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Keeping Indigenous teens in school by reinventing the lessons

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott with kindergarden kids at Yirrkala in the Northern Territory. Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in the NT have the nation’s lowest retention rate, so it’s time to try more creative ways to fix that. AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Tony Abbott is spending this week in North-East Arnhem Land, part of his long-held hope “to be not just the Prime Minister but the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”. We asked our experts: what stories does the PM need to hear while he’s in the Top End?

It’s the number one question asked by kids everywhere: “Why?”

If you’re a teenager – or the parent or teacher of one – you’ve probably heard these questions too: “Why do I have to go to school? Why am I learning this? And how will it help me get a job or figure out what to do with the rest of my life?”

A couple of years ago, a principal told me the story of a young Aboriginal man who had just finished high school. He was the first in his remote Australian community to do so. While everyone celebrated his achievement around him, he openly asked, “What for, I do this?”

Having a good answer to that question is important for all of us, so that we can persuade our kids to stick with school and keep their options open for future study and work. Persuasive answers are even more important when we’re talking with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids.

Four out of 10 Indigenous Australians are under the age of 17 years, while one in every two is still under 21. That’s a huge generation of young people coming through who need to be prepared – and be preparing themselves – for the opportunities and challenges of tomorrow.

Yet despite encouraging gains in the past decade, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows there is still a worrying gap (27.8%) in retention rates from Year 7/8 to Year 12 between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The evidence shows that the more remote the location, the bigger the gap. For example, students in the Northern Territory (Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike) have the lowest rate of retention in Australia.

Australia’s not alone in needing to rethink the way we teach and engage learners. As I’ll explain, there are inspiring examples we could learn from, including innovative Navajo and Studio Schools in the United States and United Kingdom, which offer lessons for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike.

Learning about service to others

The STAR School is a charter elementary school in northern Arizona in the US, near the southwest corner of the Navajo Nation.

The STAR in the school’s name stands for Service to All Relations. Indigenous students who attend the Navajo School are required to undertake project-based learning, which balances mainstream curriculum including science, technology, engineering and math subjects with that idea of service to the broader community and the environment.

This way learning is contextualised and real. Extended families, relatives and the natural environment are all important aspects of Navajo life, as is the case in Indigenous Australia.

Educational literature shows project-based learning can be more relevant and more meaningful, and can lead to increased retention and enjoyment of learning. Yes, learning should be challenging, but it should also be enjoyable.

Studio schools in the United Kingdom

A number of innovative models have emerged in the United Kingdom to reconcile a disconnect between employer expectations, youth unemployment and disengagement from schooling.

The Studio Schools have been established to equip learners with the tools to navigate a complex world, drawing upon their CREATE framework, focused on creative and critical thinking, technology skills, emotional intelligence, communication and relationships.

The CREATE framework.

As Geoff Mulgan explains in this TED talk, the starting point behind the Studio School concept was to ask: “What kind of school would have teenagers fighting to get in, not get out?”

After trials in the UK in Luton and Blackpool, Mulgan says:

We got quite a lot of things wrong and then improved them. But we found that the young people loved it, they found it much more motivational and much more exciting. And perhaps most important of all, two years later when the exam results came through, the pupils who had been put on these field trials, who were in the lowest-performing groups, had jumped right to the top.

Our schools of the future in Australia should not just be about teaching relationships, but mentoring and facilitating relationships. Safe spaces need to be created for conversations among young people about not only identity but character. Such spaces enable them to reflect upon emotional and mental health and strategies to tackle risks that may be in and around them such as self-harm, substance misuse and teen pregnancy.

A book called Learning a Living suggests that we need to create young people who aren’t just consumers of learning but active producers of a better world. Discarding the idea of students being “empty vessels” and deficit-based teaching models would be a good start. Learning should be empowering.

Giving students and parents more choice

Just as the best health experts are increasingly focused on personalised medicine, my research work is focused on finding better ways to personalise education, particularly at a school level.

That’s why I find it encouraging when the federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne talks about greater choice in the curriculum and putting students first.

Similarly, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion have talked about the importance of local decision-making in Indigenous affairs and the folly of “one-size-fits all” thinking.

There is no reason why these virtues should not extend to Indigenous schooling and community learning environments. All Australian students deserve access to a curriculum that encourages and fosters choice and diversity.

Yearning to learn beats one-size-fits-all schooling

The current results speak for themselves. Right now, far too many young Indigenous people are voting with their feet and not staying on to year 12. And I would argue one of the reasons is curriculum that lacks engagement and appeal.

Even when we get a young man like the one I quoted, where he had made it to the end of year 12, it is concerning that he still asks about the relevance and utility of education. Would he have asked that if he’d been involved with something like the STAR program?

My proposed model for a more effective, learner-centred approach. Tony Dreise, CC BY-NC-ND

I’ve developed the “Learning, Earning, Yearning” model shown on the right in response to a quest among Indigenous young people for safety, connection to culture and place, jobs, inclusion and support measures aimed at reducing the stresses of schooling and life outside school. The idea is to see more young people learning wider and longer; earning more; and yearning for a better life.

Teaching with a sense of “place” in mind is a key driver behind this, just as in the STAR model, in light of many Indigenous Australians’ cultural preferences for staying on country.

Developing entrepreneurial mindsets, supporting personal agency and fostering creativity underpins the model so that learners are not simply consumers of learning, but producers of it. Further, the model embraces the idea that young people should grow not only their identity, but their character.

I’ve started talking to philanthropists about these ideas. My PhD, which I’m nearing the end of, has been looking at relationships between philanthropy and Indigenous education. Philanthropists on their best day are positive disruptors. They’re prepared to take risks and innovate. Our schools could do with more of this positive disruption.

Further reading in this Abbott in Arnhem Land series:
Birthing on Country could deliver healthier babies and communities
Welcome to my Country: seeing the true beauty of life in Bawaka
‘PM for Aboriginal Affairs’ Abbott faces his biggest hearing test
Australia’s 7 Up: the revealing study tracking babies to adults
Well-connected Indigenous kids keen to tap new ways to save lives
Indigenous Australia’s rapid rise is shifting money and votes
How crowded homes can lead to empty schools in the bush
Would you risk losing your home for a few weeks of work?
Listen to your elders: inviting Aboriginal parents back to school
Indigenous Australians need a licence to drive, but also to work
Explainer: Can a DNA test reveal if you’re an Indigenous Australian?
Explainer: what Indigenous constitutional recognition means

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