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  What Works - The Work Program

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The Dreamtime Cultural Centre

Hands-on learning in a project of cultural significance

The context | The approach | The project | The outcomes

The context


The Dreamtime Cultural Centre in Rockhampton promotes local Aboriginal culture and houses displays and exhibitions which are open to the public. In 1998, its meeting and amenities area was a large marquee which was not really suitable for the purpose.

At the same time, the Rockhampton campus of the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE was looking for opportunities to embed more on-the-job training in courses for Aboriginal students. As well, there was a shortage of skilled labour in the construction industry in the Rockhampton area.

In this context, the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE developed a partnership with the Capricornia Training Company and the Dreamtime Cultural Centre. Its purpose was to provide 14 Indigenous students with the opportunity to complete an accredited VET course in Construction Fitout and Finish while building a new facility to replace the old marquee.

The approach


The project involved hands-on learning, on a project of real cultural significance to Aboriginal students. Why was this approach taken?

  • Retention and attendance had been observed to be much better in the practical components of previous courses.
  • Previous students had become demoralised by having to build things which were then knocked down.
  • It was believed that the support of Elders and the Aboriginal community generally would be motivational for students and crucial to the success of the course.
  • It was believed that the fact that the project involved 'real work' on a real project would also be motivational for students.

Kim Harrington is Associate Director of the Central Queensland Institute of TAFE and was the manager of the project.

The project

trainee Rocky


The 14 students were aged between 22 and 34 and most had completed Year 9 without further experience in education or training. Each was tested on entry to the course to determine their literacy and numeracy levels and benchmarks for improvement were developed for each student. In addition, individual learning plans and strategies were formulated, and students' progress was mapped using log-book sheets to record the attainment of defined and recognised competencies.

The project began by providing the students with some basic skills in construction and a degree of literacy and numeracy training in the college environment.

They then built an amenities block at a local tennis club, and a BBQ/picnic area in a park to practise their basic skills and build confidence. In addition, Aboriginal community representatives and Elders briefed them during this time on the nature and significance of the task at the Dreamtime Cultural Centre.


Students worked full time on the project from Monday to Thursday, with Friday off to attend to their personal business. Two construction teachers (Morris Maker and Ken Elcock) were involved and students often worked in two separate groups, according to their pre-existing skills.

All activity was as 'real' as possible. Thus, teachers and students were involved in all aspects, from ordering materials to completion. In addition, an important component of the project was encouraging a proper work ethic. Bob Blair, Director of the Dreamtime Cultural Centre, briefed the students on his expectations of their behaviour when working at the Centre. He explained that so-called 'Murri time' was unacceptable and that broader community expectations related to employment just had to be met. For example, when concrete was to be poured at 6 am, students just had to be there (and they were).

Literacy and numeracy training was clearly linked to the construction side of the project and was delivered on-site, in a weekly four hour session conducted in 'the donger', where the builders rested and ate. Dealing with literacy and numeracy in the practical context enabled students to appreciate the relevance of these skills in the workplace. For instance, notions about 'volume' were taught in the context of how much concrete to pour in a trench.

The facility was completed and officially opened in 1999. It was named after a local community Elder, Margaret Lawton, who also happened to be the grandmother of one student who worked on the project and the aunt of another. At the official opening she presented the relevant certificates to graduating students.

Student assessment

Assessment was competency-based and there was no formal testing or examination. All required learning outcomes were covered, but they were assessed in a non-threatening way through observation, interviews and the like. This approach eased the pressure for some students who had not been in education or training for some time.

Lists of outcomes that had been achieved by individual students, and outcomes remaining to be achieved, were kept on a whiteboard or in a book in 'the donger'. This public approach to recording results was also adopted with attendance and it was found that peer pressure acted as an incentive to students.

The outcomes

  • All students completed at least one module and 30% of students completed all modules.
  • 50% of students successfully achieved all learning outcomes in the literacy and numeracy components of the course, and a further 25% completed more than half of them.
  • The majority of students subsequently found employment. Elgan Tobain, for instance, is an apprentice with Housing Queensland, and is back at the TAFE College for blocks of time as part of the training involved.

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