Having worked for five years in an Indigenous community, amongst the Warlpiri people in Lajamanu, and having worked for four years in a school for Town Camp Indigenous students in town, I have come to appreciate that there is much to be learned from traditional Indigenous culture in Australia. Because of the things that I learned whilst out bush, I count my five years amongst the Warlpiri as the best five years of my life.
One of the most important areas of learning was in the domain of education. Armstrong wrote, in the chapter called ‘Talking the talk: the soft tissue of reconciliation’, of the Purdie, et al. (2011) book, called, Two Way Teaching and Learning, the following:
“You had to do so much on your own at school; this was not the way my mum taught us. This was not the way we worked together. Everything (at school) was done over and over to be perfect, and to look clean. At home we learnt from doing and having a go, not by just reading all the time with a person who didn’t even know you or our family and talking at you all the time. At home and in the bush we would talk and work things out for ourselves. We could head off on the station as a group of kids with no adult and not be home for hours. At School they had these rules” Purdie, et all., 2011, p. 227).
This is the case. I have learned that there are many things that differ in the way Indigenous people conduct education, and the way that it is conducted in mainstream schools.
1. With Indigenous people, learning is done in the context of intimate relationships. It took me about three years in the bush to realize that relationships were critical in the learning process. Aboriginal children don’t orient themselves towards learning unless they know you, and letting yourself be known takes years of being around–“OK, so he’s not like all the other plastic bags, blowing into the community, and then blowing out again.”
2. With Indigenous people, the goal is not faultless perfection, it is participation. While bureaucrats are concerned about outcomes and quantitative data collection as indicators of educational success, Aboriginal families, in many cases, are concerned about whether the children have enjoyed their attendance. Many families reported to me that they were satisfied with their children’s progress at school, because the children enjoyed being in my class. I could not show much, in terms of test results, but I did have students come back to my home after school and on the weekends, because they liked hanging out with me. They were not at all interested in the school work, but they craved the relationship. After school and on the weekends we did stuff like gun handling, hunting, telling stories, and such like. A lot of learning took place, it just did not relate to school work.
3. In community, children learned on their own. From our perspective, it seemed that no one was looking after the children. However, the children learned a measure of problem-solving and independent confidence that no amount of instruction in a school could impart. A lot of the learning was destructive, but a lot of the learning was also creative. Watch the film series, “Bush Mechanics” and you will see the level of creative problem solving that Indigenous children derive from the style of learning that they grow up with.
4. Traditional people remember the days when there were no fences. There were no boundaries for thousands of kilometres, and young people could explore in any direction for days and not exhaust the learning possibilities. In many cases, this was done without adult supervision. School teaches that there is only one track, and one direction, and one set of answers and that is set by the answers required by the teacher in the tests that are given. Narrow thinking produces fear, dependence and vulnerability to control. In days gone by there was such a thing as a liberal education. By liberal was meant that it was expansive and covered a broad range of learning that enabled a global perspective of life. These days, specialization is started early, and the capacity to have an integrated perspective is limited.
5. Indigenous education is multi-sensory and multi-modal. Children learn by dancing, singing, listening to stories, watching, painting, having the body painted whilst being spoken and sung over, eating, making artifacts, being caressed, ground-pounding, tasting, smelling, hearing, seeing, feeling; a cacophony of experiences all focused on one single message to be communicated. However, that single message had layers and layers of application in complex inter-related fields of study: philosophy, religion, geography, geology, earth sciences, astronomy, sociology, psychology, etc. So much data, from so many directions, that knowledge is not thought about, it is felt. It is an immersion in knowledge, but the knowledge has immediately practical application. For me, Indigenous pedagogies resonate with the pedagogies of the ancient Hebrews, with their cycles of feasts, sabbaths, temple and ceremonial rituals, priestly garb, and day-to-day learning in the context of living life: “when you rise, and when you go to bed, when you walk along the way”.
A coordinating value system is required in all of this. However, having established the home base, children need the opportunity to range in their questions, and be exposed to a very broad range of learning situations and opportunities. Life is not simplistically black and white. There is not just one way to solve problems and resolve conundrums. With a firm anchor within the grace of God, and full exposure to the boundaries set by the Law of God, we have the invitation: “Of all the trees in the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat. For in the day that you eat thereof, you will surely die.” A vast paddock full of trees to eat from. Only one forbidden. There is a lot to learn from that, in terms of how education should be conducted. And I think our Indigenous friends can teach us a lot, if we had the grace to humble ourselves and become as children, willing to learn.
Purdie, N., Milgate, G. and Bell, H.R.. (eds). (2011). Two Way Teaching and Learning: Toward culturally reflective and relevant education. Campberwell, Victoria: ACER Press