One of the things I hear a lot from schools when talking about how they approach Aboriginal perspectives is that they don’t need support because they have a cultural performance, usually a didge player, during NAIDOC week and that this is enough for their school. That they do not need to include other aspects of Aboriginal perspectives.
Cultural performance is a great experience for students. Without a doubt the school is a richer place because kids get to experience cultural expression first hand. However, and maybe my opinion is controversial here, cultural performances on their own are not a complete education experience. They are entertaining and a great way to engage students and spark an interest in Aboriginal perspectives but without follow through in the classroom, what do students take away from these performances?
Cultural performances have been the corner stone of Aboriginal education for as long as I can remember. Every year a performer would come to school, generally in NAIDOC week, and would entertain the school. We would then go back to class, the performance soon falling to the back of our minds as class work became our focus.
Sometimes the Aboriginal kids would participate in a workshop with the performer which was great – for some Aboriginal kids this is the only place we can explore this side of our culture. It’s great to see schools offering more of these experiences to Aboriginal students and I hope they increase.
But for non-Aboriginal students, the opportunity to explore what they have seen is limited and the educational opportunity created by the performance lost. It is not surprising that, when asked, many Australian adults report that they have not received enough Aboriginal education. Imagine what kids would take away from that Aboriginal performance if once back in the classroom the learning continued. If students had the opportunity to: explore how the instrument is made; consider the cultural significance of the instrument; develop an appreciation of the skill involved in playing it; look at the significance of the designs painted on both the didge and the player; or learn about the performer, their story and how the performance keeps them connected to culture.
Aboriginal academic, Stephen Hagan, was quoted by the Koori Mail (‘Overcoming education weakness', Koori Mail 418 p.21) as saying ‘only 5% of my annual intake would qualify as having a basic operational knowledge of Australian Indigenous peoples after 12 formal years of schooling.’
Stephen’s experience is not rare and to be blunt, it’s not good enough. Kids should be leaving school with some idea about Aboriginal people and culture. How can we expect the world we live in to change if we aren’t arming our future leaders with the knowledge they need to change it. The long-standing approach of a NAIDOC performance as the sum total of learning opportunities is not working. It is time to change our approach.
Cultural performances are just one part of Aboriginal education. Schools who are getting Aboriginal education right are not only building educational experiences around a cultural performance but they are including perspectives that build a knowledge base for their students. Their students have access to lessons about more than cultural expression. They learn about true Australian history and consider the journey Aboriginal people have travelled to get to where we are today. Those students are the 5% that get to university with a working knowledge of Aboriginal Australia and are best placed to contribute to change in Australia.
If we keep accepting a cultural performance as enough, we will never see change in this country when it comes to Aboriginal issues. We will never develop the much needed respect and shared knowledge base to close the gap.
There are many ways to increase Aboriginal perspectives in your school. Contact us now if you would like to have a yarn about where to start making this much-needed change.
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