Learning Together - Young Indigenous Students

A partnership that is improving reading, writing and mathematics skills among young Indigenous students is also building better teaching skills among ACU students.

"Much has been written about the 'gaps' between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students' learning," said Faculty of Education Research, Research Training and Partnerships Professor Elizabeth Warren.

To bridge these gaps, we must acknowledge that there are also gaps in "white knowledge", and recognise that there are "white ways" of thinking and communicating.

The project began in 2007 with seven preparatory teachers in five schools in Cairns, focusing on building oral language capacity and ensuring that the language used by teachers for literacy and numeracy was being understood. The children, aged four and five, were helped to become more familiar with the Standard Australian English language used in schools.

"Indigenous students come to school with different knowledge bases and different ways of learning, but they are very capable learners," Professor Warren said. "This project endeavours to reach these students, recognise their different ways of learning, and acknowledge their home languages.

"It is up to the white educational community to recognise its own inadequacies and prejudices and begin to work out ways that we can effectively allow Indigenous students to engage in 'our' conversations while maintaining a respect for their ways of being and their knowledge and understandings."

Both Independent Schools Queensland and the Cairns Catholic Diocese have backed the project, offering financial support to extend it beyond the original funding provided by the University's Mathematics and Literacy Education Flagship.

This year the project has been extended to eight Year 1 classrooms, with Commonwealth funding received through the Whole of School Intervention Strategy and the Parent School Partnership Initiative. Schools from all education sectors are now participating, including two independent schools, three from the Cairns Catholic Diocese and one state school, with two catering exclusively for Indigenous students.

One of the partners, Djarragun College, an independent Anglican school for Indigenous children, also involves older siblings in the program, such as Patrina Dick, pictured above with her brother Zakeil.

Professor Warren and School of Education (Queensland) senior lecturer Dr Janelle Young have provided professional learning sessions for current teachers and visited their classrooms as they trialled new strategies and teaching resources.

"Indigenous students come to school with different knowledge bases and different ways of learning, but they are very capable learners."

The involvement of parents and relatives has been particularly important, with workshops concentrating on developing children's literacy and numeracy skills using everyday learning experiences in the home.

"Most of the parents are very enthusiastic and welcome the opportunity to be involved in a practical and genuinely helpful way," Dr Young said, adding that educators must form and maintain partnerships with community members, and continue to welcome the involvement of Indigenous parents, working closely with them to enhance their children's learning.

All preparatory aged children who took part in 2007 showed improvements in their knowledge and understanding of literacy and numeracy. Indigenous students showed high levels of growth in both areas.

The project, which underlines the importance of respecting cultural practices and home languages, demonstrates the ability of all young children, when they engage with their teachers and parents, to expand their spoken language capabilities to support the growth of their knowledge in literacy and numeracy.