We aim to nurture a strong and positive sense of being Aboriginal in a contemporary society: Strong and smart.
The film In My Blood It Runs follows the life of ten-year-old Arrente/Garrwa boy Dujuan. Dujuan is a child healer, a good hunter and speaks three languages. He enjoys being at school. But his strengths and knowledges are not recognised in the classroom, and a stream of ‘E’s’ on his report card make him feel stupid. When the school becomes a site of disempowerment, Dujuan starts running away from the classroom.
Developing Strong and Smart
Dujuan’s story is not uncommon. When Stronger Smarter Institute founder, Dr Chris Sarra became the principal at Cherbourg State School in the early 1990s, he watched students in this same situation.
As he describes in his PhD, Dr Sarra observed Aboriginal students identifying with the negative, low-expectations Aboriginal identity that Australia was promoting. Teachers also colluded with this negative stereotype, using the external circumstances of students as an excuse for low expectations instead of taking responsibility for quality teaching. Likewise, parents were blaming teachers for poor student outcomes and behaviour, rather than promoting high expectations.
Dr Sarra sought to change this situation, challenging both students and staff to create a school environment that genuinely embraced an alternative to this negative stereotype – a new ‘strong and smart’ Aboriginal identity.
He knew this meant that everyone in the school, students, staff and parents had to change their beliefs about what children could achieve and change their perceptions about what being Aboriginal was really all about. Strong and Smart was about rejecting the status quo of poor academic results and opening everyone’s eyes to a world of opportunity.
Strong in identity, smart in the classroom
Strong and Smart is a belief that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can be both strong in their identity and smart in the classroom. As Dr Sarra describes, this is a fundamental human right that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children should receive an education that both enables them to develop a rich and positive sense of their own cultural identity and to participate in a modern society as any other Australian would.
Beyond high expectations
Strong and Smart takes the idea of ‘high expectations’ beyond simply believing that all students can be successful in education. The fundamental difference is that Strong and Smart, rather than seeking to see all students as ‘mainstream’, recognises ‘smart’ as a part of an Indigenous cultural identity. Dr Sarra explains ‘…if schools only seek to make Indigenous children smart, without developing any positive sense of cultural identity, then we do little more than assimilate them into the mainstream.’
Under the ‘Strong and Smart’ philosophy and the efforts of the teachers, parents, children and those solid Indigenous men who worked alongside me as brothers, we set out on that journey.
It has been over 20 years since Dr Sarra first told Aboriginal students at Cherbourg that they were ‘Strong and Smart.’ Since then, educators have been implementing the Stronger Smarter Approach in schools across Australia. ‘Strong and Smart’ encapsulates a vision that we hope to see echoed by staff and children in all classrooms across the nation. This needs to come with an understanding that schools must think differently about how to engage with every individual student, to understand, recognise and value their cultural identity. Strong and Smart is so much more than ‘high expectations’ for all students. Strong and Smart is about educator’s recognising and rejecting negative stereotypes and taking responsibility for quality teaching, and schools ensuring their learning environments genuinely embrace and value all cultures.
For more information about the Stronger Smarter Philosophy