Thank you to all who have followed and contributed to our project so far. While the OLT funding period is complete, our work is by no means finished! Here are some of the outputs from the project do date. It’s been a long road to get to what now feels like the starting line…
A Beginners Guide to Incorporating Aboriginal Perspectives into Engineering Education:
Quick overview to ‘A Beginners Guide to Incorporating Aboriginal Perspectives into Engineering Education’:
Project Summary (a one-pager for the time poor):
Engaging with Aboriginal Perspectives using 5Rights© Jade Kennedy
The 5Rights© are, collectively, a guide to our recommended approach to integrating Aboriginal perspectives into engineering education. These are responsibilities – not entitlements – and their origins are anchored in that Knowledge Gap outlined in the first of this series of entries. When people on each side of the knowledge gap are ignorant of the others’ body of knowledge, and do not appreciate its underlying values and principles, at least three possible avenues are available for action. The most damaging of these is in play when knowledge is assumed to be absent from one side. Conversely a ‘deficit model’ assumes the superiority of one set of knowledge, and operates ‘as if’ problems are solved by use of its ‘more progressive’ solutions to relevant contexts.
The 5Rights© recognise that different knowledges are involved, guides a process for acquiring the requisite knowledge to ensure that planned activity is based on adequate awareness, and even-handed acceptance of, the whole of the context. At the beginning of any collaborative process there is agreement that no one has ‘more’ – or ‘better’ – knowledge of how to define a ‘good outcome’, and each has sufficient curiosity about what everyone else brings to the setting.
Like the elements of an Aboriginal perspective these five factors must be initially considered in the sequence presented below. And, just like those other elements, they are closely interconnected, such that any one may prove to be a good starting point for preliminary exploration, while this sequence represents the order in which to proceed –
- Right People
- Right Place
- Right Language
- Right Time
- Right Way
Each of these is described in more detail in the Blog entry titled Describing the Five Rights, (June 10th) and you are invited to explore their meanings by reading about them there.
The 5Rights(C) in Action
The case study below describes a time when all five rights aligned to create a most successful learning experience for a large group of engineering students, while simultaneously providing a wealth of options for the local community’s consideration and demonstrated that an adequate understanding of how to address the knowledge gap benefited all those involved.
In this project the people involved were SPATE members, local government staff, academic staff and university students. The most vital ‘right people’ were the SPATE members involved, a fact which was highlighted 12 months later, when the absence of those same people meant the project could not be developed further. (see the note on Right Time)
Sandon Point is near the university campus and readily accessible. There is quite a lot of readily accessible information about SPATE and the history of its activities. There was a strong need to address the various engineering related topics for the students to exercise their creativity. The students met SPATE representatives on site, enabling them to get a deeply personal sense of what is involved in establishing and maintaining such a place.
The situation at SPATE was discussed with the people on site, using their own words to identify their priorities and needs. Similarly discussions with the local government staff were conducted in terms of their perceptions and priorities. While the academic staff involved were the one most directly involved, the students were kept well advised.
2013 was a moment in time when everything was aligned for such a project, as noted in ‘Right People’. And this fact emphasises the interconnectedness of all five Rights. By 2014 the series of changes that had occurred meant that Sandon Point could not be revisited in the same way.
This is perhaps the most complex factor and is both first and last in terms of sequencing. As with so much else in life there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to get things done. Approaching a project like this while using an entirely Western worldview would have failed, because that kind of framework seldom allows scope for attending to philosophical and social beliefs prior to taking action. Taking time to visit and sit with the Embassy people, providing detailed information about appropriate ways to treat the land. Setting technical criteria to replicate local traditions ensured that students experienced the ‘right way’ of approaching such a context, and their feedback reflected enhanced awareness of what it means to be Indigenous.
All human cultures have unique features, as well as characteristics shared with all other humans. Being human involves a range of physical factors including managing family and group life, engagement in social and individual activities like work and play, and making sustained efforts to provide for basic health and safety needs. How all these elements are enfolded into particular cultures is uniquely shaped by intangible factors called – variously – beliefs, values systems or philosophies. These intangibles are powerfully strong in shaping actions and reactions, yet also very subtle and therefore hard to discern either from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ their sphere of influence. Those for whom a particular set of beliefs and values are the ‘norm’ find it hard to consider that anything else could be viable, while those for whom it is unfamiliar and even ‘strange’ often have a highly judgmental view of what is unfamiliar, based on their comfort with what they know.
Given this very human condition it is not so surprising that Aboriginal culture and society was not well regarded by Europeans arriving on Australian shores from the 18th century. These new arrivals were used to living in large well-built structures, traveling on surfaced roads using wheeled vehicles, and residing ‘permanently’ in one location while having the capacity to move between cities and smaller towns. They expected to own property including land and houses, and did not understand that they were meeting a culture that had little time, or need, for material possessions and certainly did not ever consider that any one might ‘own’ the land.
Aboriginal culture as it had developed within Australia’s shorelines from around 40,000 thousand years ago, had taken a very different path from that which had evolved in Europe. Its philosophical underpinnings created a different set of actions in regard to land and property and relationships with land and each other.
In Europe, as on other continents, some beliefs are held in common across a wide span of land, while each national grouping, within that space, has its own highly specific characteristics. It was no different on the Australian continent. Aboriginal nations had delineated lands whose boundaries were more or less clearly understood by all involved. Similarly their social and cultural beliefs shared a large body of common knowledge, while there were also highly specific and distinct sets of localised knowledge and beliefs. This fact is not well understood, even in the 21st century, and there continues to be a widespread tendency to assume a complete absence of variation among Aboriginal peoples in Australia.
Localising this Aboriginal Perspective
Accepting that ‘difference’ does not mean ‘less than’ or ‘more than’ requires acknowledging the existence of this diversity of beliefs and cultures. It also means understanding enough about the underpinning differences. Such ‘understanding’ is not expected to extend to unquestioning adoption of specific beliefs and values, however it is essential for sustaining respectful attention to their implications for achieving effective communication.
To achieve this within the constraints of the Engineering Across Cultures project we have drawn on a specific set of beliefs based in the Illawarra region of Australia. While anchored in the wider traditions of Aboriginal Australia, and grounded in the proposition that applications of our model, outside this region, uses of this perspective must be calibrated with perspectives of the region where it is to be used. As far as possible we have formulated this perspective to align with the broader framework of Aboriginal beliefs as we understand them. However it is vital for users of the model to establish for themselves the local perspectives of the region where they will be working.
An Aboriginal Perspective
The five items are listed in this order to indicate their cumulative impact on the behaviours and relationships among Aboriginal people. While they are presented in sequence here, even a superficial inspection will show that they are in fact a cycle wherein each one leads to the next, and back to the beginning. Connectedness leads back to country and country points in the direction of inter-connectedness. From this perspective there are no singularities.
- Country – refers to ones connection to place. The intimate relationship one has with the surroundings, one’s nature.
- Kinship – one’s connection to people (family, kin, people of significance). There are roles and responsibilities/obligations that evolve with these relationships, over time shaping how they bind you to ‘your’ place.
- Culture – there is a core understanding that culture is a lived day-to-day expression of who had how to be. This culture is a reflection of the history (story) experienced within a place (country) and is particular and specific to that place and people.
- Journey – one’s lived experiences (these can be shared, and regularly are). They are one’s lived and experienced connections over time to place, people and day-to-day happenings.
- Connectedness – All things are inter-connected! There are inter-relationships among all things, and the harmonisation of concepts creates one’s true sense of belongingness
Keeping these five elements in mind means that non-Aboriginal parties involved in negotiations, shared learning experiences or other collaborative activities can become more adept at appreciating how Aboriginal participants engage with both people and the land.
At the recent Aboriginal Engineering summit in Melbourne, we presented the model underlying our recommended approach to integrating aboriginal perspectives into engineering education. – (open link here) EAC Flyer 2015-1
This entry is part one of three entries exploring the model itself and introducing underlying principles and philosophies that inform the work of the ‘Engineering Across Cultures’ project.
As the culmination of a great deal of thought, analysis and discussion, we are finding that the simplicity of the sequence represented in this single image is both attractive and readily creates curiosity and conversation. Different people are tending to zero in on one or other aspect of the whole as they link our ideas to their own interests and understanding.
The model has the capacity to generate conversations and enquiry in ways that are both exciting and challenging. A brief description of each ‘step’ in the image of the model must begin with an understanding that it is a cycle, or spiral of development. Each step opens up avenues for exploration of the knowledge and concepts it represents. And no single visit to the model provides a complete or comprehensive understanding of its detail.
In this respect it somewhat resembles an Aboriginal approach of revealing knowledge through repetition and revisiting concepts and principles as understanding evolves. Therefore this summary of the elements within the model is not intended to be comprehensive or complete. Readers are invited to explore the image, question the model it represents and explore the elements that interest them most. The whole model is then likely to take on new meaning as emerging thoughts and ideas are integrated into an understanding of how we propose that Aboriginal perspectives on – and knowledges of – engineering can be integrated into modern engineering education.
Beliefs informing the model
Underpinning convictions that inform many efforts to redress past wrongs in regard to Aboriginal peoples are based on a superiority/inferiority dichotomy. Applying this view to the status and capabilities of Aboriginal peoples produces a ‘deficit model’ and positions European achievements – in regard to such things as health practices and engineering – as the goal to be sought. In doing so, it ignores equivalent Aboriginal achievements. In fact it does more than that – it actually denigrates and denies them, and very effectively conceals the possibility that pre-contact Aboriginal society was capable of complex thought. (see the Blog entry on ‘what is wrong with this question, to see just one example of an otherwise smart man trapped in that negative view).
Realisation of this problem emerged from exploration of the question ‘what is Aboriginal Engineering?’ This question was prompted by the puzzled enquiry from many people about ‘what engineering did Aboriginal peoples have?’ Exploration of archaeology and anthropology sources revealed the simple, and very powerful response that ‘Aboriginal people had exactly the same kinds of engineering skills and knowledge as any other civilisation. The difficulty in finding it lies in the fact that it was applied in a very different manner, in accord with a quite different social and moral philosophy summarised by the phrase ‘cause minimum harm’.
Thus the new philosophy informing our approach to integrating aboriginal perspectives into engineering education is simply – but profoundly – to begin with the concept of a knowledge gap. Conventionally educated engineering educators have not learned about Aboriginal engineering – in the same way that Aboriginal school kids do not learn about either their own traditions or more evident western engineering practices.
The knowledge gap is equal – both sides are ignorant of what is available to be learned. Acknowledging this leads to a panorama of learning opportunities that simultaneously remove the stigma of a ‘superiority/ inferiority dichotomy’, and invite collaborative exploration of how engineering principles can be so similar in conceptual terms yet create such divergent outcomes.
In short – the knowledge gap opens up learning opportunities that position all parties as equal and locates ‘knowing’ as something to be achieved through collaborative exchange of information and beliefs.
For more on this aspect of the model see the Blog entry ‘Intersecting Worldviews with which to explore Aboriginal Engineering’ (May 8th 2015).
At this point the key fact to be emphasised is that the Venn Diagram presents a coherent and yet complexly challenging way of representing three overlapping Worldviews – identified respectively as Aboriginal, Engineering and Dominant. At the central point of intersection arise many opportunities for understanding more about both the Worldviews themselves, as well as exploring how over-reliance on one perspective can blind the user to the existence, and contributions of the other two.
The Dominant perspective contributes heavily to the ‘deficit model’ described above. It assures those who hold it that theirs is the ‘right view’ and forms and shapes much of what is ‘taken for granted’ in daily social interaction. Paradoxically, it is probably the ‘least obvious’ of the Worldviews given its dominance. To use the analogy of fish in water, the Dominant perspective is so integral to the surrounding social context that its influence is largely invisible, simply because it is ‘what we know’ and what we do not question.
An Engineering perspective is usually acquired through sufficient time and study within the carefully controlled conditions of an academic environment. It enables those who become familiar with it to see the world in terms of such things as measurement, construction, and problem solving. Regardless of whether an ‘engineer’ was trained in ‘Western’ or ‘Aboriginal’ concepts the perspective applied to any given set of problematic conditions will be an ‘engineering’ one unfamiliar to those who have not had equivalent training.
An Aboriginal perspective is gained through familial and social engagement from birth. Like any other social grouping, Aboriginal families assist their children to learn about the world in particular, and specific ways. This perspective is learnable, but usually restricted in the first instance to families with an Aboriginal heritage. In our model we pay particular attention to this perspective, since it is the one least known or understood by the wider community.
The central point of Intersection, in the Venn Diagram, provides opportunities for any two individuals to explore how the differences in the ways they view the world offer exciting opportunities for extending their understanding of all three perspectives. For engineers this is especially important, since a good understanding of both their own views, and those of Aboriginal owners of land, who are possessors of a very different set of insights into how the world works.
The next Blog entry will explore five aspects informing that insights, along with 5Rights © that provide a behavioural and knowledge map to guide interactions among all those involved in engineering projects.