middle-class and a cohort of Koorie students (currently nine) were taught in generic stereotypes that dismissed the varying Cultural practices and knowledge across First Nations peoples. There was next to no mention in the classroom of the damage colonisation had done and continues to do.  When Australia Day would roll around, for example, it was more Captain Cook ‘discovered’ … the First Fleet arrived in 1788 – the birth of a nation … pioneers ‘settled’ (peacefully was the implication) … and so on.

By whitewashing the history taught in the curriculum, schools transmitted the message to students and their families that Aboriginal Cultures and peoples were not valued. This also left a void in impressionable young children to absorb unchallenged mainstream media’s negative stereotypes of Aboriginal people. On that, many teachers have come through their schooling and Higher Education with little knowledge of the First Nations and the baggage of preconceived ideas that come with that lack of knowledge.

I shall share an example of a misconception that teachers and parents have voiced, which needs addressing with them, in an absolutely non-judgemental way I might add, to ensure the school is adhering as best it can to Murrung’s vision.  It is around the outdated notion of ‘blood quantum’ and is often manifested in questions such as, “What part Aboriginal is he/she?”   Or, “Those children can’t be Aboriginal. They have blond hair.”, for example. It was important for the working group, consisting of fellow teachers and some parents dedicated to decolonising the curriculum, to audit the library and rid it of books filled with this and other misconceptions. For information on common misconceptions, see below

For far too long, my school’s recognition of First Nations’ peoples was a tokenistic effort during NAIDOC week, an important week on the Aboriginal calendar. Teachers, including myself, would most likely read an Aboriginal story to the students, ask children to write a Dreamtime story and maybe do a dot painting. Besides the box-ticking, the lack of knowledge teachers had was a barrier to any form of meaningful local recognition.  Dot painting, we learnt, primarily belongs to the Aboriginal Nations in the heart of Australia.  Koories, and more specifically the Wurundjeri and BoonWurrung peoples, whose Country my school is located on, use more geometric lines in their artwork, for example.

So in order to make meaningful change, it was evident that we needed to build teacher knowledge and confidence.  Many conversations have been had where well-intentioned teachers voiced their legitimate concerns around not wishing to be disrespectful or culturally insensitive to Aboriginal people.  This has been a significant barrier for some to even attempting lessons in the classroom along with the ever-present barrier, of course, of a crowded curriculum. Building teacher capacity then was an obvious way to support teachers to include Koorie perspectives in their programs.

With the expertise of Koorie Engagement Support Officers, KESOs, cultural understanding training was provided for staff, at the expense I dare say of the cultural safety of the Aboriginal people providing the training!  One man became very emotional when sharing his personal experience of the Government men coming to take his cousins away during the period known as the Stolen Generation.  I sincerely hope he was not required to repeat the story at each school he visited. It could easily have been avoided by simply encouraging staff to read such accounts for themselves without retraumatising Aboriginal facilitators.

Some Aboriginal people, of course, share their experience in the hope for change. Amidst the calls for a formal process of ‘truth telling’ in Australia, the school invited in and was privileged to host a Stolen Generation survivor as a guest speaker last year.  Over 500 grade 3 – 6 students listened extremely attentively and asked thoughtful questions of our speaker.  His talk greatly impacted the students, with many writing insightful and empathic poems in response and discussing the talk with family members at home.  Teachers also gained much from hearing this first-hand account of the impact of being removed from family. This first-hand knowledge for the teachers touched a nerve within many and sparked an interest and desire to learn more.  Follow-up discussions also revealed the power of the experience that saw some teachers shift their pre-conceived ideas.

Before going on, I must stress the importance of consulting and building relationships with Aboriginal families at school.  This was the starting point for meaningful change through Marrungand these relationships continue to be vital.  Many of the families expressed a wish for their children to connect with Aboriginal art. The school has funded, for a couple of years now, days where Koorie kids can connect and learn from a local Aboriginal artist.  The amazing artworks produced are then celebrated at the school’s annual community art show and are the source of much pride in the children.

On these days, teachers are invited to pop in and take a look, which again facilitates the development of staff knowledge and understandings in a non-threatening space. I smile as I recall how we ‘colonised’ a sports lesson last year during a break with a game of poison possum ball. Kids learnt Aboriginal dance moves as they dodged the ‘marngrook’, the forerunner to the Australian Rules football, which is made of emu feathers encased in possum fur. Awesome fun!

As Australia burns this summer, calls are again ringing out from Aboriginal people and their allies for Government agencies to consider Cultural fire practices of the First Nations.

The dominant culture has much to learn.  It is with this in mind that my thoughts turn to an exciting project for the upcoming school year involving the establishment of an indigenous garden. This will be a hands-on opportunity for students to gain insight into the extensive knowledge of and varied uses of plants in Aboriginal culture.  Moreover, it will be a timely opportunity to explore in the curriculum a value central to Aboriginal Cultural life, to Care for Country.  Hopefully this, and the other ways Koorie perspectives are beginning to be valued at the school, will contribute to Koorie students feeling strong in their identities.

Meaningful change, which I believe is what we have at school, is made easier when the core group of change agents on staff have the persistence, energy and desire to become more knowledgeable and to enthuse others to its importance. When they are able to build and maintain relationships to ensure the centrality of Aboriginal peoples’ involvement.  And when they possess the communication skills to prepare staff to assume their role in working together towards decolonising the curriculum.

The future of our ‘work in progress at school’ is exciting!  To play a part in Aboriginal kids receiving a quality education, which enables them to feel strong in their Cultural identity is personally important to me on many levels, not least being that for too long I actively participated in the whitewashing of the curriculum. To celebrate, and, in so doing, educate the school community about, the incredibly rich Cultures of Aboriginal peoples has greatly enriched my life living on this land that has never been ceded, for which I am grateful.  There is much ground to make up. Now is definitely the time to add the colours of the Aboriginal flag to the ‘white’ curriculum – the colours of red, yellow and black.

Thank you for reading my post and I wish you well with your endeavours in decolonising the curriculum in your setting.

Further Reading

Prof. Marcia Langton – any of her books inc. Welcome to Country for high school Bruce Pascoe – Dark Emu .

Changing understanding of pre-colonial life Archie Roach’s memoir

Amy Thing – TED talk


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