Aboriginal pedagogies at the cultural interface

Yunkaporta, Tyson (2009) Aboriginal pedagogies at the cultural interface. Professional Doctorate (Research) thesis, James Cook University.

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View at Publisher Website: https://doi.org/10.25903/qw6q-2h64


This research project investigates two questions and proposes two answers. The first question asks how teachers can engage with Aboriginal knowledge. The proposed solution involves applying a reconciling theory of Cultural Interface to staff development. The second question asks how teachers can use Aboriginal knowledge productively in schools. The proposed solution lies in the application of Aboriginal processes rather than content, specifically the application of Aboriginal pedagogies.

In investigating these questions participants sought to incorporate authentic Aboriginal perspectives in the curriculum in ways that increased intellectual rigour and supported mainstream academic success for Aboriginal learners. I propose that this outcome is currently blocked by an oppositional framing of Aboriginal and western knowledge systems, caused by shallow perceptions of Indigenous knowledge as being limited to token cultural items. This tokenism serves only to highlight difference and marginalise Indigenous thought. I propose that these issues can be addressed by introducing a reconciling theory for working with multiple knowledge systems and by focusing on Aboriginal meta-knowledge, particularly native knowledge of pedagogy.

So the dual aims of this thesis are to demonstrate how teachers can embrace deeper Aboriginal knowledge through reconciling processes, and how this knowledge can be integrated into daily classroom practice. This problem is explored in Aboriginal communities and their schools across Western New South Wales, Australia. A tool for integrating the common-ground pedagogies of multiple worldviews has been developed and incorporated into the regional education strategy as part of the study. Participating teachers engaged with this knowledge through training activities, planning days and trials, then reported on their activities via wiki, email, and informal interviews. The results of their work speak to the question of how to meet the New South Wales Department of Education and Training’s mandate of incorporating Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum (DET, 2009).

The reconciling principle that grounds the work is the theory of Cultural Interface, the dynamic overlap between systems previously defined as dichotomous and incompatible. The Aboriginal pedagogy framework used for the project is drawn from local language, stories and cultural experiences and supported by the literature about Aboriginal ways of learning. This is combined with the best available western models of pedagogy used in the region, with the overlap between the diverse systems determining the teaching and learning methods used in the study.

The methodology employed in this work was an Indigenous standpoint methodology developed through a process of auto ethnography. This resulted in a methodology that was named ‘Research as Business’ grounded for the purposes of this study in a metaphorical framework of traditional carving processes. The sections of this thesis are also organised around the carving process:

1. Place, Story, Protocol and Wood 2. Bringing the Tools 3. Rough Cutting 4. Carving the Shape 5. Grinding 6. Smoothing

The figure below represents visually some of the actions that occur within this cultural process, using photographs taken during some of my carving activities that took place during the project.


Figure 1: Visual representation of carving process

The practical goal of the study is Indigenous knowledge production, with products placed in the Aboriginal community for community ownership, use and benefit. Those knowledge products have been found to be effective tools for engaging students, teachers and community with Aboriginal processes for successful learning. These results support my claim that when knowledge is deep there are more similarities than differences between culturally diverse systems, and that a reconciling approach to engaging with these knowledge systems facilitates school-community dialogue and cooperation, as well as opportunities for increased student engagement and improved learning outcomes. This thesis is characterised by an imperative to ‘walk the talk’. Thus the content and meaning are reflected in the form. The text represents a dialogue and ongoing negotiation for meaning at the Cultural Interface between Aboriginal and western knowledge. Parts of the text are written with Indigenised genres and voice, and parts are written with westernised genres and voice. However, each contains aspects of the other as well. For example, academic metalanguage and structures sometimes appear in the oral-style sections. Similarly, in the academic writing, Indigenous ways of imparting knowledge influence the structure. For example, the academic imperative to explain, reference and justify a concept in detail at the moment it is introduced is often eclipsed by the Aboriginal protocol of introducing knowledge in incrementally deeper stages at the ‘right moment’ rather than immediately.

Sometimes important items are repeated several times, when they are concepts that require repetition at different stages of learning for deeper levels of understanding. For example, a gesture shown to me by an old man is described three times during the thesis. This kind of spiralling repetition is familiar to me personally as a highly effective Aboriginal way of learning, and does not seem too far removed from one of my non-Aboriginal supervisors’ instructions for academic writing – “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” As such, the written style of this thesis represents an attempt to reconcile dual intellectual systems, mirroring the integrative ethic of the research study itself.

During my research, a Law Woman told me the things I need to reveal about our higher knowledge, not the content but the processes for working with it, to bring about an awareness of the depth and capacity of Aboriginal intellect. So I share in this work as much as possible my processes of knowing as they occur in the act of researching and reporting. The knowledge produced/revealed in my research is, as with all bodies of knowledge, an entity with its own spirit. It appears to me as a serpent winding around a series of objects – club, boomerangs, spear, a shield and nine stones. There is a pattern on the serpent’s head that is mirrored on the shield.


Figure 2: The thesis as a shield

The shield shape is a powerful metaphor based on the shape formed by the overlap of two circles. This represents the concept of dynamic Cultural Interface between different knowledge systems. For me this is paramount Law from Dreaming actions that spark creation events, both past and present. I hope to bring that Law, which may be found in many cultures, into the project of Aboriginal education reform. This will allow genuine engagement in ideas like ‘partnership’ and ‘walking together’.

The pattern on the shield shows the structure of the total thesis in its non-verbal form. The triangular parts represent the field work done with teachers and the analysis of that work. If I translate the entire shield pattern into a diagram with parts labelled in English, it looks like this:


Figure 3: The thesis as a diagram

This thesis is an attempt to translate as much of the research knowledge as possible into verbal concepts, then into print. The text translates specifically the knowledge of the shield pattern into a linear sequence of verbal learning (based on my carving process). The thesis is centred on the two questions represented in the middle of the diagram, but as the solutions to those problems are contained in the three rings around the outside, a lot of space is given to inducting the reader into this knowledge before addressing the research questions specifically. As the answers to the questions are contained in Aboriginal knowledge processes and Aboriginal concepts of synergy and balance, these are outlined in great detail. The Indigenous methodology and auto ethnography processes are given precedence, making transparent my own transformative journey in the research and offering this as an example of productive engagement of Aboriginal concepts and processes within mainstream education. The intent of this is to show that these are not only effective in primary and secondary schooling, but in tertiary education as well.

Item ID: 10974
Item Type: Thesis (Professional Doctorate (Research))
Keywords: Aboriginal pedagogy, pedagogy in education, Aboriginal knowledge, cultural interfaces, cultural understanding, classroom teaching, Australian Aboriginals, study and learning, student engagement, processes of learning, cultural engagement, Australian education, education
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Additional Information:

Publications arising from this thesis are available from the Related URLs field. The publications are:

Yunkaporta, Tyson, and McGinty, Sue (2009) Reclaiming Aboriginal knowledge at the cultural interface. Australian Educational Researcher, 36 (2). pp. 55-72. ISSN 0311-6999

McGinty, Sue, and Yunkaporta, Tyson (2009) Book review of "Disciplining the Savages: savaging the disciplines" by Martin Nakata, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, ACT, Australia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 15 (2). pp. 432-433. ISSN 1467-9655

The Portfolio submitted with the thesis has been withdrawn at the request of the author.

Date Deposited: 01 Aug 2010 23:08
FoR Codes: 13 EDUCATION > 1303 Specialist Studies in Education > 130313 Teacher Education and Professional Development of Educators @ 34%
13 EDUCATION > 1303 Specialist Studies in Education > 130301 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education @ 33%
13 EDUCATION > 1302 Curriculum and Pedagogy > 130202 Curriculum and Pedagogy Theory and Development @ 33%
SEO Codes: 93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9302 Teaching and Instruction > 930201 Pedagogy @ 33%
93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9399 Other Education and Training > 939901 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education @ 33%
93 EDUCATION AND TRAINING > 9399 Other Education and Training > 939902 Education and Training Theory and Methodology @ 34%
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