Cultural competency: Reconciliation in action

Alanna Raymond is a proud Aboriginal Australian woman, primary teacher and member of Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali team. In this article, Alanna explains cultural competency in the context of education, and suggests practical ways teachers and schools can build cultural competence.

What is cultural competency?

Cultural competency can be seen as processes of increasing awareness, safety, security and capability in a culturally informed way. The very nature of building cultural competence is personal; it requires a deep awareness of one’s own identity, examining one’s own biases, prejudice and privilege, while increasing knowledge and understanding of cultures other than one’s own.

‘…a teacher’s cultural competence is characterised by their teaching practices as well as their dispositions, attitudes, values, and knowledge relating to culture'
(Clinton, Aston & Koelle, 2018, p. 35).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural competency should be set apart from broader multicultural competency – taking into account the unique historical and contemporary experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities across Australia.

Cultural competence in action is central to actively driving reconciliation across all five of its interrelated dimensions: historical acceptance; race relations; equality and equity; unity and institutional integrity.

  • Historical acceptance - is accepting wrongs of the past and recognising the impact they continue to have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today, to ensure these wrongs are not repeated.
  • Race relations - involves all Australians understanding and valuing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous cultures, resulting in stronger relationships based on trust and respect that are free of racism.
  • Equality and equity - recognising the distinction between ‘sameness’ and ‘fairness’; advocating for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to participate equally and equitably in a range of life opportunities, including education. This dimension upholds the unique rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, with a focus on respecting, protecting and promoting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
  • Unity – by definition involves all Australians valuing the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritages as part of a shared national identity.
  • Institutional integrity - the active support for reconciliation across the nation’s political, business, educational and community structures.

Cultural competency in the classroom

While the concept of cultural competency is not new, it has been increasingly recognised as an important factor in teacher effectiveness and as part of delivering quality education in Australia.

As Clinton et al. (2018) explain, cultural competence is both a behaviour and a trait of effective educators, and is essential for creating an empathetic, supportive and inclusive classroom environment. In this way, ‘a teacher’s cultural competence is characterised by their teaching practices as well as their dispositions, attitudes, values, and knowledge relating to culture’ (p. 35). Underlying this is an important link between the teacher’s own culture, and views on diversity, and the ways in which these factors directly inform and impact their pedagogical and professional practice.

Cultural competency also has a strong relationship with ‘cultural responsiveness’. That is, while cultural competence relates to one’s capacity to act, cultural responsiveness refers to effective cultural competence in action (Perso, 2012). As part of building cultural competence in the education space, culturally responsive pedagogy ‘acknowledges and draws on diverse learners’ cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference and discourse patterns to make classrooms more inclusive and to make learning more meaningful and relevant’ (Rosaen, 2003, as cited in Dunbar & Scrimgeour, 2009, p. 2).

It is therefore not surprising that cultural competence is key in improving educational outcomes for students from non-dominant or diverse cultures (Gay, 2000, as cited in Dunbar & Scrimgeour, 2009, p. 2). This is especially important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who, in 2019, accounted for just under 6% of all students in Australian schools (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020), and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers who (in 2016) made up approximately 2% of the teaching workforce (Australian Council of Deans of Education, 2018). Essentially, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and teachers are most likely, at some point in their educational journeys, going to be taught by, teach, and/or work with other Australians who are from different cultures.

As education is acknowledged as a significant determinant of both health and wellbeing for children (Biddle & Priest, 2019), it is important to increase opportunities for all teachers to continually build their cultural competence to holistically and effectively support their students’ cultural and learning needs. This expectation is articulated in the first standard of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Standard 1 requires teachers to know their students and how they learn, with particular emphasis in focus areas 1.3 and 1.4 on ‘students with diverse linguistic, cultural, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds’ and ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2011).

For these reasons, it’s important for educators to continually grow, using their understanding of historical (both pre and post-colonisation) and contemporary Indigenous Australia, while simultaneously taking into account students’ individuality to inform their teaching. As Krakouer (2015) highlights, perceptions of what is considered to be best practice in culturally responsive teaching are mixed, since Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have diverse languages, histories, cultural practices and ways of learning. She also notes the need for teachers to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and knowledge from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in order to avoid the perpetuation of misinformation or negative stereotyping.

Building cultural competency in a broad sense is also essential as it equips individuals and the wider school community with the knowledge and understanding to create and maintain culturally safe spaces that promote respect and stronger relationships in the classroom, around the school and with the community.

A new AITSL initiative is working to build teachers’ cultural competency and increase cultural safety in schools in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education. The project seeks to ensure that cultural competence is both an assessable and accessible aspect of the professional requirements for individual teachers and forms part of any whole-of-school plans or priorities. Cultural competence is not about teaching ‘culture’ or including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander curriculum content (although it does not sit in isolation from this). It is more about incorporating respect for and understandings about ‘culture’ broadly to build better relationships. Understanding diversity and how to navigate relationship building in a respectful and culturally informed way is applicable in many cross-cultural professional and personal settings.

Taking action to build cultural competence

Taking action to build cultural competence should be an individual, school and community priority.

Reconciliation Australia’s Narragunnawali program supports schools and early learning services in Australia to develop environments that foster a high level of knowledge and pride in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and contributions. Below are some ideas and resources, from Narragunnawali and beyond, to enrich professional learning.

  • Watch the video, Cultural competence for staff [2:58] by Reconciliation Australia. This short clip outlines some ways in which schools and early learning services can provide opportunities for staff to extend their knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures:
'Cultural competence for staff’ by Reconciliation Australia

Cultural competency is not a destination; it’s an ongoing personal and professional journey. It can be seen as a continuum (Hart & Dargan, 2014) that recognises the constant process of building knowledge and understanding, and transforming that learning into informed action, in ways which often resonate in both personal and professional settings dynamically over time.

Together, through building cultural competence in ourselves and our students, we play an active role in shaping an Australian society that values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage, recognises them as a proud part of a shared identity, and is empowered to provide equal and equitable opportunities for all Australians.

References and further reading

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2020, February). Schools, Australia (No. 4221.0).

Australian Council of Deans of Education. (2018). ACDE analysis of 2016 census statistics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers and students.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2011). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. (2020).

Biddle, N. & Priest, N. (2019). The importance of reconciliation in education (ANU CSRM Working Paper 1/2019).

Clinton, J. M., Aston, R. & Koelle, M. (2018). Investigating the key determinants of effective teaching: A systematic review (Report prepared for the Australian Government Department of Education and Training).

Closer Productions. (2019). In My Blood It Runs.

Dunbar, T. & Scrimgeour, M. (2009). Cultural competence in Aboriginal education service delivery in Australia: Some lessons from the Aboriginal health service sector. [Paper presentation]. AARE Annual Conference, Canberra, ACT, Australia.

Hart, A. & Dargan, A. (2014). General principles of practice and cultural competence. (Paper prepared for the Northern Territory Department of Education).

Krakouer, J. (2015). Literature review relating to the current context and discourse on Indigenous cultural awareness in the teaching space: Critical pedagogies and improving Indigenous learning outcomes through cultural responsiveness. Melbourne, Australia: ACER.

MusicNT. (2020). National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMA).

NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group. (2020).

NSW Department of Education. (2020). Aboriginal education and communities.

Perso, T. F. (2012). Cultural responsiveness and school education: With particular focus on Australia's First Peoples; A review & synthesis of the literature. Darwin, Australia: Menzies School of Health Research, Centre for Child Development and Education.

Reconciliation Australia. (2020).

Reconciliation Australia. (n.d.). Share our pride.

ReconciliationAus. (2020). Reconciliation Australia [YouTube channel].

Stronger Smarter Institute. (2020).

Wangala Film Pty Ltd. (2017). Zach’s Ceremony.

How to cite this article – Raymond, A. (2020). Cultural competency: Reconciliation in action, Scan, 39(9).

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