Revealing a counterstory of Aboriginal Education Success

Sheelagh Daniels-Mayes, University of Sydney:

In my thesis I sought to reveal and develop a counterstory of Aboriginal education success through an investigation of what successful teaching of Aboriginal students in metropolitan Adelaide looked like. Generally speaking, traditional research methods have developed ways of initiating research and recruiting participants that are located within the cultural preferences and practices of the ‘Western’ world rather than the distinct cultural ways of the peoples being investigated (Bishop, 2011). Consequently, my research was mindful of working in ways that were socially, ethically and culturally responsible, locating the research within the cultural ways of knowing, being and doing of participants.

The research was therefore informed by three key frameworks of analysis: critical ethnographic methodology, culturally responsive research, and Critical Race Theory methodology. While culturally responsive research privileged the distinct cultural ways of knowing, being and doing of Aboriginal peoples, it did not problematise the persistent issue of racism that emerged in the research. While culture and ‘race’ share some similarities, focusing solely on culture negates the ongoing impact of racism in society (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011).

Emerging out of African-American legal scholarship in the 1960s, Critical Race Theory (CRT) seeks to develop a theoretical, conceptual and methodological approach that accounts for the role of racism in perpetuating societal inequality (Solórzano, 1997). However, as Reynolds, Rizvi and Dolby (2009) caution, racism is experienced differently by different groups in places with different historical and political trajectories. Therefore, in recent decades the CRT ‘Family Tree’ (Yosso, 2005, p. 72) has grown to include different cultural groups, disciplines, and geographical locations.

CRT was never meant to address the specific needs or experiences of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples. Therefore, in response to my data, I attempted to modify the established tenets of CRT to reveal the distinctive Australian story of Aboriginal education. My proposed modified tenets were: recognising the social embeddedness of racism; asserting the social construction of ‘race’ as a tool of oppressive segregation; privileging stories and counterstorytelling; and committing to social justice and educator praxis: incorporating activism (Daniels-Mayes, 2017, p. 40). Taken together they form the foundation of my proposed modified Critical Race Theory, ‘ColonialCrit’, which responds to the distinct Australian story of dispossessing colonisation and racism that flows from the fictional doctrine of terra nullius under which Australia was colonised (Daniels-Mayes, 2017, p. 9).

These modified tenets of ColonialCrit were generative for methodology and method, responding to the gathered data. ColonialCrit enabled me to identify, analyse and challenge the embeddedness of racism when it arose in my research. Moreover, the CRT method of counterstorytelling was found to be instrumental in revealing a counterpedagogy of Aboriginal educational success that disrupted the normalised narrative of Aboriginal student deficit and failure. This kind of Indigenist research approach is supported and promoted by Aboriginal scholars such as Rigney (2006) and Moreton-Robinson (2000). I was therefore able to undertake research ‘proper ways’ (borrowed from Aunty Nangala).

In conclusion, the combining of critical ethnography, cultural responsive research, and Critical Race Theory methodology enabled me to do conventional ethnography with a political purpose (Thomas, 1993). That is, my research approach allowed me not only to investigate and understand the society within which Aboriginal education takes place, but also to critique, disrupt and potentially transform that narrative as a result of the research, so that Aboriginal education success becomes the normalised counterstory.


Bishop, R. (2011) Freeing Ourselves. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

Daniels-Mayes, S. M. (2017) Culturally responsive pedagogies of success: Improving educational outcomes for Australian Aboriginal students. (Unpublished PhD thesis). University of South Australia.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2000) Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism. St Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press.

Rigney, L-I. (2006) ‘Indigenous Australian Views on Knowledge Production and Indigenist Research’, pp. 32–50 in Kunnie, J. E. and Goduka, N. I. (eds.), Indigenous Peoples’ Wisdom and Power. Affirming Our Knowledge Through Narratives. Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing.

Thomas, J. (1993) Doing Critical Ethnography. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


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