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Improving learning outcomes for Indigenous students

4 August 2019

News and media


Image of a classroom front.

Indigenous ways of learning include deep listening and community-oriented activities, with family being a prominent element of First Peoples’ education. In contrast, Eurocentric teaching methods can result in a lack of engagement for Indigenous STEM students. Carissa Lee Godwin, Editor, APO’s First Peoples & Public Policy Collection, explores how the Australian curriculum can become more culturally inclusive.

Elizabeth McKinley, Professor of Indigenous Education at the University of Melbourne, outlines the need for Indigenous knowledge systems in teaching practices in her paper on ‘STEM and Indigenous Students’, included in APO’s First Peoples & Public Policy Collection. Although this paper is from 2016, the concepts and recommendations remain valuable to today’s educators seeking to improve their teaching practices.

Key research findings

McKinley presents the state of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in Australia, and where it falls short of interacting with the cultural complexities and needs of Indigenous students at primary and secondary levels. There are three main takeaways from her assessment of the system:

1. Although there is an equal level of interest between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students when it comes to STEM subjects such as science, there is a level of disengagement for some Indigenous students in these subjects.

2. Although there has been roughly three decades of research examining Indigenous knowledge systems in the context of education, these styles of learning and teaching might not be effective for teaching STEM subjects to Indigenous students.

3. There is a mismatch between what is valued in the classroom, and what is valued at home or in the student’s community. As a consequence, Indigenous students do not find STEM subjects very accessible due to their cultural learning styles. Examples of these cultural learning styles include collaborative and community-oriented learning systems.

Key policy recommendations

McKinley provides three key recommendations for education and curriculum providers to teach STEM subjects to Indigenous students in a more culturally inclusive way:

1. STEM educators need to provide an individual and responsive approach to teaching that encompasses the interplay of family, social and cultural contexts, and how these may influence individual students.

2. Education providers should take into account each individual student’s cultural knowledge systems, as well as the importance of cultural identity to Indigenous communities, to understand how these may influence individual learning experiences.

3. Educators need to understand that the often-separated cultural elements of home and classroom sometimes need to be intertwined:

“Bridging between home and school culture thus provides an underlying cultural approach for teachers to support learners who come from different cultural backgrounds,” McKinley said.

McKinley suggested that this can be achieved by finding ways to integrate cultural context within learning materials, by respecting and seeing individuals as important, and by encouraging teachers to establish a more caring and understanding rapport with students.

Far-reaching benefits

McKinley makes it clear that Indigenous students may benefit from culturally relevant teaching methods. To my mind, these methods may also benefit non-Indigenous learners. By presenting STEM subjects through a different lens, non-Indigenous students can learn how it fits into another person’s cultural worldview. Additionally, neurodiverse students may be exposed to alternative teaching methods that they may find helpful.

We all learn differently, and Indigenous students should not be deprived of achieving their highest potential because cultural ways of learning have not been considered. As McKinley points out, there are a number of ways to achieve this. It is time that our education system starts implementing these changes in a significant way.

About the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection

As part of its mission to improve Indigenous policy in Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand, ANZSOG is working to increase knowledge of Indigenous culture and history. Part of this is our support of the Analysis & Policy Observatory’s (APO) First Peoples & Public Policy Collection, launched at our Reimagining Public Administration conference in February 2019.

APO is an online knowledge hub that makes public policy research visible, discoverable and usable. It contains more than 40,000 resources, including specialist collections, grey literature reports, articles and data.

The First Peoples & Public Policy Collection is curated from a broad selection of key Indigenous policy topics, and provides a valuable resource on Indigenous affairs, with a focus on diverse Indigenous voices.


Search APO’s First Peoples & Public Policy Collection
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Other APO articles

JulyNAIDOC week: Truth telling together
SeptemberEconomic independence through Indigenous art in Australia’s far north
October – Experiences of the cashless debit card from the First Peoples of Ceduna
November – Making Indigenous voices heard in climate change debate
December – Keeping First Nations families together