Report from Karen Calhoun, Master Programme in Indigenous Studies, University of Tromsø
Financial support to the project
“Indigenous Education in Far North Queensland, Australia: Successes and Challenges”
There is much known and written about why, on average, indigenous students in developed countries have lower test scores and retention and attendance rates than do non-indigenous students. There is also much known and written about why this is and what should be done to more effectively engage, retain, and teach indigenous students, and thus work towards decreasing the achievement gap. If there is so much written and known on how schools are failing indigenous students and what they need to change, why is it, then, that many schools seem trapped in failure? One shortcoming of much of literature is that, with some exceptions, it rarely discusses or evaluates recommendations within the context of actual schools and actual restraints. Because of this, I wanted to look at the question: if all schools have the same access to knowledge on what they should be doing, what is happening at and within schools to cause some schools to “work” for indigenous students, while others to not?To answer this question, and hopefully contribute to the field of indigenous education by increasing the number of case studies on the subject, I set out to visit schools in Australia. Because I am from the U.S. and because Norway to Australia is an expensive airline ticket, many people asked me why I chose to conduct my fieldwork in Australia. The answer is that I needed an English speaking country where schools are in session July-August, and this left me with Australia and New Zealand as two main possibilities. I chose Australia over New Zealand because early research on the Internet caused me to believe it may provide more options.
While in Australia, I visited five different schools in Far North Queensland (FNQ), which ended up providing a very unique context for my research. Because of early contact with Europeans and the especially harsh policies of the Queensland government, indigenous Queenslanders have suffered a greater amount of dislocation and culture loss than indigenous people in many other parts of Australia. Additionally, schools must contend with the fact that many FNQ indigenous communities have much higher than average rates of unemployment, substance misuse, and family violence – issues that of course affect what students need and their ability to learn.
Overall, I am very pleased with how my data collection went. While I did not get to stay at any one school as long as I’d hoped, I got to see how different schools can be in interpreting their mandate and going about their task of teaching indigenous students. What probably stood out as most interesting is that all of the schools I visited differ from the most urgent recommendations of the literature. Contrary to the counsel of much of what is written, none of the schools I visited, as a practice, base their curriculum or policies on the input of their indigenous students’ parents, and none of the schools emphasize teaching indigenous culture. At all of the schools I visited, history, distance, and assumptions – all of which will be explained in the thesis – have made it difficult for the schools to have contact or relationships with indigenous parents. Student diversity, the amount of culture that has been lost, and staff issues make it difficult for the schools to teach students their culture. So if the two things that all schools should do – base decisions on the input of indigenous parents and teach culture – are somewhere between very difficult and impossible, what can schools in such a position do? My thesis will thus take my original question – why are some schools “working” for indigenous students while others are not – and discuss this within the context of the five schools I visited in FNQ, and within the constraints of limited ability to establish parent/community relationships or teach culture. I hope that my descriptions of the schools will contribute to the existing literature by providing some real-life examples of the many obstacles schools have to contend with and what characteristics and actions allow some schools to get past such obstacles so that they are more able to engage and teach indigenous students.
I am very thankful to the Centre for Sami Studies for their funding of my fieldwork. As one can imagine, when traveling to and within Australia and staying in hotels for two months, the costs can add up quite quickly. However, the interesting contexts that the schools are working in, the uniqueness of their approaches, and the friendliness of Australians made FNQ the perfect locale.