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Significance of First Nations curriculum

David de Carvalho

Professor Mark Rose, Deakin University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor, Indigenous Strategy and Innovation, is the Chair of ACARA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group. The group was established in 2014 to provide ACARA with advice regarding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures cross-curriculum priority in the Australian Curriculum.

ACARA’s CEO, David de Carvalho (DDC), sat down with Professor Mark Rose (MR) to talk about the advisory group and the important place of First Nations Australian content in our curriculum.

DDC: You were one of the original members of the Advisory Group; why did you join?

MR: I was interested in the idea of a national curriculum and making sure the Aboriginal voice was there, obviously for Aboriginal people but also for non-Aboriginal people. I do a lot of speeches and I often ask – what did you learn at school about Aboriginal people? And the chorus is “nothing or very little worthwhile”.

DDC: You’ve said when you were at school you were taught that “Aboriginals couldn’t live in houses as they would burn the floorboards to light fires”. Did this play a role in your wanting to have a voice in the curriculum?

MR: I grew up in a convent as a result of my dad being a stolen child, which brought about significant family disruption, and so I found my way into teaching and a principalship. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, of which I co-chaired the Victorian Review in 2003, drew a link between inadequacies in the curriculum tarnishing professional decisions in all the social indicators. Each of the “closing the gap” measures are important, but education for First Nations and the broader communities is the tipping point.

DDC: How much has the curriculum changed when it comes to that First Nations voice in the curriculum?

MR: We used to rely on accidental heroes, creative educators who saw a hole and tried to fill it; sometimes they got it right, sometimes not.

But the movement started to become everyone’s business. If you live, work and raise a family on this land, then you have a right to know about your cultural heritage.

In the vacuum of the broader community not being educated around Indigenous issues, that void was filled at times with stereotypes and warped paradigms. Authenticity is what we as educators do; it is not about compliance or conversion; it is about letting people know differing viewpoints.

DDC: The proposed changes to the First Nations Australian content in the Australian Curriculum received a lot of media coverage, both positive and negative. What was your perspective of that?

MR: Not far from me, there are schools where I can walk in and be welcomed in Woiwurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri people. When I sit and listen to the stories of Elders a generation above me and they talk about how they weren’t allowed to go beyond Year 8, and I think about the number of Aboriginal PhDs that are flooding the higher education sector and the work I do with Aboriginal students, it is just sensational how far we have come.

It’s not just an Aboriginal issue, it’s making sure the curriculum reflects the true picture of Australia.

I have read with interest some of the concepts in the press … thank God we live in a country where people can express an opinion … but a lot of that opinion is not well informed, and provides the best argument for why we need to get this curriculum balanced.

DDC: Some advisory group members have been criticised in the media for comments made previously; how has that been?

MR: Everyone has said things that if you had your time again you might or might not have said differently. If you trawl through comments people have made out of context and suggest someone feels a certain way because they retweeted a comment … and then say the whole group is flawed, that is not a rational argument. People were being tagged as un-Australian. We have members who have served on Australia Day Councils and received Australia Day awards, there are PhDs and a couple of centuries of cumulative education experience.

We were targeted individually and collectively and that is very disappointing – they are as fine group of educators I would ever want to have instant coffee in any school staffroom.

DDC: What would you like people to know about the advisory group?

MR: The group puts the kid first regardless of whether the kid is black or white. We want a balanced curriculum that tells the truth and shows how people can have different perspectives on the same events. If you keep focus on the past you can’t go forward – you have to put the past in context.  We need to recognise, as Charlie Perkins said, that “We cannot live in the past.  The past lives in us.” We all have a shared commitment to Australia being the best country we can be.

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