SSI Senior Program Officer, Nicole Simone, reflects on how educators can work in the third cultural space. 

With an education system based on western knowledges systems, First Nations students are often expected to ‘code switch’ and leave their rich Indigenous Knowledges behind at the school gate.   

In the Stronger Smarter Approach, we ask educators to make a deliberate choice to work in the Third Cultural Space – a space of innovation where diverse cultural worldviews come together to form unique knowledges.    

What is the Third Cultural Space? 

So what is the Third Cultural Space?  The concept has origins in work from Homi Bhabha [1] who coined the term the Third Space as a transition space, and Professor Martin Nakata [2] who described the Cultural Interface where two world views of western and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems come together. This is a space where we all bring assumptions by which we make sense and meaning.  Yunupingu [3] described a social theory, Ganma theory, that explains the linkages of knowledges and a space where balance can be achieved from the ebb and flow of competing interests. 

Building on these concepts, former SSI CEO, Dr John Davis, described the Third Cultural Space in the Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Perspectives in schools guide (p. 9) [4]. 

The third cultural space recognises that Indigenous communities have distinct and deep cultural and world views — views that differ from those found in most Western education systems. When Western and Indigenous systems are acknowledged and valued equally, the overlapping or merging of views represents a new way of educating [4].

The representation of the Third Cultural Space uses the colours of the Aboriginal flag. The black oval represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ways of knowing, being and doing, with all the knowledges held for over 65,000 years [5]. The red oval represents Euro-Western ways. This is how the mainstream curriculum and pedagogy is viewed from an Indigenous perspective. The ochre yellow centre represents the Third Cultural Space of not knowing, of innovation and creation.  

The Stronger Smarter Approach describes the importance of connections between the Personal, the Community, and the School Spheres.  In the Personal Sphere, educators are guided by First Nations Peoples to develop their personal cultural understanding. In the Community Sphere high-expectations relationships are enacted to develop community partnerships built on cohesion and collaboration. In the School Sphere, school leaders are encouraged to use culturally appropriate tools for school transformation. At the centre of these three Spheres, this connection space is the Third Cultural Space. 

Why should we work in the Third Cultural Space?

Our western education model so often sees the role of educators as helping First Nations students to move directly into the red circle, completely ignoring the Third Cultural Space. 

Cultural safety can be seen, heard, and felt by First Nations Peoples, but may be out of awareness for non-Indigenous people.   If there is a lack of cultural safety in a school, this will impact upon First Nations staff and students and can extend out to their families and into the local Indigenous community.  We know that our First Nations students perform better academically when the school is a culturally safe space, and Indigenous Knowledges are embedded in the curriculum. 

Working in the Third Cultural Space, whether with students, other staff or families and communities, not only brings cultural safety, but also the opportunity to approach challenges in creative ways.   It enables a school culture where both staff and community are empowered to bring new ideas into curriculum planning and delivery.  Working together with Aboriginal teacher aides and communities brings opportunities to co-create culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogies.  This then creates classrooms where First Nations students can learn in a space that values and acknowledges different ways of knowing, being and doing. 

How to enact the Third Cultural Space?

The Third Cultural Space has to be a space where everyone can come together for open dialogue and to share multiple perspectives. It is important for all school staff to understand that this requires deep listening to the diverse perspectives, expectations, hopes and aspirations of others.   

At times, people will be challenged and feel they need to challenge others. School leadership may also feel challenged by not being able to control discussions. However, when people are willing to engage in challenging conversations and listen to multiple perspectives, this is when high-expectations relationships [6] can be developed.  

A first step towards working within the Third Cultural Space is to identify processes, policies and environments that are culturally unsafe.  For school leadership, this begins with requesting feedback and asking Indigenous staff, students and families about their feelings of cultural safety. 

Working within the Third Cultural Space requires courage, presence, patience, and honour.  As you reflect on one school year and prepare for a new one, we ask you to have the courage to ask yourselves, “Am I working in the Third Cultural Space?”, and the patience to build a space where multiple perspectives can come together to create an innovative space of safety for our First Nations students.  

Why not enrol in a Stronger Smarter Institute program to sit in circle and enact processes within the Third Cultural Space.
On return to your work environment, these processes will support you to create a culturally safe space.