Culture Clash in the Classroom. A Study of Indigenous Learning Styles and the Impact on NAPLAN


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Culture Clash in the Classroom. A Study of Indigenous Learning Styles and the Impact on NAPLAN

  1. 1. Culture Clash within the Classroom: A Study of Indigenous Learning Styles and the Impact on NAPLAN John T. Author Abstract:There are two dominant cultures within the Australian classroom. The culture of those who have always been on this land, and the culture of those who have come.The education system predominantly set up to cater for the second group. Each year, every student in years 3,5,7 and 9 sit the National Assessment Program - Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) test. The data collected from this test, make a severe gap between indigenous and non-indigenous students learning achievements evident, most likely as a result of the discontinuity of learning styles between the cultures inhabiting the country. This gap between indigenous and their non-aboriginal counterparts has caused great distress in the teaching profession whose job has become to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for children within a decade(Queensland Government)in order to ensure the most even playing field possible, regardless of indigenous origin, when students enter the job market. This paper will discuss the reasons for this „gap‟, study the preferred learning styles of indigenous students and use this framework to suggest „closing the gap‟ strategies.IntroductionThere are two dominant cultures within the Australian classroom. The culture of the Aboriginal student,descendant of the first inhabitants of Australia who have lived on the continent for a period of between 40, 000and 60, 000 years, and the culture of the non-indigenous student, descendant of either the European invaders orsettlers from another country. Aboriginals while, traditionally, they were hunters and food gatherers, they noware contemporaries of the majority Australian population; they are "motivated by the same basic urges but witha different way of living, a different outlook, different values. And difference does not imply inequality" (Berndt& Berndt, 1988, p. 6 cited in Reynolds, 2005).Schools are ensuring that all students that attend school receive the highest quality education and yet, it isevident that the learning achievements of non-indigenous students on average are much greater than theindigenous student population.“These gaps limit the career prospects and life choices of Aboriginal and TorresStrait Islander students and perpetuate intergenerational disadvantage” (MCEECDYA, 2010). There are manyreasons for this gap, which will be discussed in this paper. Being inclusive requires educators to cater for allstudents within the classroom. Each culture has a naturally different learning style preference. Could the answerbe in the learning style of each culture and are we experiencing a culture clash within the classroom?Traditionally speaking, the Aboriginal culture “come to learn about the world in fundamentally different waysthan their non-aboriginal counterparts” (Ryan, 1992). Knowledge was acquired in different ways previous to theBritish colonisation which has since brought with it learning styles and content foreign or irrelevant to thesepeople even generations later. Is this gap in test data showing that indigenous students are failing to learneffectively using our methods of teaching? Inclusive classrooms need to cater for all students and it is evidentthat schools are not effectively implementing strategies and programs that cater for indigenous learners. Qld Indigenous 349.9 Mean scale score / (S.D.) (81.0) Non-Indigenous 408.9 Mean scale score / (S.D.) (67.7)Figure 1: Example of ‘the gap’. This is the Queensland year 3 NAPLAN data for writing in 2011 (NAP:National Assessment Program, 2011)The government has put forward initiatives to „close the gap‟. Each state in Australia has received targets thatmust be met within the given time frame. The Queensland target is to „halve the gap in reading, writing andnumeracy achievement between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and non-Indigenous students by
  2. 2. 2018‟ (Queensland Government, Department of Education and Training, n.d.).The government solely usesNAPLAN data to examine the progress of this target. This paper will examine the programs used in schools thatcater best for indigenous learning styles that will work best to insure that this target is reached.This paper will identify the difficulties Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students face in the Australianschool system, identify and discuss ways that indigenous students learn most effectively, and suggest somestrategies and programs that are consistent with this way of learning in addition to producing results. Closing„thegap‟ is important and requires all those involved to share the efforts to be inclusive of the Aboriginal culture andeffectively improve literacy and numeracy standards for Indigenous students.Reasons for ‘the gap’: Difficulties Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students facein the Australian school system“From the day they begin their formal schooling, Aboriginal children have to confront another world. This is aworld in which their own values and culture are denied, their language and communication strategies arechallenged, and their identity and self-confidence are threatened” (Reynolds, 2002, p. 18 cited in Reynolds,2005).There are many reasons why Indigenous students achieve at a lower standard to non-indigenous students.Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students face challenges in the Australian school system and thesecontribute to „the gap‟ in learning achievements.Brisbane Catholic Education-Indigenous Education identifies these difficulties as low attendance rates, lack ofaccess to facilities, poor health, misunderstandings of educational priorities, low income, geographical isolationand lack of co-ordination of Government facilities and resources (Brisbane Catholic Education-IndigenousEducation, n.d.).In addition to these difficulties, Indigenous students also experience English as a second language andexperience a cultural disadvantage on NAPLAN tests.All of these contribute to the lower achievement of Indigenous students, without discussing each of thesechallenges in detail, the most prominent problems directly creating a gap in literacy and numeracy NAPLANdata include attendance rates, misunderstandings of educational priorities, learning English as a secondlanguage, and cultural disadvantage on the test.Firstly, schools must address the attendance issue of Indigenous students. „The Gap‟ cannot be closed, halved,or even slightly improved if students are not attending school. Not only is attendance enough to move the data,but students at school must be engaged and participating in lessons in order to learn. Purdie& Buckley (2010)state that “it is particularly important for Indigenous Australianswho have an overall lower level of participationineducation than non-Indigenous Australians. Higherlevels of educational attainment improveemploymentopportunities, are associated with higher income andpromote participation in all societal activities”.Many Indigenous students have misunderstandings of educational priorities. Reynolds (2005), identifies that thepower imbalance and socioeconomic distance between Indigenous and majority populations becomes even morenoticeable when students move to the workforce. Because unemployment is so high among Aboriginal men orworking age, this leaves Aboriginal children with few models of “successful, remunerative employment.Consequently, many come to the conclusion that school is a waste of time and not relevant to their future”(Reynolds,2005).A majority of Indigenous students come to school and experience Standard Australian English as a second orthird language. “Their home language is often Aboriginal English, a creole, or one or more Aboriginal or TorresStrait Islander languages, or any combination of these. In addition, many parents and relatives may not speakStandard Australian English at home” (MCEECDYA (2010). Since the NAPLAN test uses Standard AustralianEnglish, (as does every other written task, test and worksheet within the Australian school system), theIndigenous student struggles to read and make sense of what is required and therefore fails to achieve at a highlevel on the NAPLAN test. This is a huge contributor to „the gap‟ between indigenous and non-indigenous testdata.
  3. 3. One more factor contributing to „the gap‟ is cultural disadvantage on the NAPLAN. One example includes arecent Literacy assessment where students had to interpret information from the Pura Milk 36‟rs basketball teamwebsite. “Who has the cultural advantage here - the studentwhose father has a strong interest in basketball,season tickets to the game, and drinks fresh PuraMilk from the cool room at the supermarket - or the studentwho lives in a small community in thecountry, follows the local football team, and who drinks generic brandlong-life milk bought in abox?”(Frigo, Corrigan, Adams, Hughes, Stephens & Woods, 2004).All of these factors contribute to a cultural disadvantage on National tests (NAPLAN). To provide education forall, these difficulties need to be addressed if NAPLAN data of Indigenous Students and non-indigenous studentsare going to be equal. This however, sounds a lot easier when written on paper. For teachers in the classroom,NAPLAN data is interpreted as a reflection of their teaching. For Principals, the data is interpreted as areflection of the school on a whole, plastered on the internet for parents to access at will. More surprisingly, forPrincipals of National Partnership schools, their job depends on NAPLAN data and „closing the gap‟ evidence.To improve the literacy and numeracy achievements of Indigenous students is proving a very important andequally difficult task indeed.Examining the preferredlearning styles of Indigenous studentsThis paper is not intended to negatively stereotype Aboriginal people by implying that certain aspects ofperformance are beyond them, but rather, to identify preferred ways of learning in order to be inclusive of theIndigenous culture within the classroom. “No educational practice will meet all students‟ educational needs, sowe need to look closely to identify what aspects of these practices do important work,should be valued, carefullydocumented and more widely supported” (Frigo, Corrigan, Adams, Hughes, Stephens & Woods, 2004).“Indigenous Australians are generally very much influenced by a holistic, spiritual view of the world, oftenreferred to as the "Dreamtime." This Aboriginal Genesis provides the indigenous population with a historicalframework as well as a general ordering of life. Thus, Aboriginal culture is based on an epistemologicalframework, which differs markedly from Western cultures. In the Aboriginal view, the world is the way it isbecause of blueprints laid down during the "Dreamtime." The explanation of all events may be attributed tonormative laws and religious mechanisms meant to maintain them. Even if they have adopted faiths such asChristianity, Aboriginal people still tend to live by this distinctive spiritual view of the world” (Pattel-Gray,1996 cited in Reynolds, 2005).Brisbane Catholic Education-Indigenous Education identifies the following values for Aboriginal ways oflearning; “We connect through the stories we share.We picture our pathways of knowledge.We see, think, act,make and share without words.We keep and share knowledge with art and objects.We work with lessons fromland and nature.We put different ideas together for new knowledge.We work from biggest to smallest, watchthen do.We bring new knowledge home to help our mob” (Brisbane Catholic Education-Indigenous Education,n.d.).These values for Aboriginal ways of learning as well as other research conducted by Ryan (1992), Reynolds(2005) and many others that have contributed to studies for the „What Works program‟ suggestthat Indigenousstudents are visual (holistic) and kinaesthetic learners. They learn better seeing the concepts taught as well asdoing things that engage them in learning. The school system however, is catered primarily for analyticallearners that use verbal skills. “In this view, aboriginal students encounter difficulties in school because theirholistic/verbal ways of thinking and learning are not compatible with the analytical/verbal expectations of theschool” (Ryan, 1992). For example, a typical year 5 classroom would expect that students sit at their desks allday and the learning experiences would consist of tasks such as listening to the teacher, completing worksheetsand copying work from the board. Are these traditionally European schooling methods sufficiently catering forthe way Aboriginal students learn? It is evident that they are not. Ryan (1992)argues that indigenous studentsare not provided with the conditions that allow aboriginal students to exercise their unique learning capabilities.If the achievements of Indigenous students are going to improve, then the learning styles need to be addressedand more hands-on learning is required to consistently take place in the classroom.Strategies and programs inclusive of Indigenous learning styles and culture
  4. 4. KaawoppaYunkaporta (n.d.), proposed a common ground framework for Aboriginal Pedagogy. This Aboriginalpedagogy may be reorganised into eight accessible orientations for teachers and these have been linked with thepreviously mentioned values for Aboriginal ways of learning by the Brisbane Catholic Education Education-Indigenous Education (n.d.).These strategies are consistent with the previously mentioned ways that Indigenous students learn, containingstrategies of deconstructing and reconstructing information/work from biggest to smallest, constructing learningmaps/picture pathways of knowledge, creating and using community links, use of non-verbal lessons/see, think,act, make and share without words, land links/work with lessons from land and nature, story sharing and non-linear approaches to teaching and behaviour management.These strategies are discussed with practical ways of implementing them in the classroom. If any program existsthat implements the strategy, then this program is also discussed along with any proven success in improvingLiteracy or Numeracy.Deconstruct/ Reconstruct“This way of learning organises notions of holistic, global, scaffolded and independent learning orientations inAboriginal students”(KaawoppaYunkaporta, n.d). As previously mentioned by the Brisbane Catholic Education-Indigenous Education, Aboriginal students “work from biggest to smallest, watch then do”. Therefore, it isrecommended for teachers to start with the overall concept, followed by modelling of the concept, and finallyteaching the details. Examples practical to the classroom that incorporate this strategy include WALT (We AreLearning This), where the teacher specifically informs the students at the beginning of each lesson what they arelearning and thus gives them the big picture first. Another example of this strategy is Break it down, Build it up(BID/BIU), This program/strategy for ESL students has been used in over 50 schools across Queensland and hasbeen used successfully in classrooms with varying proportions of ESL and non-ESL learners(Brazier, 2011).Theprogram is self-explanatory from the name. A big book is read to students on a daily basis (big picture), and isthen „broken down‟ to look at specific language and grammatical concepts in order to „build up‟ studentsunderstanding of the text.Some high indigenous schools that use the BID/BIU program are, Cunnamulla State School, Doomadgee, andCherbourg. NAPLAN data in reading for these schools have shown improvement since implementing this wholeschool program. Cunnamulla State School recorded a mean score of 323 in the 2009 year 5 cohort, whichimproved to a mean score of 424 for the same cohort when they sat the year 7 NAPLAN in 2011. ReadingNAPLAN data for Doomadgee State School increased from a mean of 271 in the 2009 year 3 cohort to a meanof 400 in 2011. Cherbourg State School recorded a less dramatic increased mean of 350 in the year 3 cohort of2009 to a mean of 390 in 2011(Australian Curriculum and Reporting Agency (ACARA), 2011). Theintroduction of the BID/BIU program may not be the only factor of improvement, nevertheless there is evidenceto suggest that it has contributed to the improvement of Indigenous students literacy NAPLAN data.Learning Maps“This way of learning is about making those overall shapes of structures in texts, activities and courses explicitin a visual way for Aboriginal learners. Teachers use diagrams or visualisations to map out processes forstudents to follow”(KaawoppaYunkaporta (n.d). Learning maps is a strategy for teaching content to Indigenousstudents. Instead of teachers writing content on the board, it could be beneficial to present the content indifferent ways such as mind maps, using colour codes, pictures and symbols to appeal to the visual learner. Thisstrategy may help Indigenous students retain new information however; it could be debatable as to how thisprepares students to approach information or tasks outside of school as well as on the NAPLAN test that are notpresented in this way.Community Links“This way of learning draws together the research describing Aboriginal pedagogy as group-oriented, localisedand connected to real-life purposes and contexts. In Aboriginal pedagogy, the motivation for learning isinclusion in the community” (KaawoppaYunkaporta (n.d). Suggestions from the „What Works‟ publications
  5. 5. include holding „mother-tongue‟ classes, and employing Indigenous adults in the school as Education Workersto support students with their school work (Department of Education, Science and Training (n.d.). Having re-enforcement from the community members will help support students learning however, the introduction ofC2C (Curriculum to classroom National Curriculum) has resulted in very limited class time for any additionalactivities or teacher made units. This impacts on the use of this strategy in schools, particularly high indigenousschools in which community links are essential.Non-verbal“Kinaesthetic, hands-on learning is a characteristic element of this Aboriginal pedagogy (Robinson and Nichol,1998 cited inKaawoppaYunkaporta, n.d.). Warren &DeVries, (2009) created a maths program for the earlyyears of schooling called RoleM (Representations, Oral Language, and Engagement in Mathematics). It hasbeen specifically designed to cater for the visual and kinaesthetic learning styles of Indigenous students and is aprogram used in schools regardless of percentage of Indigenous enrolment as it is highly engaging and hands on.Though predominantly comprising of visually stimulating lessons that require students to group, re-organise,move around, jump, stand on or write over, it does require some language needs. This requirement however, it is“carefully planned for Australian Indigenous Students” (Warren &DeVries, 2009). In addition, this excellentresource also helps prepare students for NAPLAN testing by including a simple NAPLAN style question aftereach lesson.Land-links“This pedagogy is about connecting and relating classroom learning to the land. The strong Aboriginalconnection between land and knowledge/learning is widely documented” (Battiste, 2002; Shajahan, 2005, citedin KaawoppaYunkaporta, n.d.). How teachers use this strategy in the classroom depends on the Aboriginalcommunity in which the school is situated. This strategy will engage students and connect them culturallyhowever, it will not help them improve their literacy and numeracy. Perhaps there should be a program for thisin Queensland.Story-sharing“It has long been observed that Elders teach using stories, drawing lessons from narratives to actively involvelearners in introspection and analysis” (Wheaton, 2000cited in KaawoppaYunkaporta, n.d). Once again, thisstrategy is about involving the community and being inclusive of the Indigenous culture. Inviting indigenouscommunity members, parents and elders to read and tell stories help Indigenous students with engagement andimprove their interest in narrative which can be used as a building block for teachers.Non-linearKaawoppaYunkaporta, (n.d) recommends the use of De Bono‟s (1996) Lateral Thinking to present learning incyclic and indirect ways. “Aboriginal students can have an indirect rather than direct orientation to learningconcepts, as can be seen in the avoidance of direct questioning (Hughes 1987 cited in KaawoppaYunkaporta,n.d) and in the avoidance of direct instruction and behaviour management” (West in Harris and Malin, 1994cited in KaawoppaYunkaporta, n.d).ImplicationsImplications arise through the topics addressed in this paper. For instance, if we are inclusive of the Aboriginalculture and teach to the preferred visual/spatial and kinaesthetic learningstyles which involve moving, hands onactivities, an abundance of visual stimulation and little or no worksheets, how do they demonstrate theirknowledge in a NAPLAN test which requires students to sit still at a desk and complete worksheet style testswith nothing but pencil and paper, no hands on demonstration of learning and with limited or no visualstimulation?In addition, with the introduction of C2C, are educators able to include some of the suggested strategies andprograms? Since the units are rich in content and time consuming, teachers have little or no class timeremaining. Is it appropriate to substitute programs such as RoleM for C2C Maths? How will this impact on a
  6. 6. student moving between high indigenous schools where they use RoleM, and low indigenous schools wherethey are taught C2C? And finally, does focusing on visual, holistic and non-verbal strategies at the expense ofverbal interaction deprive students the opportunity to learn analytical and verbal skills?ConclusionIt is evident that factors such as low attendance rates, misunderstandings of educational priorities, experiencingEnglish as a second language and cultural disadvantage all contribute to a large gap on the NAPLAN testbetween Indigenous students and non-indigenous students. Since the school system is a European introducedsystem, it is better catered to European learning styles. In order to „close the gap‟, schools need to be inclusiveof Aboriginal learning styles and use appropriate strategies and programs that address the visual/spatial andkinaesthetic learner.Doing this however, creates implications in the classroom when focusing on verbal andkinaesthetic skills to address learning styles deprive them of the analytical and verbal skills that students requireto perform well on the NAPLAN test. Perhaps the answer rests on the NAPLAN testing system and the cultureclash in the classroom. NAPLAN tests cater for non-indigenous students. This is not being inclusive of allAustralians.ReferencesAustralian Curriculum and Reporting Agency (ACARA). (2011). My school. Retrieved from ar=2011&RefId=qttBOAY40JDs8JgAYZJN9Q==Brazier, A. (2011).What is it?-break it down, build it up. Retrieved from Catholic Education-Indigenous Education, NgutanaLui Cultural Studies Centre. (n.d.).Personalised learning plans: Planning and implementation. QLD: Dare to Lead.Department of Education, Science and Training (n.d.).Literacy for succeeding at school.What Works. The Work Program: Core Issue 3, Retrieved from, T., Corrigan, M., Adams, I., Hughes, P., Stephens, M., & Woods, D. (2004).Supporting English and Numeracy Learning for Indigenous Students in the Early years. Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Retrieved from, T. (n.d.).An overview of aboriginal pedagody models and a proposal for a workable common-ground framework.Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA). (2010). Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander education action plan, NEALS.NAP: National Assessment Program. (2011). Results. Retrieved from, N., & Buckley, S. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Institure of Family Studies.(2010). School attendance and retentionAustralian Government.Queensland Government, Department of Education and Training.(n.d.).Closing the gap education strategy. Retrieved from, R. (2005). The education of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students: repair or radical change. Association for Childhood Education International, 82(1), Retrieved from, J. (1992). Aboriginal learning styles: A critical review. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 5(3), 161-183. doi: 10.1080/07908319209525124Warren, E., &DeVries, E. (2009).RoleM (Representations, Oral Language, and Engagement in Mathematics): Future dreaming our maths, our way. Australia: Australian Government, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.Reason for the gap: the Naplan is the focus. Since Aboriginal students do not learn that way, they can not perform or demonstrate their knowledge that way. NAPLAN therefore needs to be either re-vamped to make it cater for Indigenous students to enable them to demonstrate their knowledge in a different way OR lessen the focus on NAPLAN data and stop basing all accusations of a school on this test.
  7. 7. Is the gap due to the fact that Indigenous students do not know as much as non indigenous students and are far behind academically or, is the gap due to the fact that Indigenous students can not demonstrate what they know because their style of learning differs and therefore their way of demonstrating it differs from traditionally European style pen and paper test system.Are all the issues that are typically associated with reasons for the gap, really intertwined with a culture clash in learning styles?Is this paper focused on helping Indigenous students to cope with NAPLAN tests by implementing teaching strategies that takes Indigenous learning styles into account; OR is it about evaluating the NAPLAN test itself, arguing that it is not inclusive of Indigenous learning style OR both? Body of paper seem to be focused on teaching strategies only.Points focused on educational practice to include indigenous students. Any suggestion for amending NAPLAN test to include Indigenous students?To close the gap one of two things needs to happen. Either we teach Indigenous students to their learning styles in order for them to learn and retain the knowledge, teach them how to deal with the NAPLAN test and test them with NAPLAN. OR, we can cater for their learning styles, so they understand the content, and we change NAPLAN so that it enables students to demonstrate their knowledge without solely relying on test situation.