A revisit of Indigenous education

OPINION

THE recent memoir by prominent Aboriginal educationalist, Dr Chris Sarra, Good Morning, Mr Sarra, not only deserves to fly off the bookshelves, but also to attract immense accolades.

In fact, it could also be regraded as a blueprint for how to turn around a failing Indigenous school. Sarra took the predominantly-Aboriginal Cherbourg State School in Queensland from an ongoing failure to a national success story. Most importantly, as he quite rightly points out, many observers now see him "as the man who changed the tide of low expectations of Indigenous children in schools".

In the process of Sarra's considerable achievements at Cherbourg after becoming the school's first Aboriginal principal in 1998, he was named Queenslander of the Year. Since then, glowing appraisals of his work have come from such world figures as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Laureate. Good Morning, Mr Sarra has also been released in the aftermath of his earlier establishment of the Stronger, Smarter Institute, the main focus of which was to reverse entrenched low expectations in Aboriginal education.

Unfortunately, Sarra's work has not always brought the recognition that it should have. Last June, the leading journalist Janet Albrechtsen maintained that Sarra "seems to have become the preferred indigenous activist in some [Labor] government circles". Since then, conservative Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and prominent corporate identities, have volunteered their valuable time and effort in one of Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson's remote Cape York Aboriginal communities. As commentators seek to align their institutions with each of the two main political parties, the differences between the educational approaches could not be more striking.

Pearson has adopted American Professor Siegfried Engelmann's Direct Instruction, a heavily- scripted, inflexible program with a set agenda that trickles all the way down to the Cape York classrooms. In some quarters, Pearson's direct instruction has been well received. On the other hand, certain critics would argue that its basic simplicity implies an underlying mindset that Aboriginal students are incapable of complex learning investigations.

However, Sarra's Stronger, Smarter belief is very much orientated around establishing an educational environment of high expectations. It rests on a basic cultural premise. That is, a proud sense of Aboriginal identity, customs and history. These sentiments come with perhaps even an unlimited expectation that Aboriginal students can potentially perform at least to the academic level of all other ethnic-groups. Sarra has emphatically moved away from the distorted assumptions that Indigenous races are not as intellectually able as other peoples.

Of course, these beliefs have, over time, seeped into numerous school classrooms and arguably determined negative teaching and learning practices. When predominantly-Aboriginal classes have received work full of adult concepts they can barely even read let alone complete, which is then done as a class, they are really being given the answers. It's ticked correct in their books, and everyone is happy, much to the ultimate detriment of the students. Or in other cases, where a predominantly-Aboriginal class is all given the same work, perhaps pitched at the lower level so everyone can do it. What is apparently a very successful learning activity is in fact a failed lesson! According to 'Alan', a highly-experienced current British Government Ofsted School inspector, "The lesson would be unsatisfactory/inadequate.

Sarra's Stronger, Smarter philosophy with its emphasis on high expectations has significantly moved away from such unproductive entrenched methods. Actually, the term Indigenous Education so commonly tossed around, is arguably a misnomer. For sitting in many, what might be described as predominantly-Aboriginal classes, are white students. Whether or not they suffer from similar social disadvantage, they experience the same set of expectations, the same academic success or underperformance. As Sarra has emphasised, "in schools embracing a Stronger, Smarter approach, the seemingly intractable challenge of engaging and transforming the lives of Indigenous children, and poor white children, can be relegated to an undignified history where they belong".

As with any great educational transformation, Sarra's success was also due to the combined support efforts of Cherbourg Aboriginal community, elders, teachers and students. Being a visionary leader, he sees the Stronger, Smarter way reaching out to change disadvantaged schools all over Australia. Furthermore, his philosophy of high expectations carries with it one overriding theme. A radical departure from a complacent historical mindset in Australia that academic failure for a mostly-Aboriginal school is not only normal but also acceptable.

Good Morning Mr. Sarra provides readers with insights into the experiences that have shaped his Stronger, Smarter and endorsement of high expectations for Indigenous students. Dr. Sarra draws on his Aboriginal-Italian background, the input of his mentors and personal success, to present the story of an individual who saw the desperate need for educational change and achieved it.

In Good Morning Mr. Sarra, he has provided an inspiration for Aboriginal people and all those who seek to change what they can no longer accept.

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