The conundrum of Indigenous education in Australia is that there are multiple, highly contested and polarising narratives that vie to inform both public and policy debate about how to construct effective schooling of Aboriginal students. Two of these contested discourses, which are seen to drive much of this debate, highlight the complexity of concerns—one which is essentially aspirational in its intent but unperceptive to the realities of Aboriginal student achievement and a second data focused discourse that is managerial and evaluative in its focus to disclose policy and pedagogic failures on student outcomes. The first has posed the politically more palatable proposition that there has been a slow, sometimes faltering but inexorable improvement in Aboriginal education, while the second highlights a mounting body of qualitative data that document an overall failure by school systems to lift Aboriginal student education achievement. The author recognises the complex and historical nature of the multilayered ‘issues’ that sit at the heart of Aboriginal underachievement. He argues that one of those underpinning issues that has plagued Aboriginal education centres on the depth of the socio-cultural disconnect between Aboriginal students and their communities, and teachers. He also argues that, too often, teachers are appointed to schools with limited social, political and professional knowledge about the particular needs and aspirations of Aboriginal students such that it impacts on their capacity to establish authentic connections to students. The research on which this article is based sets out to provide an understanding of both the nature and dynamics of community and school engagement in sites with high proportions of Aboriginal students. The study aimed to investigate teachers’ capacity to develop authentic pedagogic practices that are responsive to the educational, cultural and aspirational needs of Aboriginal students. In particular, the research highlights how the relational dynamics between schools and Aboriginal people have been deeply affected by colonial histories of exclusion and systemic disadvantage, pervasive school discourses of marginalisation and in particular an ignorance about holistic needs of Aboriginal students at school and the resultant negative relational interactions between schools and Aboriginal families. This multisite ethnographic study was undertaken with Aboriginal community members, teachers and school principals in 2012 as doctoral research. It was conducted within a relational landscape characterised by an enduring socio-cultural dissonance between schools and their Aboriginal communities. The study focused on examples of authentic collaboration and purposeful interactions between Aboriginal communities and schools that were shown to support teachers in building deeper understanding that enhanced their cognisance of the wider needs of Aboriginal students. The findings in this article highlight that when authentic engagement between Aboriginal people and schools occurred, it appeared to positively impact the teachers’ professional knowledge and created a consequent interest within these communities to engage with their schools. The research further identified that in each site the Aboriginal participants articulated an interest in developing authentic school collaborations that would enhance student outcomes. These findings suggested that teachers need to honour, understand and actively reflect on community history, contexts and aspirations to develop the skills and knowledge to address the particular socio-cultural and educational needs of Aboriginal students.
- Aboriginal standpoint
- School and community engagement
- Teacher professional knowledge
- Teacher change