Holistic Education from Indigenous Australia

This essay was originally written as Education by and for Indigenous Australia in Semester 2 of 2020 for ABOR1110, Introduction to Aboriginal Studies, at the University of Newcastle. It has been reformated and slightly revised for this website.

The state of education in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Isander communities prior to European colonisation can be inferred to some significant extent from contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education models that have emerged as a result of reflecting on traditional ways of making knowledge.

After developing a context-based model of education for Aboriginal students in Arnhem land to facilitate their completion of year 11 and year 12, Chris Garner took his model to traditional landowners in Arnhem land who said that they’d “been doing that for years” (TEDx Talks, 2011). This context-based education is found in Indigenous education frameworks, such as the Holistic Teaching and Learning Framework developed by Uncle Ernie Grant (QLD DoE, 2017), and the Eight ways Aboriginal Pedagogy Framework developed by Dr Tyson Yunkaporta (Yunkaporta, 2009).

Both of these frameworks are reflections on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures from which they emerged, as described by both Grant and Yunkaporta. Pre-Prep Educational Leader Denise Cedric explained in an interview how these frameworks reflected and explained practices that Indigenous educators like herself were already doing (QLD DoE, 2016). These reflections demonstrate how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander frameworks and pedagogies have remained a holistic interaction with land, nature and community. Remained, rather than developed into, as the aforementioned reflections of practicioners indicate that the holistic nature of these pedagogies is culutrally engrained.

European colonisation has played a disrupting role in traditional forms of education, ranging from ignorant intrusion to outright warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries. The emergence of mass public primary education and across Europe in this same period (Zinkina et. al., 2016) coalesced with the introduction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children into Australian public primary schooling in the 1870s (Korff, 2020). As of 1883, white parents successfully vetoed the enrolment of Aboriginal students in the same schools as their children. This power to veto was not removed until 1960, and the right of principals to similarly exclude Aboriginal children was not removed until the early 1970s (Korff, 2020).

In 1909, the introduction of the NSW Aborigines Protection Act empowered the “[removal of] children from their families” (Korff, 2020). This further removed children from traditional forms of education and furthered the imposition of colonial mass education, whilst the establishment of Aboriginal schools at this same time (Korff, 2020) steadily segregated the population of this mass education until the assimilation of Aboriginal children into public schools in the 1950s (Korff, 2020).

This disruption to traditional forms of education in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has been furthered by disconnection with local land sites. Access to the nature and cultural sites that are endemic to the aforementioned contextualisation in education has been hampered even to this day through cultural heritage programs. Yunkaporta reports of incidents where the use of heritage sites for the cultural purposes that signify that heritage is barred by authorities for the sake of preservation of that site in a kind of fossilised state (Wagner, 2020). In cases such as these, both in Australia and other colonial states in the world, Yunkaporta discusses how Indigenous communities are forced to sneak into sites of traditional natural resources or cultural significance to be able to engage with cultural and educational practices (Wagner, 2020).

There exists a broad perception amongst both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people that this disruption has caused permanent destruction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture (Wagner, 2020). Across many NSW Local Government Areas, traditional uses of plants and the like are described on information signs in the past perfect tense, as if wholly historical. Yunkaporta describes this perception and denies it, reporting of such cultural knowledge of great depth being held and passed on sustainably in spaces away from the eye of academia and media (Wagner, 2020).

Around the same time as the disempowerment of the exclusion of Aboriginal students in public education, two major things were happening. Firstly, Aboriginal students were beginning to graduate from universities, and secondly the establishment of Aboriginal Education Consultation groups (Korff, 2020). Both of these appear part of a pattern of breaking down the complete segregation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander thought from the authority of knowledge afforded by colonial society to the academy as a product of the colonial society’s own education system.

Issues in the adoption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander epistemologies1 are still ongoing, owing to a Eurocentric epistemological racism that is still prevalent in today’s colonial Australia (Bodkin-Andrews & Carlson, 2014).

The mass education system of colonial NSW has reformed in many ways over the years. One of the aspects that is often focused on is the reduction of class sizes. Targets set in the 70s saw a reduction of the teacher-student ratio from over 30 students in every category in 1969 to under 30 in every category by 1981 (NSW DoE, 2019). By 2016, the overall teacher-student ratio in NSW had dropped to 14.3 (NSW DoE, 2017). More research is needed to see how reflective this is of the classroom experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, especially considering that the year prior the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment found that the social segregation in Australian schools was equal 4th highest (Cobbold, 2018).

This reduction in class size is particularly beneficial to “those from culturally, linguistically and economically disenfranchised backgrounds” (MEL GSoE, 2016) such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The reduction also makes more feasible the personalisation of education such as the contextualising educational and pedagogical frameworks mentioned above.

In understanding these educational and pedagogical frameworks as continuations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural traditions that existed prior to European colonisation, the importance of their application in Indigenous communities becomes easily apparent. The results presented by Chris Garner on the application of contextualising pedagogy shows their effectiveness (Tedx Talks, 2011). Even moreso, however, the individual contextualisation of education is universally applicable. This implies that these frameworks are universally applicable.

Even though the knowledge of these frameworks are derived specifically from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, the parallels with both psychological frameworks derived from aggregates of Afro-Eurasian stories and Western philosophical traditions2 is staggering. This is reflective of the “Cultural Interface” that Yunkaporta describes as the “reconciling principle” (Yunkaporta, 2009), and demonstrates how these frameworks have a universality in their application.


1 Epistemology is the field of philosophy concerned knowledge, how things are known, etc. The term “epistemology” is also used as a countable noun (thus “epistemologies”) to refer to frameworks of knowledge encapsulated by that field. “Epistemological racism” can thus be understood as cognitive biases with a racial component in the production and considerations of knowledge frameworks. For a more robust explanation and exploration, see Kubota (2019).

2 For example, compare Yunkaporta’s “Community Way” (2009) with the Hegelian/Kant and Fichte dialectic (Williams, 1992) and Peterson’s “Exploratory Hero” (1999)


Bodkin-Andrews, G. & Carlson, B. (2014). The legacy of racism and Indigenous Australian identity within education. Race Ethnicity & Education, 19(4), 784-807. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2014.969224. Accessed 4 Nov 2020 

Cobbold, T. (2018 November 8). Australia Has One of the Most Socially Segregated Schools Systems in the World. Retrieved from http://saveourschools.com.au/equity-in-education/australia-has-one-of-the-most-socially-segregated-schools-systems-in-the-world/. Accessed 4 Nov 2020

Korff, J. (2020). Aboriginal timeline: Education, Retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/australian-aboriginal-history-timeline/education. Accessed 27 Oct 2020

Kubota, R. (2019). Confronting Epistemological Racism, Decolonizing Scholarly Knowledge: Race and Gender in Applied Linguistics. Applied Linguistics, 41(5), 712-732. https://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amz033. Accessed 25 Jan 2021

Melbourne Graduate School of Education. (2016 June). Reducing class size: Australasian Research Summary. Retrieved from https://evidenceforlearning.org.au/the-toolkits/the-teaching-and-learning-toolkit/australasian-research-summaries/reducing-class-size/. Accessed 4 Nov 2020

New South Wales Department of Education. (2017 January 1). Student-to-teacher ratios in NSW government schools (2006-2016) – Discontinued. Retrieved from https://data.cese.nsw.gov.au/data/dataset/b0b7b53a-b5d3-49c1-aa86-3b7107e7374d. Accessed 4 Nov 2020

New South Wales Department of Education. (2019 November 28). History of New South Wales government schools: Class size. Retrieved from https://education.nsw.gov.au/about-us/our-people-and-structure/history-of-government-schools/facts-and-figures/class-size. Accessed 4 Nov 2020

Peterson, J. B. (1999) Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. Routledge

Queensland Department of Education. (2016 November 15). Embedding culture in practice for kindergarten teaching and learning [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJ_Ra8MnFe8

Queensland Department of Education. (2017 July 25). Uncle Ernie Grant shares how to acknowledge Indigenous holistic views of the world [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbX4G7koubM

TEDx Talks. (2011 September 12). TEDxDarwin – Chris Garner – Transforming the Teacher in Indigenous Education [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMfBeotD8gc

Wagner, T. [The Stoa]. (2020 August 24). Sand Talk w/ Tyson Yunkaporta [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCiDwUuibdg

Williams, R. R. (1992). Recognition: Fichte and Hegel on the Other. SUNY Press. p. 46, note 37.

Yunkaporta, T. (2009) Aboriginal pedagogies at the cultural interface. Professional Doctorate (Research) thesis, James Cook University. Retrieved from http://eprints.jcu.edu.au/10974. Accessed 27 Oct 2020

Zinkina, J., Korotayev, A. & Andreev, A. (2016) Mass Primary Education in the Nineteenth Century. Globalistics and Globalization Studies, 2016(1), 63-70. Retrieved from https://www.sociostudies.org/upload/sociostudies.org/almanac/globalistics_and_globalization_studies_5/063-070.pdf. Accessed 4 Nov 2020.

Feature Image by Alessia Francischiello on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Holistic Education from Indigenous Australia

  1. Reblogged this on AuntyUta and commented:
    “European colonisation has played a disrupting role in traditional forms of education, ranging from ignorant intrusion to outright warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries!”


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