Thursday, 3 July 2014

Here’s an idea – how about we give Indigenous children the best education that evidence can provide?

Some assertions just make me plain cross. Like those contained in this piece published on The Conversation on July 2 BiggestLoser’ policy on literacy will not deliver long-term gains,  in which Dr Stewart Riddle, of the University of Southern Queensland argues against the application of evidence-based literacy instruction methods for Indigenous children. 

First of all there’s the title of the piece, referring to a “Biggest Loser Policy”. Apart from what seems like a cheap throw-away reference to an equally base TV program, I am not actually sure who the purported “losers” might be of a policy that promotes the application of evidence-based instruction methods to Indigenous children - children whose achievement levels have historically lagged shamefully behind those of their non-Indigenous peers, in spite of obvious capacity to learn, given the appropriate instructional environments and experiences. 

While references to “skilling and drilling students to the point of exhaustion” are just tired and inaccurate clich├ęs about how direct instruction works in qualified hands, I really take issue with Dr Riddle’s questioning of  “….the assumption that raising Indigenous literacy levels across Australia is inherently a good thing, in and of itself". 

How on earth are we going to make school a place in which Indigenous children make real gains, learning real skills and feeling a real sense of mastery and hope for the future, if we don’t have a fundamental, fire-in-our-bellies commitment to the notion that raising Indigenous literacy levels across Australia is inherently a good thing, in and of itself?! 

At a population level, level of education is the single biggest predictor of health status across the lifespan. Education is not just about literacy, it is about keys to life – to aspiration, self-esteem, accomplishment, participation in the mainstream economy, and a sense of optimism about a future that entails real choices. 

Dr Riddle, where will our Indigenous doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers, psychologists, physicists, architects, philosophers, pharmacologists, surveyors, journalists and political commentators come from, if not from the ranks of those who have been given fair and equal access to the life-changing opportunities afforded by quality mainstream education? Of course Indigenous children need to learn about, value, and ultimately pass on their own culture, but let’s not commit the ultimate act of colonial imperialism of condemning them to a life on the margins of mainstream Australian society, by deciding that direct instruction just isn’t cool enough for these kids.

For what it’s worth: 

My “underlying assumptions … about what it actually means to be literate include being able to access the world of imagination and knowledge via the written word and being able to share one’s own ideas and experiences via oral and written texts, at increasingly complex levels to support the progression through primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Oh sure, it’s nice when people have enough functional literacy skills to read the dosage instructions on a medication bottle, to fill-in an online form, and to send and receive text messages. But how about we give our Indigenous children not just access to the crumbs of educational attainment, allowing them instead to play the game of life with a full deck of opportunity cards? 

Knowing that Indigenous children were reaching basic literacy benchmarks would be a very good start in addressing the tragic inequities (education, health, housing, income) that exist between our first people and the rest of us. When you teach children the basics of decoding text, you confer life-changing skills that cannot be taken away.  

Literacy skills are very difficult to back-fill when they are not gained in the appropriate developmental window – most notably the first three years of school. Under-achievement spawns behavioural and adjustment difficulties that in turn create mutual antipathy between learners and schools, and predictably result in early school departures. Perhaps Dr Riddle would prefer to wait until Indigenous children are detained in the Youth Justice system, which they are at highly disproportionate rates compared to non-Indigenous young people, and address their literacy needs there?