From the ground up

Combining sustainability and Indigenous cultural understanding for a better future

In 2019 Kate McCormick, the IEU Rep at St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula, applied for the inaugural IEU Victoria Tasmania Education for Sustainability Grant. The grant was awarded to the school and provided funds to support the expansion of their sustainability and Indigenous cultural programs.

IEU Organiser Lou Prichard Nicholson outlines how the school’s program is enabling the students to deepen the relationship between their understanding of the local Indigenous people and their own sustainable practices. The program also highlights ways in which we can embrace and engage with ancient Indigenous wisdom in our daily lives.

Harnessing of cross-curriculum priorities

The teaching of cross-curriculum priorities in the Australian Curriculum can enrich a student’s understanding of their place in the world, specifically with regard to Australia’s engagement with Asia, and also in the areas of Sustainability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures.

Through the cross-curriculum priority framework, the Australian Curriculum is working to address two distinct needs with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education:

  • that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are able to see themselves, their identities and their cultures reflected in the curriculum of each of the learning areas, can fully participate in the curriculum and can build their self-esteem, and
  • that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures cross-curriculum priority is designed for all students to engage in reconciliation, respect and recognition of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures (Australian Curriculum, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures Overview).

Blending delivery of the curriculum priorities in the areas of sustainability and Indigenous culture has the potential to deepen the knowledge base of a generation of Australian students and strengthen their connection to both Country as well as sustainable Indigenous practices. Curriculum delivery, if managed in this way, has the capacity to increase the reach of Australia’s Reconciliation Action Plan to our youngest citizens and bring about positive communal attitudinal change.

Embedding Indigenous culture into sustainability studies could encourage our nation’s youth to view discussion, acknowledgment and consideration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues as the norm, and as usual and potentially necessary to everyday discourse.

Outdoor learning

St Thomas More’s Catholic Primary School in the suburb of Mount Eliza has the benefit of being situated on a large piece of land substantially covered by bush, backing onto Kackeraboite Creek. As for most primary schools in recent times, St Thomas More’s has been building its commitment to sustainability for many years.

In such a setting the school has a strong connection with the outdoors and a focus on outdoor learning.

The school has set about providing for the cross-curriculum requirement for sustainability with many of the usual and important matters covered, such as recycling, composting, energy saving arrangements and solar panels, tank water, nude food and minimising paper usage and waste. Recently there has been a growing connection of their sustainability curriculum with an Indigenous focus in the program.

Students at St Thomas More are now maintaining the bushland with weeding and planting of native trees, and they visit the creek to check the water clarity and to remove rubbish. However, there was a push to take the connection between the curriculum priorities further.

Initially the school community started to gather materials to make natural hives for native insects. Plans have been drawn up for large garden beds for each year level to plant and care for a large vegetable garden featuring edible native plants. The students have discovered that Indigenous plants such as finger limes, lilly-pilly, midyim berries and Davidson’s plums will all grow well in their area. The students will learn how to prepare the Indigenous foods grown for eating.

Importantly, the school plans to work with the local Indigenous community for advice on planting and on the history of the area.

Bunjil, the wedge-tailed eagle is the animal totem for the Mornington Peninsula and the garden will incorporate it with children’s art and sculpture.

The change to the remote-learning mode of delivery through 2020 has resulted in the school continuing this work into 2021. The intention is to continue the linking of sustainability and Indigenous culture to become a part of the ongoing teaching and learning at St Thomas More’s well into the future.

Schools making connections with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is becoming more widespread. Connecting with Indigenous sustainable practices brings a fresh understanding to what is possible for Australians wanting to live more sustainably in the 21st century.

The public connection by teachers, as they deliver the cross-curriculum priorities together, can also make a clear acknowledgment that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a rich and continuous connection to the land on which we all live.

Most importantly and powerfully, this deepening of all Australian students’ connection to their local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities via sustainability education has the potential to further the necessary reconciliation of our entire Australian community.

The project’s framework

Cyclical planning is key

Planning for the inclusion of the cross-curriculum priorities is addressed in a cyclical fashion at St Thomas More’s.

A bi-annual scope and sequence chart is outlaid for the Australian Curriculum cross-curriculum priority of Sustainability recognising the inclusion of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures priority.

The school is currently focusing on a two-year topic overview for the kitchen garden and Indigenous planting.

Project and program

Curriculum links to the learning areas of English, maths, science, humanities, arts, technology and health are also clearly identified, as well as the expected educational outcomes from the relevant project activities. By way of example, at St Thomas More’s, the students will engage in research into local Indigenous planting and make connections to the history of local Indigenous people and culture.

Learning how to undertake this sort of background research will have a focus across the learning areas of humanities, science, maths and English, with particular facets of the underlying skillset needed for such a research task covered in the relevant learning area, such as data collection and analysis in maths. It is in this way that the learning continuum of the general capabilities outlined in the Australian Curriculum can be maintained.

In addition to the design as a two-year topic, the curriculum planning entails every unit of work for each learning area having a stated focus for the cross-curriculum priority of Sustainability and also a specific social justice focus.

At St Thomas More’s, the cross-curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures is considered under the umbrella of social justice. The Australian Curriculum key concepts for the cross-curriculum priority of Sustainability specifically mention social justice. The study of the priority “enables a diversity of world views on ecosystems, values and social justice to be discussed and recognised when determining individual and community actions for sustainability” (Australian Curriculum, Sustainability Key Ideas, Key Concepts).

This further clarifies and strengthens the appropriateness of linking the two priorities.

Some of the Organising Ideas stated in the Australian Curriculum for the Indigenous priority can clearly be viewed through a social justice lens also, specifically with regard to historic and contemporary impacts of colonisation. The layering of the Indigenous Organising Ideas over the Systems, World Views and Futures recommendations for the Sustainability priority will enable discussion and potentially problem solving for both priority areas.

Embedding into the broader curriculum

St Thomas More’s has embedded both the Sustainability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures priorities into a range of curriculum areas as a result of the Kitchen Garden and Indigenous Planting Project and Program. For example:

Maths: Opportunities for practical application of mathematical concepts – area, length, volume, seasons of the year, data collection, graphing of rainfall and temperature.

Digital Technologies: Weather station design (coding), using design, computational and systems thinking.

English: Research opportunities, communications with school and wider community, ongoing student publication.

Science: Weather patterns, sustainable production of food, biodiversity/vegetation.

Geography: Vegetation (local Indigenous), biodiversity.

Consistent recognition that the cross-curriculum priorities are not stand-alone subject areas, but priorities to be threaded through the curriculum, and the blending of the priorities of Indigenous culture and sustainability is providing an extra layer of richness to both. “Education for sustainability develops the knowledge, skills, values and world views necessary for people to act in ways that contribute to more sustainable patterns of living” (Australian Curriculum).

A valuable part of that world view is the understanding of Indigenous sustainability, and the manner in which those Indigenous practices can be incorporated into the modern world.

Connecting with the local Indigenous community

The St Thomas More school community views Indigenous sustainability not just as an historical learning about Indigenous practices, but also as a way to support current modern sustainable living through Indigenous culture.

Through the established inclusion of cross-curriculum priorities, the study of sustainability has moved beyond school recycling programs and collecting compost. Similarly, educating students about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures now incorporates current Indigenous complexities rather than limiting to a clichéd historical perspective.

Working together with the local Indigenous community will assist the students of St Thomas More’s to connect with both cross-curriculum priorities in a concrete way. Further, embedding the two cross-curriculum priorities through the school’s entire curriculum, will encourage a more modern perspective of problem solving to find an equitable and sustainable way forward for all Australians.