The cultural interface in education

Martin Nakata’s seminal research on the cultural interface, initially applied to Torres Strait Islanders’ perspectives and experiences (1997) and consequently discussed more broadly in the context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies and education (Nakata, 2007), can inform Indigenous education in Australia. The theoretical concepts of the cultural interface have been applied to the Australian school context, working on the interface of local Indigenous ways of knowing, being and learning and the demands of mainstream curricula (Yunkaporta & McGinty, 2009; Lowe & Yunkaporta, 2013). Further, the cultural interface informed research and development of Indigenous pedagogies (Yunkaporta, 2009; Yunkaporta & Kirby, 2011).

Professor Martin Nakata is the Director of Nura Gili at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and holds the title of Chair of Australian Indigenous Education.

In this post, the cultural interface and related concepts are used to inform a culturally-responsive teaching practice in relationship to both non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australian school students. Such practice includes the development of culturally safe classrooms, the selection and presentation of culturally-appropriate curriculum content and the application of inclusive pedagogies. The post starts with introducing the theoretical foundations and concepts of the cultural interface, in particular the ‘corpus’ of Indigenous studies, ‘contested knowledge spaces’ and the ‘Indigenous standpoint theory’. Next, the cultural interface is applied to the classroom context, discussing implications for teaching Indigenous students, making curriculum choices and developing a culturally-safe teaching and learning space.

Next, the cultural interface is reviewed in terms of how it can inform the teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, highlighting potential issues around representation of Indigenous content and knowledge. This is followed by investigating the 8 ways of Aboriginal learning (Yunkaporta & McGinty, 2009), a culturally-responsive pedagogical framework, as well as related Indigenous pedagogical concepts that draw upon the cultural interface to embed Indigenous perspectives (e.g. Grant, 1998; Graham, 1999; Carter, Cooper, & Anderson, 2016). The post concludes with a reflection on how the cultural interface can influence the teaching practice.

Summary of key concepts

Martin Nakata (2007) describes the dichotomy of non-Indigenous and Indigenous knowledge systems as a cultural interface of contested knowledge spaces. The disparate nature of western and Indigenous knowledge systems include different cosmologies (what can be known and the role of belief in evidence), ontologies (what makes knowledge), and epistemologies (who can be the knower, how truth is established and tested and the nature of inferencing). The cultural interface is also the intersection between non-Indigenous and Indigenous ways of:

  • knowing – including teaching and learning, making sense of the world,
  • being –  including self perception and perception of realities, as well as the process of making meaning, and
  • doing – what and how knowledge gets operationalised, including cultural and social practices.

Many aspects between western and Indigenous systems are different and on the surface can often appear contradictory and incompatible, such as a scientific geological description of landscape evolution versus its corresponding local dreamtime story. However, inherent in the cultural interface is the potential for a non-oppositional space of dialogue and reconciliation. Nakata and others (e.g. Green & Oppliger, 2007; Bala & Joseph, 2007; Yunkaporta, 2009) highlight opportunities for working at the cultural interface in a spirit of synergistic dialogue, mutual respect, reconciliation, and developing higher-order knowledge and innovation. In order to realise these opportunities, the recognition of institutionalised unequal power relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous participants in mainstream schooling, curricula content and pedagogies is essential. This recognition must come from a place of acknowledgment of the long and ongoing history of distorted representations of Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in Australia.

Nakata (2007) introduces the Indigenous standpoint theory as a tool for Indigenous participants to navigate the cultural interface . The standpoint theory is a theoretical approach that originated out of the feminist movement and articulates the experience of marginalised social groups who have been assigned a place and voice in society by others (Hartsock, 1983; O’Brien Hallstein, 2000). Accordingly, the social position of the knower defines his/her starting point, scope and experience of and engagement with potential knowledge. The Indigenous standpoint is produced by Indigenous experience and is an intellectual device to construct and reconcile an experiential subjective truth with dominant non-Indigenous theoretical knowledge. It allows Indigenous peoples to speak from their own cultural standpoint, maintain their forms of knowledge and present their own epistemological truth (Foley, 2006). The standpoint theory elevates the fact that knowledge, truth and experiences are intersubjective between participants. It also provides a rationale that not all conflicting truths need to be resolved (Nakata, 2007). Therefore, the Indigenous standpoint theory provides a conceptual entry point to a more level discourse otherwise framed by dominant western ontologies, epistemologies and objectified knowledge about Indigenous cultures.

Corpus is a term used in linguistics to describe a collection of samples of ‘real world’ data or texts. Nakata (2007) adapted the term in his Indigenous standpoint theory to describe and criticise the corpus of objectified knowledge, a body of cumulative knowledge produced about Indigenous peoples by non-Indigenous researchers studying Indigenous people, cultures and beliefs. This corpus is generated across academic disciplines, legislative and administrative bodies, and is distorted by the perceptual limitations and social agendas of the non-Indigenous knowledge makers. The corpus has historical foundations in anthropology. A good part of the corpus of objectified knowledge about Indigenous people is construed to justify and rationalise views of social Darwinism and white supremacy (Francis, 1996). It continues to define non-Indigenous and Indigenous relationships such as justifying the imposition of bureaucratic, managerial and disciplinary actions, and promoting deficit-framed stereotypes (Yunkaporta & McGinty, 2009; Fforde et al., 2013). Today, the corpus is increasingly inclusive of authentic Indigenous voices, but remains firmly seated within western knowledge-making traditions and paradigms (Nakata, 2007).

Implications of the cultural interface for working with Indigenous Australian students

Indigenous students are located at the cultural coalface of contested positions between traditional cultural knowledge, contemporary and often socially marginalised realities, projections of objectified “Indigenous” knowledge, and western curriculum demands. Life at school and at home can be a constant negotiation between contrary viewpoints, a tug-of-war between demands for alignment with either side, conflicting allegiances, a choice between opposition and assimilation. This can lead to ambiguity, internal conflict and physical and mental exhaustion (Nakata, 2007). The situation is compounded by the fact that Indigenous students often lack initiated traditional knowledge and the academic English meta-language to explain and argue their views and challenge the objectified corpus and any stereotypes.

In this situation, the first step towards working with Indigenous students in the classroom is to create a culturally-safe space. This can be achieved by a number of initiatives. At the classroom level, an inclusive environment must be established. Representations of Indigenous stereotypes and any deficit-framed depictions must be avoided, such as an overly focus on exhibiting traditional “primitive” tools and tokenistic artwork without local context and meaning (Yunkaporta, 2009). Instead, these representations can be replaced by a ‘Welcome to Country’ delivered by a local Elder, regular ‘Acknowledgment to Country’ (McKenna, 2014), representations of contemporary Indigenous culture and role models such as Indigenous sport heroes, artists, writers, inventors or Australians of the Year (Korff, 2016). Further, engagement with Indigenous parents and community leaders in the selection of authentic and meaningful material for displays can make a real difference in creating a culturally-responsive teaching and learning space (Harrison & Greenfield, 2011).

At the next level, valuing and utilising Indigenous staff and parents, including Indigenous teachers and teacher aides can make a significant impact in helping Indigenous students to navigate the cultural interface at school (Sarra, 2005; Queensland Government, Department of Education and Training (DET), 2015). The Queensland Government framework ‘Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in schools (EATSIPS) (2015) provides additional guidelines for planning and developing culturally-appropriate curriculum materials, including aspects of how to best incorporate authentic Indigenous perspectives in content selection, as well as advice on culturally-appropriate pedagogies that value knowledges and resources Indigenous students bring to the classroom, elaborated in more detail below. Perhaps the most important aspect for working with Indigenous students at the cultural interface in school is to engage synergistically in the overlap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous realities and ways of knowing (Yunkaporta & McGinty, 2009).

Teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and representation of Indigenous peoples and cultures

Teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in the classroom requires a number of considerations. The first relate to the selection of teaching and learning material. Martin Nakata is explicit about problems inherent in the corpus of objectified knowledge about Indigenous Australians (2007). Many resources can be distorted and questionable, by promoting inaccurate generalisations, stereotypes and deficit perspectives. In order to address the potential for misrepresentations, the State of Queensland, Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCCA) provides additional guidelines for embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in schools by recommending five criteria for evaluating Indigenous teaching and learning resources (QCCA, 2010):

  1. Authenticity – including accuracy of statements made about Indigenous Australians, misrepresentation of Indigenous land use (e.g. terra nullius myth) and Indigenous resistance to European occupation, any generalisations made across multiple different groups of Indigenous peoples
  2. Balanced nature of presentation – critically review material for author bias, trivialisation and over-representations (e.g. importance of men’s roles, exclusive focus on Indigenous art in curriculum), negative stereotypes, overly focus on traditional and exotic cultural aspects
  3. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander participation – participation and acknowledgment of Indigenous authors in the research, writing and presentation processes
  4. Accuracy and support – looking for local relevance of material and endorsement by the relevant local Aboriginal education consultative and/or Indigenous community groups
  5. Exclusion of content of secret or sacred nature – engage in consultation with local Indigenous community to review material for any presentations of secret and/or sacred items, practices, sites, representations, as well as photographs and the names of deceased

While the above criteria address some of the main concerns about appropriate selection of Indigenous resources for the classroom, a critical application of the cultural interface concept is also concerned with how this material is presented (Nakata, 2007). First of all, there is the integrity of the knower, knowledge and practices. Some knowledge must be learned from the traditional holders of knowledge (i.e. Elders), while other knowledge is limited to local context and might require initiation. The teacher needs to develop a critical awareness on what can be presented, how and why, reviewing the value and application for her or his students, as well as any potential commercial or political interest behind resources. Finally, there is the peril of framing Indigenous knowledges in opposition to culturally-valued paradigms, such as Science. As Nakata remarked, Indigenous knowledge cannot simply be inserted into the curriculum without first developing critical awareness and acknowledgment of differences in knowledge spaces, in particular the discursive practices of the subject, differences in paradigms, philosophical positions, production technologies and practices and, last but not least, languages (2007). However, despite all these difficulties navigating the cultural interface between different systems of knowledges, the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge and perspectives into the classroom is an invaluable opportunity for students to generate dialogical exchange, reconciliation and create new knowledge (Bala & Joseph, 2007).

Pedagogical frameworks working at the cultural interface and embedding Indigenous perspectives

A number of pedagogies have explored ways to embed Indigenous cultural knowledge and lived experiences in ways that engage Indigenous students in the curriculum (Martin, Nakata, Nakata & Day, 2015). Perhaps the single most comprehensive pedagogical framework informed by the overlap of Indigenous and non-Indigenous learning processes at the cultural interface is the 8 ways of Aboriginal learning (8ways) (Yunkaporta & Kirby, 2011).

 8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning

8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning

This framework was developed by the James Cook University School of Indigenous Studies in collaboration with the Western New South Wales Regional Aboriginal Education Team and DET staff in 2007-2009 and emphasises Indigenous processes of knowledge transmission as opposed to the introduction of “indigenised” curriculum content. All eight pedagogical approaches are mutually beneficial for non-Indigenous and Indigenous students and include (Yunkaporta, 2009):

  1. deconstruct/reconstruct – starting all teaching and learning activities or texts with the big concepts and connections before going into details, elsewhere also referred to as holistic learning (Ryan, 1992)
  2. learning maps – developing concept maps and visual models as an anchor and reference point to the learning subject, elsewhere explored as narrative-spatial mapping of songlines as a culturally-specific and traditional mnemonic device (Uttal, 2000)
  3. community links – encouraging student engagement by positioning teaching and learning episodes in relation to community life and values, based on the premise that motivation for learning comes from social inclusion and building relationships (Kearney, McIntosh, Perry, Dockett, & Clayton, 2014)
  4. symbols and images – using concrete images and abstract symbols to support visual-spatial learners and to generate symbolic cues and anchors for teaching and learning units (Yunkaporta & McGinty, 2009)
  5. non-verbal – allowing students to critically test new knowledge non-verbally through experience, introspection and practice (Wheaton, 2000)
  6. land-links – place-based education building on Indigenous connections between place/space and knowledge, supporting experiential learning and emphasising local relevance, ecological applications and outdoor education (Cameron, 2014)
  7. story-sharing – actively involving students in introspection and analysis through personal narratives, a traditional knowledge-transmission format that is central in all Indigenous pedagogies (Wheaton, 2000)
  8. non-linear – by supporting non-sequential, cyclical and lateral thinking, any perceived dichotomies of opposing views at the cultural interface can be avoided by allowing for complementary experiences and knowledges, as well as encouraging creative thinking (e.g. De Bono, 2010)

Elements of the the 8ways pedagogical framework can be found in other pedagogies working at the cultural interface. Uncle Ernie Grant’s My Land My Tracks (1998) connects the concept of land, language and culture in the context of time, place and relationships, thereby focusing on land links and community links. YuMi Deadly Maths (Carter et al., 2016) emphasises aspects of working with symbols and images and the deconstruction and reconstruction of knowledge. Aunty Mary Graham emphasises the importance of non-linear logic in accommodating logically opposing knowledge systems at the cultural interface (Graham, 1999). The 8ways framework is also compatible with the Productive Pedagogies framework that emerged out of the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study and informs inclusive teaching practices in Australia with particular emphasis on high intellectual quality, relevance and connectedness to students’ lives, creating supportive classroom environments, and valuing and working with difference (Mills et al., 2009). The promotion of high intellectual expectations combined with the provision of high support and scaffolding is an important addition to the 8ways pedagogical framework and addresses the first goal of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians which explicitly states the importance of promoting high expectations for the learning outcomes of Indigenous students (Barr et al., 2008).

Relevance of the cultural interface for teaching practice

The ‘cultural interface’ between non-Indigenous and Indigenous participants in a teaching and learning community is one of contested knowledge spaces framed by challenges as well as great opportunities (Nakata, 2007). In order to navigate this interface, teachers first and foremost need to be respectful of and interested in Indigenous cultures, perspectives and knowledge-making practices. Teachers will also need to be critically aware of their own cultural capital and be sensitive to its potentially marked incongruence with the cultural and social capitals or “virtual schoolbags” of their students (Thomson, 2002). Indigenous students face many “foreign” curriculum demands, economic, political, ideological, linguistic and pedagogical practices in mainstream schools. This situation can result in the rejection of and opposition to a school system perceived as disempowering and irrelevant (Groundwater-Smith, 2009). Therefore, teachers need to be clear about the historical and cultural nature of the curriculum and discipline knowledges, and not simply assume the dominant heuristic method to be universal and superior to others. It is essential for teachers to refuse the misperception that schools can only offer constrained choices between non-Indigenous and Indigenous knowledge and perspectives. Here, working with the cultural interface can offer a shared or third cultural space (DET, 2010) with promises of cogenerative dialogue, reconciliation, and new knowledge creation (Nakata, 2007; Bala & Joseph, 2007; Yunkaporta, 2009).

Teachers needs to be careful not to teach a simplistic and imagined Indigenous past. Instead they need to support students with the knowledge, skills and practices that will allow them to confidently establish their unique perspectives in our complex, ever-evolving and increasingly global world. Indigenous knowledges are best included in respectful consultation with socially-recognised ‘knowers’ among Indigenous parents and the local Indigenous community (Kearney et al., 2014). Teachers need to be aware that some knowledge requires a spiritual and location-based context that might extend beyond the possibilities of their classroom (DET, 2015).

The constant demands of navigating multiple cultural ways of valuing, being, doing and knowing (Lowe & Yunkaporta, 2013) can create physical, cognitive and emotional tensions in Indigenous students, their parents and carers (Nakata, 2007). Therefore, it is essential that teachers create a culturally safe and inclusive teaching and learning space in their classrooms, and look for opportunities in the curriculum to include authentic and relevant Indigenous perspectives and content. Perhaps most importantly, teachers should work with culturally-responsive pedagogies in “doing knowledge” that engage and empower all his students (Woods, 2013). Finally, teachers must challenge the institutionalised deficit induction around Indigenous students and their capabilities (Yunkaporta & McGinty, 2009) by setting high academic expectations (Sarra, 2005; Mills et al., 2009; Woods, 2013; Chaffey, Bailey, & Vine, 2015).

All of this can seem a daunting task. However, the fact that education is one fundamental pathway towards offering Indigenous Australians a more prosperous future, strong and positive identities and opportunities to better support their families and communities, can serve as a strong motivation. Teachers will receive support on the way of their professional journey, through recognition of their efforts by Indigenous students, parents and community members, as well as across the teaching profession which increasingly recognises the need to improve educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (Barr et al., 2008; Burgess & Berwick, 2009; Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2014, i.e. Australian Professional Standards for Teachers 1.4 & 2.4).


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