February 13, 2014

Northern Territory's draft Indigenous Education review (Part 1)

Last week, an NT-wide review into Indigenous Education took a big step forward when a draft report was released. Accompanying its release were a few media stories relaying that its author, Bruce Wilson, was recommending shutting down secondary schools in remote communities and sending everyone to boarding school. My reaction was 'what?!' and 'who is this Bruce Wilson?'. A bio of Bruce Wilson on a Victorian education website, it turns out, has this remarkable line written about him:
He often uses humour in his presentations to disguise the fact that he hasn't done any research.
I'll write more on Mr. Wilson in Part 2. In this post, I'd like to discuss a few aspects of the draft review.

When I actually started to read to the report rather than react to newspaper headlines, I remained distinctly unimpressed. If I was marking it as a university assignment, it might just pass. Maybe. Key references have been overlooked, vague conclusions drawn without strong evidence and a poor research methodology was used.

As an example of a vague, poorly thought through recommendation, Mr. Wilson mandates a phonemic awareness teaching program based on "the view that Indigenous children learn English in the way that other children learn English" (p.7). This is entirely confusing. The report acknowledges that in bush schools you sometimes have 100% of kids starting school without English, so how is it possible that they learn English like I did in the burbs of Brisbane. How does mandating an English phonemic awareness program result in bush kids magically learning English the same way that mainstream kids do? Here's a hypothetical scenario:

A grade one teacher is teaching the alphabet - specifically, the S sound - and holds up a flashcard with a big S on it drawn as a snake and tells the kids "S is for snake". This is a sensible way to teach phonics, vocab and literacy. If you're an English speaking kid that is. But if this was a bush school...

The problem is that traditional Aboriginal languages don’t have the S sound (they do however have plenty of sounds that English doesn't). How do the hundreds of kids who don’t use the S sound in their languages understand that that squiggly line on the flashcard is a graphic representation of a sound they don’t even use? Secondly, why would they link the reptile depicted on that picture with the string of sounds that sounds like ‘snake’? They have their own words for that thing: in Djambarrpuyŋu it’s bäpi, in Tiwi it’s taringa, in Warlpiri it’s warna, in Murrinh Patha it’s ku pangkuy, Arrernte it’s apme and so on. Notice how those words have nothing to do with the English S sound? On top of that, kids with hearing problems have an even harder time hearing sounds in languages they aren't fluent in.

This is just one example of where the report's recommendations are poorly devised and poorly researched. And yet Mr. Wilson likens his report to the 1999 Collins review (Learning Lessons: an independent review of Indigenous education in the Northern Territory). I'm sorry, but Mr. Wilson's report is not of the same calibre. Where the Collins review has very clear and specific recommendations, Wilson's are vague. Where Collins' data gathering and research methodology was thorough and considered, Wilson's is poor and haphazard. 

A glaring flaw in the report is the virtual dismissal of the use of Indigenous languages in education and, in particular, bilingual education. Bilingual education is addressed in one measly paragraph on page 61. It is an incredible oversight that Wilson has not even looked at the 2011/2012 Federal Government inquiry 'Language Learning in Indigenous Communities' which received over 150 submissions and toured the country, investigating among other things "measures to improve education outcomes in communities where English is a second language". The inquiry found that using Indigenous languages in the early years of education is linked to improved attendance and community engagement. They found that achieving English competency is improved by teaching in Indigenous languages in the early years of school and they found convincing evidence in support of bilingual education. How can this review ignore such a recent, thorough and incredibly relevant inquiry and brush aside the idea of bilingual education in one dismissive paragraph? (Note: the Our Land, Our Languages report that came out of the Federal inquiry is listed in the Wilson's bibliography but not cited anywhere in the report). 

This leads me to a final and important point: this report does not really at any stage suggest that Aboriginal kids’ knowledge and the things they learn at home are of any value whatsoever. That is incredibly insulting. There are 5-year-old Aboriginal students who instinctively know their cardinal directions better than most non-Indigenous adults. There are Aboriginal kids who can list their kin relationship to hundreds of individuals. They have biological and ecological knowledge about things that few white people are aware of. Their parents and grandparents lived through historical events that urban students read about in textbooks. They have grandparents with artworks hanging in state and national galleries. And they speak some of the most interesting and unique languages in the entire world. None of this is acknowledged and no importance is ascribed to it. By ignoring Indigenous knowledge and skills the report ignores a fundamental pedagogical principle that you start with students' strengths and what they know and then move them into what they don’t know.

What Mr. Wilson has chosen to do instead is adhere to a deficit model. Pointing out everything that is wrong with Aboriginal kids and supporting his findings with flawed indices like the AEDI and flawed testing models like NAPLAN. In my view, indulging in this deficit discourse will only succeed in making many Aboriginal people switch off. Do they really want their own knowledge to be insultingly ignored or have their problems and flaws pointed out, yet again. The report recommends greater community engagement but the adherence to a deficit discourse will likely only serve to impede the engagement of Aboriginal people, negatively affect attendance and discourage Aboriginal educators. 

People took notice of the Collins report because the authors had thoughtfully gathered information and carefully considered what Aboriginal parents and educators told them. This one hasn’t. The Collins report valued Aboriginal knowledge and Aboriginal people and what they think. This one doesn’t. What it does is start with a deficit view of Aboriginal people and knowledge, imposes some poorly researched and not-well-supported ideas and then pads out 110 pages that amount to little more than ‘teach them the 3Rs and then send them off to boarding school’.

Forgive me, but I am rather skeptical that such a mediocre report will bring about any serious improvement to Indigenous education in the Northern Territory.

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I will be posting a Part 2 on this topic which discusses the public meeting Mr. Wilson held in Katherine to discuss the review.

Edit: I forgot to add that you can send in a submission relating to this draft report. Details are here: http://www.education.nt.gov.au/parents-community/students-learning/indigenous-education-review-1. Submissions deadline is March 9. 

4 comments:

Joelle said...

Very insightful! I have put a link to this post on my fb-site.

Gerard Reid said...

Thank you, Your discussion on using a snake for S has opened my somewhat ignorant eyes. It has definately made me rethink the response to the report I was about to write.

Sandy Smith said...

Thanks for your input. Your snake paragraph made me rethink what I have been thinking also, however, even though phonics were a dirty word in my undergrad Education degree, since being in schools in various regions of Australia with Indigenous students for years, I have seen examples of them excel in literacy using some of the phonics programs - albeit with a great teacher. I have no reason to like or dislike the process, I only know what I have seen and works. As a teacher of grades 5/6 in a remote community since, some of the children did not know the sounds of the English language (as you mentioned) and so I taught phonics quite intensely and they progressed in moves and bounds (amazing that they had 'progressed' to grades 5/6 without these skills - at the beginning of the year they had very low literacy skills and low confidence in western learning). From my understanding of phonics teaching, it is the explicit teaching of the sounds to the letters and combination of letters that teach the children the basics of the English language. If kids don't know that 's' is for snake then they actually DO need to be explicitly taught both the sound and the visual letter in English. Many Indigenous children do have some English vocabulary so for the few that don't, this is harder, agreed, however, I have still taught these kids with success. I have seen the results of teaching some explicit phonics in order to assist Indigenous kids to grasp the abstraction of the English language (abstract to English speaking children too) and I believe the Draft Report is correct in mentioning it as a suggestion. How the instruction is implemented is way more important. Basically, if the sounds of the English language are not in Indigenous language, then explicit teaching of phonemes and graphemes are urgently needed if they are to be empowered in a western system. With regard to resources: in the community I worked in, and this is only my experience, not saying that it is not working differently now; it was problematic to try to formally teach the multiple languages in the community (or one of them), as the other language groups became upset if one seemed prioritised over another as we know language IS Political and there were shortages in the community for people to teach them. It was less political to stick to teaching English formally (even some of the Indigenous teachers agreed), and better at the time to be aware to make sure the children contributed two-way learning to the classroom through inclusion of the different languages rather than get formal language teaching. Again, just my experience. Thanks

Lauren said...

Thank you for this post, I found it both insightful and enlightening.

I am new to the study of Aboriginal languages but as a speech pathologist have been interested in the intersect between language acquisition and literacy acquisition for many years.

Your 's' phonics example highlighted how the field of language and literacy teaching is not particularly well understood by the public, and how often it is misunderstood even by language educators.

It is true that teaching phonics explicitly is an extremely important step when teaching children how to read in English(despite this, there are many who teach phonics without really understanding how English phonology works and simply rely on the pre-prepared materials - another issue entirely).


Implementing an English phonics program too early for young EALD learners is a serious waste of time.

Phonics should only be taught to students who have phonological awareness.

Phonological awareness relies upon students having oral language skill.

Therefore, students should at least have some beginning level of ability to communicate in the English before being required to perceive, discriminate between and articulate all of the English sounds.

Even though it is possible to learn all the phonics (some children are hyperlexic, after all) - what particular message would you hope non-English speaking children would actually receive from the written English language? I can read Japanese hiragana and katakana quite fluently (it is an extremely simple written system) but my Japanese oral language skill is so poor that I don't know what I am reading.

Learning how to read and comprehend a language you already understand is entirely different matter to learning how to read someone else's language. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest that EALD students learn English "much the same way" as English-speaking students and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of literacy acquisition and bilingual education. Teaching oral language must always come first, or you are building your house on the sand.