Posts Tagged personalisation

Aboriginal Science and Ancient Teaching methodolgies

Last year I had the privilege of spending half a day in the company of Frances Bodkin  (Aunty Fran), an elder of the D’harawal (an aboriginal language (tribal) group of south-western Sydney). The time spent with her and her husband Gavin Andrews was focused on her knowledge of the aboriginal uses of plants, but it revealed so much more. I think the thing that struck me most was the traditional knowledge they held and graciously shared, based on thousands of years of their ancestors’ observation, can be backed up and explained by today’s ‘western’ experimental science. Aunty Fran describes her people’s knowledge as Aboriginal Science, which I think is very appropriate, and I hope her dream to share this knowledge and have it fully acknowledged comes to fruition. Her book D’harawal Seasons and Climatic Cycles is a great starting place to begin to appreciate the depth of knowledge and understanding her people have to share.

Black science has observation and experience, white science has measurements and experiments. If we put the two of them together we’d get a much deeper science.
—Frances Bodkin, Dharawal Elder, NSW—

In the last 5mins of my time with Aunty Fran she discovered I was a school teacher and told me about a research project she had been working on in schools using stories to teach. Her methods were based on traditional aboriginal teaching methods, from an oral culture that had no written language other than the symbolic art  found painted in caves and engraved on rock platforms.

She outlined that in a typical 60min lesson she would take the class outside into the natural environment and engage as many senses as possible (touch, smell, taste, hearing, seeing, balance as well as common sense). She would tell a story related to key points in the curriculum and then ask students in small groups to reconstruct and recount the story. Students were not allowed to record any notes, until after they had recounted to each other what they learned.  Thus a 60min lesson is broken up into 20mins story, 20mins recount and 20 mins of recording. As Fran outlined this method and the success they had measures ( a year later students could recall over 50% of what was taught) it ticked off a lot of the learning theory boxes for me. The elements that struck me were;

  • Engagement: engaging with story – narrative, space and inclusion of  the senses)
  • Metacognition  and collaboration: reconstructing the story in small groups, produces deeper thinking and
  • Personalisation: recording your personal record of the learning.

These are all aspects that dominate the research literature on how people learn.  I have instinctively included elements of story or narrative in my lessons. I think  statements like “the way humans learn in the C21st has changed” are misleading. Humans now have an array of technology to assist learning, but my gut feeling is that at a biological level we still learn the same way we always have and that the reason narrative is  a part of all ancient cultures teaching practices is because that is how our brains are wired to learn.  The narrative helps us link new concepts to old and allows us to remember the important bits associated with the story. I would also make the bold claim that all children learn similarly and that taking an ancient aboriginal approach to instruction should also work with non-indigenous children. I have since experimented with my own classes and developed a unit around the ecology we teach to year 9 students. I will recount my experiences in future posts.


Bodkin, Frances & Robertson, Lorraine (2008). D’harawal : seasons and climatic cycles. F. Bodkin & L. Robertson, Sydney

A great introduction to Aunty Fran was produced by ABC Message Stick  :

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How does what we do compare to how the research says it should be done?

This week I took a step back and looked at the big picture of the why, how and what.  That is; why we exist as an organisation, how we go about obtaining our vision and what it looks like in practise  (the three rings of my diagram).

The inner ring, the why …the schools vision and focus statements for 2011, were developed by the principal, his executive and school board.

My focus was to compare how what we do in day-to-day teaching at my school compares to the research into how students learn (Darling-Hammond, 2008; Donavan & Bransford, 2005) and the research into what teaching practices work  (Hattie, 2009). Thus the second ring is made up of the four elements described by the research. That is the need to personalise the learning of students, to help them to develop the deep thinking and metacognitive skills required to become autonomous learners, to incorporate cooperative learning as a way of developing students thinking and metacognition, and to enable teachers to actively gain feedback from students and applying that feedback to help students take the next steps on their learning path.

When examining what the practices occurring at my school are, as noted in the outer ring of the diagram, I saw that many of them aligned to and supported the development of one or more of the elements identified by the educational research.

While this is  encouraging I would add that we still have a long way to go.  When we go about these day-to-day activities I am unsure how many of my colleges are conscious of the how, that is, how do these activities align to the research and to the school vision. I know myself I need to stop and make some more conscious decisions about the tasks I chose and the way they are delivered to ensure they actively support the learning of my students.

I was also part of a discussion earlier in the week  which was questioning how far in the shift from an industrial model to something new we had come, and if we would ever reach the end of needing to transform our practises.  The consensus was for the foreseeable future change will be the norm.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Teaching and learning for understanding. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (pp. 1-10). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Donavan, M. S., & Bransford, J. D. (Eds.). (2005). How Students Learn: Science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

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