Five Questions with Shirley Gilbert

Shirley Gilbert was Indigenous X host from July 22 to July 27.

Teachers saw perhaps new hope in the development and implementation of a comprehensive and holistic approach to curriculum. The consultation and subsequent planning provided by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) provides teachers both national mobility and benchmarking in the profession.

The collaborative curriculum development process produced what is currently being referred to as the Australian curriculum. Throughout the process of development, three cross-curriculum priority areas were identified that could add depth and richness to student learning in the wider context of Australia’s engagement with the rest of the world.

The three areas – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and sustainability – will provide opportunities for all students to gain personal and social benefits in addition to becoming better equipped to make sense of the world in which they live. With this drawing together of states and territories’ curriculum also came some additional uniformity and hope.

Seven general capabilities were also agreed upon so that students could articulate the required knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that will assist students to live and work successfully in the 21st century. These are:

  1. Literacy
  2. Numeracy
  3. Information and communication technology (ICT) capability
  4. Critical and creative thinking
  5. Personal and social capability
  6. Ethical understanding, and
  7. Intercultural understanding.

Finally, the Australian curriculum is about students being equipped to “make important contributions to building the social, intellectual and creative capital of our nation”.

All teachers in Australia will now deliver an Australian curriculum which is consistent across each state and territory as a minimum requirement. However, it has not all just been about curriculum, it has also been about the profession. The profession during a similar timeframe has also aligned itself nationally so that its accreditation of teachers is also seen as uniform, rigorous and consistent. Previously, states and territories provided their own curriculum documents and each provider had its own individual content foci and approaches to what teachers were to deliver to students. This approach means that students and/or teachers wanting to relocate can do so more easily and with fewer transitional dilemmas.

With these new developments comes fear. For teachers in their early careers the fear was that their Initial Teacher Education (ITE) courses were developed before the implementation of these new priorities and that their university studies did not adequately prepare them for all of the changes. One of the great concerns to recent graduate teachers and communities is how they are feeling less supported to deliver “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures” in ways that are meaningful, relevant and respectful to local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Many of the teachers I have been working with in western Sydney are actively seeking additional support.

They need professional development opportunities if they are to make real change happen in their classrooms for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. With hope comes the notion that many teachers want to “opt in” to new ways of engaging Aboriginal learners with the curriculum. With engagement comes the need to offer opportunities to both the experienced teacher who has seen possibly eight iterations of curriculum change in their teaching careers, to those new teachers who will work with this Australian curriculum for possibly a decade or more.

With hope comes the notion that many teachers want to “opt in” to new ways of engaging Aboriginal learners.

Very recently during our university’s Naidoc celebrations, I was privy to an inspiring keynote given by Professor Lester Irabinna Rigney from the University of South Australia. The lecture, on the digital divide in Aboriginal communities and how it affects schooling, highlighted not only the need for more teacher professional development but also highlighted how some of the newer strategies taught in our universities – flipped classrooms, for example – become less possible in remote communities. For me as an Aboriginal academic who works in a city university and also at the cultural interface of rural and remote settings, this digital divide is impacting harder than ever on the profession. However Aboriginal communities have made themselves much more visible and accessible to the wider world through the internet.

Notwithstanding curriculum changes, teachers have had to develop and implement new programming documents, create new materials for new topics and in small schools, this means it is often the responsibility of one or two teachers for every area. Curriculum expertise and deep subject knowledge for these teachers is more often at the cost of just getting a document to the principal or the region on time. In small schools, curriculum support is essential not only in reducing stress for teachers but also in the success of their learners. To this I add to the curriculum challenges – the next layer of complexity in the quest for hope and the delivery of high quality curriculum materials, lessons and assessments – is the debate around professional accreditation.

Accreditation demands are enormous from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (Aitsl). Within the accreditation, new teachers must demonstrate no fewer than 37 standards at each level of growth in their professional learning journeys. The four stages of development: graduate, proficient, highly accomplished and lead teachers all have their own requirements.

For our Aboriginal communities, two standards are of particular interest: “broad knowledge and understanding of the impact of culture, cultural identity and linguistic background on the education of students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds” and “broad knowledge of, understanding of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and languages”. How each teacher delivers these opportunities and then assesses them in units in and of itself is part of a much larger and more complex debate around authentic assessment.

But what does the Australian curriculum offer? In primary schools, there is a plethora of opportunities. Teachers and students should not be saying anymore, “I did that Aboriginal stuff last year.” When we look at the mapping, we see a clear direction and movement away from stereotypes and repetition to new and engaging materials at every year level. However, I see also the real need for each state and territory to support additional professional learning so that teachers can deliver this in meaningful ways.

I see teachers always struggling with what to do when wanting to incorporate Aboriginal pedagogies like Tyson Yunkaporta’s eight-ways approach, Chris Sarra’s Strong and Smart with what else the profession is asking of them, such as Alarm, quality teaching, visual literacy, direct instruction, and phonemic awareness.

It just reaffirms that we need to look at how the profession values itself and its teachers. They more often want to create great educational opportunities for all students but the system fails them by not allowing them to refresh, reinvigorate, rejuvenate and revitalise themselves and their teaching materials in meaningful ways.

It’s not something they can do in isolation – they need Aboriginal historians and communities locally to help them build capacity in their schools. Local schools/local decisions also means local connections in curriculum if we want relevant, meaningful and engaging lessons in every aspect of the curriculum.

The curriculum battle continues on so many levels, but Aboriginal communities struggle to ensure quality teaching, cultural knowledge and meaningful connected learning is part of their children’s education. How can we as a community of teachers have others value our work and endeavour to ensure curriculum in classrooms is conquered?

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