My Girragundji – quality Aboriginal literature for the Australian classroom


Cover of My Girragundji, written by Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor in 1998

My Girragundji is an 84-page novel written by Meme McDonald and Boori Monty Pryor (McDonald & Pryor, 1998). It tells the story of how a young Aboriginal boy overcomes his fears of visits from the hairyman at night, of approaching his first girl friend Sharyn, of migaloos (white people), and of dealing with the bullies at school. In the course of the story, the boy develops a special relationship with a little tree frog called Girragundji that helps him connect to his Aboriginal ancestors and to build a positive sense of self

Boori Monty Pryor was the Australian Children’s Laureate during 2012-13, along with Alison Lester. Meme McDonald is a founding member and stage director of the WEST Theatre Company, children’s book author and recipient of the 2012 Ros Bower Award  for an outstanding, life-long contribution to community arts and cultural development.

The book trailer above includes paragraphs that describe the first encounter between the first-person narrator and the frog in what is the central transition between paralysis and courage.

Selection criteria and Australian Curriculum connections

In the Australian Curriculum (AC), Literature is one of three inter-related developmental sequences or ‘strands’, together with Language and Literacy. The explicit aim of the Literature strand is to provide students with “access [to] a broad range of literary texts and develop an informed appreciation of literature” (National Curriculum Board, 2009, p.5). In the latest iteration of the AC v8.2, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) describes quality literature as satisfying some of the following criteria and enduring values (ACARA, 2016a):

  1. Artistic value
  2. Personal value
  3. Social value
  4. Cultural value
  5. Aesthetic value
  6. Attract contemporary attention
  7. Potential for enriching students’ lives and expanding scope of experience
  8. Represent effective and interesting features of form and style

These criteria are developed in further detail in the literature companion for teachers published by the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PEETA) (McDonald & Walsh, 2013).

Enduring artistic value can be defined as the quality that writers develop in their work and how this resonates with readers over time (e.g. Walmsley, 2012). My Girragundji is a popular book with young Australian readers and has recently been turned into a stage play and film script (McDonald, 2013).

Personal values relate to personal resonance, emotional connections, empathy and inspiration developed in the reader by reading a book (e.g. Carnwath & Brown, 2014). Students are likely to be drawn into the first-hand narrative of the boy and main character in My Girrragundji and empathise with his challenges. Students might also become inspired by the idea of developing strength from a relationship with a pet or totem.

Social values relate to social benefits such as civic engagement. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians states the imperative for all young Australians to become active and informed citizens and to develop reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians (Barr et al., 2008). The cross-curriculum priority (CCP) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures (ACARA, 2016b) applies this contemporary goal by placing attention on advocating and teaching Indigenous perspectives and understanding for all students to engage in reconciliation. In My Girragundji, some passages directly address reconciliation, such as “That’s our special place where the river meets the sea. It’s their place really, my Aunty Joyce and Uncle Arthur’s place. But they reckon it’s our place, and Dad doesn’t argue with that ‘cause he reckons that’s right. They’re white and we’re black and I don’t know whose place the Bohle is, it just is, and they’ll always be our aunty and uncle.” (McDonald & Pryor, 1998, p.43-44). In 2012, Pryor was made the inaugural Australian Children’s Laureate for his stories that “[…] create positive visions of the future for both Indigenous and all Australians” (Australian Children’s Literature Alliance, 2016).

Cultural values relate to the process of producing and negotiating value between different cultural organisations and expressions (Carnwath & Brown, 2014; Agha, 2003). Inclusive teachers must make an effort to embrace diversity and include literature that portrays the full range of ethnicities, cultures, languages/dialects, religions, family structures and socioeconomic statuses within the classroom (Boyd et al. 2015; Harrison, 2016). My Girragundji provides an authentic contemporary window into a socioeconomically disadvantaged Indigenous community, describing the challenges and demands on an age peer in an engaging and at times humorous way that will expand the scope of experience for many mainstream class students. In the face of adversity, the first-person narrator develops resilience and a proud sense of self, based on connection to country and culture. The book provides insight into local Aboriginal culture and helps to build empathy, recognition and support for Indigenous students from similar background in the class. For Indigenous students, My Girragundji can express and reinforce cultural identity and a pride in Aboriginal English, thereby enriching all students’ lives.

Aesthetic value has been described as the “benign capacity” of quality literature to be experienced and appreciated as something cohesive, harmonious in form, content and symbology, and as a capacity to emotionally move the reader (Beardsley, 1981, p.240). My Girragundji is emotionally engaging, the language original and fresh, with photos and illustrations of high standard. The creative use of fonts and Aboriginal English, including terms such as jalbu (young woman or girl), migaloo (white-skinned person), wirrell (shell fish for eating), creates a text with many effective and interesting features of form and style.

The English curriculum advice for every year level is to work with a range of literary texts, including “Australian literature, […] oral narrative traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, as well as the contemporary literature of these two cultural groups, […]” (ACARA, 2016c). The State of Queensland, Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCCA) provides additional guidelines for embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in schools, recommending five criteria for evaluating the quality of a teaching and learning resource (QCCA, 2010):

  1. Authenticity
  2. Balanced nature of the presentation
  3. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander participation
  4. Accuracy and support
  5. Exclusion of content of a secret or sacred nature

My Girragundji is an authentic text, co-authored by Indigenous writer Boori Monty Pryor. Pryor was awarded the Promotion of Indigenous Culture award from the National Aboriginal Islander Observance Committee in 1993. The story is written in the first-narrator perspective of an unnamed ten or eleven year old Aboriginal boy, closely modelled on Pryor’s childhood memories. It can therefore be considered accurate and  balanced in nature of the presentation, illustrating contemporary non-‘exotic’ aspects of Indigenous culture and perspectives other than representations of male adults. By concluding in a chapter ‘How My Girragundji was written’, the authors acknowledge the participation of the Yarrabah community. The acknowledgements make it explicit that the local community was actively involved in taking photographs and reviewing the story, guaranteeing that no content of a secret or sacred nature was included. My Girragundji specifically addresses the CCP organising ideas OI.2, OI.5 and OI.6 (ACARA, 2016b) and focuses on Indigenous perspectives such as ways of valuing, being, doing and knowing, as opposed to potentially problematic indigenised content (Lowe & Yunkaporta, 2013).

The topic and language of the book, as well as the similar age of the main character make My Girragundji most suitable to Years 5 and 6 students. A strong link to the year-level English curriculum description is evident, as readers are to explore a range of non-stereotypical characters and texts including junior and early adolescent novels that explore “themes of interpersonal relationships and ethical dilemmas within real-world and fantasy settings” (ACARA. 2016c).

In Year 5, the most applicable CD from the Literature strand in ‘responding to literature’ is ACELT1609 “present a point of view about particular literary texts using appropriate metalanguage, and reflecting on the viewpoints of others”. The students could reflect on Indigenous viewpoints, experiences and opinions expressed in the book, possibly in a format where they are required to create their own text on a hairyman exploring what keeps them awake at night. Alternatively, students could develop a script for a stage play on episodes of the book presenting one or more perspectives of themes in the book such as growing up, family conflict, friendship, bullying and spirituality (see also link to Literacy CD in ‘creating text’ ACELY1714) (ACARA, 2016).

In Year 6, the most applicable CD from the Literature strand in ‘literature and context’ is ACELT1613 “make connections between students’ own experiences and those of characters and events represented in texts drawn from different historical, social and cultural contexts”. This CD can be applied to build the field knowledge on contemporary Indigenous communities at the beginning of the unit. The ‘responding to literature’ CD ACELT1615 “identify and explain how choices in language, for example modality, emphasis, repetition and metaphor, influence personal response to different texts” is well suited to engage students with the unique style of writing and Aboriginal English, followed up by a closer examination and analysis using ‘examining literature’ CD ACELT1617 “identify the relationship between words, sounds, imagery and language patterns in narratives and poetry such as ballads, limericks and free verse”. Students could extract sad and funny passages from the book and discuss how the authors play with language features to achieve particular purposes and effects (see also link to Language CD in ‘text structure and organisation’ ACELA1518) (ACARA, 2016).

Current debates about the use of quality literature in Australian classrooms

The Australian Curriculum only defines types of texts that need to be studied from Foundation to Year 10 and provides the set of criteria discussed above on what quality literature looks like. The English curriculum recommendations further highlight the importance of incorporating Australian literature, including oral narrative traditions and contemporary literature of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as classic and contemporary world literature, in particular texts from and about Asia. As for what makes and who selects the best literature for schools, three debates are particular pertinent to the current situation in Australia:

  1. The extent to which the English curriculum is balanced or distorted by emphasising Indigenous Australian and world literature, and the value of a classical Western literature canon for Australian students
  2. The competition between teachers, schools, states, and commercial publishing houses for the authority to choose classroom literature
  3. The value of print-based literature versus digital media and its impact on reading

In the 2014 review of the Australian Curriculum by the Australian Government, Department of Education and Training (DET), a number of reviewers such as the Institute of Public Affairs objected to the emphasis on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ literature and its literary heritage, calling for a greater focus on Western literature in the English classroom, (DET, 2014a; Riddle & Honana, 2014, Forrest & Schodde, 2014). This view was supported by specialist consultant Spurr, appointed to make recommendations to the federal government’s review of the national English curriculum. Spurr remarked that “[…] in the three points on which all curriculum subjects must be focused – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples; the Asian region, and sustainability – mandating priorities that could be a distraction from the core work of the curriculum, bearing no direct relation to the educational and disciplinary purposes that the curriculum for the study of literature in English is designed to facilitate and fulfil. ” (DET, 2014b, p.4). Spurr has since resigned from his professoral post following the exposure of a series of personal inflammatory emails that included derogatory references to Aboriginals, Asians and women casting doubt on the integrity of the review (Alcorn, 2014). On the other side of the debate, the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) supports the CCPs as important issues that need to be addressed in a national school curriculum at this point in the Australian history (AATE, 2014). This view coincides with a progressive understanding of the role of education in a pluralistic society, which affirms students’ understanding of their home and community cultures while helping them to participate in today’s multi-cultural and globalised world (Banks, 2013).

Closely related to the debate on English literature versus world literature is the question about the nature and value of teaching a classic literary canon, and the role that new literature and media should play in the classroom. Kevin Donnelly, the conservative education critic appointed to co-head the 2014 Australian curriculum review, strongly advocates Harald Bloom’s concept of a Western literature canon. He is of the opinion that English as a subject should focus on “enduring literary works that are part of the Western tradition” including “seminal authors such as Shakespeare, Swift, Dickens, Austen, Orwell, Lawson or Malouf”, as opposed to the AC “exploding the definition of literature to include “multi-modal texts”, and suggesting that students should spend time studying “tween mags, avatars, social networking and manga”” (Donnelly, 2010). Harald Bloom’s concept of a Western canon (Bloom, 1994) had sparked “canon wars” in the late ‘80s in which traditionalists advocated a curriculum focusing on classic works of predominantly British literature, while progressive academics promoted teaching an expanding body of works and a focus on modes of inquiry and interpretation (Donadio, 2007). In reference to the current “literacy war” in Australia, Ilana Snyder describes the position of teachers that argue for a dynamic repertoire of literature, reflecting the rapid changes in our society and world of ideas (Snyder, 2008).  This position is supported by the AATE, who advocate that until Year 10 individual schools are in the best position to implement the curriculum with texts that their English teachers assess as most suitable for particular classes and communities. AATE explicitly rejects the idea of a literature canon stating “[…] we consider it would be inappropriate for any specific texts to be mandated for use” (AATE, 2014).

The idea that teachers choose the most appropriate texts can however be undermined by a more prescriptive implementation of the AC at state land school levels, and by schools buying into commercial reading programs. In Queensland, the DET provides state schools with comprehensive electronic curriculum planning and resource materials, referred to as Curriculum into the Classroom or C2C. The English C2C units include digital and print-based texts as teacher resources and classroom sets (DET, 2015). While DET explicitly states that it supports schools in applying flexibility to “adopt or adapt the materials to suit the learning needs of their students and local contexts” (2015), its sample teaching episodes are often implemented with minimal modifications. The C2C writers therefore are in a powerful position to promote particular works of literature. Many schools purchase a core reading program, conveniently packaged as sets of identical books for students, including a teacher’s edition of the book with worksheets and assessment tasks. Some literacy teachers are favourable of basal reader programs, suggesting that these schemes provide a convenient backbone for their lesson planning and free time up to provide better differentiation, including the provision of supplemental reading for more advanced readers (Reisboard & Jay, 2013). On the other side, many academics and educators point out that commercial reading programs have a number of limitations compared to teacher-selected quality literature. These include that the textbooks are often repetitive, less engaging, fail to build on prior student knowledge and do not develop metacognitive thinking (Dewitz & Jones, 2013).

Reading programs are increasingly integrating children’s books with digital multi-media content for computers and iPads, such as the Reading Eggs products (ABC Reading Eggs, 2016). Recent research suggests that in particular struggling readers are more likely to engage in reading on digital platforms that can support their reading experience with rich features, such as multi-modal content, interactive navigation, animated images and adaptable font sizes (Hughes, 2013). Teachers that like to curate their own quality literature for digital devices can face a number of technical challenges and limitations, such as a more limited range of digital children books and small screens (e.g. Mardis & Everhart, 2013).

While literacy teachers are navigating shifting policy directions and experimenting with the promises and limitations of engaging students in digital texts and reading apps (Hutchison et al., 2012), it is perhaps instructive to highlight one aspect of quality literature which is not explicitly stated in the AC criteria and often missing in the public debate: reading enjoyment.  By selecting literature that is interesting, relevant and moderately challenging, students are most likely to engage in reading and develop an intrinsic reading motivation (Gambrell, 2015). If reading enjoyment is one of the strongest predictor for educational success (Kucirkova, Littleton, Cremin, 2015;  Clark & De Zoysa, 2011), debates on classroom literature canons and formats, should perhaps be placed into the hands of the students, coached by their teachers and the school librarian (Strauss, 2014).


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Chris Garner’s ideas on transforming the teacher in Indigenous education

The 16 minute YouTube video below Chris Garner – Transforming the Teacher in Indigenous Education was recorded at the 2014 inaugural TEDxDarwin event. Chris Garner discusses his experiences and views on Indigenous education in Australia. Garner is a senior secondary school teacher for Indigenous Education at the Marrara Christian College in Darwin, a Preschool to Year-12 college offering a boarding program for Indigenous students. Garner also owns the online training provider Cross Cultural Training Australia and has developed courses including Aboriginal culture for early years educators (Cross Cultural Training Australia, 2016).

Garner’s presentation addresses Australia’s failure to improve educational outcomes for many Indigenous Australians. Improving Indigenous education has been highlighted in the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians as a key priority to be addressed in this decade (Barr et al., 2008). The Australian Government is committed towards closing the gap between Indigenous and mainstream students’ education, with policy strategies aimed at increasing Indigenous school attendance rates and transitioning young Indigenous adults into workplaces (The Education Council, 2015). However, since the declaration only few improvements in school educational outcomes have been achieved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. While the gap in literacy and numeracy skills between Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is narrowing in primary school years, more than three quarters of Indigenous students still achieved at or below the National Minimum Standard in 2013. Year-12 attainment increased from 45 to 59 percent from 2008 to 2013, but remains well below the the non-Indigenous rates of 86 and 88 percent (Australian Government Productivity Commission, 2014).

Presentation summary

Garner is presenting a pedagogical approach towards closing the educational gap. In his initial analysis, he equates success in the western educational system with helping students to discover their potential and encourage their effort. Garner next suggests that what is lacking in Indigenous education in Australia is relevance; the link between the curriculum and student’s lives and expected roles in their home communities, as well as realistic job prospects. Garner suggests that real-life relevance of the curriculum is what can motivate Indigenous students to study and graduate. His hypothesis is supported by data on Indigenous retention and graduation rates from Marrara College collected over six years. Accordingly, Indigenous Year-12 graduation rates increased at Marrara College from 2.2% in 2008 to to 96% in 2014. (compared to Northern Territories rates of  32% for Indigenous students versus 71% for Non-Indigenous students). In addition, the rate of Indigenous students in employment following graduation was raised to 98% (compared to the national average of 33% for Indigenous, and 71% non-Indigenous Australians).

The Indigenous program at Marrara School is following a student-centric pedagogy and combining it with comprehensive case management and culturally-adapted teaching strategies. The teacher spends the first three weeks with new boarding school students to learn more about their background, the framework of traditional obligations, expectations and social norms in which they operate, regional job opportunities, personal interests and anything else that will inform the student’s outlook on their education. This information is used to contextualise numeracy and literacy content knowledge and to align learning objectives with the desired outcomes and visions of their students (e.g. becoming a healthcare worker, mechanic, finance officer). The teacher is developing connections between school learning and the roles students want to play back in their community, thereby demonstrating how curriculum content will help them to achieve these. This requires modified learning and assessment activities. For example, traditional activities of everyday life are performed with the students first, to consequently relate these to literacy and numeracy aspects back in the classroom. Educational success is reframed as success towards the individual’s desired outcomes, as opposed to performance in standardised tests often geared towards tertiary education. The school also develops partnerships with potential employers in their communities to offer final-year students opportunities for work placements and apprenticeships, at a time when traditional expectations and community pressure on students increase, often resulting in school dropout. Students are further explicitly educated in how to navigate the Australian system, including how to sign up for vocational courses and apply for scholarships.


Bourdieu’s theory of social practice can serve as a framework to better understanding the underlying challenges of Indigenous education resulting in the observed low school attendance, retention and graduation rates (Bourdieu, 1983, 1986). A key concept of the theory is ‘social capital’, a resource of social networks, norms and values such as trust, and actual and potential assets shared within a network of relationships defined by mutual acquaintance and recognition (Mignone, 2009). These networks are expressed as privileged or marginalised groups within society that collectively support their members. Social capital is unequally distributed and reflect the wider social standing of individuals and groups in terms of other capitals, including economic, cultural, and symbolic standing. Social capital is the product of history. For Indigenous Australians, historical experience is one of dispossession, cultural, political and economic marginalisation, and restricted access to influence, resources and information (Browne-Yung et al., 2013). This cultural experience can be passed on by social reproduction, a process where aspects of society such as privilege and marginalisation are transferred from generation to generation. In Australia, the curriculum is largely developed by privileged urban academics and professionals, which is then taught by middle class teachers with a dominantly ‘western’ cultural background including English as first – and often only – language. According to Bourdieu (1983; 1986, p. 248-9), the economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capital by the dominant actors are related to positions of social space – the professional and personal network of actors – who will use all forms of capitals to reproduce and entrench their positions and perpetuate structured inequality (Tzanakis, 2013). Indigenous students from remote, low socio-economic and culturally different backgrounds are disadvantaged and underrepresented in terms of the economic, socio-cultural, and political participation and control over influencing educational standards and the curriculum. It is against this backdrop, that the Indigenous program at Marrara College has developed a supportive learning environment for Indigenous students, to enhance their confidence, self-esteem and cultural identity, and improve learning outcomes through the provision of culturally-relevant curriculum choices (Wadham, Pudsey, & Boyd, 2007).

While Indigenous students may be poorly equipped with the cultural capital required to perform well in mainstream Australian educational systems, there is also the related concept of different ‘funds of knowledge’ (Klenowski, 2009). The funds of knowledge can be understood as a “virtual schoolbag full of things they have already learned at home, with their friends, and in and from the world in which they live” (Thomson, 2002, p.1). For Indigenous students, the virtual schoolbag may include local knowledge about nature, oral languages, dreamtime stories, how to collect and hunt for food, cook and care for siblings and elders. All of these are unrelated and may even be in conflict to school rules and behaviour expectations, book knowledge and arithmetic skills that are valued by the school institution and curriculum. In contrast to other Australian schools, Marrara College is actively engaging with the virtual schoolbag of their Indigenous students, by incorporating their funds of knowledge as starting points to make mainstream curriculum knowledge more relevant and applied. In many respects, this approach is following the framework of productive pedagogies (Hayes, Lingard, & Mills, 2000). Productive pedagogies emerged out of the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study conducted in the years 1998 to 2001, and was distilled into four common elements (Mills et al., 2009):

  1. intellectual quality
  2. relevance – subsequently redefined as connectedness
  3. supportive classroom environment
  4. recognition of difference – subsequently redefined as ‘valuing and working with difference’

The pedagogy described by Garner fosters the development of deep and applied understanding and knowledge through inquiry-based learning from experiences relevant to his students’ lives, encourages a supportive learning environment with good teacher-student and school-community relationships, and applies a high degree of differentiation by identifying, recognising and incorporating the cultural funds of knowledge of Indigenous students.

In addition to the expected curricular learning outcomes and pedagogy, schools operate in ways that can disadvantage certain students which can be summarised as the hidden curriculum. A hidden curriculum is the often implicit ways in which different school systems and teachers allocate responsibilities and resources, thereby privileging one group of students over another (Gale & Densmore, 2000; Thomson, 2002). The concept of hidden curriculum was first developed by Snyder to describes the socialisation process in the classroom as one of two curricula, with the hidden curriculum comprising the unstated academic and social norms that places limits on independent development in students (Snyder, 1970). A supportive school system is based on supportive and unbiased teacher-student relationships (Frymier & Houser, 2000), a dimension particularly important in the boarding school environments that Indigenous students from remote communities are sent to for their education. From this perspective, the policy of Marrara College to award Indigenous students responsibilities and roles as student leaders or teacher aides, is a constructive approach to use the hidden curriculum to positive effect.

Aboriginal lawyer and policy maker Noel Pearson has been mentioned in Garner’s presentation to take a different view. Pearson has been influential in designing Indigenous education policies in North Queensland (Ford, 2012). In a public policy paper, Pearson states: “Too many of the programs and strategies that have failed have done so because they have not maintained high standards or high expectations. Instead, in attempting to ‘understand’ the problems, they end up accommodating or acquiescing to the problems. Indeed, they end up perpetuating the problems” (Pearson, 2004). Pearson’s criticism reflects a sociological concept exemplified in Bourdieu’s approach to habitus, in which social structure, including marginalisation of certain groups, is reproduced by the affected individuals themselves, responding to the expectations of society by internalising and embodying their perceived ‘acceptable’ and ‘legitimate’ place, roles and aspirations (Bourdieu, 1986; Tzanakis, 2013). However, while it is more difficult for marginalised students to overcome their habitus (Thomson, 2002), the theoretical concept is epistemologically not deterministic (Hilgers, 2009) and therefore allows for social mobility.

In contrast to the constructivist pedagogy deployed at Garner’s school, the education program devised by Pearson applies a proprietary Direct Instruction syllabus developed in Oregon, United States. Direct instruction (DI) is a pedagogy that teaches by explicit, guided teacher instructions and strict lesson plans. Initially developed in the mid 1980s to address the problems of inner-city Baltimore schools, it has been commercialised by SRA/McGraw-Hill (McGraw-Hill Education, 2016).Direct instruction pedagogy has been a critical component of Project Follow Through, the largest historical education experiment to improve education of disadvantaged students in the Unites States (1986-1995), as a continuation and extension of the Head Start program, which delivered education and other services to disadvantaged preschool children (Watkins, 1997). The effectiveness of DI has been demonstrated to accelerate academic outcomes in at-risk students (Engelmann, 1999). In contrast to the productive pedagogies, DI does not encourage the engagement with student’s cultural resources, background knowledge and community context. It applies strict tracking of student progress and places students and teachers into a rigid relationship that makes it difficult to develop mutual trust (Luke, 2014). Haberman (1991) has delivered a scathing critique of DI pedagogies as delivered by ‘Head Start’. In his opinion the program forces students into compliance and results in resentment and resistance rather than learning of life skills and academic knowledge, referring to DI as “pedagogy of poverty”. A pedagogy of poverty is emphasising the compliance with rules and following scripted directions at the expense of student-directed learning and critical thinking. This is often encouraged by students’ dysfunctional behaviour and low SES parents’ expectations of classroom practice. (Groundwater-Smith, 2009).

Direct instruction pedagogies have become more widespread in public schools in The United States in recent years (Haberman, 2010), and are internationally tested in at-risk schools including in North Queensland (Dow, 2011). Introduced in 2010 in Aurukun in combination with punitive welfare reforms coercing parents into ‘income management’, DI pedagogy has recently been discussed as one potential factor leading to the ongoing schooling crises in Aurukun resulting in the temporarily closure of its primary school and evacuation of its staff (Robertson, 2016). In light of these news and prior experience with DI, a culturally-based, community-focused, and individually scaffolded pedagogy like the one Garner promotes in his TED talk, receives the support from Indigenous educationalist Chris Sarra, founder and chairman of the Stronger Smarter Institute for improving educational outcomes for Indigenous Australian schoolchildren (Sarra, 2011). Sarra, an outspoken opponent to the commercial DI curriculum for years, suggests remedial approaches that have been successfully implemented at Marrara College in his response to the unfolding crisis “If the government was serious about providing quality education they could […] have a specialist curriculum writer go to Aurukun, live in Aurukun, sit down with people and design a local school curriculum” (Robertson, 2016). Other researchers on Indigenous education in Australia concur that successful pedagogies require building supportive links between schools and Indigenous communities that inform curriculum development and teaching practice (Luke, 2008, 2009).


Quality education is important on an individual level, by improving socio-economic prospects, social standing, and the ability to make informed choices in life (Helliwell & Putnam, 1999).Quality education is also important on a national level, by improving public health and safety, social mobility, and overall performance in a global knowledge and innovation-based economy (Barr et al., 2008; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2012). While it is easy to agree on equal entitlement to education, applying equality into practice in terms of equitable teaching and needs-based school programs are more contested across political lines (Connors & McMorrow, 2015). It is against this backdrop that different school policies and pedagogies as those discussed at Marrara College and Aurukun State School are developed, funded and implemented.

Garner’s presentation highlights that equitable teaching needs to accommodate individual needs. The Indigenous education program at Marrara College is an inspiring example of curriculum modifications, productive pedagogy and teaching strategies that can motivate and empower disadvantaged young people to obtain an education that can positively transform their lives and that of their communities. In light of the political dimension of the debate on making Australia’s education more equitable, Garner’s conclusion that it does not require a “revolution of the [educational] system but evolution of the teacher” can provide both hope and direction. Garner has demonstrated all the skills that according to Groundwater-Smith (2009) make effective teachers; mainly the ability to motivate and engage students, choosing meaningful instructional methods, and demonstrate good interpersonal skills. Groundwater-Smith also highlights the importance of having high expectations of students irrespective of their ethnicity or socio-cultural background, an aspect of major concern to Noel Pearson (2004). Consequently, it takes knowledgeable teachers and a culturally-responsive pedagogy to unpack the curriculum and develop assessment practices that make education equally accessible to Indigenous students and acknowledge different ways of knowing, learning and being. Marginalised identities can be overcome and recast in the process of reshaping education. Recently documented Indigenous academic success in Australian tertiary education (Klenowski, 2009) is aligned with Coleman’s definition of social capital as a bonding mechanism towards achieving a common goal, and as a “resource for action” (1988). By empowering Indigenous students to persevere and become their own agents of change, they can create a new form of cultural capital (Pechenkina, 2014; Browne-Yung et al., 2013). At Marrara College, this is achieved by providing Indigenous students with an education that improves social and economic standing in their remote communities on the basis of shared values and trust.


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