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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