By Tanya Weiler, Program Director of Aboriginal Pathways Program and Regions at University of South Australia College.
‘You will go softly with the way you instruct, keeping in mind that the word for thinking and knowing in that [Aboriginal] language is also the word for loving’ – Yunkaporta, 2009
At the beginning of February 2020, 45 eager and nervous students across South Australia commenced the Aboriginal Pathway (AP) Program, a pre-undergraduate enabling program at UniSA College (of the University of South Australia). Completing 9 subjects over 18 months, the UniSA College enabling program develops students’ skills and the confidence to transition into any degree of their choosing, using students’ competitive GPA for entry. The AP program is an academically rigorous 18-month program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to engage with university study without leaving their community-based support structures. Piloted in 2015 with an initial 28 students in three locations, the program is now delivered face to face in Adelaide and all four regional UniSA College locations: some students travel >1000 kilometers to attend. South Australia is large (half the size of Alaska, but bigger than Texas!) and sparsely populated (1.7 million people, with 1.34 million in its capital, Adelaide). UniSA College programs are delivered in four regional centres (the furthest 775 km from Adelaide).
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent 3.3% of all Australians, but only 1.6% of university students (Universities Australia, 2017). Since the implementation of the AP program at UniSA, participation of Aboriginal students within the university has markedly increased, and the first completers are set to finish their Undergraduate studies this year.
Before creating the AP, consultation with Aboriginal Elders and groups at each delivery site established trust in the program as a partnership with the University, the community, and the students. The program design drew on Indigenous Enabling Education research (Fredericks 2016, Behrendt 2012) which recognizes a barrier in the competing course demands of a traditional semester model. We focused on mitigating this factor, giving students flexibility to study whilst balancing family and cultural responsibilities. Students study a maximum of two simultaneous courses in the first year (completing 6 in total), followed by 3 concurrent courses in the second year to mirror an undergraduate load. Intensive teaching blocks enable students who travel large distances to attend face to face, and the increased class-time supports strong scaffolding of skills. Given a cohort with many young parents, classes fit within school terms/hours.
Course design in the program is grounded in culturally-responsive teaching based on theories of intrinsic motivation (Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995). In designing learning activities for Aboriginal students, understanding of the ‘8 Ways of Learning’ pedagogical framework (Yunkaporta & Kirby, 2011) which emphasizes storytelling and non-linear processes has been fundamental. Extensive discussion and ‘yarning’ (a dialogue circle) is a focus in tutorials and online, fostering trust and open interaction between educators and students. Students’ reflections on the community benefits of new knowledge is a key aspect of the curriculum. To reduce Internet connectivity issues common in remote Australia, all course materials are available in print format as well as online. This allows students to engage with learning materials despite unstable technology, whilst also providing teaching resources for students to use or share with family and communities.
There is always more to learn and ways to further embed Aboriginal perspectives, understanding and knowledges into such a program. We are consistently informed by research on best practice in Indigenous access education (Fredericks et al. 2015; Aseron 2013) and Culturally Responsive pedagogy, but most importantly building relationships and listening to Aboriginal Elders, communities and educators is fundamental and ongoing. Through these relationships and time spent with Aboriginal communities, we have developed detailed understanding of synergies between Aboriginal and Western pedagogies to best support students as they transition into their university experience.
‘If we find the overlap between our best ways of learning and the mainstream’s best ways of learning then we will have an equal balance.’ – Yunkaporta, 2009
How are you using culturally-responsive practices to support students, particularly in the challenging times we find ourselves in presently? Please ‘leave a comment’ so we can learn from you.
Behrendt, L 2012, Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: Final report, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.
Fredericks, B., Kinnear, S., Daniels, C., Croft, Warcon, P. and Mann, J 2015, Path+Ways: Towards best practice bridging and Indigenous participation through regional dual-sector universities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.
Universities Australia 2013, Indigenous Strategy, Universities Australia, viewed 22 March 2018, <https://www.universitiesaustralia.edu.au/ArticleDocuments/212/Indigenous%20Strategy%20Web.pdf.aspx>.
Wlodkowski, RJ & Ginsberg, MB 1995, ‘A framework for culturally responsive teaching’, Educational Leadership, vol. 53 no.1 pp. 17-21.
Yunkaporta, T. (2009). Ways of learning in Aboriginal languages. PhD thesis, James Cook University. https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/10974/4/04Bookchapter.pdf
Yunkaporta, T & Kirby, M 2011, ‘Yarning up Indigenous pedagogies: A dialogue about eight Aboriginal ways of learning’, in R Bell, G Milgate & N Purdie (eds.) in Two Way Teaching and Learning: Toward culturally reflective and relevant education, ACER Press, Camberwell Victoria