Opening up about Closing the Gap
Opening up about Closing the Gap
Early childhood teacher and Wakka Wakka woman Deb Mann has lived in many places throughout Australia. She writes for Bedrock about the responsibilities we have as we work towards Closing the Gap.
I want to acknowledge the wisdom and strength of our Elders, leaders and teachers in continuing the fight to position Aboriginal children’s cultural education as a right to be determined and guided by family and communities.
I would like to point out that my reflections are my own, and do not represent any organisation or other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
I have been asked to share my thoughts on two issues: what does Closing the Gap mean for early childhood education and what responsibilities do educators have? and The Early Years Learning framework for Australia, Outcome 2: Children are connected with and contribute to their world in the context of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
In 2020 the NAIDOC theme reminded us that it “was and always will be” the sovereign right of Aboriginal peoples to determine their futures and this includes truth telling of the ways history and colonisation have damaged our cultures.
Teachers must ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are not forgotten or assimilated into their dominant worldviews and ways of being. They must accept that unless they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, they will never have the lived experiences, cultural expertise or permission to share our stories. Political leaders from the time of colonisation have never wanted the truth to be known.
One of the challenges for teachers is to avoid “ticking the box” of what they think they ought to do in their practises with children and recognise that they need to dedicate a lifetime to listening and facilitating Aboriginal voices in the teaching of culture. If educational teams cannot make this commitment, they should critically reflect and reconsider what they are doing in their services.
Meaning and responsibilities
If we reflect in the 2020 closing the Gap report, the early childhood education target (page 23) aims for “95 percent of all Indigenous four year olds to be enrolled in early childhood education by 2025. In 2018, the figure was 86.4 per cent (for non-Indigenous children it is 91.3 per cent)”, it stands to reason we should question what is missing.
The intent of “closing the gap” in early childhood education was to increase access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, with the underlying assumption that access would improve attendance and academic success. Within this report is hidden assumption that early childhood teachers, regardless of their background or knowledge of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander history and culture, know best how to “teach” Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Australian political and educational systems have been slow to address the fact that “teaching” does not usually align with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander expectations for their children’s education and ignores the resilience and commitment families have in supporting their children to navigate two vastly different worldviews.
Our children work twice as hard as other children to overcome systemic racism and maintain their sense of identity and belonging. It is the responsibility of teachers and educators to work twice as hard and commit to recognising their unconscious bias. they should focus on the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities to determine what is the best approach for educating their children.
Culture, connection and contribution
The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) advocates strongly for children’s belonging, being and becoming. Outcome 2 states “Children are connected with and contribute to their world”. This raises important questions for all involved in the early education of Aboriginal children. Who determines what the pathway is for this belonging and becoming for an Aboriginal child? How can their pathway be best built and who travels with them on this pathway?
The answers to these questions lie in the contested fields of assumed expertise and advocacy for human rights, Teachers, policy and practice influencers urgently need to critically reflect on their professional practice, as this assumed expertise is directly eroding the right to self determination for Aboriginal families and their children.
The EYLF implies that the early years educators need to “teach” children, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, Aboriginal perspectives and culture.
There are many different ways of knowing and incorporating learning, but far too often it’s business as usual when it comes to early childhood teaching and promoting a greater understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing and being. The unconscious messaging here endorses the protectionist and saviourism approaches that have always been embedded in the education systems for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
What the current “white” systems and educators do not appreciate is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do not learn in isolation from their social and cultural relationships. An educator’s work is complex, and navigating the many pathways to align policy, curriculum, practice, resources, funding, training, law and Aboriginal lore and pedagogy requires deep thinking, research, and evidence of processes that promote and sustain Aboriginal identities, wellbeing and systemic success.
There is so much to unlearn and relearn. We have all been invaded either subconsciously or wilfully by the racist underpinnings of white privilege and power. It is hard to confront, challenge and accept that Australia has neglected to respect and uphold Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s cultural integrity as a standalone human and legitimate right.
I wonder how this framework has been interpreted in teaching, when policy and practice continue to allow the dominant decision makers to determine and implement systems from a deficit approach. I fear early learning teachers and educators are confused, compliant and potentially complicit in supporting models that position Aboriginal children as “vulnerable” and in need of intervention to succeed in later life.
Who is advantaged when teachers work in this way? Who is disadvantaged? Is this a strength-based approach or an assimilationist approach?
I can hear some saying: “What is the way forward then? What do we do now?”
I would say simply stop, listen, think and follow your Local Peoples’ leadership. Walk behind not in front, and make room for Aboriginal voices.
Personally, I was lucky to participate in the Study Tour to Reggio Emilia in 2018, to listen and learn how the historical and ongoing success of the educational project in Reggio Emilia is in part because it was founded on a rights platform.
“I would say simply stop, listen, think and follow your Local Peoples’ leadership.
Walk behind not in front, and make room for Aboriginal voices.”
It is timely that Australian teachers and educators listen to the global call for respectful relationships and consider the fact that First Nation Peoples do not enjoy the same rights as others. It is time for everyone to face up to the fact that what has been delivered in educational settings needs rethinking, change and new ways of teaching that truly respects and represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, priorities and knowledges if outcomes are to be improved.
I believe Australian early childhood needs a revolution to challenge the status quo and make way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to design, determine and implement early education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children themselves.
Deb Mann is a Wakka Wakka woman, daughter, mother grandmother, sister, aunt, union member and early childhood educator who has lived and worked on gadigal land for over 40 years. Deb advocates for local solutions that are designed and driven by traditional custodians and Knowledge Holders as a way to self-determination.
Free PD on demand: Online workshop Completing Deb Mann and wendy Jopson’s online workshop covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, culture and early childhood education will contribute two hours of NESA Registered PD addressing 1.4.2 and 2.4.2 from the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers towards maintaining Proficient Teacher Accreditation in NSW.