Fish in water or fish out of water

cultural competence, reconciliation and reflective practice

It can be easy to quickly identify differences between your own culture and another’s (think food, language, dress, celebrations etc) but when it comes to understanding the less visible aspects it’s more challenging to understand how our culturally tinted glasses affect our perceptions and interactions.

Rhonda Livingstone (pictured), National Education Leader at Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) recently unpacked culture, cultural competence and how to deepen your own cultural competence at Early Childhood Australia’s Reconciliation Symposium. Bedrock Journalist Suzanne Kowalski-Roth caught up with Rhonda to find out more.

Suzanne: What is culture exactly?

Rhonda: The concept of culture is described beautifully in the Aboriginal Cultural Competency Framework 2008. It says: “Culture is to people as water is to fish – we take our own culture for granted as it is part of our identity and part of our every being”.

I find it helpful to define culture as ‘a system of social rules of interaction that helps us to act in an accepted and familiar way’.

The Educators’ Guide to the Early Years Learning Framework recognises the central role of culture in our identity and calls it the “fundamental building block of identity”. The development of a strong cultural identity is essential to children’s healthy sense of who they are and where they belong.

Suzanne: How would you define cultural competence?

Rhonda: Cultural competence is more than acknowledgement of cultural diversity in our community. It’s one of the eight pedagogical practices identified in the Early Years Learning Framework and the Framework for School Age Care. As described in the approved learning frameworks cultural competence involves:

  • being aware of your own world view
  • developing positive attitudes towards cultural differences
  • gaining knowledge of different cultural practices and world views, and
  • developing skills for communication and interaction across cultures.
  • As teachers we have the potential to make a significant difference in National Reconciliation through programs, practices, advocacy and most importantly relationships.

    Suzanne: What role do early childhood teachers and educators have to play in reconciliation?

    Rhonda: This quote from Nina Burridge from the book Teaching Aboriginal Studies by Rhonda Craven rings true for me: “Education is the medium through which young minds can be encouraged to think

    Teachers who are culturally competent will welcome reflective practice

    critically about history, to respect the diversities of cultures in our neighbourhoods and to learn to treat each other with respect. Teachers and educators are a crucial link between the rhetoric of reconciliation and the reality of the vision fulfilled”.

    There is a significant gap in advantage between Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non Indigenous people across the areas of life expectancy, health, education, economic wellbeing, social justice and mental health. Closing the Gap in disadvantage between Indigenous and non Indigenous children is a commitment made by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The approved learning frameworks give us guidance about opportunities for teachers to assist in closing the gap in educational achievement.

    Suzanne: How can services engage authentically in raising cultural competence?

    Rhonda: I sometimes hear teachers say ‘but we don’t have Indigenous children attending the service’. Moving beyond tokenistic approaches, the NQF promotes the notion of culturally competent teachers who:•challenge discriminatory viewpoints of other educators and of children and explore where these understanding have come from

  • adapt curriculum to the individual ideas, interests and culture of each child by consulting with families
  • use resources that are culturally relevant and are mindful of literature which may contain bias, and
  • engage in open conversations about diversity and difference.
  • Interestingly research shows that:
  • children as young as three years old and sometimes earlier can show prejudiced behaviour and attitudes.
  • Children are affected by the attitudes and behaviours of adults around them, and educating children reduces discrimination and violence in society over the long term.

    Suzanne: What does a culturally competent teacher look like?

    Rhonda: Teachers who are culturally competent will welcome reflective practice, a form of ongoing learning that involves engaging with questions of philosophy, ethics and practice. This involves:

  • reflecting on your own personal biases
  • examining and rethinking your perspectives
  • questioning whether your perspectives generalise
  • engaging in professional conversations with colleagues, and
  • using the reflective questions in the learning frameworks, for example ‘who is disadvantaged when I work in this way’?