Weaving First Peoples knowledge into a university course

Edward Synot, Mary Graham, John Graham, Faith Valencia-Forrester, Catherine Longworth, Bridget Backhaus

In the context of our Reconciliation Action Plan and National Reconciliation Week, it seems timely to revisit Weaving First Peoples’ knowledge into a university course (Synot, Graham, Graham et al, 2020) and the associated webinar I participated in earlier this year. The paper explored efforts to integrate First Peoples’ perspective into curricula using not only First Peoples’ content, but also using First Peoples’ pedagogy through the narrative metaphor of Woven Law.

First Peoples’ knowledge within a university context is a contested knowledge space (Nakata 2007) with both First Peoples’ and Western knowledge systems viewed as incompatible, separate and complex. However, First Peoples’ knowledges are living and changing and far from singular as are the peoples, communities and cultures themselves. This has posed a challenge for universities trying to incorporate these knowledges or perspectives into curricula. With the embodiment of First Peoples’ ways of knowing and learning being not only unfamiliar, but also actively denied (Rigney 2012), even with the best of intentions, historical inclusion into curricula has been simplistic and still perceived as ‘separate’.

Based on the traditions of the Wamba Wamba people, Woven Law is a way for people to make sense of their experiences and their communities. It encourages us to heuristically engage with First Peoples’ perspectives and knowledge through critical dialogue to build a deeper understanding. As a central practice in many First Nations cultures, weaving is used to represent the actions that ‘bind and layers First Peoples and communities in diverse ways’ (p3). Woven items have interconnections that are difficult to pull apart into components. Similarly, Woven Law embodies the understanding that people are built into the land and the land is patterned into the people. It helps to make sense of the relationality and place-based knowledge of First Peoples: there is a proportionality and relationality that is imperative to acknowledge.

Using Woven Law in curricula
The Community Internship (CI) course at Griffith University is a WIL-based programme. It is predominantly utilised as an elective available at undergraduate and post-graduate level to all disciplines. It has a specific focus on enabling students to engage with community in a theoretical and practical way. Learning outcomes are focussed around students’ understanding and critically appraising citizen involvement and volunteering in community organisations as well as their own professional and personal skills. Like all Griffith courses it aims for students to achieve the graduate quality around cultural capability with First Australians. As such, it was deemed an appropriate vehicle to integrate First Peoples’ knowledges and perspectives.

A First Peoples Reference Committee was formed to ensure that First Peoples’ knowledge and perspectives were included using a process ‘authored and directed by First Peoples’ (p4). They produced a guiding document which informed course development.

Nakata’s progressive ‘cultural interface’ phases were used to navigate the interaction of First Peoples’ with other knowledge systems (2007b). These phases include: developing knowledges about cultures and traditions; focusing on understanding colonial history and building on first phase knowledge; then finally, building upon previous phases to more deeply explore the entanglements and adaptations of Western with First Peoples’ knowledge that has occurred over time. Thus, weaving became the narrative approach, rather than incorporating or embedding, enabling transformative practice in the development of this course.

Using this as a guide, a First Peoples’ module was developed as part of the CI course. Using a Woven Law approach, it includes First Peoples’ theoretical frameworks as well as First Peoples’ perspectives on other parts of the course (e.g. human rights, community). First Peoples’ knowledge and perspectives are included as a complete module as well as being woven through the other course modules.  Several additional resources (e.g. interviews and other artefacts) have been made available and the assessment adapted to incorporate aspects of First Peoples’ relational responsibilities. The content focuses on the relationship between law, land and people as the basis for understanding First Peoples’ theoretical frameworks; the fundamental relational basis of this philosophy of interconnectedness forming the basis of life itself.

Student evaluations of the module have been promising in improving cultural competence as well as garnering support for more extensive weaving of First Peoples’ knowledge and perspectives throughout the wider university curriculum. This research aims to, in future, become a guide for others who wish to include the knowledge and perspectives of First Peoples. We look forward to more to come in this space.

8 Aboriginal Ways of Learning n.d. Interface theory viewed 19th May 2021 < https://www.8ways.online/interface-theory>

Anti-Racist Curriculum Project (Advance HE)

Decolonising identity: what’s in a name? (Advance HE)

Listening to Country: Weaving first people’s knowledge and perspectives into curriculum in an Australian context (webinar recording)

Reconciliation in action: Embedding Indigenous Knowledges in Curricula

Reconciliation Action Plan

Synot, E., Graham, M., Graham, J., Valencia-Forrester, F., Longworth, C., & Backhaus, B. (2020). Weaving First Peoples’ knowledge into a university course. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 1-7. doi:10.1017/jie.2019.29

Nakata, M (2007a) Disciplining the savages: Savaging the disciplines. Canberra, Australia: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Nakata, M (2007b) The cultural interface. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 36, 7–14.

Rigney, LI (2012) Review of Indigenous Higher Education Consultancy: Indigenous Higher Education Reform and Indigenous Knowledges. Report commissioned for the Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People. Available from https://docs.education.gov.au/documents/indigenous-higher-education-reform-and-indigenous-knowledges.


Cassandra Hood
Academic Developer – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

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