Ironically, aiming to provide every student with an identical educational experience will not result in equal outcomes, especially when decisions are made on behalf of Indigenous people.
Education is powerful and its benefits are multifaceted.
It can equip people with the skills necessary to gain employment and participate in society; these factors are associated with better health and socio economic outcomes. It has the potential to strengthen cultural identity, preserve languages and build self-esteem, which is necessary for navigating between one's cultural society and wider society.
Education also benefits the economy. The knowledge and thinking skills of citizens have become a valuable commodity in an 'age of information' and rapid technological advancement.
Indigenous students in remote communities are among the most educationally disadvantaged worldwide and often do not reap the full liberating benefits of education. Many live in poverty and are subject to poor health and social issues, and a lack of education increases the likelihood of remaining trapped in these circumstances.
But even if children attend school it cannot be guaranteed that they will be enriched by education.
Education is the result of learning, and learning occurs most effectively when it is responsive to children's first language and the knowledges and values attached to their culture. The education system of the dominant society provides an ideal climate for learning for students of the dominant society. As a result Indigenous students often suffer because their culture and language are not supported in this system.
Subjecting all students to the same school experience will not benefit Indigenous and non-Indigenous students equally.
The United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People determines that Indigenous Peoples have the right to establish and access education in their own language and culture; they have the right to run these institutions as they see appropriate to their cultural values and identity. This is not 'special treatment' for Indigenous people: members of the dominant society already access this right.
This is not to say that improving education for Indigenous students is a problem to be dumped by wider society and left for Indigenous peoples to facilitate alone. States and non-Indigenous people have a role to play but it is absolutely critical that Indigenous people self-determine how and what is taught to their children.
If education is to be culturally relevant and in Indigenous peoples' own languages nobody except Indigenous people should determine what exactly this looks like. Culture is complex and cannot be learned in a few hours or understood by reading a book. If Indigenous people do not establish and facilitate their educational approaches, their cultures may be misinterpreted or oversimplified with damaging effects.
Bilingual schooling is often suggested as an effective means for facilitating a culturally and linguistically appropriate education. Its benefits are twofold in that it can preserve and strengthen Indigenous languages, whilst allowing access to the language of the dominant society. However, not all Indigenous people support bilingual schooling. This highlights the danger in assuming what is best for or wanted by Indigenous people, and that Indigenous peoples and their issues are homogenous.
Strong Indigenous leaders are needed in the education system to achieve positive outcomes for Indigenous students. Strong community leaders and teachers are also needed at a grassroots level to advocate the needs of their respective communities. The diverse circumstances, needs and hopes of different Indigenous peoples should be acknowledged.
The training of more Indigenous teachers is a positive and tangible strategy that can support Indigenous people in the establishment of culturally and linguistically appropriate schools and support their right to self-determination.
The More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative (MATSITI), introduced by the Council of Australian Governments, aims to achieve these outcomes through scholarships and research into best Indigenous education practice. This initiative is set to run until 2015, and it is imperative that funding and support continue in the long term and in every remote Indigenous community.
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