The Australian‘s running a campaign against cultural appropriateness where it pertains to Indigenous Australians. Cultural awareness courses, out the window! Cultural training for journalists? No need! Last Saturday they had a front-page story taking up a paper due out this week on Indigenous children’s education by the economist Helen Hughes of the Centre for Independent Studies. Helen Hughes, so The Australian claims, is saying that educational apartheid exists in the Northern Territory (a claim denied by Nadine Williams, the very experienced President of the NT Branch of the Australian Education Union, but The Australian buries her view at the end of the article. A teacher talking about education isn’t sexy; an economist is).
What The Australian is licking its chops over is that apparently Hughes is inveighing against ‘culturally appropriate’ teaching methods.
I’m with them in that the term ‘culturally appropriate’ has been over-/ab-/mis- and sloppily -used ( Lexical Integrity, die!), and in that the idea of Western science and Western maths versus Indigenous science and Indigenous maths looks like a false opposition. Science is science – I want the bridges I cross over and the planes I fly in to be constructed according to the best available science and technology, Indigenous, non-Indigenous, Chinese, English or whatever.
Where we part company is as to how the best available understandings of science and maths are to be taught and in recognising that Indigenous people have knowledge which should be built on.
The Australian quotes Hughes as saying, apparently in outrage:
“Academics concerned with indigenous children’s mathematics learning assume that only special, ‘culturally appropriate’ methodologies will enable indigenous children to count,” she says.
One grant, worth almost $160,000, is for a project aiming to integrate algebra and indigenous contexts in the high school years to “develop algebra pedagogy that reflects the world view of indigenous students”.
Well, Hughes’ paper isn’t out yet, so perhaps The Australian is sensationalising her claims. But that’s not going to stop me getting on MY soap box.
One thing we know for sure is that children are not blank slates. We come with ways of thinking, with metaphors (attraction, repulsion, gravitational force), and with categories that are provided by our languages and the societies we grow up. Trashing what a child’s family knows won’t help the child learn. So what a teacher has to do is to help the students translate between their existing ways of thinking and the ways of thinking required to understand science and maths. That is, helping them build on what they have, so that they can understand more.
That’s what a ‘culturally appropriate curriculum’ is. We know already that Indigenous knowledge in many regions encompasses detailed long term observation and understanding of natural history. The parents of many Indigenous students will know a lot more about the anatomy of a kangaroo than the average high school teacher, and a lot more about the local geography. They will also be used to making and testing hypotheses when tracking. That’s knowledge which can and should be built on in teaching science at schools.
No one wants to stop there however – a middle-aged Warumungu woman R.P. told me last year how excited she was to look through a microscope, and to discover things that she couldn’t see in everyday life.
Getting across mathematical concepts is harder. What it must involve is translation – translation of the concepts into language and ideas which the children and their parents can understand. At last year’s Indigenous Languages Workshop in Adelaide, there was a presentation A story about our learning journey: using Djambarrpuyngu to learn and teach mathematics [Susan Duwalatji, Joy Mundhu, Roslyn Malngumba & Kathy McMahon]. They showed how they introduce children to mathematical ideas through concrete things, and how they work on expressing the ideas in Djambarrpuyngu.
It’s kinda obvious. If the kids don’t understand what the teacher is saying, they’re not going to grasp the mathematical concepts the teacher’s trying to explain. Effective teaching may involve more use of non-linguistic ways of expaining things. I remember my friend and teacher P.D., a Warumungu woman who was one of the first four year trained teachers from Batchelor College. Her first language was Warumungu; she’d gone through the traditional mission English-only basics-only education, and, despite being a diligent student, hadn’t understood numbers. But, as an adult, she was introduced in the maths teacher training course to Cuisenaire rods. She was quite overjoyed, and said that at last she understood what numbers were about. That’s information that should be built on when teaching Indigenous children arithmetic.
My guess is that the Indigenous children with the best chance of understanding science and maths concepts are those in good bilingual schools, because more effort will have gone into translations of concepts. Children who speak creole usually miss out badly, because very few teachers are able to recognise the differences between standard English and creoles which may hinder children’s understanding of mathematical concepts [thanks Denise!].
The crucial idea is ‘the school’s memory’, that is, keeping and passing on ideas about what works to get ideas across. One of the tragedies of the school system as I’ve seen it is the lack of effective ways of passing on good ideas about teaching. New Principal, new department secretary, new minister, out with the old ideas, and in with the new.
Ironic really, when keeping such memories is supposed to be the great advantage of literacy, and when science is supposed to teach us the importance of forming hypotheses based on careful observation and recording of evidence.