Education for non-Aboriginal students

Most Australians learned little about Aboriginal culture, yet are hungry for more. Educating non-Aboriginal Australians could help combat racism and discrimination, but teaching still hasn't caught up.

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The great Australian silence

The Australian education system not only struggles to bring education to Aboriginal children, but also taking the fear out of non-Aboriginal students to learn about Aboriginal culture.

Many think if they don't know enough they don't have the right to contribute to the conversation, an attitude which hampers the dialogue true reconciliation requires .

94% of parents of school-aged children want them to have an understanding of Aboriginal people and their history. At the same time more than 80% of Australians feel that they know little or nothing about Aboriginal culture .

They were brought up on a diet of what the anthropologist W E H Stanner labelled “the great Australian silence” , the reluctance to talk about the ongoing cultural differences between Aboriginal people and the dominant culture.

After completing high school, students fail to know enough about Aboriginal culture.

"I lecture in a progressive university where Australian Indigenous Studies is a compulsory core unit for all trainee teachers," says Aboriginal academic Stephen Hagan . "But despondently, only 5% of my annual intake would qualify as having a basic operational knowledge of Australian Indigenous peoples after 12 formal years of schooling."

Jade Jones-Cubillo, a young Larrakia and Jawoyn woman, found her education didn't prepare her at all.

"Throughout my schooling life, I had not learned about the black history of Australia. I had briefly touched on the Stolen Generations because my class had to analyse the movie Rabbit Proof Fence but I never learned the reasoning of why it had happened. I never learned the effects this had on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mob of Australia."

Gus had grown up with district hearsay that Aboriginal people were like animals.

— Jonny Samengo, Indigenous Scholarship Program, Scots College, Sydney

When I went to school, most of the kids studying Aboriginal history were Aboriginal. It wasn't compulsory [for white kids].

— Timana Tahu, Aboriginal rugby league player

I taught myself about Australia’s black history, at 17. I was curious and didn’t understand why this wasn’t something we learned at school.

— Jade Jones-Cubillo, Larrakia and Jawoyn woman

Teaching Aboriginal culture is a challenge

Teachers struggle with teaching Aboriginal studies well because they haven't been provided with adequate course work during their own studies on the topic at university .

Australian singer-songwriter Shane Howard, who studied education at Deakin University (Victoria), found that"what the history books [of the 1980s] were telling us wasn't really true."

Author John Danalis, in his book Riding The Black Cockatoo, writes: "Initially it was hard to come to grips with Aboriginal culture and society. Its mind-bending timeline; its astonishingly distinct yet interwoven diversities. In many ways it reminded me of the complexity of Europe.

"Imagine doing a crash course on European peoples, their cultures, languages, cuisine, art, architecture, folk tales, myths and belief systems, and then trying to summarise in a few neat paragraphs what it means to be European; it would be an impossible task.

"And yet that is largely the shallow representation of Aboriginal Australia that was presented to me when I was a young person – a mere caricature, the man on the two-dollar coin."

In rural Australia, young Australians grow up assuming that Aboriginal people are "like animals" . Once they get to know them, however, their stereotypical opinions can change, a huge cross-educational benefit.

My two kids love [Aboriginal student] Kyol and think he's an oracle. I'm forever hearing, 'Kyol says...'

— Jonny Samengo, Indigenous Scholarship Program, Scots College, Sydney

Teacher resource: A classroom experiment

Aboriginal Professor Mick Dodson recalls a classroom experiment he was told on a school visit .

"A class of grade 5 students and their teacher go out for a school trip. When they return, they find that the grade 4 teacher and her students have taken over their classroom. They are told the desks no longer belong to them, or the bookshelves or the blackboard.

The grade 5 students, confident of what is theirs, ask for it back. The grade 4 students refuse; it all belongs to them now and their teacher supports them. Not only do they refuse to give it back, the grade 5s are asked to stand aside, to stand on the fringes of the classroom.

The grade 5 students start to get upset and angry – ‘give us our classroom back’, they insist. The grade 4 students don’t budge. The anger of the grade 5s turns to frustration and a sense of hopelessness. The grade 4s seem to be settling in to stay.

Sound familiar?

Like the famous ‘blue eyes’ experiment that taught students in the US how rapid and devastating institutionalised racial prejudice can be, the colonisation of the grade 5s classroom at Majura School in the ACT produced an almost immediate and keenly felt response of injustice and marginalisation in the dispossessed students.

The classroom colonisation has that critical experiential dimension of learning that we so often fail to include when teaching our children and it’s just as important as the content of history books."

From my experience, Aboriginal people are really only touched on in the history of European settlement.

— Alannah Kirby, arts student, Melbourne

Learning history, students feel shocked, angry, betrayed

When Stolen Generations member Helen Moran told high school and college students her story "many students were outraged to learn that no-one had told them the full, truthful story about Australia's history until this late in their schooling, and that it had come from outside the curriculum." .

It is an attitude echoed in many schools. When Stolen Generations member Leone Pope talks at universities and TAFEs students say "Why hasn't anybody told us about this? We need to know more about it," and they feel betrayed that they don't know the proper history of their country .

Students said that having had this knowledge available "would have helped to combat the racism and discrimination that exists in Australia today" .

During a luncheon with children from Sydney's Northern Beaches, Aboriginal author Anita Heiss was shocked to learn that they hadn't heard the word "Koori" and didn't know what the Aboriginal flag looked like.


In history curricula in 2011, the achievements and historical mistreatment of Aboriginal people weren't taught until Year 10. As a consequence Aboriginal students who did not reach Year 10 could not learn about their own history.

In the history curriculum draft for 2012 for Grade 4, Aboriginal people were grouped together with flora and fauna in the module that briefly covers the impacts of colonisation. The grouping was later changed.

In 2014, the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) Study Design which prescribes what Victorian secondary students learn about Australian history, allows a student to excel in Australian history without any demonstrated knowledge of the experiences or perspectives of Aboriginal people after 1860. A Koorie history course was cut due to declining enrolments.

Educating our children with the truth is the way toward healing this great country.

— Helen Moran, Stolen Generations member

My real Australian education began at the end of the 1960s when [Aboriginal activist] Charlie Perkins and his mother, Hetti, took me to the Aboriginal compound at Jay Creek in the Northern Territory... The shock at what I saw was unforgettable. The poverty. The sickness. The despair. The quiet anger. I began to recognise and understand the Australian silence.

— John Pilger, journalist and film-maker

Homework: The new journey forward

In a speech delivered on Australia Day 2019, NSW Governor David Hurley said:

"If I was looking back and reading the Australian story in 10 years time, I would like the story of our First Peoples to include the successful completion of a four-part journey ... acknowledge, apologise, reconcile and build."


  • Write a definition for each of the four words used by the Governor for the journey ahead.
  • Find examples of what has already happened for each of the four steps.
  • Think of activities that would support each step in the future.
  • Whose responsibility do you think it is to make these things happen?


View article sources (17)

[1] 'Reconciliation rocks musos', Koori Mail 427 p.38
[2] 'Eco-tourism is helping the process', Koori Mail 452 p.45
[3] 'Not bleeding hearts, just the bleeding obvious', Don Palmer, inaugural Sydney University Red Cross Society Lecture, 16/8/2011
[4] [4a] 'Overcoming education weakness', Koori Mail 418 p.21
[5] [5a] 'I didn't understand how special it was to be Aboriginal until I was 17', The Guardian Australia 25/5/2016
[6] [6a] [6b] 'Two of us', SMH 5/11/2011
[7] 'It is the hardest thing I have ever done...', Koori Mail 479 p.5
[8] Panel discussion, Art Gallery of NSW, 27/10/2010
[9] [9a] 'Riding The Black Cockatoo', John Danalis, Allen & Unwin, p.192
[10] 'Mick's enduring message', Reconciliation News 12/2009 p.12
[11] 'Language lessons', reader's letter, Koori Mail 481 p.27
[12] [12a] [12b] [12c] 'It's far too little, and way too late', Koori Mail 507 p.25
[13] 'Alliance hosts Parlt seminar', Koori Mail 520 p.10
[14] 'Anita Heiss', interview, SMH Spectrum 6/4/2012
[15] 'VCE's Australian History Study Design snubs indigenous perspectives', The Age 12/11/2014
[16] 'Pilger takes out Sydney Peace Prize', Koori Mail 464 p.11
[17] 'On a day for unity, three national anthems tell the story', SMH 26/1/2018

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Education for non-Aboriginal students, <>, retrieved 20 July 2024

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