I am sitting next to Nuŋki, a Gumatj elder, as he looks through a telescope for the first time. We are sitting by the beach near his homeland of Dhaniya in North-East Arnhem Land. He is in awe. The rings of Saturn are exquisite tonight. We have just finished presenting a ‘both-ways’ astronomy workshop for a group of students from Yirrkala School. Together with a group of Yolŋu artists, he has just told us the mesmerising story of the ‘Djulpan’, a Seven Sisters song line.
Following this, the Yolŋu elders sat back humbly, as I, the Western science teacher, rather nervously took the microphone to explain orbits, light years, and Greek mythology. They encouragingly clapped and cheered as my presentation finished. Lying on my back afterwards with a few of the old women and a couple of students, we gazed at the Milky Way above, continuing to offer explanations from both worlds. ‘Bala ga lili’. Creating together. This is Galtha Rom, a special education ceremony for the students and teachers of Yirrkala School.
I spent four years teaching in Darwin in 2013 with the Teach for Australia Program. I had moved from the field of medicine, as I had felt the health system was fundamentally incapable of improving people’s health and wellbeing holistically in the 21st Century world. Medicine seemed stuck in the structures of dealing with the trauma and infectious diseases bequeathed to it by events like smallpox pandemics and the Napoleonic Wars. It had not responded to the rapidly-evolving globalised nature of chronic lifestyle diseases now facing us.
For me, education was a way of moving ‘upstream’ to where young people developed the capabilities for making choices about a life they deemed to be of value. However, as I began to immerse myself in the education system, an eerily similar pattern began to emerge to that I had found in medicine. I discovered a system stuck for three centuries in antiquated methodologies, bequeathed to it by the foundries of the Industrial Revolution. It was a system which valued conformity over creativity, individualism over community, and the creation of workers over self-actualisation.
Some recent experiences have given me hope, however. For the past few years, I have had the great privilege of working with the Yolŋu of East Arnhem Land in their community-led school in Yirrkala. The experience has been nothing short of transformative, professionally and personally. More than that, I have come quickly to see sophisticated educational methodologies here, born of millennia of accumulated wisdom. I believe these hold keys to unlocking the 21st Century educational methods our global community so desperately seeks at the present time.
The year 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the Treaty song written by the world famous Yolŋu band, Yothu Yindi. Lead singer Dr M Yunupiŋu, one of the first Aboriginal school principals in Australia, was also one of a number of Yolŋu pioneers of this Both-Ways educational approach in Arnhem Land. The main Galtha Rom camp for 2019 was thus a celebration of this anniversary, and the educational legacy left by Yunupiŋu.
The school returned to the beautiful homeland of Birany Birany, where the Both-Ways methodology was born, to celebrate the writing of that important song. At Birany Birany, there is a special water place called Garma which provides a foundation metaphor for the school’s approach. It is a place where fresh water from the river (Yolŋu knowledge) and incoming salt water from the sea (non-Yolŋu or Balanda knowledge) engulf each other to give rise to newly-formed foam (galimiṉḏirrk) on top. This new foam is the shared co-created knowledge of Both-Ways education.
For decades, this both-ways philosophy has provided a framework for Yolŋu and Balanda people to co-create authentic and shared realities out of seemingly incompatible knowledge systems, while at the same time provoking a human, visceral experience resulting in deep lasting cross-cultural relationships. At the pinnacle of this process is Galtha Rom, an educational ceremony in which the community negotiates roles, and gathers together ideas as starting points for sorting out important issues.
Indeed, there has been an increasing vogue in curricula in recent times of prioritising ‘critical thinking’. From what I’ve seen on the ground, however, this approach seldom has the space or the teeth to provide the deep and contemplative enquiry I’ve seen in Galtha Rom. It is the kind of enquiry which leads to the transformative ‘conscientisation’ tyo which famous Brazilian liberation theologian and educationist Paulo Freire refers to in his seminal Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Reimagining our reality
While we can surely deepen the ways we learn to think analytically in school, of greater concern than this is a complete lack of focus on developing means to reimagine a broken world. It is no wonder we are experiencing a broad community and political paradigm seemingly paralysed in its inability to move forward in creative and authentic dialogue towards imagining a ‘better us’.
Both-ways approaches like Galtha Rom are not necessarily a silver bullet for these problems. As always, the most powerful solutions are those organically, collaboratively, locally developed. What Both-Ways does, however, is provide a broad framework for processes for reimagining our reality through inclusive dialogue leveraging knowledge systems which, for many generations, have gone untapped, and have huge potential to augment dominant culture ways of seeing the world.
At its most fundamental, the structures of an education system truly embody the values of a society. I believe the zeitgeist has seen the emergence of a post-neoliberal paradigm which largely rejects this male-dominated, individualistic, and anthropocentric worldview. I don’t for one moment suggest that I hold the answers of an alternate reality. I do, however, question the steps we are taking to ensure our education system orientates itself towards an active participatory role in reimagining our world creatively and inclusively, rather than continuing as passive reinforcing mechanism of the status quo.