What Works - The Work Program

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Are there such things as Indigenous learning styles?

The first thing to say is that there is no gene, or set of genes, which define culturally- or racially-based 'learning styles'.

Ways of learning are derived from ways of life and how adults and other people, including peers, in the immediate context 'teach'. These ways of learning develop through a complex interaction between life experiences, habits and formal instruction. Some cultural differences may occur in this regard which you should consider but they cannot be assumed. Culture is shaped by a multitude of circumstances and influences.

Young children are active learners from birth. They learn through play and through interactions with others. They make sense of the world through their first-hand experiences and through interactions with members of their families and communities. Meanings and understandings are shaped every day. It is within these personally-experienced social contexts that young children's understandings of their world develop and learning grows.

Some ways of learning are therefore well embedded by the time young children come to school. Others can be taught. In fact, it is one of the functions of formal education to teach ways of learning that otherwise would not be acquired.

Children learn best when their diversity of experience in home and community is recognised and built upon in other settings. The diversity of family and cultural contexts means that children bring different experiences to new learning situations. One generalisation to test is that Indigenous students may, like many other students, respond well to collaborative learning. Other unanticipated differences may emerge in differing contexts.

Ways of learning are also closely linked with perceptual functions — seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and the kinaesthetic sense, awareness of your own body, its 'place in space' and its relation to other animate and inanimate objects. These are how we derive information about the world. If one or more of these functions are impaired or, for that matter, particularly acute, assumptions about what is conventional will not apply.

In Australia, the Aboriginal Ways of Learning Project [Hughes, P, More, A J and Williams, M (2004) Aboriginal Ways of Learning, Indigenous College of Education and Research, University of South Australia, Adelaide] grew out of the search for best practice in teaching for Aboriginal students. Teachers, students and the research suggested that there were patterns in the strengths that Aboriginal students showed in the ways in which they learned. And Aboriginal cultures seemed to have a strong influence on these patterns.

The authors felt that if these learning strengths could be identified then effective teaching practice could be developed to build on them.

They concluded that there was not just one set of strengths, just as there is not just one Aboriginal culture or one stereotypical Aboriginal student. So, from this point of view, identifying individual students' learning strengths and engaging them can be seen as important for Indigenous students, just as it is for all other students.

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© Commonwealth of Australia 2016