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How to talk to Aboriginal students

Quarterly Essay, Radical Hope, Noel PearsonAcross the country, Indigenous students are far behind in literacy, numeracy and educational outcomes. The results of the second National Assessment Program Literacy and Numeracy Tests demonstrate the enormity of the gap. There is agreement about the urgency of improvement, but divergent views as to how to achieve it.

The Australian newspaper recently reported the success of Indigenous opinion leader Noel Pearson's Family Responsibilities Commission (FRC), which was established to improve educational participation and outcomes in four Cape York communities.

The FRC approach includes withholding welfare payments from parents whose children do not attend school, and is labelled 'tough love'. Figures tabled in the Queensland parliament suggest it is working, if attendance is the goal, although it is far too early to measure its educational effectiveness.

On the other hand, Aboriginal educator Dr Chris Sarra recently convened a Stronger Smarter Summit, showcasing his approach, which has seen success at Cherbourg and has been embraced by a number of other schools. Sarra advocates 'positive engagement with children and communities', 'respectful partnership', and quality teachers.

While approving of some aspects of the FRC, Sarra questions whether its results justify its $48 million funding, when his achievements are comparable at a fraction of the cost. He deplores the punitive aspects of the FRC.

During the Summit, Education Minister Julia Gillard argued that teachers posted to remote schools should be 'prepared for community life and ... have strong skills in teaching English as a second language'. These words are heartening because, in remote schools at least, ESL teaching skills are vital, but often absent.

The language issue was highlighted in a recent ABC Four Corners program, prompted by the Northern Territory Government's decision to abolish bilingual education. It focused on Lajamanu, a desert community where Warlpiri is the dominant language. Since 1982, Lajamanu has had bilingual teaching, and in 1989 children there scored highest among NT Aboriginal schools in tests of English, and showed improvement generally.

Despite such successes, the gap between Indigenous pupils and others endured, even widened. Some inquiries cast doubt on the efficacy of bilingual education, and critics like Helen Hughes and Gary Johns, who blame the use of Aboriginal languages in schools for students' poor performance, have been more influential than linguists and educational specialists who endorse bilingual approaches.

Last year, the NT Government made instruction in English for the first four hours of each day mandatory from the start of 2009.

Supporters of this measure expect a transformation in performance. Interviewed by Four Corners, NT Chief Minister, Paul Henderson claimed the affected children will do as well as native speakers in year three tests, once standard Australian English (SAE) is the sole language of instruction. This conflicts with expert opinion; in addition, schools using SAE exclusively have not produced better results.

Though a full bilingual curriculum may be unachievable, there are undeniable benefits in school-based support for the maintenance of local languages and cultures, and in avoiding placing teachers where the children do not understand them, and where they understand the children even less.

Aboriginal Education Workers assist teachers with communication, but there is seldom structured or consistent use of children's first languages as an educational tool. At least, ESL training for teachers in the early grades should be a requirement. It is disgraceful that this is not already the case.

If Aboriginal children were non-English-speaking immigrants they would have access to ESL-trained teachers, intensive English classes and appropriate resources. Teachers in remote schools are often unaware of basic language obstacles, like the fact that some Aboriginal languages do not distinguish the unvoiced and voiced consonants 'b' and 'p', 'd' and 't', and 'g' and 'k', thus children may not 'hear' these distinctions that are so significant in English. Albeit belatedly, Gillard's emphasis on ESL must translate into action.

Language is, of course, only one reason for Indigenous children's poor performance. Hindrances include absenteeism (often ignored by parents), hearing and vision problems, inadequate nutrition, overcrowded housing and more.

At the Summit, Gillard listed 'five key elements': 'students are ready to learn; attendance; quality teachers and inspirational school leadership; a focus on literacy and numeracy; parental and community engagement'.

Implied here are two crucial factors: motivation and models. Motivation is essential, for parents as well as children; they must be willing to delay gratification, make sacrifices, in anticipation of future benefits.

There are historical examples of how motivation drives education. Eighteenth century Scottish Protestants had a passionate desire to read the Bible, and this made literacy a major goal. Historians credit this as a driving force that led to the high educational achievement for which Scotland is famous.

Finding ways to motivate Indigenous parents and children, and to sustain their motivation is crucial.

Educational models, some from overseas, are often invoked, but personal models are also important for school attendance and success. Often, children have few or no such models. High mobility, spontaneity and untrammelled personal autonomy are incompatible with consistent participation in school.

Here lies a conundrum: success at school relies on embracing mainstream values, but values cannot be imposed. They must be internalised, seem natural. This process will be facilitated by schools helping to inculcate and reinforce dominant values and norms.

Coercion by the state and its agents was applied in the past, with some success. Parental authority was virtually irrelevant, and children, sometimes housed in dormitories, were obliged to attend school.

However, it is striking that so few who experienced such regimes now insist on their own children's regular school attendance, or consider school a priority. A multiplicity of measures is required, but ESL teaching, along with local language maintenance, is surely an achievable provision that could benefit children in remote schools.

Myrna TonkinsonDr Myrna Tonkinson is an honourary research fellow in anthropology in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia who has done research among Aboriginal people in the Western Desert of WA since 1974.

Topic tags: Myrna Tonkinson, close the gap, National Assessment Program, Literacy and Numeracy Tests



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Existing comments

I agree ESL is essential to the education of aboriginal children in English. AND if teachers and others became engaged they would learn how english grammar is not what we speak - I realised this when I learned a 2nd language at age 50 - I believe the loss of local language in any area is a tragedy and yet many people in political circles say that it is great that english is taking over other languages. I just hope spanish overtakes english in the US. I think an asian language will eventually be dominant in australia. Who knows, I am old but I wonder.

margaret o'reilly | 13 October 2009  

We need to get our analysis of Aboriginal educational failure right, or doom another generation of kids. I suggest whenever big picture models are discussed we try a parallel analysis based on looking at the unemployment history of each community. Schooling must be seen as functional by parents, who are the final drivers of their childrens schooling, starting with attendance. If they see no link to independent employability, no model of schooling will work. The issues of jobs in Aboriginal communities, and more importantly, of jobs for those who will aspire beyond their immediate communities, will drive schooling.

This is our greatest public policy issue: how build jobs away from the bigger centres, and how to include Aboriginal children in the nation, and the aspirational sets that provide personal power.

Rev Dr Steven J Etherington | 13 October 2009  

Inclusion of ESL as a prerequisite teaching skill appears obvious.It seems to me however, that the introduction of preschools would overcome many introductory problems. 2-3 hours voluntary attendance to a'school' which offers fun activities--music, story, assorted painting forms, water play, clean sand play and an array of games (puzzles, building materials,etc) all solid educational foundations, can lay great ground work towards more formal learning.

Inclusion of Elders as story tellers and dance/music leaders (who also include some english language music and songs and stories) and 2-3 mother/aunties at a time to 'play' at the various activities as well as a ratio of 1 to 10 trained english speaking teachers to guide the educational aspect with their shared involvement. We must express joint respect and acceptance of the people involved as well as give gentle example of the direction of the western education we endeavour to instil. Then will there be less fear/rejection of western culture 'imposition'.

Michelle Kamper | 13 October 2009  

I was on a placement at a small aboriginal school in the kimberly a few months ago. Sitting at the back of the senior classroom i was fully amongst the disengagement, the avoidance of the task at hand. They expected me to rouse on them as the teacher had exited to classroom. Instead i started to tap a rhythm on the table, Paul copied and we started to echo each other's sequence.

It felt a bit anarchic, Mr Cole being within earshot and bound to be leaping back to investigate the racket any second, but that small incident elicited enough smiles to help me feel that i was an ally, even if only for that moment.

Liz | 13 October 2009  

Lost in the discussion on how best to close the "Education Gap" is that the "4-hours English only policy" tells Aborigines that their Languages are somehow inferior. As someone that has spent over three decades trying to master Warlpiri, I can assure you this is far from being the case.

ÔÇťAbove all, let us permit native children to keep their own languages, those beautiful and expressive tongues, rich in true Australian imagery, charged with poetry and with love for all that is great, ancient and eternal in the continent. There is no need to fear that their own languages will interfere with the learning of English as the common medium of expression for all Australians. In most areas of Australia the natives have been bilingual, probably from time immemorial. Today white Australians are among the few remaining civilized people who still think that knowledge of one language is the normal limit of linguistic achievement."
- T.G.H Strelow, 1958.

As for NAPLAN testing IF the testing was done in Warlpiri "mainstream" Australian children would fail miserably. I think courses in Logic and Statistics should be mandatory for all politicians and beaurocrats dictating Education policy.

Frank Baarda | 13 October 2009  

I have not studied the issue discussed, nor have I much knowledge of teaching English as a second language, but I do have friends whose children (whose mother tongue is English) who make the same errors as described --- due to the fact that they suffer reduced hearing caused by ear infections. After long-term treatment to clear infection the improvement is dramatic.

Perhaps the ESL, and the Health issues (maintaining vitamin D3 levels and infection control) can be addressed together.

brenda | 13 October 2009  

Another lucid, probing and cogent piece from Dr. Tonkinson. I have thought from the 60s and 70s that non-English speaking migrants have had their needs understood and attended to in a way that Aboriginal people have not. Her arguments for specialist ESL teaching of Aboriginal students are particularly enlightening. I look forward to everything Dr Tonkinson writes.

Joe Castley | 13 October 2009  

For all the doom and gloom, there are now nearly twenty five thousand Indigenous university graduates, almost all since 1980. Commencements, enrolments and graduations are at record levels. There could be 50,000 graduates by 2020, and 100,000 (one hundred thousand) by 2034, on current trends. Each of those graduates has families, relations, friends, colleagues. It won't happen overnight but .....

Joe Lane | 13 October 2009  

This is an excellent appraisal of the situation. Thank you. It is also good to read that the analysis picks up on the cultural differences in the value systems that exist, 'the untrammeled personal autonomy'; and that changed value systems need to be taken on as natural and if not, it's appears to be a case of coercion.

Coercion and the policies of inclusion do not see eye to eye: the failure of the government to allow the Lajamanu people (and others) to have any power whatsoever to effect the governance of their school - such was Jerry Jangala's grief on the Four Corners program - amounts to coercion and a failure of the policy of inclusion at a real level; that is, at the level of education which is one of the major interfaces in a remote community between the community and the mainstream government. Here, it appears, is evidence of institutional racism. The unbelievable failure to provide ESL teachers is another thing but to fail to provide a governance model, a language policy or to even let teachers going out to the bilingual schools know of the context in which they will be living and working furthers the argument that the government is unable to provide either well-meaning or rational policy for these schools - and this is what has been in place for a long time. Perhaps this is also institutional racism.

The refusal to speak with the experts and to recognise the worthy evidence that proves that support for the bilingual model, actual support, will get the desired results, is also very suspect. Now, everyone feels disempowered, confused and scared for their future. This seems to be what the government really wants. And for the social capacity indicator of trust to go off the dial - backwards. Inclusion? Don't think so.

naomi speare | 14 October 2009  

Our neglect of such seemingly logical solutions amounts to genocide. Fortunately there are role models in areas like sports that have provided achievable and internalised pathways.

Bill Day | 14 October 2009  

To Joe Lane: I wonder how many of those 25,000 indigenous graduates speaks an Aboriginal language (other than, perhaps, Aboriginal English). I suspect that the vast majority are monolingual English speakers and have had a mainstream education. And good for them, but we still have to worry about the bush kids who have had school made into a much less inviting place with strange teachers speaking an incomprehensible language to them because a pig-headed ignoramus Minister for (or against?) Education thinks that's the way to encourage them to learn.

Gavan Breen | 14 October 2009  

hello i was wondering how do you say "the journey is the reward" in aboriginal language

ashley | 03 March 2010  

Ayer's Rock would be the most common name it is known by especially outside of Australie

payton | 15 September 2010  

i realy need to no how to speak aboriginal

kyle | 16 August 2011  

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