How much do you know about the diversity of Aboriginal culture in Australia? - Education Matters Magazine
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How much do you know about the diversity of Aboriginal culture in Australia?

By Dr Tracy Woodroffe

Many mainstream classrooms in Australia are perceived as monocultural and monolingual (Morrison et al., 2019). This perception could also be extended to the composition of the teaching workforce (Santoro, 2007). Unfortunately, considering this, the teaching and learning taking place could be quite limiting and exclude Australia’s rich history and First Nations people.

3.3 per cent of Australians (798,400 people) identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander in the 2016 census (ABS, 2018). Colonial attitudes and bias would have you think that Indigenous Australians mostly live in the remote areas of Australia. The reality is that “79 per cent of Aboriginal Australians live in urban areas, and the vast majority of Aboriginal children (83.9 per cent) receive their education in government schools” (Morrison et al., 2019, p. 2).

Not all teachers feel prepared and confident to teach in Aboriginal contexts – Aboriginal content, with Aboriginal students, and in remote communities (Ure et al., 2018). The geographic location or spread of Aboriginal peoples across Australia highlights a diversity and a complexity that is seldom considered when thinking about cultural aspects of classroom learning. The ABS website shows an interactive map of distribution . If you overlay or compare the distribution map with the AIATSIS language group map, you can develop a better understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal people represented. See

Teachers wanting to enact cultural competence and demonstrate expected Australian professional standards for teachers may feel overwhelmed with the job at hand. The complication is that Aboriginal people may not necessarily be living on their own ancestral lands. There are several reasons why this may be the case such as employment availability or study options. It could also have something to do with the fact that during the processes of colonisation many Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land, displaced, and moved to missions or homes, and stolen as a matter of government policy.

Teachers can join reconciliation efforts to work together on a shared history moving forward by at least knowing the traditional owners of the land that you are on and learning how and when to say an acknowledgement of country. Make a point of teaching this to your own class.

Websites and online resources such as the Gambay map of Australia’s first languages and Reading Australia have teaching notes to assist teachers to build inclusive learning programs that teach about Australian Aboriginal people. What is required is an approach that highlights the strength of Aboriginal culture and the many Aboriginal knowledges represented across Australia.

A place to start looking for this is the CSIRO website with Indigenous science. Answer the following questions – Do you and your class know about David Unaipon and why he is seen on the $50 note? Do you and your class know about Charles Perkins and what he has done for the civil rights of Aboriginal people? Do you and your class know about Indigenous astronomy?

Whether you are working on being culturally responsive, reflexive, or competent, the Australian teaching workforce is expected to know about Aboriginal Australia. This involves knowing and respecting Aboriginal culture and diversity to ensure that content is taught appropriately, knowing how Aboriginal students learn best to ensure that Aboriginal students have the best chance of academic success, and having knowledge of responsive teaching strategies and how cultural considerations impact on learning for all students in your class. These expectations are expressed as Australian professional standards for teachers 1.4, 2.4 and 1.3.

My top five reads to help teachers be more informed about Aboriginal culture and considerations for the classroom include: 

  • Malin, M. (1994). What is a good teacher? Anglo and Aboriginal Australian views. Peabody Journal of Education69(2), 94-114.
  • Price, K., & Rogers, J. (Eds.). (2019). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education. Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, N., & Sellwood, J. (2016). Learning and teaching in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education. Oxford University Press.
  • Beresford, Q., Partington, G., & Gower, G. (2012). Reform and Resistance in Aboriginal Education.
  • Woodroffe, T. (2020). Improving Indigenous student outcomes through improved teacher education: the views of Indigenous educators. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples16(2), 146-152.

This list is not exhaustive, but it is a good place to start improving professional knowledge about the cultural aspects of Australian education and for teachers to understand about implications for the classroom and supporting student success.


ABS (2018). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, 2016. Retrieved from

Morrison, A., Rigney, L. I., Hattam, R., & Diplock, A. (2019). Toward an Australian culturally responsive pedagogy: A narrative review of the literature. Adelaide, South Australia: University of South Australia.

Santoro, N. (2007). ‘Outsiders’ and ‘others’: ‘different’ teachers teaching in culturally diverse classrooms, Teachers and Teaching, 13:1, 81-97, DOI: 10.1080/13540600601106104

Ure, C., Hay, I., Ledger, S., Morrison, C., Sweeney, T. A., & Szandura, A. (2017). Professional experience in initial teacher education: A review of current practices in Australian ITE.

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