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Culturally responsive education and its impact on the educational outcomes of Indigenous Australian children

posted on 2023-05-25, 14:04 authored by David HicksDavid Hicks
Throughout the latter decades of the 21st century a concerted effort has been made by successive governments and researchers to improve the educational outcomes of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander population. At the core of this effort has been the notion that educational outcomes are likely to be improved by the incorporation of Indigenous knowledges, cultures and perspectives into the day to day pedagogy and curriculum of the classroom. Over the years this notion has appeared in various domains of the scholarship under various guises however is best known under the all-encompassing term ‘Culturally Responsive Education’ (CRE).

At present the core concept of CRE resides in both the Australian Curriculum and the standards governing teacher registration. It also features prominently in political discourse and the curricula of various institutions charged with training the nations teachers. In essence it has become the principal method for solving the educational disparity experienced by the nations Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander students. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, there is theoretical and conceptual contradiction in regard to what exactly it entails and thus the mechanism by which it is hypothesised to improve educational outcomes. Secondly, it has been noted by various scholars that there are questions surrounding whether or not it actually improves educational outcomes for Indigenous students at all. It was these issues this thesis aimed to address.

To achieve this, the study employed Structural Equation Modelling (SEM) to explore whether CRE had both a statistically and practically significant effect on the educational outcomes of Indigenous children and if so, whether this effect was direct or mediated by the children’s engagement with their school and education more broadly. The former suggesting that CRE theory originating from the culturalist tradition was more appropriate, the latter suggesting that theory grounded in the Marxist / Post-Colonial paradigm was a more apt way of envisaging the process by which CRE may have improved educational outcomes.

It began this process by drawing on data regarding the educational experiences of 326 Indigenous 5, 6 , 7 & 8 year old children obtained from the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (DSS) to operationalise the following latent variables: PRESENCE (the level to which Indigenous people were present within the school); PRACTICE (the extent to which Indigenous knowledge, practices and perspectives entered the curriculum and practice of the classroom); AFFECTIVE (the strength of students emotional reactions towards education and the school); BEHAVIOURAL (the extent to which students paid attention, participated and adhered to the rules of the classroom); LITERACY (the students proficiency in composition, comprehension, reading and writing); and NUMERACY (the students proficiency in operations, measurement and geometry). It then specified and tested a SEM model (Fig.1) containing a series of relationships between these which represented the core hypotheses of both the culturalist and Marxist/Post-colonial perspectives on the mechanism by which CRE should improve the educational outcomes.

The model was an excellent fit to the data (RMSEA = .06; CFI = .95; TLI = .95). The standardized indirect effect of PRACTICE on LITERACY was .13 (p<.05) and the standardized indirect effect of PRACTICE on NUMERACY was .14 (p<.05) thus providing evidence that CRE has what may be heuristically considered a ‘medium’ positive effect on educational outcomes. The model also provided evidence that relationship between CRE and educational outcomes was mediated by behavioural engagement though the practically and statistically significant paths identified between PRESENCE and PRACTICE; PRACTICE and BEHAVIOURAL; BEHAVIOURAL and LITERACY; and BEHAVIOURAL and NUMERACY.

These results are significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, they constitute the first empirical evidence surrounding the ability of CRE to improve the educational outcomes of Indigenous students in the Australian context – a quality which could not be more timely given the current tensions between neo-liberalism and agendas of social justice in Australian education where Indigenous (and indeed all) students are concerned. Secondly, they call into question the efficacy of the culturalist paradigm and within this, the notion that cognition is inextricably linked to culture – a finding with significant implications not only for policy and practice in Indigenous education but also for our understanding of the learning process itself. Thirdly, they provide important insights into the positive (and perhaps vital) role Indigenous presence and voices play in the provision of CRE – a finding which may help inform a range of stakeholders in the educational process but of significant importance for those whose roles lie in educational leadership and policy. Finally, through the operationalisation of the latent variables described above it provides solid groundwork in regard to the quantitative measurement of CRE – a vital step if the empirical research in Indigenous education is to move forward from its present state.



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