Education was not “introduced” it already existed

Education was not “introduced” it already existed

I remember the first time I heard what the word “marginalised” meant. It was in my grade nine English class, and we had to examine a text and think about whose voices had been marginalised from the story. For the first time, I was able to articulate my experiences of going through school and life in general as a Darumbal woman. Marginalised.

I didn’t see my experiences or mob represented in my school, because our voices were silenced from the story. Since high school, I wanted to see an education where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not only included but front and centre in driving and defining what learning looks like.

As I started to study education at university, I learnt about two-way learning or both-ways learning as an approach to incorporate western and Indigenous knowledge systems. The emphasis being on supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners to keep their identity and Culture as the core source of their strength while being able to navigate and deal with the Western world. I found this approach interesting as it required you to understand and acknowledge that a different learning system exists and that it has existed on this continent for time immemorial.

I learnt much about my identity and Culture through my family. Even so, I never connected that we had our systems of learning maths, science, language, history. It was always there. It just didn’t look like what everyone classified as “school”.  Dr M Yunupiŋu was the first Principal of the Yirrkala School and a visionary behind two-ways learning, drawing important connections that maths and Culture are intrinsically connected. As Professor Chris Matthews, a proud Quandamooka man with a PhD in mathematics describes it; “to see and understand an Indigenous perspective of mathematics, you must accept the premise that mathematics is intrinsically connected to culture and, consequently, has many different cultural expressions”.

The first time I felt I understood math was at the 2018 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Conference, where Prof. Matthews demonstrated the Goompi method of connecting a growing linear equation to growing circular patterns found in nature; like whirlpools. “It can look different like many different things. There’s mathematics everywhere. There’s maths in how a plant grows, there’s maths in how seeds are packed into a flower head, there’s mathematics in the spiral of a pine cone, there’s even maths in how water flows through soil” . 

There is so much to gain when we truly are open to learning about the ways of learning that have cared for this continent for thousands of years. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Culture, languages and histories have not been valued or acknowledged within the machinery of the broader mainstream education system. This is by no means a mistake, and is part of the design of the education system that dates back prior to Federation. 

The Native Institution which was founded in Parramatta in 1814 by Governor Macquarie sought to “improve” the living conditions of “Native” children. Children were removed from their families and boarded at the school where they learnt reading, writing and arithmetic, with females learning needlework and boys learning mechanics. This was one of the first instances of the state taking responsibility for education. During this period charities and churches would take on the responsibility of education, however, by 1848, NSW had established the secular Board of National Education which deliberately supported policies to deny access of Aboriginal children from Government schools. 

Some progress that has been made. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives are overarching priorities in the Australian Curriculum. Teachers have introductory modules on Indigenous education at University and many school students can name the traditional owners of their local area. This progress is critical and cannot be understated, but cultural safety is not just the content we learn, but the way we learn.  

We have to be brave to think differently, and to reimagine what the future of learning looks like. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People are doing this. In 2015, I hosted a national workshop for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people on education advocacy. Through this gathering, we released our Call to Action and started the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition (NIYEC). NIYEC is Australia’s first youth-led Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation solely committed to transforming education and learning. Last year, NIYEC led a series of workshops with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to discuss our shared experiences in education, and to imagine what learning would look like, if it was by our own design.

Young people discussed how we constructed learning spaces, redefined success and how we measure it, emphasised the importance of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander educator workforce, and thought of leadership models that are inclusive of culture, families and communities. Above all, these workshops highlighted that our young people need a culturally safe and responsive education system that supports Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander self-determination, free of the damaging impacts of and inequity and racism.

What our young mob are calling for isn’t necessarily “new”, it’s reclaiming a system of learning ingrained in our Culture that has and continues to exist. A system which fosters the connection and understanding of the interdependencies that exist in the world. One which is founded on an Indigenous learning and knowledge systems where the purpose is to connect so we can take care of Country and community, a striking contrast to the current education system driven by the economic purpose of competition for jobs in a capitalist society.

Connection is needed now more than ever, not just to prepare young people for the future, but to support our communities for the current reality. A reality that is hyper-connected with endless information and content. Access to content is amazing, but what use is it if we can’t learn from it, connect it to our experience and apply it meaningfully with purpose? Through listening to Prof. Matthews, I was able to see the link between the textbook, the world, and my culture of always having respect for how we are connected to each other and to Country.

When the foundation of your learning system is about connection, then you understand why learning is important in the first place. It allows you to see the world holistically and not siloed in subjects. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have demonstrated that we can drive a nation-wide self-determined Indigenous education system centred on our Culture and rights as Indigenous People. A learning system of our own design is the thought-leadership we need to ensure Australia’s learning ecosystem is connected to the truth of our past, cares for our people and planet in the present, and prepares future generations to create a fair, just and equitable society.

Hayley McQuire
is an Advisory Board Member for Learning Creates Australia, Co-Founder and National Coordinator of the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition (NIYEC) and Head of Education at the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA).


Burridge N., Chodkiewicz A. (2012) An Historical Overview of Aboriginal Education Policies in the Australian Context. In: Burridge N., Whalan F., Vaughan K. (eds) Indigenous Education. Transgressions (Cultural Studies and Education), vol 86. SensePublishers, Rotterdam

Parbury N. Aboriginal Education - A History. In: Craven R, editor. (ed,) Teaching Aboriginal Studies. Sydney: Allen & Unwin; 1999. p. 63–86.

Matthews, C, 2016, changing Our Mindsets in how we see maths to enable children’s curiosity, Queensland Department of Education.

Matthews, C, 2019, Indigenous perspectives in mathematics education,