4.1 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and perspectives

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The Panel considers it imperative that graduates across a range of faculties are exposed to and build their understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contemporary issues and perspectives. Such knowledge will help to equip them as professionals to better meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations with whom they will be doing business and to whom they will be providing services. In this context, the Panel highlights again the importance of improving the capacity of teachers to provide high-quality and effective teaching to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander schoolchildren if they are to succeed at school and move into higher education.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives can bring a diversity of approaches to old problems and can help to tap into potential existing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander talent that is currently underutilised. The application of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives to learning activities should be done in a way that maintains rigorous academic standards. Complementary efforts outlined elsewhere in this report to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, academic staff and researchers will assist in embedding Indigenous knowledges across the higher education and research sectors.

Current situation

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and perspectives are contested concepts within the academy

With the growth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments in universities since the 1980s (Lane 2009) and the emergence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic centres at higher education institutions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge frameworks have emerged across a diversity of disciplines (Anderson et al. 1998). The legitimacy and acceptance of this embedding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives within Australian universities is a matter of ongoing and current debate, with divergent viewpoints being expressed among both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous academics, particularly regarding curriculums (Anderson et al. 1998; Nakata 2007).

While Indigenous knowledge has been given attention in other countries, most notably the United States, First Nations values and philosophies in the academy, to date, have been insufficiently theorised in Australia (Biermann & Townsend-Cross 2008). At the international level, the growing interest in Indigenous knowledge and studies has been reflected globally in the proliferation of publications in the past decade and a half. Battiste describes ‘[t]he recognition and intellectual activation of Indigenous knowledge today [as] an act of empowerment’ (2002, p. 4) by indigenous people that challenges Western knowledge, particularly in the area of educational reform.

Regardless of how this debate unfolds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff have unique knowledge and understandings that must be brought into the curriculum for students and must inform Australian research and scholarship (Bradley et al. 2008, pp. 32–3).

The Panel suggests that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics will need to further debate the concept of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge within the academy. It is not a matter on which the Panel felt it was particularly useful or appropriate for the Panel (or government) to pronounce.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge is not evenly built into university curriculums

As outlined in Rigney’s (2011) paper to the Review, there is an uneven commitment by universities in teaching of Indigenous knowledges that generally falls into three categories:

  • Category 1: invisible, marginalised, limited, non-existent
  • Category 2: Indigenous studies as single, separate and discrete unit of work focusing on Indigenous peoples
  • Category 3: Indigenous perspectives are embedded in relevant degrees and topics, for example science, environment studies, law, education, medicine, psychology, art, etc.

Rigney draws a distinction between ‘Indigenous studies’ that he describes as discrete units of study (either as separate subjects or part of other subjects) and ‘Indigenous perspectives’ that are integrated into units of work. He notes that currently ‘Australian schools and universities are in a[n] “Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum” historical moment’ (Rigney 2011, p. 13). This means that there is great potential for universities to share experiences and develop their own good practice in embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in curriculum. It may also provide an opportunity to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges are ‘built in not bolted on’ to the university curriculums, as suggested by Rigney (2011, p. 13).

Universities are being encouraged to share best practice through the Universities Australia – IHEAC National best practice framework for Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities (2011, p. 181) which recommends, among other things, that:

  • Indigenous knowledges and perspectives be included in all curriculums to provide students with the knowledge, skills and understandings which form the foundation of Indigenous cultural competency
  • Indigenous Australian knowledges and perspectives be incorporated into programs (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 15).

What needs to change?

The development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teaching and learning strategies within universities

The Panel has explored the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, issues and perspectives to be included in curriculums, graduate attributes and teaching practices as discussed in a number of commissioned research papers (Rigney 2011; Walter 2011; Wilson & Battiste 2011) and submissions87 to the Review. The Panel believes that these issues would be best addressed by universities developing and implementing their own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teaching and learning strategies. These strategies would encompass as the minimum elements:

  • quality teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives within curriculums
  • graduate attributes to include an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues
  • improving school teaching attributes
  • inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in teaching practices.

Each of these minimum elements is discussed below.

Quality teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives should be embedded in curriculums

The Panel supports the National best practice framework referred to above and emphasises that it is similarly motivated to recommend the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in curriculums because it will help non-Indigenous students to do their professional jobs better. Learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, perspectives and values will help graduates to more capably work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients and communities and to better address their needs.

The Panel suggests that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge should not be isolated or clustered in humanities and social sciences, as has historically been the case, but should be spread more widely across the disciplines. Faculties could apply Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives to a range of areas including, for example, Aboriginal knowledge in environmental management, mining, the law and Aboriginal approaches to health.

Universities could also actively seek out and engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts in the development and delivery of course curriculums including as guest lecturers/speakers on subject matter expertise and in their capacities as private/public sector employees.

Building on existing efforts

The University of South Australia and Charles Sturt University have policies in place requiring the incorporation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives into the curriculum of all undergraduate programs and a pedagogical framework to guide curriculum development and knowledge assessment.

At Griffith University, the involvement of Elders has grown over the last decade from one of student support to guest speaking, research and the development of policies. The Elders-in-Residence program and Council of Elders provide a mechanism for Elders to support curriculum development, teaching, research and student support.

Four universities undertook pilot projects in 2010 as part of the joint IHEAC – Universities Australia Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities Project:

  • Edith Cowan University undertook a project (‘Cultural Competency at ECU’) to develop a culturally competent university curriculum for law, physiotherapy and public health. This included offering cultural competency units to law and physiotherapy students in 2010 and negotiations to include cultural competency in public health courses. The project also included workshops for university staff, the establishment of guidelines for curriculum authors on culturally competent pedagogy, and content and assessment.
  • The University of Newcastle undertook a project (‘University of Newcastle Cultural Competency Model’) to implement a culturally competent curriculum in the Faculty of Business and Law, and to develop business partnerships to promote the value of culturally competent university graduates. It included the development of online teaching and learning resources and the development of a framework for business partnerships.
  • The University of Western Australia undertook a project (‘Indigenous Dialogues: Towards Cultural Competence’) to produce an Indigenous cultural competency resource kit including teaching and learning protocols, cultural policy and a curriculum development framework.
  • The University of Wollongong undertook a project (‘Using Indigenous ways of knowing and learning to encourage storytelling about Country with student-created animations’) to incorporate an innovative approach to storytelling, referred to as a ‘relational knowledge approach’, into primary education and early childhood courses to encourage pre-service primary and early childhood teachers to use Indigenous ways of knowing and learning as a teaching tool. Students were encouraged to develop their own stories of country and to represent these in the form of narrated animations through the use of ground-breaking Slowmation technology (Universities Australia 2011).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in curriculums must meet rigorous standards

In developing these strategies, it is important that universities adhere to standards of excellence, ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in curriculums meets the same rigorous standards required of other curriculum content.

‘Universities and academics must have a reason to teach Indigenous perspectives and recognize quality teaching in this area’ (Rigney 2011, p. 13). Rigney notes that ‘the quality and standards of teaching and learning of Indigenous knowledges in Australian universities are uneven, poorly resourced and suffer lack of policy support in universities’ (Rigney 2011, p. 12). He argues that there is a need to establish an Indigenous education quality and standards framework to overcome this uneven quality. The recently established Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has responsibility for regulating and assuring quality in the higher education sector, as assessed against a Higher Education Standards Framework. While the framework does not include Indigenous-specific standards, the Panel understands that the teaching and learning standards provide TEQSA with sufficient power to evaluate and monitor the quality of Indigenous-specific curriculums and teaching.

Given that TEQSA is yet to undertake such evaluation and monitoring, the Panel considers that it is too early to determine if there is a need for an Indigenous-specific framework, as suggested by Rigney. If, following its evaluation and monitoring, TEQSA identified quality issues within the higher education sector’s teaching and learning of Indigenous knowledges, then it may wish to consider the development of an Indigenous-specific framework.

Expanding graduate attributes to ensure that students graduate with an understanding of contemporary issues confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Within the Australian higher education sector, ‘graduate attributes’ generally refers to learning outcomes in more generic skills and competencies; ‘they have been a focus of considerable attention, debate, research and resourcing for the past 15 years’ (Barrie 2004; Campbell 2010; Hager 2006, all cited in Oliver 2011, p. 9). They are in essence the descriptions of the core abilities and values a university community agrees all its graduates should develop as a result of successfully completing their university studies.

An example of the kinds of skills included in graduate attributes is Flinders University’s bachelor’s degree programs. They aim to produce graduates who:

  • are knowledgeable
  • can apply their knowledge
  • communicate effectively
  • can work independently
  • are collaborative
  • value ethical behaviour
  • connect across boundaries (Rigney 2011, p. 15).

Much of the debate on graduate attributes appears to be about:

how they can be contextualised and embedded in a discipline area, and taught and assessed by subject specialists who do not necessarily feel equipped for those tasks (Green, Hammer & Star 2009; Radloff et al. 2009) … Students enrol in discipline-based courses, and generic skills therefore must be embedded in a course and interwoven with the discipline and from the perspective of that discipline. The generic outcomes are therefore often inseparable from the discipline (Oliver 2011, p. 9).

Notwithstanding this complexity of graduate attributes, universities are in a good position to educate non-Indigenous professionals on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues through curriculums. Graduate attributes can be a key driver to achieve this outcome (consultations; IHEAC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic Doctors’ Forum, November 2011).

The Universities Australia – IHEAC National best practice framework for Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities (2011) also provides another opportunity to embed Indigenous knowledge into curriculums as one of its guiding principles is that ‘all graduates of Australian universities should be culturally competent’ (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 7).

The Panel suggests that universities should not attempt to cover all graduates but should initially focus on those priority disciplines whose graduates are most likely to contribute to closing the gap. Professional bodies can also help in identifying where it would be most relevant for graduates to have a good understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. For example, the Law Council of Australia has stated that:

[a] further issue arises with respect to the training of law students to advise and understand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, colleagues, witnesses and those with any other role in the justice system. The legal profession is presently taking steps to encourage practitioners to undertake Indigenous cultural awareness training in satisfaction of compulsory continuing legal education, which is a requirement of renewal of legal practising certificates in all jurisdictions.

Consideration should be given to including Indigenous cultural awareness training, directed specifically at students completing practical legal training or articles, as a compulsory requirement for admission to practice (submission no. 70, Law Council of Australia, pp. 3–4).

Building on existing efforts

Some universities are already including Indigenous knowledge within their graduate attributes. For example, the University of Western Sydney has included ‘Indigenous Australian knowledge’ as a graduate attribute for all students. The Australian Medical Council requires that its accredited health professionals have knowledge about and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health matters, including the history, cultural development and health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It aims to ensure that medical professionals are equipped to service and work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities and other professionals.

The Panel again notes the work of Inspiring Australia’s Expert Working Group on Indigenous Engagement with Sciences. Valuing and promoting Indigenous knowledges supports the group’s objective of increasing the engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the development and communication of sciences in Australia (IAEWGIES 2012, p. 6).

Improving secondary school teacher attributes

As discussed earlier in the report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students must first succeed at school if they are to go on to succeed at higher education. The Panel received many submissions that emphasised the importance of the quality and capacity of teachers to student success.

[A] quality teaching workforce that understands and acknowledges Aboriginal cultures, histories and perspectives is best able to effectively work towards improving education outcomes for Aboriginal students. By employing a workforce that is culturally competent and holds high expectations for Koorie students, benefits can be expected in areas of attendance, retention, engagement and achievement (submission no. 38, Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc., p. 8).

It is critical that universities invest in training good teachers … Pre-service teacher education courses should incorporate compulsory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history subjects and other curriculum and professionals studies include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives as well as content on what is working in Indigenous education (submission no. 37, Australian Catholic University, p. 3).

The earlier references to the National Professional Standards for Teachers includes a requirement for teachers to get to know their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and how they learn. Translation of these standards into practical tools is critical to helping teachers to be culturally competent in delivering optimal learning outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The Panel notes that the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership has commenced development of such tools to help prepare new teachers and existing teachers.

Universities can play a role through improving teacher education training curriculums at universities. Universities could better prepare teacher education graduates through their curriculums and practicum for their ongoing and professional commitment and responsibility to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student achievement. In addition, the university teacher education curriculums needs to assist teacher education students to translate the National Professional Standards for Teachers, alongside respective state and territory curriculums and syllabuses, into structured lesson planning processes inclusive of measurable outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives should be valued in academic teaching practices

The Panel recognises that current tertiary teaching practices may be contributing to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student perceptions that they do not feel welcome at universities and that they continue to be dominated by non-Indigenous approaches to teaching and learning. A number of submissions to the Panel referred to this feeling of alienation and isolation by students.88 Some suggested that access to training of academic staff in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and perspectives was important ‘to ensure pedagogy at this level maximises retention and completion rates of [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander] students’ (submission no. 46, University of New England, p. 2).

According to the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pedagogies (i.e. methods of teaching and learning) and epistemologies (i.e. systems for recognising knowledge) remain at the periphery of academic practice. As a result, universities are in danger of being viewed as non-Indigenous spaces where the traditional knowledge and cultural practices of students from a non-Western background are not valued (submission no. 73, IHEAC, p. 12).

The Panel explored whether there were other approaches to tertiary teaching that had been more successful in engaging Indigenous students. In this context, the Panel examined the New Zealand secondary teaching methodology that could possibly be applied in the higher education teaching environment. Te Kotahitanga is a teaching method whereby the teacher recognises the importance of the student’s own cultural identity and therefore learning experiences are designed and shaped by experiences of Indigenous (Māori) students. Practitioners of this method are required to express their professional commitment and responsibility to bringing about change to student educational achievement by accepting professional responsibility for the learning of their students (Te Kete Ipurangi n.d.).

The Panel believes that similar principles could be applied to tertiary teaching, noting that Dr Chris Sarra’s Stronger Smarter Leadership Program uses a similar approach of creating high expectations among school leaders and principals. Individual universities may wish to explore their own approach to teaching methods at the same time as they increase their efforts to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and perspectives into their curriculums.

Greater Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence in university academic staff profiles will help non-Indigenous staff to reflect on their own teaching practices and use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and perspectives within their teaching approaches. As noted in its submission to the Review, the Group of Eight reinforces the view that:

[w]hen any academic designing a course or looking for more effective teaching methods can get expert advice on Indigenous perspectives by asking the lecturer in the next office, … [t]he result will be an enrichment of higher education that benefits both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, as well as international students (submission no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 25).

Recommendations

Recommendation 18

That universities develop and implement an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teaching and learning strategy applicable across a range of curriculums, focused on standards of excellence as applied to other curriculum content and feeding into descriptions of graduate attributes, with an initial focus on priority disciplines to close the gap such as teaching and health professions.

Digitising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and data

Digitised archival collections are a crucial modern tool for undertaking research, and provide many opportunities to researchers both in Australia and internationally. eResearch infrastructure, including the digital tools and resources which enable digitised collections to be managed and accessed remotely, increases both the efficiency and effectiveness of research and opens up new and innovative research possibilities across all disciplines. eResearch infrastructure is enabling the development of virtual communities able to share information, with many beneficiaries including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers. The Australian Government is working to expand Australia’s eResearch capacity, including its capacity to manage digitised information.89

Digitisation is also a critical means of preserving knowledges and stories for future generations, not just to make information more widely available to students and researchers. This includes the large collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander archival material held by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ( AIATSIS) as well as within national and state institutions such as the National Museum of Australia, state libraries, museums and galleries, as well as in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

The Panel is pleased that AIATSIS has received funding for the 2012–13 financial year to progress the important work of digitising Australia’s largest collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and artefacts. It notes that in the case of the AIATSIS collection, there are approaching deadlines for the disintegration of analogue magnetic tape collections which makes the need for digitising the collection critical.

The digitising of collections involves complexities that need to be managed appropriately by all organisations with collections. For example, to ensure ethical management of digitisation, it is important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who provide knowledge for such recordings are deeply involved, and give consent to both providing the information and, most importantly, how it is stored and used.

As well as these fundamental principles, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations with collections would all benefit from a better understanding of other laws and policies. For example, the publication of digitised knowledge could prevent a patent being granted which may disadvantage the knowledge holder if they wish to create a patent for economic benefit. Conversely, the knowledge holder may be able to use the publication to protect the knowledge from being patented by another person.

A number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups are using digitisation to preserve their cultural heritage while maintaining control over their knowledges. For example, the Ara Irititja project is an example of Indigenous people controlling access to digitally stored information. The Ara Irititja project has designed a purpose-built computer archive that digitally stores repatriated materials and other contemporary items of importance to the Anangu people. The database includes photographs, films, sound recordings and documents. The database is owned by the community and can only be viewed by the Anangu. The Ara Irititja project helps other organisations to build their own archives using the Ara Irititja software and team expertise. More than 20 unique projects commenced by separate Indigenous language groups in Australia use the Ara Irititja approach and database software. The group also works with partner institutions such as the State Library of South Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive to provide advice on appropriate protocols and practices in relation to Indigenous knowledges and museums (Ara Irititja Project 2011).

There is growing interest and concern about how to protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ culture and knowledges. A consultation is currently underway by the Australian Government to examine how the intellectual property system can best work to protect Indigenous knowledge (refer to Quality of ethical research practices in section 4.3).

The Panel is concerned that when Indigenous knowledge and culture (including stories, dance, languages, images, governance, crafts, cosmology, medicine and environmental knowledge) are the subject of research and subsequently recorded for the first time in material form, there is a risk of mistreatment of this information. While ethical research guidelines can go some way in protecting Indigenous knowledge (discussed further in section 4.2), the rights of traditional owners of knowledge may not be adequately acknowledged or protected in Australia by law, nor is their right to share in the benefits reaped from the uses of this knowledge.

IP Australia, the Office for the Arts and the Attorney-General’s Department are consulting on intellectual property and Indigenous knowledge to gain a better understanding of the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other stakeholders regarding the protection of Indigenous knowledge. Policies should aim to facilitate access to guidelines, protocols and model contracts that can provide a resource for both owners and possible users of Indigenous knowledge. This could include dedicated best practice guidelines for different categories of users, and provide advice on existing legislation. The Panel commends the Australian Government for engaging in a consultation process and encourages further guidance and leadership on protecting Indigenous knowledge systems.

Recommendation

Recommendation 19

That the Australian Government continue to support the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ( AIATSIS) to digitise and thus preserve its collection for future generations and particularly for use in higher education, and encourage the development of a national approach to data digitisation working with states, territories and community groups to ensure that Indigenous knowledge be digitised appropriately and preserved.

87 The majority of submissions discussed this when responding to one of the Review’s key questions in the Context paper and call for submissions: ‘How should mainstream research, teaching and learning practices take account of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives[?]’ ( DEEWR 2011n, p. 31).

88 For example, submissions by Bond University (no. 66); National Union of Students (no. 31); Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation (no. 27).

89 A benefit of this will be the continued expansion of networked collections and the development of research collaboration tools. This is being achieved through investments which: develop eResearch collaboration tools and resources; enhance bandwidth capability through the Australian Education and Research Network; provide high-performance computing; and support research communities to store, access, analyse and reuse data. Australian Government priorities for research infrastructure, including eResearch infrastructure, are detailed in the 2011 Strategic Roadmap for Australian Research Infrastructure ( DIISR 2011c).