My family and I were driving to Melbourne on Friday November 2nd.
The further away we got from home, the more we rolled the dice on what radio station we were listening to. Low and behold, we stumbled upon Victoria’s 3AW with radio and TV personality Tom Elliott.
"Indigenous people didn't know about the wheel, so they are clearly inferior" – yet another radio presenter I've heard today…
— Kirsten Banks (@AstroKirsten) November 2, 2018
The topic of conversation, or controversy as Tom would have you think, was the addition of new elaborations to help teachers incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures in the Australian Science curriculum.
The reality, Tom would have you believe, is that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) have thrown the whole curriculum up into the air and let entropy take its course to completely change up the curriculum and add in the big nasty beast; Indigenous perspectives.
He uses scare tactics, preaching that Australian students are already falling behind the International rankings in STEM subjects and exclaims, “how you can add an Indigenous perspective [in maths and science] is beyond me.”
He also used specific examples of Computer Science and Piloting whilst claiming to be talking about STEM as a whole stating, “let’s say you’re studying to be an airline pilot…do you want someone who’s got an Indigenous perspective? No, you don’t! You want someone who gets it right!”
Isn't it interesting that many of those who are defining what is or isn't 'real' science don't have a background in it. It's almost as if they have some political agenda. #Kooriculum #IndigenousScience
— Trevor Leaman (@TrevorLeaman) November 4, 2018
He goes on to claim that Indigenous Australians are clearly inferior in intellect, which as an Aboriginal woman who is about to graduate from her Physics degree and move to the Honours program as a potential prelude to a doctorate, to quote Tom, “is laughable!”
For some reason, he’s really obsessed with the invention of the wheel and brings it up a lot. “Let’s be honest here, when Europeans came to Australia, the Indigenous people hadn’t, for example, discovered the wheel, apparently. So, I’d suggest that from a scientific perspective, their culture wasn’t that advanced.” Yet, he fails to see, or maybe just refuses to open his eyes, to other forms of scientific knowledge such as food sciences, as one wonderful caller attempted to point out to Tom between interruptions.
However, this is absolutely, positively, not a true reality. What ACARA has actually done, in short, is they have included elaborations and practical examples as suggestions to help teachers and educators include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture into the classroom. No one is being forced to teach Indigenous perspectives, they are just suggestions. I know it’s hard to wrap your head around words with more than two syllables Tom but let me spell it out for you, suh-jest-chuns, non-compulsory and not forced.
In my opinion, I think this is a great initiative that ACARA have implemented.
When I was in High School, I had no problems understanding the maths and physics that lay in front of me on paper. The issue I had was incorporating this knowledge into everyday life outside of the classroom.
There’s a story my Dad never lets me live down. When I was in year 10, in the top maths class in school, my Dad challenged me to practice my maths skills in the garden with him.
We were working on an L shaped area in the back corner of the garden and Dad wanted to lay down new rolls of grass over this area. My challenge was to work out how many rolls of grass we’d need to cover the area. It’s safe to say, I had no idea what I was doing and grossly underestimated how many rolls of grass we needed.
Practical application of ideas, concepts and theories is lacking in our schools. Employers are complaining students are not job ready. Perhaps the practical elaboration of theory into culture might not just increase understanding but tweak increased interest in STEM subjects so those studying at school take the science and maths road with increased fervour.
You do realise that Aboriginal knowledge has led to discoveries in astronomy today? This is racist and powerfully ignorant. And as a scientist I’m not takin instruction from the Tele on what makes good science https://t.co/evEAOnypaO
— Upulie Divisekera (@upulie) November 2, 2018
In my opinion that’s all ACARA is trying to do. An engaged student is a better performing student and whether they’re engaged by general practical examples or those from cultural origins, they are still engaged.
I now work as an educator in two separate institutions, and I do my own freelance work when opportunities pop up.
I, like any other educator, know that students learn in different ways. I could be explaining to someone how gravitational lensing works using gravity wells and dips in the fabric of space time and they’d happily understand the concept.
However, for the person sitting next to them, that explanation may have gone completely over their head, and that’s okay. That’s reality. So, I would explain using bowling balls and trampolines and they’d understand in their own way. People understand things in different ways and it is our job as educators to ensure that everyone has a fair chance at comprehending this content.
Tony Abbott is attempting to increase engagement and attendance across schools in primarily Aboriginal communities, but his focus seems mostly around ways to punish Aboriginal parents to get their children to school, rather than providing a relevant and engaging education that might attract and retain more Indigenous students in learning.
These elaborations will help engage these students and increase achievement and will result in better educational outcomes.
Not only will it be beneficial to Indigenous students, non-Indigenous children want to learn about this too.
The majority of children I speak to are non-Indigenous, and they ask a lot of questions, they want to learn about these perspectives, so let’s allow them to do so. And let’s also allow Indigenous students to see themselves and their culture shown in a positive light of all of the amazing things that Indigenous cultures did have, instead of only looking through the deficit discourse of what we didn’t have.
Tom is right to say we didn’t invent the wheel, that much is true. Where he is wrong is the outdated notion that this is proof of us being primitive or inferior.
White people didn’t invent the wheel either, it was invented in Mesopotamia, and it was used for pottery rather than transport.
In Australia, we had no need for using a wheel for transport, and it did not prevent us from travelling the country, developing the skills, resources and understanding needed not just to survive, but to thrive, and to work out many scientific principles thousands of years before many peoples in other parts of the world. That doesn’t make us superior to them either though. The very notions of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ cultures are outdated and is something most serious academics in all fields have long abandoned.
Teachers have asked for this to happen, and ACARA have provided them with the resources to achieve their teaching goals.
No one is forcing “politically correct” Indigenous culture into the curriculum.
I’d like to finish with something incredible shared by the ACARA CEO, Robert Randall, in response to Mr Elliott’s ramblings, “We’re not saying this is the way you have to do it [teach science] … people who should know better,” like you Mr. Elliott, “are misrepresenting what we’ve done, the elaborations are already there, which is a way for teachers to consider when teaching science.”
But like any person who’s only interested in starting a controversial conversation, don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Kirsten Banks is a proud Wiradjuri woman with a passion for space and astronomy. She is a 2017 CSIRO Indigenous STEM Award finalist.