Schools decolonised is a research project as part of a Doctorate in Public Health. The question my research attempts to answer is
How and when do interventions to decolonise education work make education accessible and beneficial for Indigenous young people and their health equity? A realist review
The research project is a realist review or realist synthesis of texts such as reports, articles, correspondence and newsletters. Anything that describes particular, sustained efforts that make the right kind of difference for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.
The right kind of difference is one that is empowering rather than alienating and leads to or is heading toward success that is defined by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, parents and young people.
This research is about listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and assuming that non-Indigenous people can be allies but cannot do things ‘for’ Indigenous people or make policy ‘about’ Indigenous people to ‘fix’ ‘their’ ‘problems’. Rather the problems experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have come about from colonisation and the lack of understanding by non-indigenous Australia about how colonisation happened, how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived before colonisation and the way that colonisation is not a point in history but an ongoing state in which the colonising culture seeks to completely displace the cultures that existed before. Systemic and everyday racism are manifestations of present day colonisation. The effects of colonisation are seen in the absurdly high levels of imprisonment, hospitalisation and children in welfare experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
One of the sites of present day colonisation is the academy, the power holders and decision makers in academic research and teaching – key sites of knowledge production and dissemination. Indigenous methodologies are regarded as inferior and unscientific and struggle to get funding and widespread support. Indigenous researchers and academics are expected to put aside their own culture and ways of knowing, being and doing and adopt white/settler ways of knowing, being and doing.
Decolonisation is a framework by which non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous people can seek to uncover true stories and discover the truth about Indigenous people past and present, discarding stereotypes and embracing our cultural diversity and all the gifts it has to offer. It is a framework by which we can better understand and celebrate the many facets of Indigenous cultures that have shaped our present day colonial culture that are only now starting to be acknowledged.
Realist synthesis looks for a theory that can be used to plan change – usually change in behaviour by improving systems. It looks for mechanisms that trigger the change, contexts that either allow the mechanisms to work or block them. In this case the theory I am interested in is decolonisation.
Dr Lorraine Muller has written that decolonisation has six stages, building on the framework developed by Poka Laenui. The stages are what Indigenous people move through to become free of colonisation – colonial oppression. This involves rediscovering and taking back culture and language and reasserting one’s own ways of being, knowing and doing.
Not all Indigenous academic writers and theorists would agree that non-Indigenous people could or should undergo decolonisation also. Non-Indigenous people in Australia and countries with a similar history feel the impacts of colonisation often with little or no awareness of what we are experiencing. However writers such as Dr Muller and Dr Juanita Sherwood ask non-Indigenous people to decolonise ourselves, to free ourselves from the damage done from living our lives literally at the expense, both historically and in the present day, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lives.
Whereas the government’s closing the gap policy, in its form under the Rudd government, focusses on social inclusion and moving people from welfare into work, there are many who argue that this is assimilation all over again. An examination of the impact on remote communities and some of the lived realities of the NT intervention support this. By contrast, policies initiated by and carried out by or with extensive involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have outcomes that have meaning and value to the people involved in them, even if the results cannot be measured by ‘mainstream’ performance indicators.
In school education, one of the key measures of outcomes is the NAPLAN test. Yet the extent to which NAPLAN accurately measures the success of our education system is questionable. While no-one disputes that the gap in literacy and numeracy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is a significant issue, the very emphasis on the NAPLAN as a benchmark for schools arguably may complicate rather than assist teacher’s efforts to improve equity in their classrooms.
Realist synthesis is an approach to understanding ‘what works, for whom, in what circumstances and in what respects’ by analysing the way particular theories are put into practice in the real world and what happens – who they work for, when they work and why the outcomes are different in different situations.
Under the guidance of an expert panel, led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, my research aims to uncover successful efforts in schools and classrooms to make schools places of relevance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and Indigenous youth in other countries. What is important? How is success defined? These are issues that Indigenous people have a right to determine and which Indigenous young people have a right to be consulted about as acknowledged by our government through the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Once these outcomes are defined my task is to explore examples that work well according to the expert panel and which warrant investigation. From these I will seek to extrapolate theory about what works for whom and in what circumstances and in which respects so that other teachers, schools, principals and communities can have a better idea about how such ideas might translate to their own unique contexts.