On the university scene the federal staff union is expressing some concerns about social justice, especially in the form of gender equity, but the major thrust of academe at present is the rather unseemly scramble for quality money. In the fever of accountability and competition for the dollar and, more importantly, the status ranking that goes with it, there is little thought for those Australians without the cultural capital to participate in this latest hegemonic game (unless, of course, social justice happens to feature in a university's nominated quality practice!).
In school education, where in all but one state Coalition education 'reforms' are underway, inequality also rates low on the agenda. At the risk of being parochial, we note that in Western Australia a major preoccupation (diversion?) is the fear of school closure and the likelihood of funding cutbacks. On the positive side (though mutedly so) the Social Justice Branch of the Education Department remains intact (so far) and there has been a recent Task Force Review on Aboriginal Social Justice. More on the latter below.
We have tried to understand 'where we went wrong' to learn from the experience. Quite frankly we do not know why we failed, but we suspect that it was a combination of these factors: a) we expected too much of the Aboriginal people invited to form the editorial board; although they appeared committed, they were already in frequent demand and most of them were not able to give the time and energy required: and b) we overlooked the possibility that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people generally might perceive our project as 'whitefella business' - not something for which they should feel responsible.
As it happened, three Aboriginal authors did submit papers and we have included them in this edition. So, notwithstanding our setback with the special edition, our desire to give support to the voices of those Australians who are educationally disadvantaged remains undiminished! And we continue with this topic below - with reference to all educationally disadvantaged Australians, not just those Indigenous people who may be so regarded.
We do not intend to be doctrinaire about this, but for those of you who wish to review your stance and practice with respect to educational disadvantage, we offer three procedural propositions. The first is in the form of a fundamental reconceptualisation of education, along the lines suggested by Barry Down in this edition, which should lead to the realisation that our education institutions are essentially hegemonic; they were designed by the dominant power group - typically by Eurocentric, powerful males (and those who would emulate them) - and to judge other cultural groups according to hegemonic standards is a classic case of cultural imperialism. This is not to say that disadvantaged people cannot or should not be encouraged to acquire cultural capital (high status knowledge and skills). It is to emphasise the social constructedness and arbitrariness of what currently counts as cultural capital. Unless we can see the cultural boundedness (and bias) of our educational curricula, we are destined to perpetuate the disadvantage of our non-mainstream clients.
The second proposition is in the form of the slogan: 'disadvantage begins at home.' We need to be aware that disadvantaging educational practices are not confined to those 'other' institutions - the ones that occupy the lowest rungs of the pecking order. Therefore, we need to examine our own work practices and to consider whether these practices might be contributing to the plight of the disadvantaged. For instance: assessment or instruction practices which clearly favour the already advantaged; research practices which depersonalise or dehumanise the researched and conceal our artful research practices; and the myriad of everyday acts which give substance to the elitist, hierarchical and undemocratic nature of our institutions. We want to avoid the hackneyed, but we are advocating what is sometimes called a critically reflective practitioner.
Our third and final proposition for redressing educational disadvantage is simply that we should seek solutions close to home, as well as from experts afar. It is a well established Australian tradition in education (but not only in education) to devalue the local product - otherwise known as indulging in the cultural cringe. We believe that in WA, and throughout Australia, there are successful local programs for the educationally disadvantaged, especially for disaffected secondary students and, therefore, practitioners from whom we can learn a great deal. And we are equally convinced of the value of listening to the voices of the disadvantaged themselves. The Aboriginal authors in this edition, Helen Lawrence, Freda Ogilvie and Rod Ogilvie, all advocate this either explicitly or implicitly.
With respect to our first item - the need for reconceptualisation - the Report makes a minor departure with some tentative proposals to review the Aboriginal independent schools (though mainly to make them more accountable!) and to trial two Aboriginal systemic schools; but the major thrust of the Task Force recommendations on education are on compensatory programs in the early childhood area - an essentially assimilationist approach which has been largely discredited and abandoned elsewhere in the Western world.
As for our third proposition - the need to value local professional experience and listen to those who are most affected - the Task Force did engage in Aboriginal people, but the reporting of the Aboriginal expressions leaves a lot to be desired; the 85 so-called community consultation issues (Appendix G) are so de-contextualised that it is hard to interpret their meaning. Of the 71 recommendations on education, a couple are concerned with facilitating the training of Aboriginal teachers, one with the value of Aboriginal educators being involved in the preservice training of non-Aboriginal teachers, and one which acknowledges that Aboriginal professionals at one of the local universities could be employed to do inservice training for non-Aboriginal teachers.
The net result, we regret to say, is that as far as education for Aboriginal people is concerned there is little consideration given to the power differential between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Until this is redressed, we contend, changes in Aboriginal education are not likely to be profound or long lasting. Handing over control 'lock stock and barrel' is not likely to be the answer (as we found out with our special edition of the journal!), but a strong and steady shift in this direction is sorely needed.
Next come the three papers by Aboriginal authors. Helen Lawrence expresses frustration with what she sees as a lack of progress in Aboriginal education in WA, and considers carefully how it might be improved; she focuses, in particular, on language matters - so critical to cross-cultural teaching and learning. Freda Ogilvie is more restrained as she mirrors her passion for teaching and reflects on the attributes of a good primary school teacher for Aboriginal children. Rod Ogilvie's paper is about Aboriginal youth suicide, based on the knowledge he has gained from working with Aboriginal youth for many years, wherein he reminds the reader of the vital link between suicide and education found in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
The final two papers are more conventional in the sense that they report on educational research undertaken by the authors. Mani Le Vasan takes as her point of departure the need for teachers of business English (what she terms "English for Specific Purposes") to be well acquainted with the culture and the texts of the learner's community, hence her rationale for the case study of a Malaysian business organisation. No doubt many readers will be intrigued by Le Vasan's preliminary analysis of the sub-genres of commercial English evident in email communications within this organisation.
In their paper Helen Wildy and John Wallace provide a lucid account of the teaching style of a year eleven physics teacher and ponder whether it is as 'good' as these high achieving students (and their parents) think it is. Like all of the contributions to this edition, this paper is eminently accessible to the non-specialist; readers with a philosophical bent will be particularly interested in checking the logic of the authors' conclusions.
John Hall and Andrew Sooby
The views and styles expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily shared by the editor or members of the editorial advisory board.
Copyright © 1994 WAIER
Published by the Western Australian Institute for Educational Research (WAIER), Perth, Western Australia. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission from WAIER. Desktop publishing (1994) by Clare McBeath. Printed (1994) by Printing Services, Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia.
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