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Connecting teachers and students

Kate Mani |  01 November 2017

An education initiative between Townsville Catholic Education and James Cook University is listening to young Aboriginal and Torrens Strait Islander voices about what makes an effective classroom.

This quotation from a Mt Isa Year 12 teacher highlights the sorts of stories Tammi Webber has come across in her studies of Indigenous students’ responses to education. 

'This student did not have something wrong with him', the teacher said, recalling one particular student. 'This student was not lazy. He was just left alone.'

Webber is an Indigenous teacher and Indigenous education advisor for Townsville Catholic Education who grew up in Kalkadoon country in Mt Isa, north western Queensland. With 15 years’ teaching experience in Australia and overseas, she has been instrumental in driving the Pedagogy of Difference program.

Developed by Townsville’s Diocese of Catholic Education, this program seeks to inspire those who are struggling, disengaged and alone in the classroom, like the year 12 student described above.

The inspiration for Pedagogy of Difference was two-fold: Townsville Catholic Education’s mission to improve equitable learning outcomes for Indigenous students, and James Cook University’s goal to improve its graduate teaching effectiveness in engaging these students. The program draws its name from a 2007 assertion by Queensland academic Professor Bob Lingard that there is a ‘pedagogy of indifference’ that stops Aboriginal students from achieving in mainstream education.

Webber explains how the program aims to overcome the educational disadvantage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Educators listen to the thoughts and aspirations of the students and their families about effective teaching practices and help teachers respond to this feedback.

‘Our research actually gives our students, families and communities a real voice in what they believe schools and teachers need to be doing to truly “close the gap” in educational outcomes’, said Webber.

‘When teachers understand the context of education for some of our Indigenous families they can then be critically aware of barriers Indigenous people face, and can modify classroom practices that are in contrast with their cultural norms.’

The Pedagogy research unfolded over four stages. In Stage One, Webber interviewed parents and students as part of the community engagement component. Stages Two and Three looked at characteristics of culturally sensitive teaching practices and what classroom elements and teacher behaviour led to learning gains for students. Research revealed that students can engage better with teachers who understand the value they place on their Aboriginal culture. They want to feel like more than just ‘another kid in the classroom’, and respond to teachers who take the time to get to know them.

In Stage Four, 19 teachers in the Townsville region modified their current classroom practices for 12 weeks, adopting the research’s findings and the strategies that parents and students had identified as crucial factors.

‘From year two to year 12, Indigenous students immediately reacted positively, and even questioned their teachers as to why they had “changed” how they taught’, she said.

‘Teachers identified overnight changes in engagement, and better relationships between them and the students, which is crucial to the level of motivation students have to learn and progress in their education.

‘When the teachers became aware of barriers and were given the strategies to manoeuvre or remove these, the impact on individual students’ engagement was immediate and tangible.’ 

The program also provides a way for parents to engage with their child’s education and have their opinions heard and valued. Webber says that her research findings were ‘emotionally challenging’ as she grappled with parents’ and grandparents’ mistrust of the education system.

‘The parents have high hopes for a better educational experience for their children than their own’, she said. ‘The evidence of intergenerational negative neglect that our Indigenous parents have had in terms of education is undeniable.

‘Parents emphasise the vital need for our teachers to understand Indigenous people’s history with education, that due to various Government policies of the past there is a huge legacy of disadvantage and disenfranchisement.’

Webber was also confronted by a unifying theme in the responses of the students she engaged with, that they wanted their teachers to ‘like’ them.

‘The students weren’t demanding impossible requirements. They just wanted teachers who made connections with them, and confirmed their worthiness’, she said. ‘It’s something so simple, yet it’s a crucial component.’

Many Townsville schools have now shaped teachers’ professional learning and development around the Pedagogy of Difference principles through resources developed by James Cook University. Webber would like to see these principles embedded in teacher induction and in all schools’ pedagogical and learning frameworks.

Currently, the Pedagogy of Difference website also allows schools and educators around the country to access the findings, complete online surveys about their own classrooms and receive their own Culturally Responsive Pedagogy score. Webber hopes that a Professional Learning book can be published as a resource to accompany the research.

Academic engagement aside, the program has been very satisfying for Webber on a personal level.

‘To work with my home community and to represent both them and our diocese on a world stage at various international conferences, is very humbling’, she said. ‘As an Aboriginal teacher, I am very blessed to be in a position to influence and drive change for our people and communities.’

‘Education is the key to overcoming disadvantage and knowing that I am a part of trying to unlock that potential and make positive changes for others is an absolute honour.’

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Topic tags: healthycommunitylife, religiousandculturaldiversity, indigenousaustralians, socialjustice-australia

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