On Country Learning: Promoting Remote Australian Aboriginal Children’s Well-being and Creativity

Research Team Members: Libby Lee-Hammond and Elizabeth Jackson-Barrett
Murdoch University, Western Australia
Grant programme: Research Grants 2016
Grant amount: £21,240
Project start date: January 2017
Project end date: December 2017

 

Project summary
On-Country Learning (OCL) is a unique pedagogical approach to Aboriginal early years education developed and piloted in Australia by the research team. The approach aims to address new ways of meeting the educational aspirations of Aboriginal students, their families and communities. 


The approach consists of class group visits to designated places on Country on a weekly or fortnightly basis. The Elders of the community choose the sights, so that they can teach and nurture a generation of children with the skills, knowledge and values from that Country. 


Children are active participants in the experiences, and are encouraged to explore and experiment in collaboration with their peers, teachers and Elders. Through this participation, the children adopt an active role in constructing meaning from their experiences, and thus develop deep understandings based on these experiences. OCL enables children and their school based educators to make connections with curriculum areas such as languages, history, literacy, numeracy, science, the arts, technologies, health and physical education. Teachers are supported to work alongside the children to connect the experiences on Country with the school curriculum and to plan further investigation of wondering questions, observations, new knowledge and skills that germinate from the visits on Country. OCL provides children with educational experiences that are hands-on and relevant to their lives.

 

Research Questions
In this project, the research team set out to explore the impact of On Country Learning (OCL) for Aboriginal children living in a remote region of Australia. The research questions this project sought to explore are underpinned by the Trust’s six named Froebelian principles and include:

 

• How is the relationship of every child to family, community and to nature, culture and society understood and practiced in a remote community by schools and Aboriginal peoples? 
• How can a model of OCL be developed that recognises the rights of the child to play and creativity within an otherwise centralised and mandated curriculum? 
• What opportunity does OCL present in terms of collaborative culturally responsive pedagogies to support Aboriginal children’s learning and development in remote settings? 
• How does learning On Country with strong connections to the community and cultural relevance impact Aboriginal children’s wellbeing, involvement and engagement in learning? 
• How does OCL develop the cultural and pedagogical responsiveness of educators to support the development of each child and recognise and encourage their competencies? 

 

Key findings
How the relationship of every child to family, community and to nature, culture and society understood and practiced in a remote community by schools and Aboriginal peoples? 


As a result of this project, we have ascertained that there is a rich potential and appetite for remote community schools to nurture this relationship further. In this study, members of the Community repeatedly enabled the relationships between children, family, community and nature by providing opportunities for direct experiences on Country. Educators and school leaders valued this as an important and hitherto missing ingredient in successful remote education. The project highlighted these relationships as the key element of children’s wellbeing and strong community-school partnerships.


How can a model of OCL be developed that recognises the rights of the child to play and creativity within an otherwise centralised and mandated curriculum? 


Educators recognised that the OCL project enabled children to communicate their ideas in contexts and modes that were not previously available to them in the regular classroom. Children’s agency in this approach assisted teachers to recognise ways in which classroom programs might be more inclusive of children’s ‘funds of knowledge’ (Moll. et. al., 1992)


What opportunity does OCL present in terms of collaborative culturally responsive pedagogies to support Aboriginal children’s learning and development in remote settings? 

 

OCL presented a wide range of opportunities for developing collaborative pedagogies to support children’s learning and development in this setting that would likely be transferrable to similar remote settings. However, we have identified some challenges in relation to this. Namely, the need for continuity of staffing in the school and the availability of community members to facilitate OCL. These are factors beyond the control of the project and are very much tied to the context of the project in a remote location.


How does learning On Country with strong connections to the community and cultural relevance impact Aboriginal children’s wellbeing, involvement and engagement in learning? 


There is evidence from a range of data collected in this project that OCL directly improved children’s levels of wellbeing, engagement and involvement in learning. 


How does OCL develop the cultural and pedagogical responsiveness of educators to support the development of each child and recognise and encourage their competencies? 


OCL provided a context in which children’s cultural knowledge was valued and encouraged. Children’s confidence to share what they knew about Country with their teachers provided them an opportunity to be the experts in that space. Children demonstrated both knowledge and skills during the OCL experiences that would not have been visible under regular classroom conditions. These opportunities enabled educators to see children in new and positive ways thus strengthening teacher’s perceptions of children as competent learners.


Emerging implications for policy/practice

• Extensive professional learning for educators must be undertaken prior to teachers being placed in remote contexts. For many systemic reasons this is not always possible and impacts on the capacity of communities to engage productively with schools. 
• Teachers and communities can work effectively together when the school can accommodate change to the timetable and increase their flexibility around daily schedules. 
• Teachers need dedicated time to reflect and plan in the appropriate way to respond to OCL experiences in order to maximise the opportunities for children to make connections between OCL and classroom-based learning.
• There is a need for culturally appropriate resources in the school that reflect local stories and languages. 
• Curriculum based in OCL can lead to community-wide self-sustaining business opportunities around tourism and sale of cultural artefacts (books, paintings, clapping sticks, weaving). This holistic approach requires leadership and a two-way partnership between the school and the community.
• Froebelian principles can be embedded in all facets of education in remote schools where Aboriginal students can be enabled to develop their abilities in line with their connection to Country.

 

Publications:

Jackson-Barrett, E. & Lee-Hammond, L. (in press) On Country Learning: Improving the Social and Emotional Wellbeing and Involvement of Aboriginal Children in Early Childhood. Australian Journal of Teacher Education
Jackson-Barrett, E. & Lee-Hammond, L. (under review). From Pink Floyd to Pink Hill:  Transforming the bricks in the wall to the connections of Country in remote Aboriginal education. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal Special Edition: Working with Parents and Families Transforming Partnerships

 

 

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