Teaching & Learning in a Desert Community

Peter Russell

Peter Russell was principal of Pipalyatjara and Watarru Anangu Schools (concurrently) from 1996 to 2001. These comments were derived from 6 years of experience living in a desert community in the far north west of South Australia in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands.

Anangu1 children come to school from a culture which is significantly different from that experienced by mainstream Australians. The piranpa2 (whitefella or non-Anangu) teachers who have no understanding of this cultural background are doomed to failure unless they can quickly learn to adapt and seek an understanding of the child's background. This means they must be willing learners and be able to dig under the surface of what appears to be. Some develop a shallow understanding and then think they know it all. They will fail. The successful teacher will be there for the long haul. They may take months or years to develop and deepen this understanding through sitting in the sand and listening to people.

Anangu communities are generally small and everyone is known by their relationships (kinship) to others. Students will want to explore these relationships with respect to their teacher and teachers need to be willing to be open and share (photos are a handy thing to have) who their relations are, where they come from and what they do. Successful teachers will take an interest in learning about the children's relations and meeting uncles and aunties and grandmothers and grandfathers. Taking genuine time in the classroom to explore these issues will also indicate to the students that the teacher values their culture and values them.

Anangu children learn in their own culture by observing what adults do and then copying. They will often be unwilling to take risks until they are reasonably sure of success. Failure will bring shame which is to be avoided at all cost. Teachers can accidentally shame kids without knowing and then reap the consequences of retiring uncooperative behaviour, absence or emotional outbursts. The latter can leave the teacher in shock and the classroom in a shambles and the former with the teacher frustrated and wondering what is wrong with the kids. Teachers need to program carefully for success. This does not mean dumbing down the learning but making the chunks digestible while retaining the highest goals and expectations. Anangu children are bright and need to be treated with respect.

Suggestions for teachers:

  • Be explicit, show and demonstrate what is to be learnt.
  • Students may need to watch and think about something longer before committing themselves. Give them time. Come back the next day or week when others may want to try.
  • Invite students to demonstrate or try something new - never force or cajole or put down.
  • Seize the moment when students want to do something or carry on longer with an activity - adapt the time table.
  • Negotiate learning activities with students.
  • Acknowledge the diversity of experience and knowledge. Make the lessons relevant to local conditions. Lead from the known to the unknown. Start where the students are; their interests and experiences.
  • Model learning processes.
  • Use experiential, hands on, practical activities as often as possible. More able students can abstract from these experiences.
  • Involve students in assessment of their work.
  • Make the learning pathways explicit for students.
  • Differentiate the teaching - use a range of strategies and tasks to individualise learning

In Anangu society it may appear that almost no rules are applied and on the surface the children may seem to be out of control. However communal expectations are clear and children know what the "rules" are. Children who deviate are shamed.

In the classroom this means that students need to clearly understand the rules of the classroom or school. The teacher should involve the children in setting up the rules and the consequences so the children understand why the rules are needed and what will happen if they are broken. The teacher should seek advice from AEWs or community members on appropriate consequences. Ways of appropriately rewarding students should also be sought. Singling someone out for praise publicly is not the Anangu way and may shame the child so the consequence is the reverse of what the teacher intended. Individuals certainly enjoy praise but it needs to be kept private.

Suggestions for teachers:

  • Work with small groups.
  • Encourage co-operation and peer tutoring.
  • Work sitting or being alongside individuals - not facing or looking at them.
  • Encourage the use of English wherever possible and constantly involve the students in activities. Lots of group recitation and practice as well as opportunities to enable the students to respond quietly and unobtrusively.
  • Don't dwell on an individual student; move on and come back later.
  • Praise the whole group to include the individual.
  • Encourage responses and effort - a good try is a success.
  • Be enthusiastic.
  • Talk about the behaviour not the person.
  • Revisit the rules as necessary - update and / or discard.
  • Be interested in the students and families outside school.
  • If inviting students into your home, set the rules and the time.
  • Be firm but consistent - that said be aware that some students may be suffering from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome or are deaf (refer to the section on Health for more information on working with these students - the approach needs to be different, taking into account their disability).
  • Check out the school's behaviour management policy and chat with more experienced staff.

Because Anangu students are encouraged to learn by watching and observing their elders, asking questions is not something they will be used to doing. Teachers need to approach this area with caution as the children may think they are being asked to be impolite!

Suggestions for teachers:

  • Be explicit in explaining to students why we ask questions in piranpa society. Explain that it is OK at school to ask questions and then teach these techniques explicitly. Work co-operatively with your AEW to do this.
  • Develop and implement multi-level questioning techniques. Again be explicit with the students so they understand what is happening and why.
  • Teach problem solving skills explicitly.

The structures of Anangu society may impact on the relationships in the classroom. Kinship structures are important in determining obligations and whom one can or cannot marry. Individuals may need to avoid certain others. In trying to group students, teachers may unwittingly trangress the law and may take non-compliance as disobedience. Be aware. It is not for the child to explain this to the teacher. It is expected that the teacher will know or have this explained later by an appropriate person. In this way Anangu treat others with respect and are very forgiving of errors made by piranpa in ignorance.

Suggestions for teachers:

  • Take advice from the AEW when setting groups - better, work together with the AEW to do it.
  • Take advice from students which is the best working arrangement.
  • Allow newcomers to the class to find their own place where they are comfortable to learn.

The piranpa teacher will be seen as a teacher wherever they go, on weekends and after school, so everyone will know about their personal life. Piranpa teachers need to take an interest in the society in which they have come to live and work in order that they can better help the children in their care to learn. But there can be problems if teachers become so fascinated with the culture that they compromise their professional position. Becoming closely identified with one or other family groups in a community may not be a good idea or what was intended. Village politics is alive and well as anywhere. Piranpa teachers need to be aware of this and steer a middle path so they can relate to all the kids equally and not be seen to be favouring any one group. That said, there are always exceptions to the rule, but they need to be aware of local politics.

The final and most important piece of advice for the newly appointed piranpa teacher is to develop a sound relationship with the AEW who works with the class. If there isn't an AEW then the new teacher should ask the principal for advice in seeking out someone from the local community who can become an equal partner in guiding the children's learning in the classroom.

1. The correct spelling of Anangu uses an undeline under the first n. However the word is commonly spelt incorrectly without. Anangu is a western desert language word used by Aboriginal people in that area of Australia to describe themselves. I have heard it said proudly, "I am Anangu not Aboriginal."

2. Piranpa is a western desert language word for a non-Aboriginal person. Literally means light colour.

Recommended Reading:

Desert Schools: An Investigation of English Language and Literacy Among Young Aboriginal People in Seven Communities, South Australian Teaching and Curriculum Centre (SATCC), Adelaide, 3 Vols.
The whole of this report makes excellent reading, especially the interviews and the report findings and recommendations.

Trudgen, Richard (2001) Why Warriors Lie Down and Die Aboriginal Resource and Development Services Inc.    
For more information click here

Haberman, Martin. (1991) The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 73 (No. 4), 290-294.
Available at: https://kappanonline.org/the-pedagogy-of-poverty-versus-good-teaching/

© 2001, 2021 Peter Russell