Mainstream mindset fails remote Aboriginal students



I found it a deeply painful experience to leave school, after 12 years, not being able to spell, read my handwriting or write correct sentences. I didn't have a clue where the comma was supposed to go, and I avoided at all cost writing things on paper because I was embarrassed.

Aurukun schoolBut unlike most remote Indigenous children who finish their education almost completely illiterate, I was able to find work as a roustabout and later a shearer. It was in the shearing sheds that I met a lot of other bashed-up boys, courtesy of the clenched fist of the 1970s Education Department. I thought I was the only one, but I was far from alone. You will only find us in statistics, faceless and anonymous.

After more than 50 years and literally hundreds of billions of dollars of a failed state run education system for, among other children, remote Aboriginal children, it was disheartening to read the comments of Liberal Federal Member for Leichardt Warren Entsch and the rhetoric of State Labor Education Minister, Kate Jones.

Both sides of politics have been united in their response to the demise of the Direct Instruction teaching method being used in Aurukun Aboriginal Community School in FNQ. The American prescriptive teaching method, Direct Instruction, was introduced by Noel Pearson through his Good to Great Schools five years ago. Entsch suggested after Pearson pulled out of the school that 'there'll be dancing in the streets'.

I hardly think so. These streets are paved with despair, cultural depression and generational trauma. And Jones claimed her 'focus was on improving educational outcomes for the community'. Well, in 50 years they haven't had one win, and they never will.

The article posted on the ABC's web site claimed a mainstream curriculum will 'help solve some of the problems we've seen in recent times'. That is not true. The education department has produced far more Indigenous prisoners than students. I couldn't get an education with a mainstream curriculum and I am white, had access to health care and lived in a working class suburb.

But neither could most of my friends. The veiled attitude to our poor academic performances was that we came from a bad family. Not much had changed on that score, particularly with Aboriginal families. It is the education department that is broken. It is run by people who have never failed at school, never felt the shaming effects of their creation.

My big break in education came as a father in the most unfortunate of circumstances. My first born daughter was diagnosed with an acquired brain injury at 23 weeks of age. When she was about three and a half and didn't speak we discovered an unusual program of exercises that stimulated her brain, specifically her cerebellum. Miraculously, she started to recover.


"When I finished my studies I wanted to go back and put steps in place for those children, like me, who struggle to adapt to the standard curriculum in our standard education with its Standard English."


The exercises were followed by flash cards and repetition, repetition and more repetition. Each phase of her learning had to be achieved with increments to give adaptation the best chance. The smaller the learning loads the better chance the brain had in adapting to the stress.

My daughter recovered and went on and received a degree in education, a Master's degree and is now completing a law degree. If you like, we manually overrode the damaged part of her brain and built new pathways — just like Direct Instruction overrides the neurological effects of (generational) trauma and a lack of English in Indigenous students.

After my daughter become ill, I left shearing to be home more regularly and I worked digging a sewage tunnel. A few years after she had started school I was working on a night shift gang. I was 80 metres underground inside a five metre diameter rock tunnel. I was covered in oil and sludge, water dripping all around me, and I was bone tired. I was lamenting my lot in life. I felt I hadn't achieved any of my potential and I had worked hard yet ended up in a sewage tunnel.

I wondered why my daughter was able to get an education with a brain injury and I couldn't get one with a normal brain? So I decided to copy what we had done with her. In short, I started reading again and started patterning sentences. I looked at education much the same as sport. Learning to write was no different than learning to kick a ball. Get the technique right and practice until the skill is consolidated. And it worked. The comma though, I had to be taught over and over.

That was in 1988. In 1999 I went to university and in 2014 I was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy in Writing from the University of Adelaide. When I finished my studies I wanted to go back and put steps in place for those children, like me, who struggle to adapt to the standard curriculum in our standard education with its Standard English. While I was studying I worked in many remote Indigenous schools and it has been heartbreaking seeing the abject failure of education in so many communities. At the same time I was observing the meteoric rise of principals to senior administrative roles on the back of long term systemic failure of whole schools. Get the numbers up, subdue the students and get out quick is the modus operandi of most opportunistic careerist.


"What my white mates and I couldn't do, and many remote and urban Indigenous students can't do, is intuit English. If I wasn't taught what comes next, I couldn't work it out."


After working in over a dozen remote Indigenous schools, with site allowances, remote subsidies, free houses and no bills, the only people who benefit from the education system are the teachers. If they are young they are buying up houses and making long term investments. If they are older they are topping up their superannuation. The students are left with nothing. The education department is a career structure for teachers, not an education program for children. There are however, some great teachers and dedicated principals. Some teachers don't like Direct Instruction because it takes away their creativity. Others don't like being made accountable and there is no accountability in remote schools.

When I saw the Direct Instruction program and its systematic teaching method with its small, concise increments of learning, I knew, if it was delivered properly, it would work. This year I was invited to work at Djarragun College, an Aboriginal school in Cairns. The school is part of Pearson's Cape York Program and Direct Instruction is the main teaching pedagogy. And it works. I was blown away when I saw grade one, two and three Indigenous students reading, writing and editing their mistakes. I saw grade four children writing in paragraphs. It was rolled gold education.

Is Direct Instruction the best teaching method for all children? No. Play based learning, investigative learning and visible learning have had extraordinary results for some students. But those more independent learning frameworks are a bridge too far for many students. What my white mates and I couldn't do, and many remote and urban Indigenous students can't do, is intuit English. If I wasn't taught what comes next, I couldn't work it out. It wasn't second nature to us. Do I care about Direct Instruction, or Noel Pearson and the Cape York Academy? No. I care about seeing children find the joy in learning and embracing with courage and confidence the opportunities an education can provide. I don't want to see another generation of bright, witty students end up at the bottom of a sewer.


Dennis McIntoshDennis McIntosh is a teacher of creative writing and English at Djarragun College in Cairns. He is the author of Beaten By a Blow and The Tunnel and has a PhD from the University of Adelaide.

Topic tags: Dennis McIntosh, Noel Pearson, Cape York Academy



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Existing comments

Dennis' story shows that the love of learning can survive almost insurmountable odds. Education departments are, by necessity, bureaucratic but I've met many dedicated teachers, and principals. I don't think anyone goes into teaching for the money. It's an underpaid and under-acknowledged profession. It sounds like Djarragun College, and others like it, are breaking new ground, well done.
Pam | 22 November 2016

Thanks Dennis. I saw Direct Instruction at work over 30 years ago in an indigenous junior primary school in far west NSW. It worked for those kids, and many others. The opposition to using a program that enabled children to read and write effectively continues to confound.
Gerard Moore | 23 November 2016

I wept. The heroism and compassion of Dennis McIntosh gives me hope . Let us pray daily for First Austalians and support their right to be truly educated.
NamePauline Kennedy | 23 November 2016

What an extraordinary article - I mean that in the best way. So much to think about. The author's own story and that of his daughter are so counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, counter-everything. I keep trying to tell myself that I did some good in my life as a teacher; now I'm not so sure. A little reflection: our two daughters were able to read when they started school at the age of five, courtesy of their mother, but that was soon knocked out of them by peer pressure at school. Can we have more from this writer, please.
Frank | 23 November 2016

Having recently retired after teaching for 45 years or so, I have only one comment to make: In my experience, the children who found joy in learning and embraced the opportunities an education can provide with courage and confidence came to school ready to do so. It is very difficult to build on what is not there.
Noel Kapernick | 23 November 2016

What a joy to read.
Jim Jones | 23 November 2016

Thanks Dennis for your insight and candour. A really important article.
Jessica Douglas-Henry | 23 November 2016

Thank you Dennis for sharing your experience. I agree with you 100%. One shoe does not fit all. We need to adapt our curriculum and teaching methods to the learning needs of our students.
Ann Laidlaw | 23 November 2016

Loved your article. Congrats on all you have achieved, and on the assistance and support you were able to give your daughter- all in spite of Dept of Ed policies and practices.
Maureen Watson | 23 November 2016

Thanks Dennis for having the courage to talk straight up to the Australian Education System and those who assume they know all. 'Lived edxperience' provides us with the advantage of reflection and implementing difference.
Pamela | 23 November 2016

Thank you for this most beautifully written and inspiring article. The self-interest in perpetuating a system which does not work for a large number of people is obvious, but it seems very difficult to 'reframe". While I was still in the teaching I-like yourself- did individually employ methodologies that worked for teaching language,- both English and foreign- but I did not seem to be able to make an impact at all in the system. I wish you better responses adn i look forward to reading more of your writing. Thank you.
antonina | 23 November 2016

One of the sad things about the use of the Direct Instruction method is that, in the particular situation Dennis is talking about, is that it has been seized upon by Noel Pearson's political opponents - of which he has a few - as a club to belabour him with. That adversarial approach scarcely benefits those who might benefit from it.
Edward Fido | 23 November 2016

What a wonderful story of determination and concern! Thank you for sharing and inspiring and giving me hope that better things can lie ahead.
Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 23 November 2016

God bless you Dennis. After a lifetime of teaching and more recently as a tutor for refugees I applaud your openness to a variety of teaching methods.
MargaretLamb | 23 November 2016

Congratulations Dennis on your achievements. Wonderful achievements. What a wonderful gift from your daughter in response to your devoted love. When I first worked in a community in 1972 all the young women were literate in English. They didn't always have the meaning of some words e.g. Train , as remote areas relied on pictures then. Yes methods , consistency of staff , repetition, etc. showed me too a quite literate generation.
Patricia Foley | 23 November 2016

Dennis sincere thanks for the gift of your insights, not only from your experiences in Indigenous education but the harsh working worlds of those you encountered as a shearer and underground in the Tunnel. Some voices are required listening to enhance our humanity. Dennis is such a voice.
Joan Saboisky | 24 November 2016

I agree mainstream mindset and the push to mainstreaming fails but this was happening under Noel Pearson’s DI model in Aurukun. We need to look more deeply. A child must also have the right to learn in their first language and Aboriginal ‘education experts’ be involved in design of curriculum from the outset;long denied in Australia. Although one can celebrate the educational success Dennis achieved, he has different circumstances than A&TSI students. Despite claims, rote learning for Dennis has a different base as he comes from the cultural understandings that are the base of the curriculum that he did not engage with initially. When he aged, he had a motivation and goals that made for engagement. A respectful, pluralistic and engaging curriculum that would be relevant to A&TSI students would be more beneficial than direct instruction (DI). A&TSI language programs & bilingual education must be fully supported in communities where first language is other than English.This must not seen as an imposition but a right-we need to learn from past and present mitakes. Read e.g. Local Aboriginal engagement paramount & we need to address own bias. As to Noel Pearson perhaps read yesterday's article -
George | 24 November 2016

Thank you Dennis McIntosh, for sharing your personal, prophetic and challenging story. I am enlightened and inspired. Every blessing. PB
Patricia Bouma | 24 November 2016

Dennis WELL DONE. Whilst I went to "Good Schools" starting at the age of 8 and straight into 4th class, and then onto a high grade Sydney Collage where I consistently failed, ad was blamed and ridiculed for not doing my work. I should have gone to your school Congrats on your story -
John Campbell | 25 November 2016

Dennis is refreshingly, honestly accurate in his assessment of Remote Ed. Had the great honor of seeing Dennis work with remote Students. Can't remember if DI had been introduced at the time but he is an excellent Teacher and should be listened to with respect to his knowledge of the real situation in ED.Now with DI in select schools remote NT schools, I've seen individual children walking to class reading books out loud for the Joy of it......I first worked remote on an in 1976....DI is the first system I've seen work....Kate Jones should escape the prejudice of her department and rejoice in the success of DI. YES Prejudice failed dept. jealousy. Thanks Dennis. Nev.
Neville Canning | 27 November 2016

Thanks Dennis. As a remote teacher myself, I hear you very deeply.
Anthony | 27 November 2016

A great article. I know the power of DI but personal reports like this warm my heart. Congratulations.
Pam | 29 November 2016

This is one of the more powerful and elegant articles on this subject that I have had the opportunity to read in my 35 years working with Direct Instruction. How education has gotten so far off the mark will always be a great mystery, a tragedy. No world class performer in any field has not known the small steps and incessant practice--hard work-- that it takes to achieve excellence. Thanks for writing this article..
Jim Cowardin | 29 November 2016

Cogently argued and brilliantly expressed
Claude Neumann | 01 December 2016


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