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Every Student Podcast: Larissa Behrendt

Professor Larissa Behrendt discusses her public education experience and what schools can do to improve learning outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.


Mark Scott

Hi, I’m Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student, the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education.

I am speaking today on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I want to pay my respect to traditional owners of the land and my respect to elders past and present wherever you are listening to this podcast. Today I am with Professor Larissa Behrendt, a highly respected legal academic and Director of Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney. She is also Chair of the Cathy Freeman Foundation, a Trustee of the Australian Museum and a board member of the Sydney Festival. Larissa has a deep interest in Indigenous education and shared the 2011 Federal Government review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. She is a Kamillaroi woman and very proudly for us a graduate of NSW public education.

Welcome Larissa.

Larissa Behrendt

Lovely to be with you Mark.

Mark Scott

We want to talk today about the work that you are doing and also talk about trying to create the best possible teaching and learning outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at our schools. As I mentioned in the introduction your education began in NSW public education and it has taken you to a Group of 8 Universities in Australia and to being the first Aboriginal Harvard Law graduate.

What was your experience of public education and public schooling as a young Indigenous student?

Larissa Behrendt

As you mentioned I am a product of the public school system. I went to school in Cooma, where I was born and then moved with my family to Norfolk Island for a couple of years and then to the Shire. I finished my primary school at Gymea Bay and Sutherland Public and then went to Kirrawee High School. I felt like obviously going to a Group of 8 Law School and then onto an elite Ivy League University like Harvard, that my public education had given me everything that I needed to succeed. Within that system I had to have a lot of initiative and that was always encouraged but I felt like I could really hold my own. I have got a lot of affection for my public education and particularly for Kirrawee High School and very proudly keep a connection with it. I sponsor a couple of prizes, one for social justice and one for Indigenous students and of course continue to do work to support the Public Education Foundation.

I had experiences of racism in the playground and the classroom, not often by teachers but often by students. My father was a very early advocate for more Indigenous education in the classroom. He would come to school every parent teacher night. By the time I was in high school particularly the history teachers probably drew straws as to who was going to deal with him. Not that they were unsympathetic to what he wanted but it wasn’t part of the curriculum and he really advocated for that. Of course it was mortifying at the time that everyone would run and hide when he was coming near but I look back now and I see that as a moment of great pride. He was friends with the Indigenous people who started the AECG but he started his own campaign without waiting for them.

Mark Scott

Did you feel an important part of your heritage and your connection to Country just wasn’t discussed or wasn’t engaged at school and did that almost have to be a separate part of your life?

Larissa Behrendt

It was even more deeper than that and certainly there was no engagement with my culture at all. When I go back to Kirrawee High School now often for things like NAIDOC day there is a large Indigenous presence, we have had a couple of Indigenous school captains now. It was so different in terms of any acknowledgement of my culture and any sense that culture was a positive thing and something that people should embrace.

What I felt most acutely was I came to know by the time I was in high school much more deeply the circumstances of my own family history and particularly my grandmother’s removal and my father growing up in an orphanage. I got really frustrated that the kids that would tease me in the school and had really negative attitudes about Aboriginal people didn’t know any of that history because it wasn’t taught. I did even think at the time as a child, in my early teens, that if they understood that history more they would understand why I felt the way I felt about things. I was already very political, grew up in the Shire but we had strong connections through my dad with the Redfern community. I would spend a lot of Saturday’s going and marching and following dad to meetings there and was really exposed to hearing people like Gary Foley and Bobby Sykes, it was part of my education too. I knew there was a whole other world that the students that I was at school with weren’t exposed to and I did feel that there was real work to be done in telling that story.

Mark Scott

We are trying to do a lot of work to embed Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum how important do you see that connection to culture and language as being a driver of helping Aboriginal students feel engaged with learning and to have a successful journey through school?

Larissa Behrendt

It’s a really good question. There is obviously a lot of research that shows that the more Indigenous students are engaged with the curriculum and the better the culture of the school is at accommodating their cultural needs, the better their education outcomes and particularly the better their school attendance is. I think a lot of schools that have prioritised Indigenous learning have tried to do that through things like in poor socioeconomic areas and things like breakfast and lunch programs are really successful. Having Elders in residence, Indigenous people on the teaching staff, really engaging with the local community and having a good relationship are the kinds of things that transform the school. It is important not just for Indigenous students and their parents, and bearing in mind that their parents had a very different education, probably a lot more like mine where there was no acknowledgment of Indigenous people or if there was any mention it was in a demeaning way, a way that caused embarrassment. It is a way of building relationships with them as well. Importantly what we see too is where schools engage in that diverse cultural engagement it is actually better for the school as a whole and students as a whole.

There is really strong evidence about how that level of curriculum engagement and cultural engagement gives us the better outcomes that we are looking for in terms of Close the Gap agenda and increased participation rates, increased success rates, getting that pipeline of kids finishing the HSC and going onto further education, all of those things. I do think there is an importance as well, I think overall it improves the quality of the community of the school in general.

Mark Scott

One of the most moving things I have experienced in my time as Secretary is going to a North Coast school and seeing all the kids learning the local Aboriginal language. There is no French, there is no German – that was the language that everyone was learning. It was great having the Elders in at the school, great having that engagement with the community. I think what you are saying is no trade off, everyone benefits. That is a point that someone would make looking at your stellar career. You achieved all you achieved without this. You have achieved recognition at the highest possible levels. It benefits all students if they don’t have to go down that pathway and that there is no in a sense academic trade-off for students by tailoring these perspectives into the curriculum and driving engagement in this way.

Larissa Behrendt

No not at all. I think it enriches all students. I think it engages all students with the history of this country and helps them to understand a little bit more about the importance of the cultures of this country. The assumption that somehow this is a trade-off is really misguided. First of all it undermines the importance of those stories in terms of understanding our own history and really building kids who have a really strong sense of what kind of country we should be.

We like to think that all our kids will be leaders in some way and they should have a really strong view about that. The other way curriculums are being really enriched particularly in the STEM areas now is with a deeper embrace of Indigenous knowledges and particularly as the issue of climate becomes one of increasing importance for all of us but one that our young people are incredibly invested in, the knowledges that are contained in Indigenous cultures about sustainability, about sharing resources, sharing Country, looking after Country with things like fire technology all of those things that are now becoming important debates on a policy level I think are enriching for our students.

Mark Scott

Let’s talk about the issues of unconscious bias and the deficit model that can exist in schools now. How important is it? We have research that talks about high expectations as being an absolute fundamental driver of high quality teaching and learning outcomes. How does unconscious bias and the deficit model impact Aboriginal students in schools?

Larissa Behrendt

One area where it still has a really big impact is in expectations around the ability of Indigenous students. I say that because this still came up as a big issue when I did the Higher Education Review which was an audit across the country of some of these issues particularly the pipeline. One of the challenges for the Higher Education sector is the number of Indigenous students coming through the pipeline for them to then bring into university weren’t in the numbers that would help them achieve their own targets. They raised a lot of questions about that.

Particularly in speaking to students within the Higher Education sector almost all of them would have had an experience where they were given an alternative pathway because they were Indigenous and it was quite shocking. I would speak to students who were working in the sciences and had been told as a student that because they were bright they should try and get a job at Kmart. I think it is still a really big part of the challenge around building excellence in Indigenous students, people really pick up on that.

I had my own negative experience with that at Kirrawee High School even though for the most part my teachers were exceptional and it was my English teachers and History teachers and one English teacher in particular that put me on the pathway to university when I had never thought of it myself so in a way it is maybe a reverse example of how important the aspiration part is. As a first in family it never occurred to me to go to university and that ambition came completely from my teachers. I did Economics for my HSC in Year 11 and one of the teachers moved me out of that into Home Economics because I was Indigenous. She left the school when I was in Year 12 so I dropped Home Economics because I had no interest in it at all and didn’t have the confidence to be able to challenge her, especially when her language was all about her doing me a favour and I was so embarrassed about it I didn’t tell my parents who both would have been horrified about it.

I feel that always made me realise from a very personal experience how that could have been a very different pathway for me if I hadn’t of had those exceptional teachers there. For me from a personal level and as you say Mark there is a lot of evidence that speaks to the importance of that modelling around expecting excellence and expecting high results from Indigenous students as real models for success.

Mark Scott

What do we need to be doing and what do we need to be focused on? You work at UTS, you are strongly engaged with students that come out of the public education system but as we take on our commitment and responsibility to be improving the learning outcomes for Aboriginal students and as a result of that the life opportunities for young Aboriginal students where should our focus and attention be do you think?

Larissa Behrendt

There is a couple of ways we should focus. The first is of cause that project around engagement with the curriculum and also the engagement with local Aboriginal communities and really building those relationships between the Aboriginal community that is within the school community and the Aboriginal community that is around where the school is. They are really strong ways to build the confidence around building that content and ensuring a great culture within the school.

The other area where there does need to be some real investment as part of this is actually in teacher education. It has been my experience that one of the challenges around inclusion in the curriculum is not because teachers don’t think it is an important area, most of them do, but they are really aware because they feel it is so important about the deficiencies in their own education. Investment in tools that assist teachers to more confidently teach into the curriculum and that is also really useful.

In a way one of the reasons why I have really been committed to the Indigenous Australia For Dummies book that I write is because I feel like those kinds of resources where people who just want to learn more, don’t want to feel like they are in an uncomfortable position of asking questions that they fear might be offensive or clumsy, can go and find resources that are really easily accessible. The more that we can do through our Board of Studies the more we can do through universities with our teacher education I think that is also a really good investment. Particularly as we have just mentioned in relation to expectations around Indigenous students and when I was doing the Higher Ed Review I used to get really frustrated with universities who would say “we don’t get more students because the pipeline isn’t there”. I used to say them “what are you doing about teacher education because that is a place where you can immediately be helping with that pipeline”.

Mark Scott

It strikes me what we all have to do if it is not part of our life experiences to do the work and there is so much great material out now Bruce Pascoe, Stan Grant and material you have written and led. The array of fiction that gives insight into Aboriginal culture or Aboriginal history is wonderful now. I think for many people who grew up as I grew up without that experience there are so many great opportunities to engage which provides you with more insight. It gives you more confidence in engaging in the conversation which is where we clearly need to get to.

On the high expectations I am grateful to the AECG, Cindy Berwick and others who I think pushed us hard on this target and it goes exactly to the issue that we were talking about. Over 50 percent increase in Aboriginal students completing the HSC while maintaining their cultural identity.

It would have been easy for us to say well if they get a job or they are in a skills program or whatever that somehow commitment to somehow being involved in education, training or work that would be fine. The reality is that a very significant of our students go through now to complete the HSC why should we have any different expectations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students on that. They made us ambitious in this target but it will be a challenging target for us.

What do you think the keys are for us to work most effectively with these students to put them on a successful pathway through the HSC and into higher education or training or work?

Larissa Behrendt

One of the things that Chris Sarra’s ground breaking work showed was that success for Indigenous students often comes from a mix of that high expectation around academic achievement which as you say given the performance of Indigenous students now, no reason for people to ever doubt that. There is also a link between self-confidence and self-esteem and that links very clearly to culture.

That has been really important in the past because it does help students who on the one hand have a lot of ability but because they are young, still finding their way in the world, still working on their identity and their sense of who they are and their confidence, are really susceptible to negative stereotyping, negative comments and racism. There is a real importance of achieving those targets that continues to understand that with any child, Indigenous children in particular, there is a mix of having to focus on academic excellence and judge that in a way that isn’t culturally skewed and then also focusing on self-esteem and confidence.

When I look back at my own success I feel like, although I did have really supportive teachers, that connection that I had through my father with the Redfern community, people like Uncle Max Harrison and all of these people who are friends of my father’s and still some of them quite big figures in the Shire, they gave me a sense of that confidence outside of the school yard which helped me to navigate that within it. I think the schools have to do more in that space which is why I think that engagement with the local community and the Indigenous families that are within the school community that really add to the life of the school. We can all think of those examples of really great community leaders who have come in and made a commitment in our public education system. It is a good moment to remember the work of people like Aunty Fay who have supported a whole generation of Indigenous students through the system.

Mark Scott

On parents generally, what research would suggest is that high expectation for students and a strong supportive infrastructure at home is a key to success and that schools work in partnership with parents.

You tell the story of your father strongly engaging with your teachers when you were at school. It would be fair to say that for many parents of Aboriginal students school may not have been a happy or supported place for them. They certainly have not gone on to in a sense your academic career. Your experience is somewhat atypical.

What do we need to do help our parents be more comfortable in a school setting and to feel more confident about being able to be supportive of their children’s learning and more supportive in a sense of setting high expectations for what their kids could possibly do?

Larissa Behrendt

My father’s experience with education was awful. He would often talk about how whenever Indigenous people were mentioned in the classroom it was with a sense that they were inferior or he talked about he was in class and the teacher would talk about how Aboriginal people stopped the progress of Australia. He felt a real shame around it.

I think it was really important for him that the education experiences of his children were different. I think a lot of parents feel that way. The question isn’t the commitment but as you touched on, it is that thing about how does the school environment make them feel welcome. I think acknowledging that history and that this is very recent history that the school system treated Indigenous people, they had a real vacuum around Indigenous perspectives, history and knowledges is an important start and schools have to be proactive about building those relationships. Not waiting for the one exceptional atypical parent who has the time and the motivation to take that on. There needs to be some thinking about that proactive strategy and providing spaces where those parents are invited into the schools at times that are convenient for them as well. Helping them feel like there is a conversation the school wants to have with them about how to do things better and differently. Celebrating the achievements of their children and the local Indigenous culture are also ways where you walk into a school and you can fundamentally see it is different. I feel that way about Kirrawee for all the affection I have for it when I walk into the school now and I am greeted by a mural of Indigenous artwork I almost get teary because to me it is such a symbol of how much has changed in this school that I really care about. How much improved the understanding is about the issues that I struggled with.

Those very visible signs can’t be diminished as well. All schools have the Apology as you know, some schools put it in a higher place of prominence than others but those sorts of symbols the flag etcetera, can really be quick symbols to people walking in that the schools are trying to do better, that the system is trying to do better and that there is a place for them now where there might not have been in the past.

Mark Scott

If this work, this priority that we are working on to increase the percentage of Aboriginal students completing the HSC is successful, then hopefully more Aboriginal students come your way at UTS and a number of other universities as well and follow in your footsteps in many ways.

From the work you have done at UTS what are the important things you focus on for a successful transition for an Aboriginal student from the school system and the HSC to being successful at university and then going on and flourishing in careers after that? What is the work you are doing there?

Larissa Behrendt

It is an interesting question because I think it is slightly different for students coming from the public system than the private. In some ways and I felt this benefit myself when I was going into Law School and being one of the few that was from a public school that the self-discipline and initiative that I needed to flourish within that system in a positive way and were valued in that system were really useful at university where there is much less structure. Nobody cares if you come to class, there is no additional infrastructure around you so if you don’t have the motivation yourself to succeed, you are not going to. That transition I think was easier for me.

There are other things that I struggled with being first in family and still that feeling of do I belong here when other kids clearly assumed their place there and it felt very natural so not everything was smooth in that way but for me I felt that there were things within the public school system that equipped me really well. In some ways one of our challenges is when students have come through a schooling system, particularly say if they are boarding and a lot of things are done for them, that there is a bit of a transition perhaps we need to be doing a bit more work in that area.

The other things that we feel are important is the focus on academic excellence continuing. We have work to do within the sector where there is still a bias when Indigenous students walk into the class that there is an assumption that they are there on a special entry program and that is less and less the case. Most students are there now because of their ATAR. They are often being judged as a special needs case by students who got lesser marks than they did, marks is obviously one measure and I accept that but I think you can get the point.

We feel like within institutions like Jumbunna that are designed particularly to support Indigenous students, we need to be offering support around achievement of academic excellence in coming from a strengths-based model there. We feel like one of the most important things that we need to be doing is also providing that cultural strength as well. We have an Elder in residence, we do that peer work where there is a cohort of Indigenous students, all of that kind of cultural support.

The other strategy that I want to flag that is equally as important is that once upon a time I think universities saw their responsibilities to Indigenous students as taking place within the Institutes like Jumbunna, we were the place that would do the tutoring programs and the cultural work. We still see that as really important work that we do, particularly that cohort and cultural work. But it is now important because we have our own expectations about Indigenous inclusion in the curriculum and at UTS how we have driven that is by requiring all the faculties, every faculty has to have senior Indigenous academic staff. We have 11 Indigenous Professors across UTS and only half of them sit within the Jumbunna Research the rest are across the faculties. That is also something that we need to continue especially when students now are coming through school and have had engagement with Indigenous stories, history, knowledges and perspectives at the university level we need to be continuing that.

It has been very easy in some places particularly in law or the other parts of the social sciences and humanities. It has been a harder push in places like engineering and science but I think we have seen a huge shift particularly with the cultural impact of Dark Emu and Bruce Pascoe’s work and that there is a broader understanding of what Indigenous knowledges mean.

That project is important for us too in terms of ensuring that the universities continue to provide that space within the curriculum for Indigenous stories and also we see it as a way of producing well rounded graduates. Every person who graduates from our university should have some competence in their discipline whether they are an architect, a nurse, an engineer in how they deal with and understand Indigenous issues around them.

Mark Scott

Larissa thanks for your time and your insight today. It is a fabulous story from Kirrawee High School to Harvard Law School to now being one of our great public intellectuals and if you are just intrigued by what Larissa has had to say today you can hear her regularly on ABC radio, lots of broadcasting that she is doing but also a distinguished writer and novelist, all available out there for you to understand more of Larissa and her insights and expertise in this vital area of Australian life.

Larissa thanks for joining us today on The Every Student Podcast.

Larissa Behrendt

My pleasure Mark, thank you so much for having me.

Mark Scott

Thank you for listening to this episode of every student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter @NSWEducation, on Facebook or email everystudentpodcast@det.nsw.edu.au.

Thanks again and I will catch you next time.

End of transcript.

Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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