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ACER Research Conference 2011 - Lessons learned
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ACER Research Conference 2011 - Lessons learned

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ACER Research Conference 2011, 'Indigenous Education: Pathways to success', brought together experts in Indigenous cultures, education, early childhood, health and government policy, with the aim of working together to support Indigenous learning.


Over two days, four keynote speakers and 12 speakers at concurrent sessions presented research-based knowledge about the environmental conditions, pedagogical strategies and curriculum approaches that create pathways to success for Indigenous students.

Eight key learnings emerged from the conference.

1. Take an evidence-based approach

An evidence-based approach is critical

Professor Jeannie Herbert (Charles Sturt University) noted that it is through heeding the outcomes of research that we as a nation can achieve sustainable education outcomes for Indigenous students. Professor Herbert said research is a means of enabling participants to empower themselves for their own futures.

Jonathan Carapetis and Sven Silburn (Menzies School of Health Research) told delegates that the limited progress in improving educational outcomes can, in part, be attributed to instructional practices derived from the unconnected experience of thousands of individual teachers, each ‘re-inventing the wheel’ and failing to adapt their practices in the light of cumulative scientific evidence about ‘what works’. They suggest that, as contextual factors will influence ‘what works’, it is necessary to aggregate results from a range of different evaluations through systematic reviews in order to produce reliable and comprehensive evidence.

2. Value learning from the Indigenous community

Indigenous research should recognise the value of learning from the Indigenous community

Using an Indigenous storytelling methodology, Professor Lorna Williams (University of Victoria, Canada) told
delegates that the community is a key support for the educational success of Indigenous learners.

Professor John Lester (University of Newcastle) suggested that the implementation of a community mentoring strategy would support the teaching profession to improve the teaching process for Indigenous students.

Dr Grace Sarra (Queensland University of Technology) discussed an example of a program that values Indigenous communities. Building and maintaining strong community-school partnerships, and acknowledging, embracing and developing Indigenous leadership in schools and school communities, are key elements to the approach of ‘YuMi Deadly Maths’.

3. Define 'success'

‘Success’ of Indigenous students should be defined

Professor Jeannie Herbert (Charles Sturt University) told delegates that education providers need to acknowledge each learner’s personal agency in defining ‘success’ within the parameters of their own values and beliefs systems. Therefore, defining success is a matter for negotiation between the learner and the other interested party.

Georgie Nutton (Menzies School of Health Research) noted that while definitions of success in the early years
have traditionally focused on literacy and numeracy, there has been work over the last two decades to shift the
balance to incorporate measures of the competencies in early years known to contribute to school engagement and retention.

Professor Jill Milroy (University of Western Australia) told delegates it is asserted that educational success for Aboriginal students is about high achievement in western education systems while maintaining Aboriginal
identity and cultural connection. She said the difficulty with this is that the two aims have never really coincided
and most often they actually pull against each other.

4. The impact of the 21st century

Researchers should be aware of the impact of the 21st century on Indigenous education

Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney (Adelaide University) identified information and communication technology as one of the four key education areas of 21st century Indigenous education: alongside mathematics, science and Aboriginal languages. He argued that, if Indigenous Australian societies are to move forward, then schools have a responsibility not only to close the gap, but also to develop in students a deep understanding of technologies. Professor Rigney said teachers, governments and policy makers must re-think the state of Indigenous education now to bridge any future digital divide. This includes understanding what schools will look like in the 21st century and the role that technology will play, as well as understanding what Indigenous pathways are in the 21st century.

5. Many pathways

There is a maze of pathways which comprise of learners, teachers and learning

Justin Brown and Gina Milgate (ACER) noted that there are several key transition points in young people’s lives – the early schooling years, transition to post-compulsory schooling, transition to tertiary education (VET
and higher education) outside school, re-engagement with education and training, and transition to employment from education and training. They said support must be provided at each transition point in order to achieve successful pathways for young Indigenous people, with programs and initiatives built on a bedrock of embedded cultural awareness and understanding.

6. Research absenteeism

There is a recognised need to research absenteeism and the measurement of non-attendance for Indigenous students

Dr Kate Reid (ACER), in her analysis of the Longitudinal Literacy and Numeracy Study for Indigenous Students, noted that higher levels of student absenteeism were associated with lower achievement in literacy and numeracy. She said that promoting attendance among Indigenous students is one of the key aspects of closing the gap in educational achievement for Indigenous students.

Dr Sarah Buckley and Stephanie Armstrong (ACER) told delegates that a combination of family, community, school and individual factors are involved in students’ missing school, although the causes of non-attendance are contested. They noted that different methods for recording student attendance across the states and territories mean it is difficult to collect, collate and compare information on school attendance at the national level. Buckley and Armstrong said that, while there is sufficient data to indicate a gap between non-Indigenous and Indigenous school attendance rates, it is not currently possible to tell if the gap has increased or decreased over time, nor is it possible to show if there are pockets where gaps are less pronounced or non-existent.

Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney (Adelaide University) said that measurement of non-attendance needs careful consideration. Given there is currently only limited evidence-based theory about Indigenous absenteeism, he identified the need for the development of a system of recording absenteeism.

7. The health of Indigenous learners

The health of Indigenous learners should be acknowledged

Jonathan Carapetis and Sven Silburn (Menzies School of Health Research) noted that the direct and indirect links between health and education have long been recognised, with almost all developing countries showing a linear relationship between increasing levels of education of parents and rates of infant mortality.

Dr Sarah Buckley and Stephanie Armstrong (ACER) noted that student health is an important factor in school attendance and retention.

8. Recognise Indigenous ways of teaching and learning

Indigenous ways of teaching and learning should be recognised

Professor Jill Milroy (University of Western Australia) told delegates that Indigenous ways of knowing are integral to Indigenous student success and to cultural continuity for Indigenous communities, yet scant resources are allocated to sustain them.

Associate Professor John Bradley (Monash University) discussed the importance of all students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, being exposed to ‘other’ knowledge systems, in order that they can engage in cross-cultural discourse in their future working lives.

Professor Lorna Williams (University of Victoria, Canada) advised that educators need to experience Indigenous ways of learning and teaching to understand what they can do to incorporate these practices into their classes. She said education systems should incorporate Indigenous ways of learning and teaching, such as songs and stories, and should reconsider attitudes to time and assessment practices that exclude Indigenous ways of learning.

Further information:
The ACER Research Conference 2011, on the theme Indigenous education: Pathways to success, was held in Darwin from 7 to 9 August 2011. The full proceedings from the conference as well as presentation slides from some speakers are available from the Research Conference website.

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