Silence is not an option for First Nations’ content in Australian schools


Authentic and sometimes confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content is helping the next generation of Australian teachers be more socially responsible and inclusive, say University of South Australia experts.

In a UniSA study, researchers found that pushing pre-service teachers outside their comfort zones helped educate them about the injustices faced by First Nations’ people – including racism, prejudice and discrimination – and to more confidently integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content into their lessons.

Encouraging pre-service teachers to prioritise First Nations knowledges into their teaching is an essential element of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (AITSL) to deliver the best possible educational opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

It also stipulates that teachers must engage all Australian students with current, accurate and culturally robust knowledge about First Nations histories cultures and languages.

But it’s not always easy, especially when most Australian teachers, pre-service teachers, and teacher-educators come from European-Australian backgrounds, says UniSA Adjunct Associate Professor Kathy Paige.

“Teachers, pre-service teachers and teacher educators in Australia are predominately European Australian with a small minority of First Nations people,” says Assoc Prof Paige.

“What this means is that their knowledge of Australian histories and living cultures is limited by what they’ve been exposed to.

“In this study, we challenged pre-service teachers to explore their own attachments to place, identity and belonging as a stepping-stone towards engaging with First Nations cultures, histories, Country, and identities.

“They then engaged in a range of authentic learning practices that helped reframe deficit views of Aboriginal students, parents, and communities as intractable problems to be overcome, to people who are capable, intelligent and valuable. This is vital for professional teachers.”

The pre-service teachers also planned integrated mathematics and science units of work that identified key concepts and incorporated First Nations knowledges and ways of thinking. Some of these involved creating lesson plans to explore the biodiversity of the school grounds to help native butterflies flourish or investigating angles and shadows in a topic to minimise light pollution.

Co-researcher and UniSA Associate Director of Regional Engagement, Dr Sam Osborne, says while the interventions indicated greater confidence levels among many pre-service teachers to embed First Nations content into their school curriculum, some students expressed lower confidence levels.

“This dip in confidence might seem negative, but it simply shows us that some pre-service teachers ‘don’t know what they don’t know’, which is to be expected for many people of a European-Australian background,” Dr Osborne says.

“Despite the professional and ethical responsibility to embed Australian histories and living cultures into schools, most pre-service teachers have limited first-hand experiences and understanding of First Nations ways of knowing, which can make the process difficult for some.

“As passionate, experienced educators, we intentionally push the boundaries to ensure our teaching graduates have a sense of self-regulation to determine what they need to do to upskill and build confidence to locate and embed authentic First Nations voices, experiences, and knowledges across the curriculum.

“Empowering pre-service teachers to take on this responsibility, and understand the importance of doing so, is critical for a strengthened and more-just Australian identity for all Australian students.”

UniSAUniSA is unwavering in our ongoing commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and engagement. Our Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan 2023-2025 continues to guide our collaborative efforts in teaching, research, employment, and community engagement activities. These initiatives aim to benefit and uphold the freedom of First Nations Peoples across Australia now and in the future.
In light of last year’s outcome of the national referendum on an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament, our dedication to reconciliation is even more crucial as we strive for justice and the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, knowledge, and perspectives.

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