Avoiding the ‘deficit curriculum’

According to Susan Page, at the heart of UTS’ Indigenous Graduate Attribute curriculum values [see illustration] is the need ‘to ensure that we don’t end up with a deficit curriculum, which reinforces negative stereotypes and fails to illuminate systemic conditions. We also want to ensure that students graduate with a sense that Indigenous people have strength, agency, that our cultures continue, and that we are people to be worked with, not worked on.’ To do this the CAIK team have developed a curriculum model which incorporates a set of student outcomes and some underpinning curriculum values.

Infographic showing UTS Indigenous Graduate Attribute Values
Copyright © UTS Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges (2016) Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA This work can be copied, shared and adapted only for non-commercial use with the UTS Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges attributed as the original creator and any copy, sharing or adaptation licensed as CC BY-NC-SA.

‘We’ve talked about developing effective relationships with Indigenous Australians and engaging with diverse worldviews. If you were to unpack these even further, students will be developing skills in reflexivity, exploring the roles of power and privilege, and learning what’s involved in acting respectfully and ethically towards Indigenous people, and advocating for Indigenous success.’

But how do you go from principles to practice?  ‘These principles should help academics in each degree program to operationalise the Indigenous Graduate Attribute for their particular programs and to help those designing courses to figure out, “what are the outcomes we want for our graduates?”’

CAIK have also developed a curriculum framework to help academics to decide what should go into the curriculum and where it should be embedded in the curriculum. According to Susan, taking a program-wide approach, and building knowledge and skills progressively, is key. ‘It can’t just be a lecture here and a lecture there, it has to unfold across a program. We need to ensure that a student has a coherent experience across a degree – that they don’t end up watching Rabbit Proof Fence five times’

CAIK recommends that staff do some curriculum mapping across their program first, and find out what is already happening, and when. ‘In the first year we would expect there would be some foundation work to be done. It could be a dedicated subject that first year students do, or it could be integrated into the curriculum. There’s Indigenous content in the high school curriculum, but it’s patchy, and not everyone does high school here in Australia of course.’

By the time students get to the middle of their degree, the interplay between the Indigenous and the discipline area in the curriculum should be obvious. ‘What we don’t want is a set of parallel train tracks, when students are learning all about Indigenous topics, and then learning their discipline material separately, and actually it doesn’t make any sense to them by the time they’re finished. So that’s where the discipline expertise really comes in, and that’s why we think about it in terms of [CAIK] working in partnerships with the Faculties. I don’t need to know Physics, for example, I just need to know enough to know how the discipline area might affect Indigenous people, or how Indigenous knowledge might be relevant to that discipline.’

By the final year, in line with the UTS model of learning, students should be doing some experiential learning in this area, ‘so that they actually have that professional capability, a set of skills so they can put it into practice.’

How will we get there?

UTS’s decision to create a dedicated team to advance the IGA program was unusual. “Some other Australian universities have an Indigenous-specific graduate attribute. But I don’t think anybody has approached it in the way UTS has done it, by employing a team of people at a senior level to implement it.”

Since their establishment in 2015, the CAIK team have put in place an implementation plan for achieving the goal of an IGA embedded throughout the curriculum. But it was important from the outset not to forget the progress that had already been made in a number of areas of the University. ‘Before CAIK arrived, the Bachelor of Nursing team in the Faculty of Health had made significant developments with their REM framework for example.’

In order to engage more staff effectively at the local level, CAIK figured out what its staff would be able to do, and what academics in the Faculties should be responsible for. For example, ‘we have asked the Faculties to identify Indigenous Graduate Attribute Champions to work with us. In the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences CAIK has worked with the Associate Dean Teaching & Learning, Professor Maryanne Dever to draw up a position description and advertise the role of IGA champions to the Faculty.’ It’s also been a priority to make sure there is reward and recognition for the staff who embrace and advance curriculum transformation.’ ‘As much as possible, we are trying to have the work that is associated with this project rewarded and recognised.’ Staff recognition has come in the form of a new Learning and Teaching Award in 2016 for ‘Integration of Indigenous Professional Capabilities into Curriculum’.

The IGA is embedded in UTS’ learning.futures strategy, and forms part of learning.futures agreements with the Faculties. The Faculties also report periodically on Indigenous Education and Employment, and have the opportunity there to profile work they have done for the IGA. The University’s strong Indigenous strategic focus has, according to Susan, ‘made a lot of what we’ve needed to do fairly straightforward – although we still have more work to go.’

Get involved

If you’d like to find out more, talk to your Associate Dean Teaching & Learning about what your Faculty is already doing in this space. You are also welcome to contact Susan directly with any questions about the implementation of the IGA.

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