Seeking a Pedagogy of Difference

Seeking a Pedagogy of Difference

There is evidence of perpetuating inequity in school outcomes with a large and increasing achievement gap, especially between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. The multiphase research undertaken in this project, with the partnership of the Diocese of Townsville Catholic Education, focuses on addressing this imperative.


2014 – June 2018


Australian Research Council

Academic Group:

Curriculum and Pedagogy in Education

Key Words:

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Qualitative and Quantitative Methods

Project description

Although Australia has a long-standing status as a country that delivers high quality education, data over the last decade from international evaluation assessments such as the Program for International Student Assessment (OECD, 2006, 2010) have continued to categorize Australia as a low equity-high quality education performer and provider (McGaw, 2006). That is, there is evidence of perpetuating inequity in school outcomes with a large and increasing achievement gap, especially between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

In line with this acknowledged issue, the current national discourse in education shows contest amongst a variety of stakeholders for methods by which this disadvantage can be addressed by improving teaching, few of which give consideration to the significance of students’ cultural backgrounds as a determinant for influencing mainstream educational success (Sarra, 2011). Evident within this contest, especially in North Queensland where this study is situated, are divergent voices for informing change in teaching practice that can assist in improving educational outcomes for students in general and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students specifically (Archer and Hughes, 2011; Hattie, 2009; Nakata, 1999; Pearson, 2011; Rowe, 2006; Sarra, 2011; Yunkaporta, 2010). A significant voice, not only in Australia but Queensland specifically, is John Hattie’s work based upon his synthesis of more than 800 meta-analyses which identifies the impact of a long list of variables on educational achievement. Hattie (2003, 2009) identifies teachers and their teaching as a major source of variance in students’ achievement. Hattie (2003) asserts we need to focus attention nationally on the specific actions of teachers that influence student learning outcomes. Hattie challenges teachers to ‘know thy student’ and deeply consider the consequence of their teaching upon learning and engage in dialogue with students about their teaching and students’ learning and, by doing so, as he refers, make learning visible (2009).

Notwithstanding the significant contribution Hattie’s research has on informing teaching practice, alarmingly absent, from an international perspective, in his account is any acknowledgment of the deeper role culturally located teaching practices and, more broadly, culture in general are likely to have in improving student learning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, despite the reference to such by The Melbourne Declaration. As Snook et al. (2009) challenge within the New Zealand—Aotearoa context, Hattie’s quantitative research on “teacher effect” and its accompanying list of teaching practices are applied in isolation from the cultural and social context. As asserted by Sarra (2011), enacted curriculum, including teaching practice, must demonstrate links between school and the everyday realities of Indigenous peoples’ life practices, histories and cultures. By treating all students, however much they differ, as equal in rights and duties, the educational system gives its sanction to the initial (and historical) inequality in relation to culture (Bourdieu, 1990). As asserted by Lingard (2007), a ‘pedagogy of indifference’ will continue to prevent marginalised students from accessing the cultural capital that is rewarded within mainstream education.

Despite the often quoted characteristics of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy  and the plethora of untested ‘good ideas’ in the Australian literature, no systematic and empirically-based research provides any conclusive indication of ‘what works’ in influencing Indigenous students’ learning (Price & Hughes, 2009). The Menzies Institute (2012) document, similar to Castagno and Brayboy’s (2008) international challenge, calls for [state and Commonwealth] governments to support empirically-based research to verify the culturally located practices identified as likely or possible contributors to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ achievement. Considering Hattie’s imperative to make learning visible by opening the dialogue between students and teachers, what is particularly absent is any research that responds to and verifies through empirically based research what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their communities are saying about the teaching practices that influence their learning. As Rowe (2003, p. 22) laments, “there is a growing uneasiness [in Australian education] related to how little is known about teacher quality from Indigenous students’ own perspectives”. As Craven et al. assert (2007, p. 4) “there is astoundingly little known about what Aboriginal students see as the qualities of effective teachers and the impact this has on educational outcomes”. As well, Craven et al. state, “There is a need to critically validate the generalisability of [Hattie’s and Rowe’s] findings to Aboriginal students to tease out facets of quality teaching that are salient to Aboriginal students; elucidate their perspectives of teacher quality; and test the influence of specific facets of quality teaching on academic outcomes and the consequences of the findings for developing interventions for Aboriginal school students” (2007, p. 4).

The multiphase research undertaken in this project with the partnership of the Diocese of Townsville Catholic Education focuses on addressing this imperative.

Project partners

  • Diocese of Townsville Catholic Education

Project team

  • Professor Brian Lewthwaite (JCU)
  • Associate Professor Helen Boon (JCU)
  • Dr Cathy Day (Diocese of Townsville Catholic Education)
  • Tammi Webber (Diocese of Townsville Catholic Education)
  • Gail Laffin (Diocese of Townsville Catholic Education)
  • Linda Llewellyn, PhD Student, JCU

Project website

Key contact: Principal Investigator, Professor Brian Lewthwaite at