GUEST POST: Engaging our Indigenous Students by Priscilla Jackman


There is huge diversity of students in our schools across NSW and some colleagues are fortunate to teach in schools with significant numbers of indigenous students, whereby specific educational strategies for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander(ATSI) students are shared and implemented on a day to day basis. But for those of us who do not have large numbers of indigenous students in our school communities, what specific strategies should we be aware of teaching ATSI students and how do we develop our own cultural competency as educators?

To begin answering these questions for myself, over the last year or so, I have engaged in research regarding best practice in the classroom for ATSI students. This has included conducting several interviews with Aboriginal community representatives here in Sydney, including Belinda Miller, Digital Media Producer and On Air Presenter for NITV and Auntie Sandra from the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (AECG). I also spoke at length with Derren Knucky, who is himself, not Aboriginal, but who has worked with young indigenous people in both Alice Springs and Cairns at since 2004, to get his perspective as an a non-indigenous educator of ATSI young people.

I’d like to share 5 interesting insights that arose from that research as well as some strategies that helped me raise my cultural awareness and may support you in implementing effective strategies for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in your own classrooms:

  1. Awareness of Questioning Style – Interrogative vs Narrative: In our Western culture, asking direct questions is a way for us, as teachers to ascertain understanding and we regularly ascertain student engagement and learning through our perception of student responses to our direct questioning techniques. Derren Knucky pointed out that “verbal questioning techniques are less likely to be diagnostic in terms of students understanding and learning, due to cultural minimising of individual assertiveness’. The cultural way of learning from elder to child traditionally follows the form of “look and listen” rather than learning through direct question and answer (as in our Western culture), which can be seen as interrogative. This is particularly important if you are using traditional questioning methods to ascertain understanding. “Silence does not necessarily equate to understanding or acquiescence as it may not be culturally appropriate for ATSI students to speak out or ask further questions to clarify understanding”, Derren suggests. A more circular, narrative form of questioning is a more effective way to engage, evoke and ascertain understanding.

What might this look like?: Instead of asking “What is seven minus two?” it could be more helpful to frame the question in a narrative form that incorporates real-world relevance “So, if you were at a shop and had $7.00 and wanted to buy some lollies for $2.00, how much would you have left?”

2. Understanding the cultural paradigm which favours ‘Community rather than Individual’: This is particularly important for us as Drama teachers as it can directly contrast many of our teaching approaches that seek to direct focus on individual students as actors or performers. Culturally the Aboriginal paradigm, celebrates community rather than individuality. Belinda Miller talked about the ‘shame culture’ where a student may be reticent to speak up when directly singled out. Derren also suggests that techniques such as competitions between students are less helpful because culturally ‘oneness’ is of primary cultural value. For us as Drama teachers, this point is particularly salient as it may be more effective to evoke engagement and participation in group work strategies and exercises which do not seek to single out individual students for attention and/or focus.

What might this look like?: Practical exercises that focus on chorus, ensemble and group response are likely to be effective in the Drama classroom and will become particularly important in terms of group warm ups and student engagement.

3. Spatial-Visual and Real-World Learners: The understanding that culturally, ATSI students learn through ‘doing’, speaks to the heart of our pedagogy as Drama teachers and practitioners. Belinda Miller and Auntie Sandra spoke at length about ATSI students learning through “physically doing and seeing”.

What might this look like?: As with all good Drama teaching, an emphasis on practical engagement, experiential learning, workshopping, real life scenarios and group devising processes will become paramount in terms of meeting learning outcomes.

4. Cultural and Linguistic Diversity – Literacy and Numeracy: Belinda Miller also spoke at length about levels of disadvantage faced by many ATSI students and the negative implications this has on learning. As teachers it is important to be aware of general limitations in literacy, numeracy and vocabulary as a result of Cultural and Linguistic Diversity (CALD). If a student is not learning in first language, then teachers must be aware of the need for processing time for comprehension (as with all EADL students).

What might this look like?: Wait time for responses will become paramount, visual learning cues, and a focus on interactive and practical literacy and numeracy skills through Drama games and exercises will support learning in the classroom.

5. General Cultural Competence: Derren suggests, “teachers must understand specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural protocols, for example attending a funeral is always going to be far more important than a school function or test. Similarly gender protocols are important to understand. It is inappropriate to discuss girls’ sexual health with boys, or for female staff members to counsel male students regarding sexual health/risks. The family unit and power structure is not nuclear as in our Western culture.”

What might this look like?: Ultimately this comes down to the quality teaching framework of ‘knowing your students’. To teach effectively, we need to understand the cultural context of our kids. To understand behavioural change or students’ needs and aspirations, it may be important to consult parents or invite dialogue with grandmother, uncle etc.

To finish with, I would like to share a story that touched me and helped me clarify many of the points raised in my research and interviews with community representatives I interviewed. Derren Knucky’s partner is a Social Worker for an Aboriginal NGO and this is a story he relayed to me that his partner Anna had shared:

“I was in a Child Protection meeting, Mum (my client) was about to get her child back. To do this she had found housing for all her family that made her own house overcrowded and unsafe for her child as there were too many people sharing each room – so her child could not get sleep (impacting school attendance, concentration, learning styles etc). My client, as the mother CANNOT culturally say NO to the family staying (as there are cultural obligations regarding family – these are a cultural behavioural priority same as attending funerals etc). However there was one overriding issue – the room her brothers stayed in was left in a total pigsty – they just left what they didn’t need, broken bed in there, it was dirty etc.

The Child Protection Officer in the meeting, said clearly, “You didn’t even clean your house and your house is unhygienic for your child. Therefore you don’t want your child back enough to clean up, so we’ll question all your parenting motivations”.

In this meeting my client said nothing, silence.

Afterwards I asked her about it narrative style instead of through this direct interrogatory framing used by the Child Protection Officer. I said, “Why do you reckon you didn’t manage to get that room finished? ”, not “Why didn’t you do it?”

She tells me when I give her time enough to respond, that it is culturally inappropriate/taboo for her to go into her brother’s bedrooms after they are all grown adults (which is an age old cultural way to stop incest). This is 60 000 years of cultural training that is shaping my client’s response to the stressful situation of the untidy room. My client is stuck between a rock and hard place. SO, again instead of just telling her ultimatums – “if you don’t clean up, you won’t get your child back”, I instead go narrative, “I’m wondering who is able to help us do it then?”

And I find out a cousin is able to do it. I call them, get it done and communicate this with the Child Protection Officer. My client gets her child back.”

Anna adds: “What is significant, is that this story illustrates how we must reinterprete someone’s behaviour from a different cultural paradigm. Assuming behavioural motivations are based on a different culture (generally your own), will lead to false interventions and poor communication and nil or negative outcomes.

To sum up, if you are like me, and you have limited exposure to teaching ATSI students in your current school, the best thing we can do is become aware of our own need for cultural competence as teachers. A starting point is to acknowledge the gaps in our own experience – from there, we can begin to learn and arrive at a deeper understanding which will inform our practice.

What my research has taught me, is that we need to be aware of our own cultural bias. We cannot make assumptions about a student’s motivations and behaviour based our Western cultural paradigm, without significant understanding of the cultural context of our kids.



Belinda Miller, Digital Media Producer and On Air Presenter for NITV (July 2014)

Auntie Sandra from the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group (September 2014)

Derren Knucky Coordinator of Young People in Space, Youth Empowered Towards Independence (October 2014)

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About the Author: Priscilla is a Drama Teacher at a comprehensive girls high school in Western Sydney. She regularly produces Professional Learning opportunities for Drama Teachers on a range of topics, most recently on the new prescriptions for 2015-2017.