Developing Content in Indigenous Australian Studies

This information is an example from Charles Sturt University’s Indigenous Curriculum and Pedagogy website.

General background in Indigenous issues

The development of relevant skills and understanding will only be possible if it is based on a sound understanding of the cultural, historical and contemporary frameworks which have shaped and continue to shape the lives of Indigenous Australians. This background understanding should include (at least):

  • the basis of Indigenous spirituality and belief systems;
  • the sources and contemporary characteristics of families and family structures;
  • relationships with land, the interconnectedness of land, family and spirituality; and the diversity of concepts of identity;
  • understanding the impact of historical processes (such as colonisation and dispossession, institutionalization, discrimination, and the Stolen Generations) is crucial;
  • the relationships between broader contemporary contexts and social issues (such as housing, dependency, poverty, and unemployment) also need to be examined and understood.

Critically examining the nature of the profession

Indigenous cultures and individuals should not be the only focus. Many of the difficulties concerning relationships between Indigenous peoples and professions derive as much from the nature of the profession as from the lack of understanding about Indigenous cultures and people. It is essential that students are provided with the tools and opportunities to critically explore the major paradigms of their discipline and how these paradigms influence the impact of the profession on clients from diverse backgrounds.

Exploring values and attitudes

The teaching of knowledge, skills and values can occur simultaneously, especially the interlinking of values with the other components. Knowledge and skills can be taught in such a way that it requires the students to examine their own values at every point. This is important because the historical events that occurred (for instance, colonisation, dispossession and the Stolen Generation) were based on cultural value assumptions (such as that the Indigenous people were/are primitive or sub-human), and the mere presentation of the historical facts requires the students to assess whether they agree with these values. With regards to skills, it can be made explicit that effective interaction with Indigenous people cannot occur without an examination of the values that professionals hold in relation to their own or Indigenous culture.

Professionally specific content

There are specific issues which needed to be understood by students as future professionals. These include, for example:

  • understanding cultural diversity in child development and learning styles;
  • understanding loss and grief and trauma issues within Indigenous communities and related counseling options;
  • the need to challenge stereotypes and to understand the psychology of stereotyping and racism;
  • the danger of pathologising the behaviour of people who don't fit into dominant cultural paradigms;
  • problems of 'deficit' models;
  • concepts of cultural safety (Cieurzo & Keitel, 1999; Glover, Dudgeon, & Huygens, 2005; Phillips, 2004b; Sonn, Garvey, Bishop, & Smith, 2000) and cultural competence (Sonn, 2004; Sutton, 2000).

Stand-alone vs. integrated content

It is important to try to integrate Indigenous content from Year 1, not just in separate subjects, but across the whole study program. This integration needs to be planned carefully, since there is a danger that fully-integrated content may lose coherence, and some academics may not possess the required skills, understanding, or value systems to teach this material in a culturally appropriate way. A mixture of 'stand-alone' content and integrated material is probably the best option where this is possible. However, stand-alone subjects also need to be taught carefully, since they run the risk of reinforcing concepts of 'them and us' and if taught badly can worsen existing stereotypes and attitudes rather than improving them.

Well-theorised content

It is important to have well-theorized content, supported by a sound pedagogical rationale, so that the Indigenous-related material fits into other aspects of the program rather than standing alone as some kind of curiosity.  For instance, a discussion of the impact of colonisation in Australia can be related to colonisation or other modes of oppression in other countries or other contexts, with often similar consequences (such as trans-generational trauma or cultural trauma) to other groups of people as well as Indigenous Australians. This can be especially useful, for instance, in understanding and working with refugees and other migrant groups.

Demonstrating Relevance

It is also important that students are able to recognize the immediate relevance of the material from the outset; otherwise they might see the material as an irrelevant imposition. A good way to do this is to establish the relevance of Indigenous Australian content to the discipline in the first lecture and then continuously point out in what way the material they are learning is applicable to understanding and working with anyone, no matter what their culture may be. Many of the problems of student resistance to Indigenous Australian content can be avoided if the relevance of the content to their future careers is examined in some detail early in the teaching process.

Indigenous Participation

Extensive Indigenous participation in the teaching process is essential. This is essential because it ensures the integration of Indigenous perspectives into the content lends credibility to the material and acts as a check on non-Indigenous lecturers who may misrepresent or mis-present the material, even with the best of intentions. Indigenous lecturers or guest speakers do not need to be professionals within the discipline area. The participation of Indigenous staff can help make the 'book-learning' come alive for students and will often elicit an emotional as well as an intellectual response which deepens the learning process.

A team teaching approach, with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous lecturers working in partnership, is the most effective strategy.  This provides a range of perspectives and also models partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous working together respectfully as professionals.

It is also important to ensure that the content and issues covered in these subjects are not presented as 'an Indigenous problem', to be presented and dealt with by Indigenous staff. It is essential that non-Indigenous staff are centrally involved in the process of naming the issues, owning the problems and developing strategies to overcome them, particularly where it relates to issues of power and unearned privilege and deconstruction of the discipline paradigm.

Indigenous guest lecturers are a valuable addition, but ideally Indigenous involvement in teaching would not be limited to guest lectures. Guest speakers should be regarded as lecturers in their own right and not seen as tokenistic or 'objects'. If guest speakers are used, they need to be well briefed about their role to ensure that their presentations are integrated into the subject and course content rather than being stand-alone narratives. It is also necessary that strategies are in place to handle any possible guilt, self-blame, or sentimental pity ('these poor people'), which ultimately is counter-productive because it is patronising. The integration of guest lecturers into the program is enhanced if students are briefed in advance (or during the introduction of the lecturers) about how the guest's content relates to broader issues or principles, and if the lecture content is followed up and discussed in subsequent lectures and/or during tutorials.

Where possible, students should have the opportunity to interact at a personal level with Indigenous people, whether they are lecturers or other guest speakers. It is likely that many students have never knowingly spoken with an Indigenous person. The use of Indigenous tutors to work with students in smaller groups can be a very effective way of achieving this.

Field trips and cultural experiences

Field trips or culture-immersion programs are potentially very valuable (again, provided they are delivered appropriately and sensitively). Many Indigenous organisations, community or art centres or Indigenous galleries at museums can provide guided tours for groups of students, or can provide guided tours to important local Indigenous sites. More extended field trips, involving overnight stays, can be very beneficial, particularly if they provide an opportunity for students to interact with Indigenous community members in an informal context. An increasing number of cultural tours or camps are being provided by Indigenous communities across the country, providing opportunities for these kinds of experiences.

The use of placements in Indigenous contexts can also be a valuable strategy for de-mystifying organizations and situations.


Effective interaction with Indigenous people requires an understanding of Indigenous world views as well as how historical and contemporary events have impacted and continue to impact on Indigenous social and emotional well-being. A deep understanding of these impacts requires empathy and emotional engagement, not just an intellectual analysis. This is particularly important because without the ability to empathise a good relationship cannot develop, and in the Indigenous context a personal trusting relationship is essential for effective interaction.

While conventional forms of assessment, such as exams and essays, may assess the understanding of world views and empathy to some extent, most academics working in this area recommend that the choice of assessment strategies, much like the choice of curriculum content and pedagogical strategy, that takes into account Indigenous perspectives on learning and understanding. Keeping a journal in which students write regularly (preferably weekly) enables them to identify their emotional and personal as well as intellectual responses, and tracks the development of understanding as they progress through the subject and course. Requiring the students to maintain a weekly journal is also a way of optimising continuing engagement with the subject. The use of ePortfolios and in particular the software Pebblepad would assist in this level of engagement. Using ePortfolios provides more responsibility and control over individual learning development, making it an excellent tool for lifelong learning as it encourages regular review and reflection on learning and personal development.  

The above are good assessment practices for all students. Our efforts ought to be directed at helping and encouraging students as future professionals to critically examine their choice of strategies from an Indigenous cultural perspective.

Since many of the important issues concerning Indigenous people have complex origins, often going back many generations, a deep understanding of the issues requires more than the ability perform under alien exam conditions. Therefore, reasonably lengthy essays are another valuable form of assessment, since they enable the students to go into some depth about the issues and to make links between historical and contemporary events and their consequences. The essay questions can be written in such a way that they require extensive reading and reflection to answer them adequately. Setting a case study as an assignment can be very effective. Engagement at this level is critical. For example, the students select a topic of contemporary interest (such as Indigenous mental health and well-being), undertake a literature review, contact relevant Indigenous and other organisations (either in person or by accessing websites) to find out current policy and practice, and integrate the data into suggestions for the role of psychological theory and/or practice in addressing the issue. As educators we are then approaching the learning experience in a way that allows the student to make links with the content and their personal experience in context of their emerging professional practice.

The Sub-Deans (Learning and Teaching) are currently working with The Centre of Indigenous Studies and the Division of Learning and Teaching Services on models of best practice that includes both assessment and Indigenous Curriculum and pedagogy which will be a vital resource to academic staff.

Cultural Awareness and competency of Staff

Finally, cultural competence programs for all staff, even those not directly involved in teaching Indigenous material, can assist in ensuring that the importance of Indigenous content is recognized and confirmed by all staff. Lack of cultural competence on the part of some staff, including administrative and support staff, can undermine the work of developing cultural competence in students.


As mentioned earlier, many of the attempts in the recent past to include relevant Indigenous content and understanding in undergraduate programs have faltered because they have relied on a few relatively isolated individual academics. Hence, it is important to put in place the factors to ensure that Indigenous Australian Studies subjects and programs are sustainable in the long term. The following will help with sustainability.

Institutional Support

The Division of Learning and Teaching Services (DLTS) can provide a valuable service to Faculties and Schools in the incorporation of Indigenous Australian content into subjects and programs in a pedagogically sound way. Within the Division the role of an Indigenous Curriculum and Pedagogy (ICAP) Coordinator has been created to work specifically in this area, particularly during the implementation stage. The Indigenous Curriculum Pedagogy Coordinator, in collaboration with the Centre for Indigenous Studies, will provide professional development in relation to the cultural competence pedagogical framework and effective methods for incorporating Indigenous content and resources. The ICAP Coordinator will work closely with the Centre for Indigenous Studies and the Educational Designers to support Faculties and Schools design and teach Indigenous Australian content. DLTS is also developing a series of resources that can be shared within the institution. These resources are stored and available under protocols being developed by the Centre for Indigenous Studies about their use and accessibility.

The Library has also developed a set of resources that are  available  and can be accessed via this website. These resources will be maintained and updated regularly.

The Centre for Indigenous Studies in consultation with DLTS will be addressing professional development around the area of student resistance and racism acknowledging that staff will need support in this area. The Centre for Indigenous Studies in consultation with DLTS is currently exploring the development of learning and teaching strategies for exploring issues of race, racism, power and privilege.

Succession planning

Long-term sustainability requires the appointment of new staff from time to time. Having more than one person from your school involved in course and subject development and teaching, even if others may only have a relatively minor role (for instance, delivering a few lectures, or doing some tutoring), is a good strategy since it shares the load and enables other people to continue with teaching if the initiator retires or takes leave. It also helps to create a positive culture within the school and sets the scene for inter-generational continuity. Having a small team of tutors rather than only one or two can be a good training ground for potential future lecturers and subject coordinators. In the longer term, the students themselves may be your future educators. From experience, a substantial proportion of students become very engaged with the area and want to do work with Indigenous people when they graduate. Some of them may wish to pursue an academic career in this area.

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