chapter  10
Educating for inequality: Indigenous schooling in Northern Australia
ByAustralia TESS LEA
Pages 14

This chapter considers the official and unofficial pedagogical mechanisms for shaping and creating different types of people within schools. In particular, it links the ready predisposition to diagnose Indigenous children in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia as unhealthy and ‘learning disabled’ to a simultaneous compounding of unequal education outcomes and the internalisation of racialised, embodied habits. Operating at different social scales, the cultural pedagogies in question combine in practice to shift the onus of future educational failings onto Indigenous students and away from the state, validating the ethical purpose of reforms while reinscribing racial inequalities.1 The argument draws on findings from an ethnographic study of four NT schools, all catering for large numbers of young primary school children from low socio-economic, Indigenous or non-English speaking backgrounds, conducted as part of another project altogether. Here I observed teachers with children as young as four and five adopting instructional approaches that presumed and reinforced the notion that Indigenous children cannot concentrate, are incapable of dealing with overly complex concepts and are highly unlikely to advance academically. Such assumptions were authorised by other pedagogical forces, from external surveys identifying students as this or that type of disadvantaged learner; funding regimes rewarding particular learning ‘disabilities’ over others; wider cultural discourses about Indigenous learning constraints; to such informal, micro-tactics as the isolation of a teacher who imprudently questions these material-discursive entailments. Looking briefly at the role of policy instruments such as the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI), which are promoted as devices to interrupt unequal education outcomes, I argue the current imperatives to profile children in the name of matching resources to needs is part of an armoury of pedagogic devices which (re)create a non-academic child who is destined to become an architect of their own under-education. In regional and remote Australia, teachers understand Indigenous children

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to be incapable of highly demanding instruction, given their serial disorders and inability to concentrate. As a matching response, students are taught to expect fractured programmes at a dizzying pace, becoming exactly the kind of cultural being that teachers expect: an easily distracted learner who needs culturally-engaging, kinetic edutainment else they will swiftly lose interest. To put this more pithily: multilayered cultural pedagogies nurture an Indigenous child who then seems naturally disposed to non-scholastic learning. While the case material is here drawn from school settings, I do not restrict cultural pedagogy to classroom instruction in literature, media or political content. Rather, I am tracing how racialised pedagogy intersects with increasing rates of child and youth psychopathologisation in which ‘spectres of diagnosis’ are parleyed in multiple settings with profound shaping effects (Harwood 2010: 7). The non-conscious tutelage in, and tending of, racialised forms of subjectification exceeds curricula or even formal schooling. It is part of how a ‘constellation of psychical and somatic habits [are] formed through transaction with a racist world’ (Sullivan 2006: 63); or as Indigenous writer Melissa Lucashenko puts it, how ‘underclass expectations are calibrated very young’ (2013). The long-standing set of judgements about the (non)educability of remote Indigenous children (Beresford and Partington 2003; Lea 2010), today meets a new phenomenon in schools: the ready disposition to ascribe a range of psychiatric disorders to children who are considered ‘disorderly’. The pedagogical processes for transmitting and embodying racialised identities involve adults remitting culturally available messages (institutionally, somatically, verbally) to children and their families about the child’s psychophysiological self, bolstered by student profiling and quasi-professional discourses on cognitive disorders and culturally-preferred learning styles; the child’s unconscious and active reconstituting of these assorted messages; and multiple other material and intersubjective reinforcements of these transactions. My argument can be read as a critique of an existing cultural pedagogy, showing the negative (racially-inflected) relations embedded within efforts to transform Indigenous education through greater sensitivity to socio-economic politics and critical cultural pedagogies. We begin with scenes of disordering in different schools, to gain a sense of the casual ways in which categorisations of students as this-or-that kind of child are placed into circulation, before looking more closely at the intersection of diagnostic discourses with pre-existing constructions of Indigenous learning disadvantage.