Indigenous learning: the ripple effect

The past year’s work with high-aspiring Aboriginal secondary students has yielded big messages about change to The Aspiration Initiative and Aurora Project, DR TYSON YUNKAPORTA writes.
Over the course of 2014, The Aspiration Initiative (TAI) continued to encourage 90 Indigenous students from year 8 until the end of their first year out of school, with support and academic enrichment during school holidays. In addition this year, we coordinated training days for teachers in the students’ schools. We call this our “Ripple Work”; we can see our actions creating ripples of cause and effect far beyond our immediate goals. The overarching goal has been change; not only in academic outcomes, but also in systems and attitudes. For the most part the Ripple Work has been an off-shoot of our academic enrichment program. However, we have found that the areas of curriculum development and delivery, student support and teacher training are dynamically interrelated, linked by creative feedback loops that can generate exciting innovations across our teams.
ABOVE: TAI students attending a school holiday extension camp in NSW
Grounding our knowledge production work in measured responses to student, family, school and community direction, as well as in careful research, we have found there is a highly compelling case for change in education. What is really exciting about the Ripple work, both for us and our partners at Dusseldorp, is the realisation that innovative learning in Indigenous education may actually be a catalyst for change in education generally. In essence, the change involves a shift in perspective. For example, when professional development from Indigenous education specialists focuses on pedagogy rather than painting, or genius rather than dysfunction, then the best practice arising from Indigenous knowledge transmission methods finds its way to all students and staff.
There is an intensely generative, creative power in Indigenous knowledge production. Our work this year in designing and delivering change-oriented Indigenous learning events cross-pollinated with our other work in student support and academic extension. For example, a session during a holiday camp teaching teenagers about the liberal/conservative political spectrum gave rise to a diagram based on the Aboriginal flag to understand different approaches to growth. This same diagrammatic approach was then used to great effect with hundreds of teachers and education leaders to explain the Aboriginal cultural imperative from the Dreaming (yellow part) of balancing the needs of people and society (black part) with the needs of your land-base (red part). Then, the three parts of the flag were manipulated to represent different kinds of economies, and the understandings arising from this activity were profound. It allowed dozens of schools to begin tying Indigenous perspectives to sustainability themes that were already an integral part of their syllabi through the national curriculum.
It is a simple meme, but it has proven to have a greater impact on teaching practice and attitudes in schools than anything else we have seen to date. One teacher, who had a group of “at risk” Indigenous students who were streamed together for behaviour, attendance and engagement issues, said he walked into the classroom and drew a flag with only a small red strip at the bottom and a yellow triangle at the top instead of a circle. He simply said to the class: “What is wrong with this picture?” The overwhelming engagement and insight shown by the students over the next hour meant that his initial simple lesson on counting money had become a master class in economic theory and international relations.
And that’s the change, right there, that we’re looking for. One that allows a culture of brilliance to give to rise to deep thought, academic rigour and irrepressible excellence.
Dr Tyson Yunkaporta is the Education Specialist for The Aspiration Initiative academic enrichment program. He is pictured below running a professional development workshop for high school teachers.