Cape York lessons for Centre's schools?


Above: Visitors from the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy give a presentation to teaching staff at Ntaria School. 

“I’m going to teach you two words from my language.”
Cheryl Cannon has been in the classroom for just a few minutes. Her clear ringing voice and warm but assertive presence commands attention. The children quickly gather on the mat in front of her.
She holds up a large book and points to the words, then reads them aloud, “Nghadu gadil Cheryl,” pointing to herself.
“When I put my hand to my ear it’s your turn.”
The children have trouble waiting for the signal – hand to the ear – but what they don’t have trouble with is pronouncing the words from a language they are hearing for the very first time: “Nghadu gadil Cheryl!” they cry out.
But Ms Cannon insists they wait for the signal. “We’ll get this right,” she says and repeats the routine several times. Soon they are getting the hang of it, having learned the words as well as the discipline of watching and waiting for their turn.

“Does this sound like your language?” asks Ms Cannon.
“Noooo!” they cry out.
Right: Cheryl Cannon with her ‘DI’ lesson book.
The language is Guugu Yimidhirr, Ms Cannon’s mother tongue. She comes from Hope Vale in Cape York, far north Queensland and is a former school principal with the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy (CYAAA), part of the welfare reform drive led by Noel Pearson on the Cape. She has retired now but remains a firm friend of the project.
This brief demonstration of Direct Instruction applied to teaching an Australian Indigenous language took place on Tuesday in a classroom at Ntaria School in Hermannsburg, 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs. Ms Cannon, together with Bernadine Denigan, CEO of the academy, and Don Anderson, Executive Principal of the Cairns-based Good to Great Schools Australia, have been in The Centre as guests of the Member for Namatjira, Alison Anderson.
Ms Anderson is impatient to turn the tide of schooling failure for children in her electorate. Not content to wait for the outcome of her government’s review of Indigenous education (final report due in April) she is seeking to build a relationship between the ambitious CYAAA and the primary schools in Titjikala and Ntaria (Hermannsburg) and the secondary college at Yirara, run by the Lutheran Church’s Finke River Mission. Although the two primary schools are in the public system, Ms Anderson sees all three as linked by their Lutheran traditions, also strongly present in Cape York’s Hope Vale, hometown to Ms Cannon and Mr Pearson.
This week’s visit by the Cape Yorkers has been a toe in the water. In the near future Ms Anderson hopes to take a delegation of community members and education professionals from her electorate across to Cape York, and Ms Denigan says that Mr Pearson himself will follow up with a visit to The Centre.
What could come out of this? Ms Anderson sees a solid grounding in English literacy and numeracy as the core of what any school has to deliver and is impressed by the early gains apparently being made by students at CYAAA. She also loves the fact that the academy is not satisfied to rest on its laurels. Its program has moved the three schools at Coen, Aurukun and Hope Vale from “poor to fair”; now they want to get “from fair to good” and the ultimate aim is to go from “good to great”.
But, deeply attached to her own culture and languages (she speaks four as well as English), Ms Anderson is also inspired by the place CYAAA gives in its highly structured program to Indigenous languages and culture as well as a range of other experiences usually known as “extra-curricular activities”. In the words of Noel Pearson, this is to provide the students with “the best of both worlds” so they can “orbit” in and out of both as necessary or desired.
Left: MLA Alison Anderson with Ntaria School principal Cathy Green. 
At Ntaria after school finishes, Ms Denigan explains to teaching staff the “three Cs” of the academy’s approach: “class”, focussed on Direct Instruction (DI) in English literacy and numeracy, dominates the morning’s program, when children’s learning potential is at its peak, but there is also time in there for “culture”, specifically a lesson in their Indigenous language, using the DI method.
During the rest of the school’s extended day – from 8.30am to 4pm – there’s more time for “culture” and also “club”, which includes music, art and physical activity. Club’s aim is to expose students to a rich range of contemporary experiences. By way of example, Ms Denigan shows a short film of the combined brass bands from the three CYAAA campuses playing at a music festival with well-known Australian jazz musician James Morrison, conducted by his brother John. It’s delightfully impressive.
There’s a fourth C too, “community” which takes in the school’s relationship with the students’ parents and wider community, dealing with such issues as attendance and children’s health through a student case management approach.
At the heart of the academy, providing its coherence, is DI. It is a teaching approach whose basic tenet is that “if the student hasn’t learnt, the teacher hasn’t taught”. It uses a highly developed prescriptive curriculum and textbooks. Information is broken down into small learning increments that are introduced systematically. There is constant revision. As Ms Cannon puts it, “10% new, 90% revision”.
There is also constant monitoring and testing, with data analysed each week by an external consultant, then fed back to teachers who examine it in conference. Under these conditions it is simply not possible for a student to “fall through the cracks”, says Mr Anderson. On the contrary, all students learn “to mastery”, even if some get there more quickly than others.
Teachers are intensively trained in the method with follow-up coaching and monitoring. The “scripted curriculum” is particularly beneficial for schools with high teacher turnovers as it provides for continuity.
The teacher ratio is the same as in any Queensland education department classroom. The three CYAAA schools are all in the public system under a special agreement and are funded by the department and the federal DEEWR. The role of properly trained teacher aides is important and there are usually one if not two in the CYAAA classrooms.
Right: Bernadine Denigan in discussion with Ntaria teachers.
The results data are looking promising, though education experts (the Australian Council for Education research evaluation, commissioned by the department) say that the quantitative data, such as NAPLAN results, don’t yet allow a conclusion to be drawn.
However, the academy reports that across the three campuses 122 students have achieved their grade level in reading, and 146, their grade level in numeracy. When the academy began in January 2010 no students were at grade level. Some students are progressing through two grade levels in a year.
Club and culture programs are non-compulsory but enrolment in both is approaching 100%.
Aurukun campus is the most comparable to remote central Australian schools such as Titjikala and Ntaria where students grow up speaking their Indigenous Australian language and start school with little or no English. The academy is “pleased” with the improvements on this campus, with more students achieving the national benchmarks in 2013 than in 2012. The largest increase was in the reading test area, but there were students achieving national minimum standards in all 15 test areas.
Making a direct comparison between the CYAAA schools and the local ones, for instance by exhaustively comparing their NAPLAN results, is beyond the scope of this article, but MySchool data shows that in 2012 100% of Ntaria students were considered to be in the lowest quartile of students compared to the national picture; in 2013 this had improved to 94%, with 5% in the lower middle quartile. At Titjikala, a much smaller school, 100% were in the lowest quartile for both years. At Yirara College, 100% of students have been in the lowest quartile for the last three years; in 2010, the college reported 1% in the lower middle quartile; in 2009, it reported 1% in the lower middle, and 4% in the upper middle quartiles. Data for CYAAA, reported for the first time in 2013, put 84% of its students in the lowest quartile; with 12% in the lower middle, and 4% in the upper middle quartiles.
What about the fraught issue of attendance? On the Cape Aurukun has climbed from an abysmal 43.7% in Term 1 2007 to a high of 73.5% at Term 1 in 2011. It was again over 70% at the start of this year.
Left: Alison Anderson on the mat during the presentation at Ntaria by the Cape visitors.
At Hope Vale it was at nearly 90% at the start of 2011 but has fallen away since and strategies are being designed to address this. Coen meanwhile regularly achieves over 90% and was doing so even before the academy started in 2010.
Behind these percentages, says Ms Denigan, are individual students whose attendance is at 100% and who are going ahead in leaps and bounds. The aim is to get everyone else there.
By way of comparison, Ntaria had 61% attendance in 2013, after hitting a high of 73% attendance in 2009 and 2010, up from 52% in 2008. At Titjikala in 2013 it was 58%. At Yirara, a boarding school, in 2013 it was 63%, having declined steadily since its 86% in 2010. Alison Anderson has expressed her deep concern to the college’s new principal about its poor performance, both with attendance and academic results.
The numbers, without comprehensive analysis, only go so far as does any flying visit or snapshot. It’s the ‘qualitative assessment’ by the Cape Yorkers that is infectious – rejecting all the old excuses and full of excitement and optimism that the highest goals that they are setting are achievable and that they have something to offer other schools.
In the staffroom at Ntaria there is some scepticism, fed by ‘new program’ fatigue. But as Don Anderson points out, DI is not new: originating in America, it’s been around for almost 50 years and many hundreds of studies have shown that it delivers significant and sustained gains in student outcomes. CYAAA’s innovation has been to adopt it for an Australian context, and a remote Indigenous Australian context more particularly.
At this time of review and refocus for Indigenous education in the Territory, Alison Anderson is convinced that we have lessons to learn from the Cape.  And, she says, there’s no time to lose: “I don’t want to see another two generations of my people failing at school.”


  1. This is a great idea, anything that can assist remote Aboriginal people with the need for change would have to be attempted, considering the terrible situation. Is it possible to take the programme out to an area like the disadvantaged east? But then again she has not been seen in the area since the election!

  2. Fantastic that Alison has taken the initiative in exploring ways to lift remote school outcomes, this is just the latest example of Alison working at the grassroots in communities to improve life opportunities.
    Direct Instruction (DI) in Aboriginal schools, has been gaining popularity as a response to the need to demonstrate student achievement. Recalling number facts, reciting the times tables or “reading” very familiar books are impressive displays of school learning at a time when outcomes are demanded and teachers are frustrated by the painfully slow, incremental progress in their classrooms.
    But literacy and numeracy are more than recalling memorised information.
    Will a student who has memorised by rote that 3 x 4 = 12 also know how much 3 toys will cost if they are $4 each?
    Will the student who can seemingly “read” a familiar book quite fluently also understand what it is about?
    Very often the answers to these questions in Aboriginal classrooms is “no”. The student says that the toys will cost $100 and can “read” the book but doesn’t really know what the story is about.
    DI is valuable but the risk is overblowing it by assuming that rote learning includes a deeper understanding that is actually not there. This shows up in NAPLAN testing which measures maths levels by presenting problems to solve and measures a student’s reading level by asking detailed questions about a story the student will not have seen before.
    There is a place for memorised information, knowing the times tables is a good start to problem solving, memorising sight words does help with reading comprehension. Working memory is freed up for the task of understanding. DI also allows Aboriginal students to taste success, to feel they are getting somewhere at school. However, DI needs to be carefully embedded in well thought out programs such as First Steps, that teach the higher level skills.
    DI is a valuable addition to programs that tackle low literacy / numeracy levels rather than a stand alone solution.
    Thanks to Alison for highlighting its potential.

  3. I was last “out East” visiting Harts Range just prior to Christmas. I expect to be back out that way after this Parliamentary Sittings. Please contact my Electorate Office to make sure I don’t miss seeing you.

  4. Critical to the development of literacy in English is further reading, with availability – outside of school – of reading material interesting to read.
    Each community needs a library, or reading room, with as wide a range of material as possible, acting with programs like Alice Springs Public Library’s “Country Borrowers” program.
    (Alice Springs Public Library deserves more than 128 votes for Australia’s Favourite Library.)

  5. @Ralph Folds
    It should be clarified that Direct Instruction does not have rote learning as a feature of its program. Zig Engelmann, the designer of Direct Instruction and Chairman of the National Institute for Direct Instruction, says that student acceleration within Direct Instruction places the focus on the teaching of generalisations, not rote learning. Generalisations represent efficiency, where as rote learning represents inefficiency.
    For example, in the minutes the teacher may be able to teach students three rote items, they could instead be teaching a generalisation. The generalisation permits the students to respond to many items. The work on rote items, in contrast, produces performance on only the three items the teacher taught. Therefore the teaching of the generalisation is far more efficient than teaching of the rote items.
    Direct Instruction in our Academy schools focuses on concept mastery, which means that learners are taught concepts at a measured pace, lessons are carefully grouped and sequenced and students are never introduced to material that is too far beyond their current competence. More complex concepts are gradually introduced, but only after students have demonstrated mastery of pre-requisite skills. Moreover, nothing is ever taught only once and concepts are covered repeatedly with new examples gradually introduced to expand students’ knowledge. In practice this means that in each lesson, the majority of material reinforces content that has already been introduced.
    Direct Instruction is a rigorous approach to pedagogy and curriculum and has been shown – over almost fifty years and through may hundreds of studies – to deliver significant and sustained gains in student outcomes. It is one of the most effective forms of instruction for literacy and numeracy, for learners with diverse skills and from a range of backgrounds.
    For more information please see the Good to Great Schools Australia website at: and the website of the National Institute for Direct Instruction:
    – Good to Great Schools Australia, March 2014.

  6. @ Clare Payne
    Direct Instruction described on your website as teacher direction, presentation of information, clear outlines, step-by-step progression, prompts, lessons pacing, etc certainly have a place in Aboriginal schools. DI is especially valuable where students are struggling to read and lack confidence.
    But it isn’t useful for teachers to over-direct all learning, ultimately students have to become independent learners / readers in their own right. Students have to apply what they have learned to completely novel situations and the teacher can’t do that for them.
    Teaching has to be balanced in order to reflect all the learning needs.
    Dr Chris Sarra of the Stronger Smarter Institute is perhaps the sternest critic of DI where it involves “teachers working strictly to a script with students drilled to repeat only what is in their workbooks”. Sarra notes that: “While early (DI) gains may appear as a result of the emphasis on decoding text, those gains evaporate and sometimes reverse in later primary years as learning requires comprehension and not just decoding.”
    The potential of DI is to provide an initial supportive framework for learners, a structure within which they will gain confidence and learn new skills.

  7. It is great to see discussion and experimentation in relation to contemporary Indigenous education. I understand that locally adapted versions of Direct Instruction have been applied with some success in certain schools in WA.
    On the other hand, there has been a lot of investment by the Commonwealth in remote NT schools during the Rudd / Gillard period. Unfortunately the NT CLP government has recently withdrawn a lot of these badly needed resources, rather than find ways of maintaining them. This problem of resource withdrawal is surely fundamental to any serious discussion of the continuing problems in remote education.
    A large part of the problem now lies with the seeming ignorance and incompetence of the NT government, and, in some cases, its less than impressive managers.
    As Peter Buckskin and other experts say, there are serious problems flowing from the lack of adequate attention in the curriculum, and lack of an appropriate detailed syllabus relevant to Indigenous knowledge, experiences and traditions. These omissions amplify the problems for students and teachers in class rooms plagued by high staff and student turnover rates.
    Buckskin points to the non-availability of relevant classroom resource materials, and lack of appropriate teacher training as also being important factors contributing to the levels of failure. There often seems to be insufficient ability on the part of key school and department personnel to manage their difficult remote school environments, or to engage properly with the community and include the community’s leaders and family heads in the school experience.
    On the other hand, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion is undoubtedly correct in saying that many relevant problems lie outside the school gates.
    I don’t see why it is so hard for both sides of this argument to agree that all these factors are problems, and not privilege certain factors at the expense of others.
    Importantly, there also needs to be more effort put into proper training and support for teachers who want to teach long term in Indigenous schools, and much more attention to career path options for these teachers.
    Finally, there needs to be more provision of good experienced social workers who can spend time working with troubled households in the remote communities, and skilled counselors and special needs teachers working in the remote schools to take the pressures of the teachers and help deal with poor classroom behaviours (at present there are virtually no people with these skills in the bush schools system).
    There is a place for the truancy officers, some of whom are reportedly doing very good work, but their jobs will be a lot easier and more productive if these other needs are being met at the same time, and if the NT Government deigns to restore the funding it has so stupidly withdrawn. (Thankfully it has already been forced by Alison Anderson and some others to back off from some of these withdrawals).

  8. The DI approach and associated support seems to have produced great results on the Cape, while the NT homeland schools are still langusihing in the doldrums.
    From what I know of the DI approach it relies on having expectational and motivated teachers, teaching a curriculum that is proven to work, making learning relevant to the children and using individual learning plans and support that is tailored to each child’s needs. Sounds like a very sensible approach to me.
    But really, what are the alternatives?
    More of the same?
    The continuation of the practice of 1st year graduate teachers (most of whom have never had children themselves) teaching the most disadvantaged children in the country, using teaching plans that they have themselves developed?

  9. Firstly, Re Ralph’s comment: “Fantastic that Alison has taken the initiative in exploring ways to lift remote school outcomes.”
    I first met Alison in 1992 when my role was to implement the education component of the FEPPI endorsed community document “Minimum Requirements for Education at Papunya,” as well as fulfilling the AEP 21 goals and the NT Education department’s stated requirements.
    This resulted in a 10 year community school partnership that explored new ways to design, develop and deliver culturally inclusive education that included the whole community in the process.
    The community owned, highly acclaimed “Papunya Model of Education” was unfortunately abandoned in 2001 as the result of the political decision to phase out bilingual education, deeming skilled indigenous educators and the school’s leadership team as redundant.
    Interestingly, key components of the Papunya model were transferred to the successful implementation of a CY Institute’s initiative – the Aurukun Youth Strategy 2003-2004.
    Again, for political reasons this fully documented initiative that exceeded expectations and goals was abandoned because it challenged the limitations of the providers and required transparency and accountability that funding sources were not prepared to give.
    Although I see DI as yet another attempt to address the deficit in education systems to provide teachers with the skills, attitudes and expertise necessary to deliver quality teaching and learning in remote bilingual bicultural ESL – EFL settings, I would not want a child or grandchild of mine to be subjected to its limitations.
    As someone said, it has been used in the US for over 50 years. There are I believe better ways to address the challenges providing access to quality education in remote locations, for example investment in multimedia software and the training of local teaching teams to deliver world class TEFL courses such as the Korean “Little Fox” or the “Super Kids” programs.
    Key to success in any of these initiatives / methodologies is to focus on the recipients’ needs rather than fitting individuals into the ad hoc randomness of programs being thrown at communities for reasons of convenience and the dollars they generate.
    This results in community ownership and empowerment that leads to motivation, personal goal setting and pride in achievement.
    Recruited staff and service providers need to be given direct instruction and coached into appropriate ways to work with and learn from the community they are visiting.
    Alison Anderson, Noel Pearson, Don Anderson, Bernie Denigan – bring in the expert educational practitioners and leaders who have a proven record of success in delivering programs. Those who know how to bring all stakeholders together and hold everyone accountable.
    They / we hold the key, the mechanisms, the tools that can bring your vision into reality.


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