Extract from map of Arnhem Land showing Yirrkala region

Bilingual maths program in Arnhem Land

ABC logoIn 1991, ABC TV’s science show Quantum travelled to the Yirrkala community school in north-east Arnhem Land to see how they used Aboriginal culture and languages to teach maths. Some 17 years later, they reviewed how the bilingual program has fared.

There was a time that children in Aboriginal communities like Yirrkala were prohibited from practicing their own language and customs. But along with the fight for land rights, came the Indigenous struggle to reclaim other parts of their culture.

Over 40 years ago, the Yolngu community at Yirrkala was on the vanguard of a move to “Aboriginalise” schools. They adopted a bilingual program that used Yolngu culture to teach children to become literate in their own language while learning English and Western culture.

Among other things, the local community at Yirrkala worked with teachers and academics to develop a new maths curriculum.

The Yirrkala program took advantage of the children’s informal understanding of kinship relationships in Yolngu culture.

Kinship names are repeated in a particular pattern through the generations. Then, as now, the children learn to link these repeated patterns of relationship in kinship to repeated patterns of numbers in maths.

The children learn to see numbers as something that can be used over and over again in the same way as kinship names are. And when they understand this connection, the concept of numbers becomes easier.

These days, the bilingual program includes sending secondary students out on country with teachers, elders and rangers to learn maths and other subjects ‘on country’. They map and measure everything from rubbish to turtle numbers, said Yirrkala’s current school co-principal Merrkiwawuy Ganambarr.

And there is some evidence that Aboriginal children who go through bilingual education programs do better than those that learn only in English from the start.

For example, according to former Yirrkala teacher Kathy McMahon, who has nearly finished a PhD on bilingual maths education, a multilevel assessment carried out just before NAPLAN’s introduction in 2008 showed positive results.

“The kids at Yirrkala at year 5 and year 7 were almost on a par with urban kids who speak only English … That program was clearly working,” said Ms McMahon.

To read the full article go to http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-01/trail-blazing-aboriginal-bilingual-maths-program-revisited/8134998

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