Literacies for remote schools: looking beyond a one size fits all approach.
What's the political agenda doing to literacies education? Where is literacies education headed? What's working well in today's approach/es? These questions posed by the editor, Robyn Henderson, prompted us to reflect on the impact of policy development and literacy practices in remote schools in the Northern Territory. Responses draw on our observations and experiences during visits over a three-year period to a remote community school and are augmented by the current lived experiences of colleagues.
In Ann Berthoffs (1987) foreword to Literacy: Reading the word and the world (Freire & Macedo, 1987), she states that 'Freire teaches us that nothing in the field of literacy theory is more important than looking and looking again at the role of awareness, of thinking about thinking, of interpreting our interpretations' (p. xii). Thus, we acknowledge our belief that to be literate necessitates having not only the technical skills and competencies but also an understanding of how literacy practices are always shaped and used within specific social and cultural contexts. Moreover, our awareness, thinking and interpreting are mediated by Allan Luke's (1994) assertion that 'standards and practices of literacy are contingent on agendas and power relations of institutions and communities, governments and cultures' (p. 2).
Luke (1994), like Freire and Macedo (1987), believes that literacy is always political and social. Therefore, we begin this article by revisiting some key policies that have impacted literacy practices in remote communities over the past decade, beginning with the introduction of the National Assessment Plan: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and the impact of the subsequent open access to school and student performance data on the My School website (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2016). The article then focuses on two very different approaches to supporting the development of literacy practices in remote Northern Territory (NT) community schools: Direct Instruction (DI) and Learning on Country.
Whilst we concede no personal experience of Direct Instruction, its recent take up by remote schools, particularly in response to Noel Pearson's advocacy, merits attention. Our reflections are augmented by a teacher in a remote community school that has adopted Direct Instruction, our experience of a school's Learning on Country Program and a teacher's comments about Learning on Country's connectivity with the school's cultural program. The personal views and perspectives expressed are not necessarily reflective of the schools identified, but our explicit intent in identifying these schools is to celebrate their practices and the outcomes of their programs.
Recent key policies impacting NT literacy practices
The authorisation of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), through a Commonwealth Government act in 2008, empowered it to develop the National Assessment Plan: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) and to collect, manage and analyse assessment data and other data relating to schools and their comparative performances. The subsequent ranking of schools and student performance identified Standard Australian English (SAE) literacy results for Indigenous students in remote schools as being notably below the national average, particularly the scores obtained by students in schools with bilingual programs (Devlin, 2009). Bilingual education is defined in the Northern Territory's Indigenous Education Strategic Plan 2006-2009 (Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training (NT DET), 2006) as:
a formal model of dual language use where students' first language is used as a language for learning across the curriculum, while at the same time they are learning to use English as a second language for learning across the curriculum. (pp. 24-25)
Following the NAPLAN revelations, a change in language policy was promptly announced, without systematic community consultation, by Marion Scrymgour, a former NT Minister for Education and Training, (Devlin, 2009, 2010; Waller, 2011; Wilkins, 2008). She declared that all schooling was to be conducted in English only for the first four hours of every school day. According to Devlin (2009), this announcement led to the withdrawal of funding for bilingual literacy programs that had received policy endorsement since the 1970s, thereby marking the closure of most programs. However, Wilson (2013) claimed that 'bilingual programs had been effectively stripped back by various phases of government intervention' since 1998 (p. 118).
With only five hours of school instruction per day in the NT, this also impacted the implementation of school cultural and language-based programs. Scrymgour's decision was contrary to the Indigenous Education Strategic Plan 2006-2009 (NT DET, 2006) that acknowledged the effectiveness of bilingual programs overseas (see e.g., studies by Lo Bianco, 2007; Moses & Wigglesworth, 2008) and indicated positive results for local programs. The Review of Indigenous education in the Northern Territory (Wilson, 2013) reiterated that delivery of curriculum be in English only. Wilson was somewhat sceptical of the literature and review submissions claiming the success of bilingual programs and subsequently recommended the normalising of literacy approaches and the take up of Direct Instruction (DI).
In response to a critical backlash to the English only directive (e.g., Devlin, 2009, 2010; Waller, 2011; Wilkins, 2008), Scrymgour softened her position in 2012, as reflected in the NT Department of Education (2015) policy on English as Second Language. This now states:
Where capacity exists, home languages or local languages should be used to support the learning and acquisition of new concepts. Particularly in the early years it will be necessary to introduce concepts using the home/local language/s. This practice is informed by evidence-based research into learning through an additional language. (p. 3).
Inevitably, these policy turn-arounds create some uncertainty, with regard to the inclusion of local languages, among remote educators who have the responsibility of translating policy into classroom practice.
Aligning with the introduction of NAPLAN, the national policy of 'closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage' (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, 2009) likewise impacted NT literacy policies and classroom practice. Six targets were agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to reduce the gap in life opportunities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This included the education target of halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for remote students by 2018. This target forms the current baseline for the annual measuring and reporting of progress and reforms by states and territories. Being tied to school funding, it pressures schools to improve their student performance measurements. Yet, as the 2016 report indicates, progress is very uneven:
NAPLAN results for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students vary sharply by remoteness area. For example, in 2015, 82 per cent of all Indigenous students in metropolitan areas met or exceeded the NMS (National Minimal Standards) for Year 5 reading compared to only 38 per cent of students in very remote areas. (Commonwealth of Australia, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2016, p. 19)
Researchers, however, caution that NAPLAN's school and student profiling does not reveal the scope of student learning and conceptual and linguistic variation in real terms (e.g., Fogarty & Schwab, 2012; Wigglesworth, Simpson, & Loakes, 2011). Furthermore, NAPLAN reporting is highly selective and does not take into consideration the specific contexts in which students encounter English as a second or another language (Fogarty & Schwab, 2012).
Not surprisingly, the NAPLAN testing regime has led policy makers to draw more on positivist statistical research, overlooking the contextual, political and historical complexities that can be garnered by evaluative inquiry (Bishop & Berryman, 2006; Denzin & Lincoln, 2011; May, 2008). Lo Bianco (2007), however, points out that national and territory policy makers are generally monolingual in their spoken and written language capacities. Thus, he argues that policy debates about language and literacy achievement in remote multilingual Indigenous communities, where Standard Australian English is generally used only at school, potentially lack the perspective of those who have experience in linguistics and/or language education.
This recent policy context informs Noel Pearson's Good to Great Schools Australia approach at the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy (later referred to as 'The Academy'), which champions Direct Instruction (DI) literacy teaching. Pearson's mission is to have great teachers delivering effective instruction to every child. His vision is for Direct Instruction literacy instruction to be enacted across all remote communities. Direct Instruction, along with Explicit Direct Teaching, is endorsed by the Flexible literacy for remote primary schools program, which was announced in 2014 by the former Minister for Education and Training, the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP, as part of the Australian Government's Students'first policy (Australian Government Department of Education and Training, 2016). This policy, like the Good to Great Schools Australia approach, emphasises teacher quality, school autonomy, engaging parents in education and strengthening the curriculum.
Direct Instruction was developed in the US in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley C. Becker. It is a highly structured step-by-step, lesson-by-lesson, packaged program that targets mastery of reading and numeracy skills, focusing on behavioural and cognitive goals and outcomes. Direct Instruction seeks to accelerate the pace of learning by ability grouping students and emphasising assessment. In Australia, the original Direct Instruction System for Teaching Arithmetic and Reading (DISTAR) program markets as Reading mastery (Grades K-5 in the US) and Corrective reading (Grades 3-12) within the SRA packaging of resource materials (see Luke, 2013). Pearson claims that The Academy's students have made significant gains since Direct Instruction's adoption. The Good to Great Schools Australia (2016) website cites John Hattie as saying 'that the program is making a 'greater than average difference' and it notes that 'students are making nearly twice the rate of gain in mean scale scores compared to the national average'. However, the Australian Council for Educational Research (2013) is somewhat more circumspect, stating that, as yet, it cannot 'empirically ascribe a causal connection between DI and student learning outcomes' (p. 9), despite a wide range of anecdotal evidence.
The Flexible literacy for remote schools program is premised on the belief that Direct Instruction and Explicit Direct Instruction approaches will improve literacy results for children in remote primary schools and increase teacher pedagogical skills in teaching literacy through the use of alphabetic teaching approaches. According to the Australian Government's Department of Education and Training (2016), 36 schools are participating in the program, Flexible literacy for remote schools, and it provides the following definitions for the two alphabetical approaches:
* Direct Instruction: the teacher decides the learning intentions and success criteria, makes them transparent to the students, demonstrates by modelling, evaluates if they understand what they had been told by checking for understanding, and re-telling them what they had been told by tying it all together with closure.
* Explicit Direct Instruction: the teacher focuses on explanations, demonstrations, feedback and practice until the student is proficient in the skill.
These definitions are somewhat confusing as here Direct Instruction connects closely with Luke's (2013) explanation of explicit teaching, which he identifies as: establishing behavioural and cognitive goals that are clearly communicated to students; telling students explicitly what and how they will learn; and familiarising students with assessment criteria that identify what they have to show to achieve the learning outcomes. Conversely, the Explicit Direct Instruction definition is a better match with the Engelmann and Becker DI model.
Celebratory snapshot 1: Direct Instruction
Participating schools in the Flexible literacy for remote schools program must have: a whole of school attendance strategy; a whole of school literacy strategy; and parental and community support for participation in the program. As with all approaches, there are sceptics who level criticisms at the highly scripted nature of the approaches and use of materials that are not culturally meaningful or relevant (e.g., Luke, 2013; Sarra, 2016; Riddle, 2014). However, Ntaria (Hermannsburg) School, located 130 km west of Alice Springs, has confidence in what Direct Instruction can and is delivering for their community. Georgie Sutton, an early career teacher at the school, shares her response to the program:
The structure of DI provides consistency across the school, and a clear set of routines and expectations that can provide clear boundaries and structures to children who so desperately need them. There is a lot built into the 'non-negotiables' of DI that promote good teaching and learning. For example, a big focus on praising positive behaviours, and a strong focus on assessment and data to inform teaching and targeted instructional groups. This rigour that is built in ensures that teachers are constantly focusing on kids' learning and reflecting on children's progress and gaps in learning. Critics of DI are concerned that there is no room for individualisation within DI but there is definitely space for coming 'off the book' to address a point of need or to enhance engagement and introduce other literacy teaching. For example, our Transition (Foundation) teacher starts her day with a big book and links some of her independent work with this. She is teaching concepts about print and linking the reading learning that the kids have developed through DI into the book reading. I and many others also do things like using hand signals to help children differentiate between similar sounds, like i and eee. I am finding that kids are really learning their sounds and are learning how to successfully decode CVC words. The program is designed to teach to mastery, so kids become really solid in identifying sounds, distinguishing between sounds and reading decodable words. As a closing point, here is an interesting comment from a visiting ex-teacher. This woman taught in Ntaria for a few years, and has worked for 30 years or so in bush schools. She is not a person who is particularly 'pro-DI', and would not hold back criticism! She said that in all her time in bush schools, she has watched all kinds of programs trying to equip kids with the foundation of phonics that they need to learn how to read, and that DI is havin the most success that she has ever seen. An interesting perspective from someone who has really seen a few things!
Georgie emphasises that she does not believe in silver bullets and arrived at Ntaria School cognisant of the criticisms levelled at the DI program. But after six months she is able to articulate some positive outcomes for her students and observe the progress made by those students who have participated in the program for several years. Notably, her comments about rigorous monitoring of students' progress resonate with Hattie's (2012) emphasis on assessment and the collection of evidence-based data as being critical to the learning environment. These practices have been implemented through the recently introduced Collaborative impact program introduced to NT schools in 2015.
A Learning on Country approach
The notion of Learning on Country has evolved through ranger groups and their local Indigenous communities, recognising the need for programs that promote intergenerational Indigenous knowledge of local land and sea environments (Fogarty & Schwab, 2012). Schools and education programs in remote areas have identified the potential of educational programs to link with land and sea management programs that combine Western science and Indigenous knowledge to support the acquisition of key skills and concepts in situ. As Fogarty, Schwab and Lovell (2015) attest, 'English literacy and numeracy skills needed in such work can be explicitly taught through a combination of experiential and classroom-based modes of instruction' (p. 13). Learning on Country approaches are grounded in place-based pedagogy, thus recognising the significance of focusing on what is most meaningful to the students--their places, culture, experiences and identity (Comber, Nixon, & Reid, 2007; Gruenewald, 2003).
In effect, this combining of Western Science with Indigenous knowledge enables a two-way learning (Purdie, Milgate, & Bell, 2011), supporting educators to create pedagogies that are deeply connected to the reality of people's lives (Apple, 2013). Often Indigenous communicative capacities, including Standard Australian English literacy, are viewed as an integral part of knowledge of country and natural resource management such as ecosystem conservation and carbon abatement (Altman et al., 2011). Mobilising Traditional Owners and other family elders as additional teachers is acknowledgement that their presence is essential for sustaining deep, cultural learning in these settings and elevating cultural material within school-based disciplines and pedagogies. Learning on Country calls for the incorporation of Aboriginal content and perspectives into curriculum units (Riley & Genner, 2011) and the delivery of teaching and learning pedagogies (Bell, 2011). Both are critical to embedding Indigenous knowledge and the cross-cultural dialogue needed to formalise the programs (Armstrong & Shillinglaw, 2011; Riley & Genner, 2011).
The Closing the gap: Prime Minister's report (Commonwealth of Australia, 2014) describes Education as a 'fundamental building block to establishing strong, sustainable communities' (p. 13). This claim highlights the urgency for the implementation of programs, such as Learning on Country, that potentially engage Aboriginal students, promote school attendance and assist them to identify as successful learners in both their own and the dominant education domains (Lowe, 2011). This transferral of 'on country' learning to classroom practice shows how the ability of students to live in two worlds can be facilitated (Guenther, Osborne, & Bat, 2013). In this approach, Indigenous knowledge systems and pedagogy are afforded a status they are often denied, making visible that which is so often invisible by virtue of governmental or departmental privileging of Standard Australian English literacy and numeracy in remote community schools.
Celebratory snapshot 2: Learning on Country
As members of a University of Melbourne team invited to participate in Maningrida School's Learning on Country Program during our visits (2011-2013), we experienced its potential to contribute to the school's literacy program. The Learning on Country Program was initially designed by Mason Scholes, a Eureka Science Prize winner. He devised a junior ranger program, whereby students in this remote community 550 kilometres east of Darwin engaged in ranger activities on day trips and bush camps within the large Indigenous Protected Area surrounding the local township. His program has since evolved to involve students across all year levels and is led by the school's Program co-ordinator, Shane Bailey.
Our participation in Learning on Country day field trips and bush camps revealed the importance of literacy skills for recording, interpreting and reporting field data--skills taught explicitly in the classroom through what Fogarty and Schwab (2012) refer to as 'a combination of experiential and classroom based modes of instruction' (p. 13). Four pocket books were produced from these visits, Animal tracks, First aid, Bush tucker and Catch 'n cook (see Godinho, Woolley, Webb, & Winkel, 2014).
The books were co-constructed by the class teacher, Indigenous teacher assistant, students and the University of Melbourne team through a two-way sharing of cultural knowledge about the local environment, vegetation, cultural rituals, customs and practices and literacy practices. The proof reading and editing undertaken by a student group prior to printing the books involved students painstakingly checking the accuracy of content and text accreditations. This required sophisticated decoding and a high level of engagement to accommodate additions, changes and content written by other teams, that meant that the text, although contextualised, was sometimes unfamiliar. The process cogently indicated the transformative potential of 'making learning content engaging, accessible and culturally responsive', an effective strategy identified in a study of 11 improving remote community schools that analysed student achievement (Commonwealth Government, 2012, p. 19).
Whilst the middle school literacy focus at Maningrida School continues to be the National Accelerated Literacy Program, which was adopted by the NT Government in 2004 to improve literacy teaching outcomes (Robinson, Bartlett, Rivilland, Morrison, & Lea, 2009), the Pocket Book intervention indicated that additional strategies can be enacted when cultural identity is deemed central to students' development. The valuing of students' cultural identity is evident in Mason Scholes' explanation of how the school's dedicated Culture Centre supports the development of programs and resources:
The Lurra Language and Culture Program is derived from the community's value of and belief in cultural identify. The program is educationally geared by the necessity to have cultural identity at the forefront of student learning. The school delivers a first language oracy program that is taught from pre-school to the middle school years and also supports some senior school subjects in four different languages (Kuninjku, Ndjebbana, Burarra and Djinang). This enables students to develop their critical thinking and language skills in their first language, using their own worldviews and knowledge systems. The program's educational content is driven by what the Indigenous teachers and elders see as important to maintain their Indigenous identity and heritage. From here, units are structured according to the Northern Territory Curriculum Framework for Indigenous Languages and Culture (Northern Territory Department of Education and Training, 2009). This is then delivered through timetabled lessons, excursions, camps and culture days, which are taught by Indigenous language teachers, elders, Indigenous experts or consultants in our community. The school's embracing of cultural identity is demonstrated in its major sporting event the 'Moiety Sports'. All societies in the NT divide the world into two Moieties, which are referred to in Maningrida as Djowonga and Yirrichanga. People, flora and fauna, ancestral beings, natural phenomenon, sites and land all belong to one of these categories (Northern Land Council, n.d.). Subsections or 'Skins' are a further division of society into eight categories that are related by specific kinship connections. This complex system of cultural identity is embedded in classroom practices and school programs. For example, the community's skin system is used to form the student teams for the 'Moiety Sports' and posters are created with the associated native animals and plants as mascots. The school has developed a Lurra Language and Culture Committee that offers support to the program and helps to educate community members on local language and cultural knowledge, by offering Burarra and Ndjebbana language lessons and excursions. This strengthens the community's belief in the need to provide opportunities for community members, who are not from the area, to understand and improve communication and engagement with local people. This is seen as critical to the community to have people learn about its languages and culture as it is a sign of respect. To assist with this, the school also delivers a cultural induction to new staff and longer-term visitors, so that they have an opportunity to learn about the community and its cultural beliefs and have a point of contact with local community leaders.
The school is currently participating in a Learning on Country Program pilot funded by the Federal Government. It was established in 2013 and runs on four remote school sites in Arnhem Land: Maningrida, Yirrkala, Laynhapuy Homelands (Yirrkala) and Galiwin'ku (Elcho Island). The pilot defines Learning on Country Program as:
an innovative educational approach that brings together Indigenous land and sea Rangers, schools, scientists and Indigenous land owners 'on country' and in classrooms to learn literacy and numeracy, science and work skills as well as local Indigenous knowledge. (Fogarty, Schwab, & Lovell, 2015, p. 15)
The 2015 Learning on Country Program report (Fogarty, Schwab, & Lovell, 2015) states that findings at this early point are formative and that literacy and numeracy outcomes of the program are currently invisible. Moreover, it acknowledges that these outcomes will not be demonstrated through NAPLAN, arguing that a new set of local indicators need to be developed and agreed upon across the sites and by all providers.
Talking back to NAPLAN
The celebratory snapshots of multi-strategy approaches highlight what is working in some communities. They purposefully detract from the narrow focus of NAPLAN's testing of literacy standards which, as Guenther (2012) attests, does not reflect the overall learning that is going on in remote schools.
The snapshots talk back to what Guenther (2012) refers to as the discourses of disadvantage, deficit and failure that are perpetuated through NAPLAN's standardised measurements and the My School data dissemination. The policy target--of halving, not closing, the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for students by 2018--acknowledges the scale of the task set for educators by COAG. Kral (2009) indicates this, making the salient point that literacy in Western society has evolved over thousands of years, yet Indigenous people have made the transition from an oral culture to a literate culture in a relatively short time frame. As Kral so cogently reminds us, for some remote students, they 'may be only the first, second or third generation to pass through schooling' (p. 35). This perspective calls into question the appropriateness of NAPLAN assessment measures for these students.
Another important consideration of NAPLAN's appropriateness, albeit beyond the scope of this article, is raised by Leon White, a highly experienced educator in the NT. He draws attention to the need for more awareness of research that links hearing loss to students learning English as a second language and continual changes to support services for this cohort of students. The Wilson review (2013) highlighted the incidence of Otitis Media and the consequential Conductive Hearing Loss amongst Indigenous students, but failed to draw any link with the literacy achievement data.
Our concerns lie primarily with the impact on testing and what counts as literacy. The importance of basic literacy skills is indisputable (Hattie, 2016; Luke, 2013). Participation in the workplace and in daily social practices involves competency in Western literacy practices, but the context and time frame in which such competencies are attained need more careful consideration. The Direct Instruction program is premised on the need for explicit instruction that enables students to acquire essential reading and writing skills. Yet literacy is much more than having the technical skills of code breaking, as Luke and Freebody's (1999) Four resources model depicts. It specifies that students need to be text participants, analysts and users, and develop coding, semantic, pragmatic and critical competencies. Luke (2013), therefore, queries whether basic skills make for sustained, longitudinal gains in literacy achievement, which are only demonstrable when students move beyond basic decoding.
Literacy education in remote communities must take account of teacher turnover, which is a key consideration in the Direct Instruction approach. Following scripted lessons enables the program momentum to be maintained during the change-over of teachers. The turnover rate, combined with the need to be responsive to the constant policy changes at National and Northern Territory government levels, impacts on the take up and delivery of programs (see Fogarty & Schwab, 2012). Such factors further challenge teachers' capacity to sustain growth in literacy achievement.
Sadly the work of non-government agencies, such as the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC) which endeavours to address local and historical complexities with high levels of Indigenous consultation and participation, are overlooked or diminished in the polarity of the Standard Australian English literacy debate. Early childhood programs such as Families as first teachers, stressing increased parental participation and efficacy, have shown positive results, but these approaches often become lost as the students move through the primary grades.
In a recent public lecture, Lesley Farrell (2016) referred to one of the main goals of education in general, and literacy in particular, as giving people the best chance of making a dignified living. For many remote NT students, work employment will be sought locally, for example as a ranger or in arts-based pursuits (such as painting, drawing, fabric designing and printing). This will require sophisticated multi-modal literacy skills for researching, documenting, reporting, marketing and generating business and sales. This begs the question as to whether Direct Instruction addresses the breadth of skills students will require, particularly given the digital technologies and associated social practices that are being rapidly taken up in Indigenous communities (Kral, 2014). Therefore, we suggest that Direct Instruction constitutes an instructional approach that can be appropriate at a point of need, but it should be considered as part of a much broader repertoire of literacy practices (Luke, 2013).
Moreover, if literacy is perceived as a social and cultural practice, students' experiences need to be deemed relevant to their lives. Yet, within the Cape York Academy's curriculum, the 'Culture' component is addressed as a separate entity outside the explicit literacy instruction classroom sessions, and the social and cultural content of resource materials are deemed of less importance. This raises the question: Could Direct Instruction be augmented and co-exist with other approaches such as the place-based literacy pedagogies (Gruenewald, 2003; Comber, Nixon & Reid, 2007), as occurs at Maningrida College where the Learning on Country/Learning On Country Program co-exists with their middle school literacy programs, including the National Accelerated Literacy Program and Words their Way (Bear, 2012)? Such an approach ensures that cultural identity is not an 'add on', but an integral part of the whole school approach to literacy.
While not seeking to deny the widespread educational change that NAPLAN testing can effect in relation to the basic values that shape educational ideas and practice (Lingard, Thompson, & Sellar, 2016), research on its impact on Indigenous students and school communities has been largely overlooked (Ng, Wyatt-Smith, & Bartlett, 2016). During our visits, we witnessed the battery of testing students are submitted to by fly-in personnel, to satisfy reporting requirements. One can but imagine the impact on students of being withdrawn from classes to be tested one-on-one by an outsider. We ponder whether such testing reveals any new information that will inform the teaching of individual students; not to mention the cost factor in terms of value adding to 'halving the gap'.
This is far removed from more rigorous assessment practices that can inform teaching and shape meaningful feedback to students as advocated by Hattie (2012, 2015) and are currently enacted at the Ntaria School (as Georgie expresses) and at Maningrida School. In this close monitoring of students' literacy achievements, the growth in learning across a school year can be assessed and determined (Hattie, 2012), rather than simply indicating that students are not performing at the prescribed NAPLAN year level. While acknowledging the value adding of these assessment practices, the notion of what counts as evidence in complex teaching and learning contexts must also be taken into consideration. As research indicates, more culturally sensitive assessment tools and the development of local indicators (Fogarty, Schwab, & Lovell, 2015) to measure learning in remote contexts (Guenther, 2012) merit closer attention.
Importantly, the improvement of NAPLAN results should not become the key reason for the implementation of specific programs and interventions (Henderson, 2016). But this often appears to be the case and is evidenced in Luke et al.'s (2013) reporting of the Stronger Smarter Learning Communities (SSLC) schools' performance. Luke et al.'s evaluative study of the program, initiated by Chris Sarra, 'describes the operations and analyses the effects of SSLC on a national network of 57 Hub schools and 70 Affiliate schools' (p. 5). As the report claims, it provides 'the first large scale picture of what is occurring in classroom pedagogy for Indigenous students' (p. 5).
The data revealed that aiming for an improvement of NAPLAN test results is a dominant influence on participant schools' planning, policy and pedagogy. This infers a narrowing of the curriculum focus and appears inconsistent with the SSLC philosophy of 'developing and embracing a positive sense of Aboriginal identity in schools'. The report makes the harsh finding that 'school leaders are engaged in market behaviour characterised by an active search for products, consultants and methods that they believe will boost test scores' (p. 34). Despite the strong emphasis on basic skills, there were no statistically significant effects on improved school level achievement on NAPLAN tests. Well might one ask: 'What is the political agenda doing to literacies education?'
Freire's (Freire & Macedo, 1987) notion of the importance to look and look again at the role of awareness of awareness, of thinking about thinking, of interpreting our interpretations, albeit as outsiders, is a poignant reminder of the need to consider alternative ways of measuring learning. It is important to move beyond reliance on NAPLAN results that have become the pre-eminent measure of success or failure in assessing programs for Indigenous students (Fogarty & Schwab, 2012). This includes re-consideration of bilingual programs and teaching Indigenous languages that have been marginalised in remote schools in response to government directives.
These are conversations in which local community members must participate to identify what their aspirations and expectations of literacy are, to set learning goals and to determine the literacy approaches that best support students in acquiring the literate practices for meaningful participation in their world. Indeed, Guenther (2012) believes that expectations and aspirations of remote people, teachers, employers, political leaders and bureaucrats are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As such, there needs to be respectful consideration and open-mindedness about different approaches to language and literacy attainment. Those engaged in Government reviews and policy-making need to consult widely and, as Michael Apple (2013) sagely counsels, be 'countered by humility and an equal commitment to listen carefully to criticism' (p. 21).
Revisiting our experiences has reinforced our belief that, without an understanding of the local linguistic and cultural landscape, non-Aboriginal teachers in remote communities have a near impossible time teaching in English (Moses & Wigglesworth, 2008). Literacy and language transmission works best where there are good models that belong to the community, and the family is an important determinant of success. For literacy and Standard Australian English to take hold, they must find their own significant niche within the community practices of remote Indigenous Australia, and not merely be tied to school, or court, or whitefella business. Intergenerational transmission of literacy practices, both in the vernacular language and in English, appears to have an important role to play in establishing such niches for the everyday use of literacy skills (Kral & Ellis, 2008). It is only through such natural routes of transmission that languages and their developing literacies can remain strong and develop side-by-side. Essentially, our rethinking has led to an acceptance that one size cannot fit all and an open-mindedness to embrace multi-strategy approaches tailored to the cultural contexts in which students learn to be literate.
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Sally Godinho and Marilyn Woolley | The University of Melbourne, Victoria
Mason Scholes | Maningrida College, Northern Territory
Georgie Sutton | Ntaria School, Northern Territory
Sally Godinho is an honorary fellow at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. Her research and publications have focused on middle years literacy, curriculum design and pedagogy. She has participated in projects in a remote community school and is on the editorial board of Literacy Learning: the Middle Years.
Marilyn Woolley is an honorary fellow at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne. She has authored an extensive range of literacy resources with an emphasis on Indigenous and ethnic minorities. For many years she undertook teacher education in remote communities and participated in projects to promote bilingual education.
Mason Scholes has taught in remote NT schools for many years. He was the inaugural winner of the Eureka Prize for Science Teaching, developing a program in Maningrida which incorporates Indigenous knowledge with Western science. He is currently the language and cultural coordinator at Maningrida College.
Georgie Sutton is a primary teacher at the Ntaria School in Hermannsburg. Since undertaking a placement at Yirrkala, NT, during her teacher training, she has had a keen interest in remote Indigenous education. She was awarded funding to supplement an on city visit for students from Maningrida College and coordinated the program of cultural experiences.
Caption: Figure 1. Direct Instruction enacted
Caption: Figure 2. Learning on Country experiences
Caption: Figure 3. Pocket books authored by the students at Maningrida School (see Godinho, Woolley, Webb, & Winkel, 2014)
Caption: Figure 4. Lurra Language and Culture Committee planning and enacting programs
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|Author:||Godinho, Sally; Woolley, Marilyn; Scholes, Mason; Sutton, Georgie|
|Publication:||Literacy Learning: The Middle Years|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2017|
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