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The Deadly Ways to Learn Project

Aboriginal English and bidialectal classroom practices

The context | The process | The products

The context

The Deadly Ways to Learn Project set out to collect, create and critique two-way bidialectal classroom practices in fourteen Western Australian schools. Print resources and two videos have been published as a kit to support the implementation of such practices in schools across Australia.

The concept underlying these practices was to promote parity of esteem between the dialects of Standard Australian English (SAE) and Aboriginal English.

Project publication Deadly Ideas (p 6) has the following view.

Given that the dialect of instruction in Australian schools is Standard Australian English, students who speak languages or dialects other than Standard Australian English need explicit language instruction and support to achieve outcomes set down in curriculum frameworks. This group includes students who speak Aboriginal English. At no point, however, should these students gain the impression that they are required to replace their home dialect with standard Australian English. Rather, teachers and school communities should understand how to broaden their students' linguistic repertoires to the extent that they are able to code-switch at will between language varieties. Code switching involves more, however, than being able to speak two or more codes. It also involves being able to judge which dialect will best serve one's needs in any given context. This is determined by things like audience, purpose, content and situation, but will also be influenced by choices made by the language user and what messages he or she wishes to give out about him or her self. All these options and skills need to be explored and explicitly taught at school so students who speak a non-standard dialect at home are equipped to participate fully at school, and empowered to participate fully in the wider community outside school.

The process

The project started with a professional development forum which all fourteen participating teachers attended. An opportunity was provided for the teachers to learn about Aboriginal English and two-way bidialectal education, and to reflect upon issues that emerge from such an approach.

Each teacher used the ESL Bandscales to collect baseline data about the Standard Australian English development of target students with respect to reading, writing, speaking and listening. Qualitative data was collected about relevant inclusive teaching practices, use of Aboriginal and Islander Education Workers (AIEWs), community participation, and general school-community contexts.

Attempts were made to develop a roster whereby participating teachers would be placed in pairs to use email to discuss set topics and/or tasks. This initiative floundered, however, due to delays in getting email connected to several participants, then because other more pressing commitments in the schools took precedence.

In each school, teachers and AIEWs engaged in action-research: reflecting on issues discussed during the forums and looking for ways to incorporate ideas in their schools and classrooms.

A second forum was then held. Significantly, this forum involved equal numbers of AIEWs. While the first forum was characterised by listening and responding, the second forum was characterised by problem solving, collaboration, and discussion. It had a positive and profound impact on all participants.

A second round of school visits was conducted to observe, discuss and document strategies seen, ideas to try and any issues of concern. These visits also enabled a follow-up audit of inclusive teaching practices, the work of the AIEW and community participation, and the collection of qualitative data about code-switching and the extent to which Aboriginal English is valued and accepted in day-to-day classroom activities.

Project coordinator Rosemary Cahill talks about the work.

Rosemary Cahill

Rosemary Cahill

Two-way education occupies a fine line, and a good balance between 'Aboriginal way' and 'traditional schooling way' remains (at present) a rare and wonderful thing. Both sides of this divide continue to be evident among the project teachers. Among the target students being taught by teachers who have struck a productive and respectful two-way balance, there is evidence of good literacy progress, an awareness of two alternative dialects, and of attempts at code-switching. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have been partners in participation. Every non-Aboriginal teacher participating in the project has been partnered by an Aboriginal person (normally an AIEW, but where an AIEW was not available, by an Aboriginal community member). The AIEWs involved in this action-research have become more confident about their work, their relationships with teachers, and in the legitimacy of their place in the planning and delivery of educational programs for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. Teacher perceptions about the role and ability of AIEWs have changed significantly. Where AIEWs were previously perceived as a valuable extra pair of hands in the school, they are now more frequently viewed as integral members of staff who provide important cultural and linguistic insights to curriculum planning and delivery.

There is clear evidence that teaching practices among all participating teachers have become more inclusive — that the teachers have become more committed to a critique of their school's culture and more willing to examine pedagogical and curricular assumptions that drive many schooling practices. There is still, however, some way to go and this research project has helped with identification of issues that need to be addressed in this regard.

Most of the teachers have also given consideration to the purposes and uses for literacy in the lives of their students outside school and have made the literacy tasks at school more congruent with out-of-school contexts. Students have responded to this by initiating their own use of reading and writing, such as letters to friends, keeping a diary, using calendars and timetables, jotting notes and lists, and reading to find out about people and topics of interest.

A wealth of language and literacy teaching strategies have already been documented (including EDWA's First Steps, Two Way English and Solid English materials and CEOWA's Making the Jump) and are regularly used by the teachers participating in this project. Whether these strategies prove successful seems to be less to do with what the teachers do, and more to do with what they believe. Teachers' beliefs about Aboriginal English, world view, and Aboriginal ways permeate their incidental reactions to things students do and say in the classroom.

Teachers and AIEWs participating in the project have found that, where these reactions reveal a willingness to embrace and extend what students already know, positive educational outcomes follow. Where reactions reveal a deficit view — that the students need to be taught the proper way to talk and to think (albeit 'for their own good') — the students' sense of identity is compromised and teachers encounter resistance to schooling.

The products

The kit consists of two books:

The Kit. Reproduced by courtesy of the Education Department of Western Australia.

Reproduced by courtesy of the Education Department of Western Australia.

  • Deadly Ideas: A collection of two-way bidialectal teaching strategies from the Deadly Ways to Learn project;
  • Deadly Yarns: Anecdotes about Language, Culture, Identity and Power from the Deadly Ways to Learn project.

And two videos:

  • Deadly Ways to Teach: Two-way bidialectal education in schools and classrooms;
  • Talking Deadly: Language, culture, identity and power in the context of Aboriginal English.

Their titles explain the nature of their content. They are thorough and deal with a complex topic well.


© Commonwealth of Australia 2020