I work in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education policy space and this week the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) partnered with the University of Canberra to hold its biannual research conference in Canberra. The afternoon sessions today were pertinent to school education and was entitled ‘Deficit Discourse in Indigenous Education’.
The conversation began with Tess Ryan from the University of Melbourne and University of Canberra presenting on the comparative nature of the National Assessment Program (NAP) when talking about school performance. She argued that policy attempts to draw conclusions between different settings based on a biased instrument. Tess’ team showed that the content and contexts in the NAP reflect the dominant middle-class Anglo-Saxon normative discourse thereby isolating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and unfairly marking performance.
I was particularly interested in Benjamin Wilson’s presentation as he is a former teacher investigating the role of language in framing discourse, in particular the often used ‘high expectations’. Benjamin argued that this language sets up an ‘us and them’ binary and an example he gave was a school in which he worked whose motto focused on an expectation of high expectations. The issue in this context and in many others, is that the expectations are being set in regards to non-Indigenous framings. The outcomes are measured against white paradigms of education, thereby perpetuating a deficit discourse by displacing or ignoring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing.
It has been clear for a long time that deficit discourse is embedded in our education policies when it comes to engaging and assessing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education. Policy makers refer to the statistical comparative binaries in order to argue for change, often ignoring the rich values that exist in Indigenous education, and that have been that way since time immemorial. As discussed with great passion today at the National Indigenous Research Conference there needs to be reform in the way that policy makers, schools, media and teachers think and act about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education. The speakers urged for more community and family voice in decision-making and a move away from oppressive binaries such as statistical analysis, to engage in strategies that celebrate where Indigenous children and communities are and work from a strengths-based approach.