- DRAFT, October 1, 2017 Bill Kerr


There are various opinions about what culture is and how important it is. Noel Pearson discusses and rejects various metaphors of culture (melting pot, patchwork quilt, rainbow, salad bowl) in deciding on his own approach, “that individuals and groups both possess 'layers of identity'” (Up from the Mission, pp. 333-4).

In his Radical Hope essay, Noel says that the most important thing is for indigenous Australians is to acquire skills in English Language and Maths through Direct Instruction (Zig Engelmann's version) in the morning, say from 9am-1pm, when students are fresh and more alert. In his view, culture is important but nevertheless, the overtly indigenous cultural curriculum is relegated to the end of the day.

Noel is critical of a “culturally appropriate” curriculum, which he sees as a subset of a confining socially relevant curriculum and says it has been tried and failed. See his letter to Anna Bligh with commentary in Radical Hope, pp 55-60. At the same time in Hopevale, a CYP school, a Direct Instruction programme for teaching Guugu Yimithirr is being pursued so indigenous language is seen as vitally important.

Noel's critique of the socially relevant curriculum is that “it sought to confine the content of curricula to the particular circumstances of students, so that they would recognise and identify with the world alluded to in their schooling. … it did not just eschew Shakespeare in favour of popular culture; it also infected assumptions about the educational aspirations of lower class children. It would be hard to imagine a more stunning instrument for enforcing lower-class confinement than the notion of a socially relevant education.” (pp. 59-60)

Noel raises an important issue here. It is relatively easy to engage kids in learning by doing something they already like and are good at, things they are familiar with and enjoy in their present day, existing culture. Rugby, colouring in, movies. I see teachers in an indigenous school, with difficult classes, do this in order to survive the day. But most people would agree with Noel that this is limiting, that the goals of education should be to stretch them further.

But what exactly are those goals? And should indigenous culture play a significant place in framing those goals? I perceive a lack of clarity on this question which ends up in hand balling the problem to some higher authority such as The National Curriculum. But do the framers of the indigenous cross curriculum priorities of the National Curriculum have a deep understanding of these issues?

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cross curriculum priority of the Australian National Curriculum states:
“Students will understand that Identities and Cultures have been, and are, a source of strength and resilience for Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islander Peoples against the historic and contemporary impacts of colonisation. “

“Cultures have been, and are, a source of strength and resilience ...” So go the wise words of the liberal curriculum reformers. We stole your land, killed your people and trashed your culture. Our bad. Now we will we will encourage you to do your dances, dot paintings and speak your languages. This will fix things up.

This might be well meaning but does it drill down to the deeper issues?


No cultural pathway is pure. We have what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls cosmopolitan contamination and Salman Rushdie calls mongrelization:

“… the ideal of contamination has no more eloquent exponent than Salman Rushdie, who has insisted that the novel that occasioned his fatwa “celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it (Appiah, p. 112)”

In reading more widely about this issue I find that nearly all authors agree that culture changes, that it is a fluid and dynamic entity that can't be neatly pigeon holed or defined. Nevertheless, despite that, these various authors still attach widely (wildly?) different significance to the importance of culture.

How come it is such a contentious question with divergent views? I think because subjectively people associate culture with their personal identity. Some trust this, embrace it; others are suspicious of what appears to be a natural solution and want to look deeper.


I need to come back to the issue of why culture is important. There is often an overt or implied but incorrect moral argument here.

The argument from strong cultural relativism goes something like this. Culture refers to the collective identity of a group. This culture in turn determines the identity of the individuals in that group. There is a special moral value in my culture, it determines my true, essential, authentic identity. There is an essential link between my culture and my identify. You are not allowed to criticise any aspect of my culture, even if you find some aspects repugnant (eg. the right of a man to beat his partner) because that is criticising my essential identify.

This is a quasi biological argument, that my capabilities are an extension of the culture I was born into. To make a fetish of culture can lead to white racism at one pole and indigenous separatism at the other pole.

From within this framework what can we learn from other cultures in such a world? My culture determines me. Your culture determines you. The next step in the argument is incoherent: My culture can teach your culture valuable lessons. Refer Moody Adams, pp. 215-6. Strong cultural relativism leads to separate development.

Another problem with strong cultural relativism is that it doesn't explain, given that culture is dynamic and can change (which nearly everyone agrees with) , why it is so important? Why is it so important given that it can be changed? Why not just work to change the culture rather than use indigenous processes to teach the curriculum?


The answer here, pointed out to me by Philemon Chigeza, is that culture is like software on a computer. My interpretation is that culture is more like a plastic type medium, considerably more durable, than a water type fluid. Culture is the brain wiring that occurs in the first 5 years of a child's life. We forget how we learned that stuff, it just becomes part of us, part of our identity, more or less impossible to change. So, for example, a rural Aboriginal child will almost certainly grow up believing in the spirit world, whereas an urban white middle class child might well grow up being an atheist or agnostic. That early “brainwiring” can't be avoided in our current society and it's not going to go away any time soon.

Kwame Anthony Apiah has a section in his book “Cosmopolitanism” where he describes how impossibly difficult it would be to convince a traditionally raised person in Ghana not to believe in witchcraft (pp. 36-9). Witchcraft can be convincingly argued for. It took centuries for our modern scientific view to replace such views. And similar debates still rage within our modern culture on such topics as astrology and alternative medical methodologies.

Culture may not be hard wired but it is plastic wired, still too hard to change quickly. For that reason it has to be taken into account somehow by the teacher in their interactions with students from another culture.


Everyone says that culture is important in some way but just how should indigenous culture be integrated into the school curriculum?

Tyson 1: 8 ways

Tyson Yunkaporta (Aboriginal Pedagogies at the Cultural Interface) does attempt a solution. He asks “How can teachers use Aboriginal knowledge authentically and productively in schools?” and answers by “the application of Aboriginal processes rather than Indigenised content”. It's not about boomerangs and didgeridoos but about indigenous learning processes. He goes on to identify 8 ways that suit Aboriginal learners. The 8 ways go under the headings of
1. Holism: the Aboriginal learner concentrates on the overall picture before going into detail
2. Visual: a concrete, holistic image serves as an anchor for the learner
3. Community: for Aboriginal people the motivation for learning is inclusion in the community
4. Symbols and Images: since learning styles are problematic reframe visual-spatial learning as symbolic learning, using both concrete and abstract imagery (it's not clear to me from Tyson's descriptions what this alleged reframing of problematic learning styles actually means – see later for a critique of learning styles)
5. Non verbal: Kinesthenic, hands on, silence, imitation
6. Land links: Aboriginal people have a deep connection to place
7. Story sharing: Elders teach using stories, the lesson is contained in the narrative
8. Non linear: the linear perspective of direct questioning, direct instruction is categorised as “western pedagogy”; contrast this with Aboriginal pedagogy where multiple processes occur continuously. But note that in the next paragraph Tyson says there are “excellent western non-linear frameworks available like De Bono's Lateral Thinking ” (p. 13)

My first reaction to Tyson's 8 ways was “I've seen a lot of this before in non-Aboriginal contexts”. Holistic learning, Visual learning, Kinesthenic learning, Learning with concrete symbols, Multiple Intelligences may not always be mainstream but they are well established, alternative “western ways” of learning.

Tyson 2: Common Ground

Tyson recognises this in his article. There are some authors who see Aboriginal and Western ways as antithetical but there are other authors who see them as complementary. Tyson comes down clearly in the latter group. He goes so far as to say that in selecting the 8 Aboriginal pedagogies he has kept an eye out for “common ground” between Aboriginal and western ways:

For instance, in discussing the Non-linear Aboriginal pedagogy Tyson says:

“Aboriginal people think and perceive in a way that is not constrained by the serial and sequential nature of verbal thinking (Gibson, 1993). That linear perspective in western pedagogy has been identified as a key factor in marginalising Aboriginal people and preventing us from constructing our own identities (Wheaton, 2000).

However, this is the point at which western and Indigenous pedagogies are often incorrectly constructed as irreconcilable. To remedy this divisive tendency, this way of learning also encompasses non-linear Indigenous ideas of overlap and synergy, choosing to view the two worlds as complementary rather than oppositional (Linkson, 1999). After all, it is limiting to view all mainstream knowledge as linear when there are excellent western non-linear frameworks available like De Bono’s (1996) Lateral Thinking. So this way of learning is not only about presenting learning in cyclic and indirect ways – it is also about avoiding dichotomies by finding common ground and creative potential between diverse viewpoints and knowledge domains.”
(emphasis added, p. 13)

And on Tyson's wiki:
“the 8ways were selected from the Aboriginal pedagogies in our research because they were the ones that shared a common ground with mainstream pedagogies that teachers are familiar with. This gives teachers a safe and familiar point of entry for beginning to engage with Aboriginal ways of doing things, rather than just examining cultural artefacts and performances”
- kaawoppa TY online name, http://8ways.wikispaces.com/share/view/26767189?replyId=27422837

Tyson 3: Positive Synergies

Tyson talks about the positive synergies that arise from combining western culture with indigenous culture. I read the following Tyson as saying unambiguously that in combining Aboriginal and western culture better things are possible:

“Researchers in various fields are now using the interface between fields like science and Aboriginal knowledge as a source of inventiveness, harnessing the energy of two systems in order to create new knowledge (Durie, 2005). International scientific organisations are actively promoting this synergy (Bala and Joseph, 2007), as they begin to acknowledge the dialogical histories of bi-cultural innovations that formed the foundations of modern science and technology (Smith, 1999). Rose (2005) contends that Aboriginal knowledge works synergistically with western ecological science streams. Even in linguistics the concept of Hybridity, grounded in Congruence Theory, proposes that elements common to both cultures are more likely to persist in recovering (indigenous) languages (Zuckerman, 2007)”.
(p. 18)

Tyson 4: Reject the Negatives

Tyson is critical of those who are negative about Aboriginal learners or cultures in the following ways:
- Lament of poor outcomes and behaviour issues for the majority of Koori students.
- Justification of schooling failure, naming Aboriginal community dysfunction as the main contributing factor.
- Narration of horror stories of Aboriginal community dysfunction.
- Accusation that Aboriginal politics and social fragmentation make consultation and community involvement in education impossible/difficult.
- Judgement that the Aboriginal community has lost its culture and has little meaningful knowledge left to contribute to the teaching of Aboriginal perspectives in schools.
(p. 26)


8 ways is intended to be a spotlight showing the way forward. But I would argue there are other places on which the light needs to fall, some of them negative, some of them interesting.

1 Tyson's 8 processes of Aboriginal learning and reality.

Has he nailed it? Do the 8 ways describe something deeply meaningful about Aboriginal learning practices. I think yes and no. Aboriginal people do have a different culture to westerners. Some of Tyson's 8 ways identify some of those differences for many Aboriginals. Strong sense of community. Deep connection to place. Teaching through stories. But others on the list are more debatable. I would argue a need to differentiate between what is of interest to Aboriginal people (stories about the land and community) from what Tyson is alleging are not only preferred but also more effective learning styles of Aboriginal people (holistic, visual, symbols and images, non verbal, non linear). I will argue below that interest is important but learning styles are less important.

Something we need to avoid. It took us outsiders / white people a very long time to discover that Aboriginal people were equal. Now we know that they are equal but different. That is the politically correct view. The pressure on western outsiders to explain the difference is very strong. The politicians talk endlessly about closing the gap. Given that Aboriginal people are equal why can't the gap be closed? Millions of dollars have been spent to close the gap and the progress is agonisingly slow. It must be something to do with the way Aboriginal people are different that accounts for our failure to close the gap. That must be culture. Then Tyson comes along with a culturally based solution. There is a tremendous pressure for the western outsiders to embrace this solution as the answer. We are more than ready to embrace the one who can explain why Aboriginal people are different but equal. The one who can explain this deep mystery.

2. Traditional culture is a warrior culture

This section is incomplete
Stanner, quoted by NP, pp. 4-5
Hilary Putnam points out that the warrior ethic, that courageous males are the most important members of society, was accepted by many societies for thirty thousand years (Philosophy in an Age of Science, p. 307)

Not mentioned by Tyson and not common ground with the equality ethic we accept today in western society.

3 There are negative (welfare dependency) as well as positive (open culture) indigenous cultures

Welfare dependency is an important way in which social class is played out these days. The culture blame game replaces social class as an explanatory principle for the lack of success. Culture appears to express indigenous rights yet the explanatory framework is safe to the ruling class

Aboriginal culture is not just a place where good things happen. From a post Enlightenment western human rights perspective there are negative aspects of indigenous culture. This has been documented by many authors including indigenous authors (eg. Langton, Price, Cashman). Tyson is in denial here. He is not alone in finding it difficult to face negative issues in his own culture. (Tyson 4: Reject the Negatives) Aboriginal culture as it exists now can be a problem, rather than a benefit. Those with a close knowledge of Aboriginal communities know that the negatives he wants us to drop are real problems that can't be dodged by words of denial.

In Radical Hope (pp. 31-34) Noel cites a paper by Maria Lane which argues the indigenous population has split into two populations:

- A Welfare Embedded Population which is risk and work averse and benefits-, welfare- and security orientated
- An Open Society Population which is opportunity-, effort- and outcome- oriented

Maria Lane describes the Welfare Embedded Population as “passive victims” (who are) “likely to externalise all problems either as the responsibilities of white bureaucrats, teachers, doctors or social workers (who 'should do something about it') or as a product of their biology ('and there's nothing we can do about that'). Many, many 'community' folk beliefs reiterate this belief in the immutability of the world and the externalisation of responsibility”

Note that the Australian Cross Curriculum Priorities makes no mention of the culture which accompanies welfare dependency. But many authors have pointed out that welfare dependency is a big problem, not a small problem, in many indigenous communities.

So, how does a new, white teacher in an indigenous school experience this issue? Do the Australian curriculum guidelines assist him/her here? In my early days in a new indigenous school, I experienced resistance to my teaching in the form of wagging lessons, relentlessly tapping on the desks, students walking in and out of the room at will, lying face down on the floor, teasing other students, lying, swearing and cursing. Should I have framed these problems in terms of me not understanding or adapting my lessons to be more culturally in touch with the students? Or should I frame the behaviour as an expression of Welfare Embedded culture? Or is it a mix of both Welfare Embedded culture and my lack of appreciation of healthy indigenous culture? My request here is to begin with the real experiences of well intentioned teacher's in the classroom, not with politically correct phrases that Culture is a source of resilience and strength for the indigenous. Welfare Embedded culture is not a source of resilience and strength.

With the assistance of indigenous helpers, the advice of the more experienced teachers, some restructuring of class composition (from age based to ability based) and the passage of time which is essential, I was able to first survive and eventually transform such resistant behaviours into a classroom environment where learning took place. The reason improvement occurred IMO is that over time I gained credibility as a teacher who valued and was good at explaining the subjects I taught (mainly maths) and who cared for the students learning, rather than any marked change in my take up of Aboriginal culture. I listened and respected the students in the general sense of paying attention to their issues as they presented. Trust and mutual respect was built gradually with the indigenous helper in the class providing me with invaluable information, not usually culturally specific, but information about the difficult lives and backgrounds of many of my students.

4 The complexity of the cultural interface defies attempts to simplify it. One effect of simplification is to promote a pressure to conform to a cultural stereotype

What about Aboriginal and TSI people who don't conform or identify to the 8 indigenous ways of learning? Culture is being used to define a collective world view here. But not everyone conforms to the collective. Diverse individuals within the collective are being rendered invisible. (Nakata, 178).

Martin Nakata develops an analysis which he calls the Cultural Interface. The Cultural Interface is a very complex place, a tower of many Babels, where the colonial past intersects with our relatively enlightened, sometimes less overtly racist present; predominantly oral culture intersects with written and digital culture; where a variety of languages are spoken, some of them have become extinct, some endangered and others have transformed into Creoles; where old traditions intermingle with new ways of doing things. I would say he reframes the problem by describing the complexity and diversity of this inbetween place.

Maria Lane descrbes two main cultures. Martin describes or implies many different cultures.

5 There doesn't appear to be good evidence that different learning styles make a difference

Tyson does say that “since learning styles are problematic reframe visual-spatial learning as symbolic learning, using both concrete and abstract imagery” (p. 11). However, there are quite a few of his 8 ways that can be categorised as learning styles: holistic, visual, symbols and images, non verbal, non linear.

Some researchers claim that learning styles don't make a difference to learning. Learners might state a preference of style (eg. Visual, aural, kinesthenic) but when tested the results don't show any better learning in one mode rather than another. This finding goes against popular opinion, most people believe that learning styles make a difference to learning content but the research does not verify this opinion so far.

There are real differences amongst students in their talent, their interests and their background knowledge but when it comes to learning new things trying to fit the learner to a particular learning style does not make a difference.

So learning styles can be used to
- Explain differences that do exist, eg. in background knowledge, but it is the wrong explanation. The real reason xxx is behind in maths is that she has skipped lessons or there was a high turnover of not very good maths teachers in a remote community. There is no evidence that teaching in a particular style will help her catch up. But Direct Instruction with it's pre testing, levelled classroom abilities, rigorous content and feedback mechanisms would help. That is because the problem is missing background knowledge, not learning styles.
- Appeal to egalitarian sentiment. Aboriginal people are different. Now we understand the difference. By making the lessons more holistic, non linear, visual or kinesthenic we will be able to close the gap. This appeals to the desperate sentiment amongst western progressives to explain the difference and our inability to close the gap.

(Reference this section: Riener and Willingham)

6 The cultural solution feeds into the ongoing Political Blame game

An image of the world (the cultural solution) does not always match the reality.

Culture as a concept tries to capture the collective habits of a people. The error in ED official cross-curriculum-priorities is that it tries to homogenise Torres Strait Islanders as one common people. In that rhetoric the wide diversity of people within the TSI community is hidden from view.

Once cultural traits are described or defined, as Tyson Yunkaporta does (learning processes of Holism, Visual, Community, Symbols and Images, Non verbal, Land links, Story sharing, Non linear) and the ED does (although rather vaguely with such almost meaningless descriptors as people, culture, country / place, identity, living communities), then there is a pressure on the indigenous participants to conform to those descriptions. There may be some truth in the descriptors and they may be useful for outsiders to connect to the indigenous but nevertheless in any culture there are always individuals who buck the dominant trends. These individuals may turn out to be valuable leaders into new worlds but the cultural stereotypes pressure them to conform.

Cultural difference is used to explain the failure of the education system to “close the gap”. Then cultural elements are introduced into the curriculum as the solution to the problem but over time the gap is still not closed. The door then remains open to continue to play the blame game (a) blame the student for not responding positively to the new cultural elements in the curriculum (b) blame the teachers for not implementing the new cultural elements in the curriculum properly. The government has introduced the cultural agenda and cultural rights through their guidelines, they are trying, so they escape blame. Politics is the art of successfully handballing your problem to someone else. Failure generates new pressure on all the actors to see the problem as intractable. But perhaps the real problem was not cultural difference in the first place or rather the idealised dream of restoring some version, a pseudo version actually, of traditional culture. Isn't it correct to say that welfare dependency leading to drug abuse is also a culture, the culture of victimhood, and that this negative culture is just as much a player, is probably more of a player, in the lives of many indigenous people than their traditional culture? Cultural rights have been honoured but the outcome is that political rights are still denied for the minorities.

Once culture is used to explain failure then the issue becomes political since the shameful political question is why can't we “close the gap” when millions of dollars are poured into this problem.

The cultural agenda is a positive agenda. All behaviour, whether positive or negative, can be reframed as positive. A student calls you a motherfucker. This can be explained because their culture has been denied them in the past. Don't get angry. Just patiently explain to them that things are different now, we are recognising their culture. This will cause them to reconsider their language and perhaps even apologise. In this unreal world the positive role that anger can sometimes play in response to offensive student behaviour, as (a) self protection (b) protection of others (c) an expression of caring for someone else who is deviating from beneficial social norms is negated.

7 The cultural solution is silent on what I believe ought to be the fundamental goals of the education system, the non universals

Tyson's process is sympathetic to Aboriginal culture and beneficial to white westerners who want to improve their communication with Aboriginal people. But what is missing is a clear goal as to the overall purpose of the education system. By what criteria should we choose to learn certain things (eg. algebra) rather than certain other things (eg. algebra is too hard to teach, do more practical maths)?

In thinking about these problems I found this section of Alan Bishop's article, “Visualising and Mathematics in a Pre-Technological Culture” very interesting:

“I became increasingly aware of several differences in what I call ‘cognitive characteristics’ between PNG students and the students I work with in the U.K.

The most striking point was their concern with the specific as opposed to the general. Their languages seem to have many specific terms, few general ones. The classifications and taxonomies used in their culture seem to have few hierarchies. Generalising is not the obvious mode of operating there as it appears to be for us – there not only seems to be a difficulty with doing it, there is felt to be no need to do it. Indeed I sometimes had the feeling that I was rather crazy when I tried to operate in a generalised and hypothetical way.

For example, I asked a student “How do you find the area of this (rectangular) piece of paper?” “Multiply the length by the width”. “You have gardens in your village. How do your people judge the area of their gardens?” “By adding the length and width”. “Is that difficult to understand?” “No, at home I add, at school I multiply”. “But they both refer to area”. “Yes, but one is about the area of a piece of paper and the other is about a garden”. So I drew two (rectangular) gardens on the paper, one bigger than the other. “If these were two gardens which would you rather have?” “It depends on many things, I cannot say. The soil, the shade . . . ” I was then about to ask the next question “Yes, but if they had the same soil, shade . . . ” when I realised how silly that would sound in that context.

Clearly his concern was with the two problems: size of gardens, which was a problem embedded in one context rich in tradition, folk-lore and the skills of survival. The other problem, area of rectangular pieces of paper was embedded in a totally different context. How crazy I must be to consider them as the same problem!

As Biersack (1978) again said: “With regard to the ability to generalise, I think on principle the Paiela do not generalise. They have, rather, a problem-solving approach to everything. Every problem is a unique set of circumstances having a unique solution, and you cannot solve problems in the abstract, you can only solve them within the context of the particulars of the problem. I don’t think this approach excludes an appreciation of general principles. I said it was on principle that the approach was adopted. It’s just that the principles of ‘their’ approach and ‘our’ approach are different.”

When this type of thinking operates it seems that many of the teaching strategies which I know about become meaningless. The use of analogy, the use of counter-examples, strategies which are designed to foster understanding, or discovering general principles. All of these assume the acceptance of generalising, hypothetical thinking, and hierarchical processing, as important and worthwhile ways to behave.” (pp. 117-8, emphasis added)

We all have our sacred truths, which is where my own cultural prejudices kick in. For example, there was a historical conflict in the west between an earth centred solar system and a sun centred solar system. I love the way in which Galileo used science and the telescope to challenge the received truth from the Catholic Chuch about the motion of the earth and the sun. I love the story about Isaac Newton seeing an apple fall to the ground and inferring that gravity was the same force that kept the planets spinning around the sun. I love the elegance of Newton's three laws of motion, which gave us the beginnings of the knowledge to put a man on the moon. I experience this knowledge as more spiritual than the knowledge promoted by the Catholic Church which it replaced. The Catholic Church took their earth centred view very seriously and burnt people at the stake (eg. Bruno) or showed them the instruments of torture (eg. Galileo) who disagreed. Over a long period of argument, in which the authority of science displaced the authority of religion, the sun centred view displaced the earth centred view. It took the Church 400 years to apologise to Galileo. Sometimes you have to choose between correct and incorrect.

The non universals concept. Alan Kay has argued, based on anthropological findings, that some things are universal to all human cultures and that other things have only developed in modern cultures. Example of the universal traits in all cultures include:

- social life
-tools and art
-religion and magic
-play and games

Examples of the non universal traits which only occur in some post Enlightenment cultures include:

- reading and writing
- deductive abstract mathematics
- model based science
- equal rights
- democracy
- slow deep thinking
- agriculture
- legal systems

Alan Kay:
“The non universals are a little harder to learn than the universals because we are not directly wired to learn them. These things are actually inventions which are difficult to invent. And the rise of Schools going all the way back to the Sumerian and Egyptian times came about to start helping children learn some of these things that aren't easy to learn. It can be argued that we should be helping the children of the world learn these hard to learn things.”

My strong belief here is that one goal of the education system should be to teach mathematical abstraction. If, on the one hand, the Bishop quote about PNG culture is true and also has a general significance about other indigenous cultures then from my perspective indigenous culture then becomes a problem to overcome. If pre Enlightenment indigenous culture does make it harder for the indigenous to learn deductive abstract mathematics then it seems unlikely that teacher's using indigenous processes will achieve the non universal goals outlined by Alan Kay. If, on the other hand, Tyson's 8 ways shows how it is possible to better teach mathematical abstraction and the other non universals then he needs to show us the detail how.

8. Philosophy of harmony or philosophy of struggle?

The reality is that curriculum wars in language and maths have raged for 50+ years.

Teachers tend to be more pragmatic and look for “what works”, what helps them create both harmony and development in the classroom. Is it possible or beneficial to go beyond that?

Tyson's 8 processes have some validity. But they are not traditional indigenous processes. Nor are they welfare embedded processes. Nor do they cover the complexity of the Cultural Interface. So they are useful up to a point but limited.

Are we looking for harmony or struggle, non antagonistic and antagonistic contradictions, similarities or difference?

To argue from the outset that there are distinct Aboriginal pedagogies, the 8 ways, implies that there are other pedagogies that are not Aboriginal or inaccessible to Aboriginal people. We don't think about western pedagogies in that way. At any particular time and place one western pedagogy may be dominant over another. eg. Whole language displaced phonic instruction at one point. More recently the pendulum has swung back the other way. But what is characteristic of western pedagogies is that they are continually in contention with one another and it is not unusual for one to displace the other as dominant. Now, if Aboriginal culture is dynamic and changes like other cultures then shouldn't the same sort of considerations also apply?

So I think one error in Tyson's approach is that he does not recognise the concept of antagonistic contradiction. There are contradictions between Aboriginal culture and western culture. Many of those contradictions are non antagonistic, they can be worked through. Some of the contradictions are antagonistic. Sometimes, you have to make a choice.

Barry Osborne talks about the “fused biculturalism” which involves not only the mastery of two distinct world views but also the ability to reconcile aspects of the two world views that were in conflict with each other. That is another, non antagonistic, way to deal with it. However, we deal with it, it is this concept of irreconcilable difference between different world views that is missing in Tyson's analysis. There is too much striving for harmony and not enough struggle.

This is not about fairness or justice but about how we do analysis to establish what we call truth. Clearly it is unfair and unjust that colonial powers dominated and dispossessed indigenous people. Clearly it is unfair that Aboriginal people are expected to learn English as a second, third or fourth language whilst there is no real pressure on white people learn an indigenous language. A few do but they are the exception. But these historically injustices do not in themselves negate the political and epistemological point that sometimes there are antagonistic contradictions and you have to choose one side against another. A history of injustice is not resolved by a new philosophy that harmony is always possible or desirable.


1 Assimilation, dominant before 1972
2 Separate Development, well established in the Whitlam years and thereafter
3 Attempts to achieve harmonious codevelopment through a cross cultural pathway, the position which I feel Tyson is promoting
4 Social class – political power. Culture used as a diversionary weapon in that class struggle. The position that I hold.


Teachers should learn about the others culture as a general strategy (respect, interest, communication). This is part of the broader principle of paying attention to your students, the subjects you teach and building strong relationships with both. That is what good teachers do.

As a maths teacher I began this essay with how relevant indigenous culture was to teaching maths. Since then it has undergone many edits. A rigorous analysis of maths will have to wait for now. But I refer to maths in this conclusion.

A subject domain such as maths has its own internal logic, conventions and values (yes, values) which have been developed over time by many cultures (since before the Greeks). Actually maths is not a uniform domain either. It is more correct to say that it has a variety of internal logics. The logic of Papert's turtle geometry is different from the logic of Zig's DI which is different from Rhonda Farkota's DI which is different from YuMi Deadly maths. By all means use the strengths of indigenous culture and learning processes as described by Tyson Yunkaporta (and other authors, some not mentioned here) to teach the subject more effectively / meaningfully to indigenous students. But also be aware that the implication of Martin Nakata's Cultural Interface means that everyone is at different points and so it may not possible or desirable to develop a systematic indigenous culturally based maths curriculum.

Since a lot of important maths did not grow out of Aboriginal and TSI culture but grew out of other cultures it is not possible to systematically transform the maths curriculum into an indigenous maths curriculum. Don't make a fetish or treat culture as sacred in that process of integration. Approach it from the Point Of View of respectful pragmatism rather than deep soulfulness. The culture we are teaching is first and foremost a maths culture. There maybe really important concepts internal to the maths culture that do not sit so easily with some other cultures, eg. mathematical abstraction. On the other hand, recognise that there are a variety of maths cultures or rather a variety of elements that can be integrated into maths cultures, eg. Body syntonic as in turtle maths; kinesthenic elements as in YuMi Deadly maths, creation of your own symbol systems as in YuMi Deadly maths.

One last thought. I heard Chris Matthews say the in Yirrkala he used kinship systems to teach aspects of maths and achieved results that other teachers did not. I'd see this as useful and very relevant to a particular remote setting. But for the reasons argued above, the complexity of the Cultural Interface, in indigenous communities across Australia I'd hesitate to generalise about such findings.


Apiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2007)

Bishop, Alan. Visualising and Mathematics in a Pre-Technological Culture. In: Clarkson, Philip and Presmeg, Norma. Critical Issues in Mathematics Education: Major Contributions of Alan Bishop (2008)

Chigeza, Philemon. Personal conversation.

Engelmann, Zig. https://www.nifdi.org/about/who-we-are/board-of-directors/84-bios/338-zig-engelmann

Farkota, Rhonda has authored an Australian version of Direct Instruction in Mathematics (JEMM, EMM and JEMM+)

Kay, Alan. http://learningevolves.wikispaces.com/nonUniversals

Matthews, Chris. https://atsimanational.ning.com/about

Moody-Adams, Michele M. Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture and Philosophy (1997)

Nakata, Martin. Disciplining the Savages. Savaging the Disciplines (2007)

Osborne, Barry (ed). Teaching, Diversity and Democracy (2001)

Osborne, Barry, and Osborne, Elizabeth (2013) A Serious Dialogue with Noel Pearson's Radical Hope: education and equality in Australia. Common Ground Publishing https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/31931/

Papert, Seymour. http://www.users.on.net/~billkerr/a/papert.htm

Pearson, Noel. Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia. Black Inc. (2011). The 2011 edition has responses from 8 authors to Noel's original 2009 Quarterly Essay and a Reply by Noel to those responses.

Pearson, Noel. Up from the Mission. Black Inc. (2009)

Putnam, Hilary. Philosophy in an Age of Science (2012)

Riener, Cedar and Willingham, Dan. The Myth of Learning Styles (2014)

YuMi Deadly Maths. http://ydc.qut.edu.au/. More detail here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FAntCEMyjQ (Tom Cooper video).

Yunkaporta, Tyson. Aboriginal Pedagogies at the Cultural Interface. Downloaded from http://8ways.wikispaces.com/