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What has the eight-way Aboriginal Pedagogy Framework from Australia got to do with India?

Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta integrated the teaching approaches of 13 indigenous communities from New South Wales with contemporary Western Pedagogy to design an eight-way Aboriginal Pedagogy Framework for Australia. What can India learn from it?

In light of the National Education Policy 2020, India must actively invest time and resources in applied education research that allows us to leverage our cultural heritage and makes learning equally relevant to our socio-economic realities and cultural history. We are sure you are noticing the sudden surge in the research on the Indian Knowledge System post-NEP 2020. While all of us at Innerkern are excited about this sudden interest in the Indian Knowledge System, we are also concerned about its current scope, given that we are a collective of educators and applied education researchers working with school leaders, teachers, and parents to advance the authentic implementation of our national education agenda. Our research suggests that we must move the bar for the Indian Knowledge System higher than merely studying our material culture and picking content from our immensely diverse cultural heritage to teach our children.

Handling the Indian Knowledge System as a separate content stream, alongside other subjects, will further alienate our future from our cultural heritage and history. What can we do to inspire all teachers, regardless of the subjects, to explicitly teach our children about our heritage and, at the same time, ensure they are ready for the 21st Century workplace and beyond? The answer lies in shifting from learning about our culture to learning through our culture. In other words, we must spend time teaching not what to learn from our culture but how to learn from it. Last week we brought the scientific relevance of the pedagogy of Nai Talim to your attention as an example of what we can focus on as a nation while exploring the Indian Knowledge System. As we expanded our research on this, looking at what other countries do, we came across an interesting example of applied education research on indigenous learning culture from Australia.

What can we learn from Australia about promoting our cultural heritage in schools?

In 1995, New South Wales, a southeastern Australian State, revised NSW Aboriginal Education Policy to make it ‘all students-all staff-all schools.’ The policy insisted on enhancing education for aboriginal students and educating non-aboriginal students about indigenous cultures. As a result, lessons on Australian Aboriginal Knowledge Systems became a part of the school curriculum in New South Wales. By 1996, all teacher education students had to learn about aboriginal culture. New South Wales expected them to include Australian Aboriginal Knowledge Systems in their routine lessons when they became teachers. They also designed the Indigenous Australian Studies Project of National Significance Manuals for preschool teachers. New South Wales wanted to equip all teachers to teach aboriginal students and aboriginal content to non-aboriginal students in schools.

Enter Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta in 2006. Tyson is a senior lecturer in indigenous knowledge at Deakin University in Melbourne. He noticed two things about how the lessons on aboriginal culture were panning out: First, schools treated lessons on aboriginal culture as either extracurricular activities or special lessons. Teachers did not know how to embed it in routine teaching. Second, as a result, the cultural integration as envisaged in NSW Aboriginal Education Policy was happening only at a very surface level. Tyson knew this had to change.

In 2006, Tyson started his applied education research around two simple questions. First, how can teachers engage with aboriginal knowledge? Second, how can teachers use aboriginal knowledge productively in schools? Soon he realised that cultures are different only at a surface level, and at a deeper level, you can find a vast common ground to innovate, integrate and reconcile. He noticed that there was plenty of research on why non-aboriginal teachers must include aboriginal knowledge in their curriculum and what they must include. There was little research on how they should do it. He felt that receiving cultural awareness training was not enough. You could train teachers on the material aboriginal culture. But that did not still answer the question: How do I teach aboriginal perspectives in my classroom? For example, how do I include aboriginal perspectives in lessons on Photosynthesis or Pythagoras' Theorem?

By 2009, Tyson had answers to these questions. He did two things to arrive at them. First, Tyson interviewed the elders of 13 aboriginal tribes in New South Wales to codify their approaches to teaching children. Second, he experimented with these approaches in non-aboriginal classrooms alongside western pedagogy. Usually, research on indigenous methodologies is purposefully ani-colonial and promotes resistance. Tyson's research helped us learn that such research can be more a-colonial than anticolonial, reconciling the peripheral differences in their material culture to find common grounds. He listed eight ways of learning, combining the aboriginal approach to teaching with western pedagogies. What are those eight ways of learning that make the threads of Tyson's Aboriginal Pedagogy Framework?

Thread One
We connect through the stories we share.

All the aboriginal cultures that Tyson explored had one thing in common - a tradition of storytelling. Most of the learning interactions in indigenous tribes revolved around carving weapons. Tyson uses the metaphor of a boomerang to explain this tradition. While adults teach children to carve boomerangs, they share stories about the culture. The essential feature of this storytelling tradition is that it begins with a problem and ends with a life-changing resolution. More than one-way storytelling and passive listening, these indigenous tribes promoted a culture of exchanging stories to learn. Interestingly, Gandhi's Nai Talim promoted storytelling as a part of learning handicrafts. Gandhi insisted that we could help children learn history, science, and mathematics by exchanging stories with them while they learned handicrafts. Even western pedagogy encourages teaching and learning through narrative and dialogue. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson explained that “a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.” In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron tells us, “Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without having to actually live through them. Stories allow us to experience the world before we actually have to experience it.”

Thread Two
We learn better when we visualise the pathways of knowledge.

Some of the tribes Tyson worked with used sticks to draw concepts and processes on the ground during long conversations. Most of them had a way of visualising different processes, mapping them to stars. Tyson figured out that most tribes used the local landscape or local seasonal changes to map knowledge and then carved them on boomerangs or other tools to visually represent them. Tyson recommends that we visually lay out the whole set of learning outcomes for a year. He calls them Learning Maps. Tyson says, “In the Aboriginal world, stories are in the land – stories are places. Story places are sacred places. All places have story, but stories have place in them too – they are like maps of the land. You can make story maps visually for any story with students – it makes things like Hamlet a lot easier to swallow. It lets you see the whole shape of the story, and the place of the story, so you know where you are.” In 2017, Kingston Neal and Angela Broaddus wanted to figure out how mathematics teachers could organise knowledge for better formative assessment. They discovered two things during their research: First, formative assessment fails in the classroom because there is no reliable structure to organise knowledge. The lack of a structure prevents students from deciding where they are going, how they are going and where they will go after this. Second, they noticed that we could make formative assessments better by creating learning maps. Learning Maps provide visual representations of the order of and connections between concepts through the academic year, allowing students to get a quick sense of the purpose and process of learning.

Thread Three
We see, think, act, make and share without words.

From a colonial perspective, gestures are the most inferior form of communication. Indigenous communities on the other hand heavily rely on gestures to communicate. They talk a lot more using their hands than words. As a result, people from indigenous communities are good at learning things that do not require words. Tyson felt that the aboriginal culture diverged from the modern culture in how people conveyed meaning and intentions. He recognized the role of silence in learning and the importance of hands-on learning, drawing insights from how differently people viewed communication in different cultures. Aboriginal cultures taught children to think, act, make and share without words. Tyson stresses the importance of hands-on learning and critical reflection here. In indigenous cultures, people spend time with themselves in silence to reflect and learn. You will also find them engaging in many hands-on activities. Modern cultures are afraid of silence, especially in classrooms. In 2001, Pat Belanoff wrote, "What I am campaigning for is space and time in our classrooms and in our scholarly lives for looking inward in silence. Silence, meditation, reflection, and contemplation are being pushed aside by the growing octopus tendrils of standards and assessment. Silence (inhabited by meditation, reflection, contemplation, metacognition, and thoughtfulness) provides one lens through which to see the interlace of literacy; action (response, conversation) provides another lens, but both lenses are pointed at exactly the same object, which continuously turns on itself with no discernible beginning or ending." Tyson advocated for critical reflection and hand-on learning that inform each other and draw from each other as we helped our children learn how to learn.

Thread Four
We acquire and share knowledge through art.

During his research, Tyson found a common ground between aboriginal and non-aboriginal cultures. Both used images and symbols to carry and communicate knowledge. Tyson wrote, "Use of symbols and diagrams to assist with learning and communication is something that sits solidly in the interface between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures." In 1991, James M. Clark and Allan Paivio introduced the idea of Dural Coding. Dual Coding suggests that "human cognition is divided into two processing systems: visual and verbal. The visual system deals with graphical information processing and the verbal system deals with linguistic processing." Presenting information visually alongside text double binds learning. Clark and Paivio wrote in their paper, "We have seen that images of nonverbal objects or events, verbal associative links, and other dual coding constructs permit the development of concrete, mechanistic models in diverse areas relevant to education. For example, activation of the imagery system can explain the instructional benefits of concrete examples, and converging activation of shared verbal associations can explain the effects of organisation on memory for text." Tyson recommended integrating art into learning, to acquire as well as share knowledge.

Thread Five
We link content to local land and environment.

Tyson recommends the use of metaphors connected to the land for learning. He says, "All the animals, plants, and geographic forms in land and water contain deep knowledge. They also provide metaphors for concepts. Knowledge of local land and place is central to Indigenous ways of knowing. An indication of cultural integrity in storytelling is that land and place are central to the story. There's no story without place, and no place without story. So linking your lesson content to land is one way of maintaining cultural integrity in your language program." Indigenous researchers have expanded on Tyson's idea of linking land to learning and took it a step further to design land-based approaches to learning. In 2021, Gita J. Ljubicic and her team from McMaster University, Canada, documented their work creating land camps for learning and research. They found that elder-youth camps are really effective ways to share knowledge and understand the local land. They also found that linking lessons to the immediate environment made learning interesting and relevant. Such linking allows children to use local metaphors in learning. In 2009, Elaine Botha wrote, "Yes, poets use metaphors, but so do biologists, physicists, linguists and everyone else who is trying to say something about the world. Through metaphor we attempt to understand some unfamiliar thing, event or state of affairs in terms of another more familiar thing, event or state of affairs. We “... see the world as (if it is) one thing or another ...” A couple of more common examples are: Is history linear or circular? Is history unfolding according some instructions of Nature or according to a Divine providential plan? Are our genes like information codes? All these examples are rooted in overarching philosophical traditions and world views which dictate the itinerary of meaning of the basic concepts utilized. They harbour the implicit categorizations of the diversity and coherence of the world and the ideological freight embedded in these categorizations."

Thread Six
We put different ideas together and create new knowledge.

Aboriginal communities do not believe in finding knowledge by taking a straight path. That is why they used stories, metaphors, and symbols to convey meaning. They believed in finding knowledge along the way and not at the end. Tyson says, "It might seem crazy to think of a boomerang as a text that can be read. But this text tells me that in learning, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line. You have to go off the beaten track if you want to find knowledge rather than basic information. Sometimes those directions might seem crazy or irrelevant, but in an Aboriginal holistic worldview in which all things are connected, this is what makes your knowledge deep, personal and experiential." This worldview about learning enables opposites to meet to create something new, valuing reconciliatory thinking above oppositional thinking. Jonah Lehrer famously said, "Insights, after all, come from the overlap between seemingly unrelated thoughts. They emerge when concepts are transposed when the rules of one place are shifted to a new domain." Across the world, we are currently promoting transdisciplinary learning because western culture also recognizes that learning is nonlinear and cross-curricular. For learning to stick, we must work with cyclic and holistic knowledge, comparing, synthesising, innovating and adapting diverse cultural view points.

Thread Seven
We work from whole to parts, watching and then doing.

As much as we want to, individuals cannot learn alone. Self-learning is only the first and final step of learning. Between your entry into learning something and your exit lies the necessity for a teacher, scaffolding, modelling, and balancing learning. Tyson says, “You see this scaffolding in Aboriginal learning styles as well. My son is young yet, and he watches me carving, and will keep watching for years to come. He joins in sometimes for small parts of the activity, when he is ready, and gradually he will take on larger parts until he is carving for himself. This is ancient pedagogy, tried and true. When you learn corroboree, you see the whole dance first, learn the whole stories and places behind it, with increasingly finer details understood until you are learning each individual step. Then you join in for small parts when the dance is performed, gradually increasing your role in it until you’re dancing the whole thing.” We learn by deconstructing what we see the teacher doing and reconstructing it when we are ready. In 2007, Warren Haston wrote, "Whenever a teacher demonstrates a concept for a student, that teacher is modelling. A math teacher models each time he or she works through a problem on the board. A science teacher may demonstrate a portion of a lab experiment. People learn naturally by imitating models. Suzuki calls it the Mother Tongue, and Kohut calls it the Natural Learning Process. Implicit learning is based on the premise that cognitive processing is entirely subconscious. Learning by imitating a model results in learning about the structure of a fairly complex stimulus environment, without necessarily intending to do so, and in such a way that the resulting knowledge is difficult to express."

Thread Eight
We bring new knowledge home to help our people.

In aboriginal communities, learners draw from traditional knowledge and give what they create as a result back to the local community. Another aspect of this thread is how a teacher is culturally sensitive, allowing students to bring their unique cultural standpoints to the classroom, and respecting diverse group identities. Tyson says, "With every bit of knowledge you teach, students should clearly see the answer to the question, ''What does this mean for me and my mob?" This includes your non-Aboriginal students. Then that knowledge should be returned to the community in useful ways. The most obvious way to do this is through performances and displays, but community development and awareness projects are also possible." Tyson also explained this thread as grounding learning content and values in community knowledge, working on community projects, and using or displaying knowledge products for local benefit. Interestingly, Gandhi's Nai Talim took this approach a step ahead. Gandhi believed that education must pay for itself. He designed Nai Talim around the philosophy that students will participate in their local communities, learn handicrafts and sell what they make back to the community to pay their teachers.


What happens next is…

If you are open-minded about advancing the mission of drawing from India's cultural heritage to teach our children, you have three options:

Option One

Collaborate with Innerkern to study your local culture and redesign the pedagogy you use in your school to align the learning culture of your school with the cultural heritage of your community. You can write to to talk to us about this.

Option Two

Hire Innerkern to implement authentic Nai Talim in your school. You can write to to talk to us about this.

Option Three

Share this post with the educators in your circle and explore how to implement the eight-way Aboriginal Pedagogy Framework in your classroom. You can write to to talk to us about this.

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