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Wilson, CS 2016, 'Cultural learning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people : Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in New South Wales schools', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright CS Wilson 2016


From the 1980s, the knowledges, perspectives, histories, cultures and languages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples began to be acknowledged and included in dominant New South Wales school education policies and curricula, following a century of denial. Such inclusion aimed to address practices of institutionalised discrimination and inequality, but was often contested. From an educational perspective, the emphasis is on the contribution of cultural learning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ educational outcomes through engagement with, and motivation for, schooling. However, less is known about the students’ own views of learning their knowledges, perspectives, histories, cultures and languages: what they are learning; how this learning contributes to understanding of their positioning in Australian society, and of the multiple educational, social and systemic forces affecting such learning in schools.

In NSW, Aboriginal peoples comprise the majority of the Indigenous population, with a smaller proportion of Torres Strait Islanders living in the state. This is reflected in NSW Aboriginal education policy, which states the term Aboriginal includes Torres Strait Islander peoples. This research, co-constructed with the local Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) seeks, through conversations with 38 Aboriginal students and one Torres Strait Islander student within three primary schools and three secondary schools in the land of the Gumbaynggirr nation in the state of New South Wales, Australia, to understand the nature and extent of the students’ cultural learning. Further, the perspectives of Aboriginal educational support staff, Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG) members, principals and teachers, highlight factors affecting the learning of cultural knowledges and perspectives in the schools, including assumptions, beliefs and attitudes—overt and covert, positive and negative—employment, community involvement, leadership, teaching practices, attitudes, and the resourcing of cultural learning.

The research is informed by the theories and methodologies of indigenous research and the sociology of childhood, and is underpinned by the affirmative, non-hierarchical philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to emphasise the potential in learning, and the interrelatedness of student and adult contributions. The research outcomes extend understanding of cultural learning in six schools through mapping the perspectives of students with educational and institutional forces in the following three major ways.

First, the research found the extent and nature of cultural learning for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students varies through a continuum across and within the schools. This ranges from stereotypical, historical practices with limited contemporary connections to higher order learning, through to critical thinking about the knowledge and expression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, local customs and language. Second, the conversations with Aboriginal and non-Indigenous adults clarify understanding of the positive and negative forces affecting the production of cultural learning in schools, such as affective relationships, the employment and commitment of educational professionals, assumptions and cultural awareness, institutional and political discourses, resourcing and training issues. Finally, the research identifies through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ comments, the possibilities of cultural learning in producing for the students a sense of themselves, to understand through the past and the present, and how they are positioned in Australian society. This should be a responsibility of schooling in this country.

I conclude that through learning the histories, stories, knowledges and customs of their continuous cultures within dominant schooling, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have the opportunity to embody cultural knowledges and understand their positioning in contemporary Australian society. In foregrounding the students’ views, this research provides insights into the potential of cultural learning for the students’ holistic understanding of their place within and between two cultural worlds, of becoming-other than their present selves, of moving beyond a singular dominant society and schooling, and opportunities for extending such learning and the equal positioning of Indigenous knowledges alongside Western knowledges in the Australian education system.