PROFESSOR LESTER-IRABINNA RIGNEY is an expert in Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and presented at the 2019 ECA National Conference as a keynote presenter. ECA caught up with him to ask a few questions about his work on culturally responsive education and what he would like conference participants and virtual delegates to take away from his address.
Early Childhood Australia (ECA): Your writing promotes the concept of ‘culturally responsive education’. How can early childhood educators be culturally responsive in their work with babies and very young children, particularly where the focus is on child-lead learning?
Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney: I have been researching over thirty years with teachers on teachers’ work, Aboriginal schooling, educational leadership, Indigenist epistemologies, refugees, and school reform. Over the past four years I have been funded by the prestigious Australian Research Council to research school based studies that engage with teachers and practitioners as they attempt to redesign pedagogical practices for democratic and inclusive classrooms using Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (hereafter CRP).
I am looking forward to presenting cutting-edge early childhood techniques used by educators involved in my research on CRP in dialogue with Reggio Emilia principles. I define CRP as teaching to and through (learners) cultural strengths, their intellectual capabilities, and in their prior accomplishments.
Two complications CRP is trying to solve: Aboriginal education outcomes are not improving; and early childhood education in Australia has become super diverse and super-complex. Educators require innovative new pedagogies that give them confidence in educating for super-diversity. While CRP is in high demand in Australia and across the Pacific, they are little understood. In my findings presentation, I will outline seven interconnected CRP elements:
- High intellectual challenge
- Strongly connected to the life-worlds of children
- Recognition of cultural difference as an asset
- Activist oriented
- Performing learning to others beyond the teacher
- Multimodal literacies
ECA: At this year’s ECA Reconciliation Symposium in May, the concepts of ‘culturally safe organisations’ and ‘culturally safe learning environments’ recurred among the speakers and discussions. Do you think these are essentially different words for your concept of ‘culturally responsive education’ or are there important distinctions to be made?
LIR: The literature show many educators are dismissive of the importance of culture to belonging, engagement and academic achievement. Young children who experience cultural discontinuity between home and school often perceive themselves as poor learners and develop negative self-efficacy toward their capabilities and learning. To respond effectively to increasing diversity and stop cultural assimilation, many studies have pointed out that early childhood teachers need to hold affirming and anti-deficit views of children and their life worlds. Thus, teachers of Aboriginal children need to understand that culture affects how students learn.
At the conference, I will be reporting on educator findings that discredit ‘cultural competency’ frameworks where the teacher is supposed to understand the entire diversity in the children’s centre. It is a clear finding that educators cannot be competent in all cultures and become paralysed pedagogically when forced. While safety and relationship building are fundamental to belonging, what does not work it seems, are cultural competence frameworks.
ECA: One of your early research interests was how western methodologies have created knowledge about, but usually not by, Indigenous people, and the implications this has for who gets to shape the understanding of being Indigenous. Did this lead you to an ‘Indigenist epistemology’—what does this mean in plain language and can you tell us why it matters?
LIR: My theory was the first in Australia to coin the term ‘Indigenist Epistemologies’ where education and its research with Indigenous peoples required three provocations. 1. Voice. 2. Cultural integrity. And 3. Empowerment. To embed Indigenist Epistemologies using CRP, I advise early childhood educators to committing to a site philosophy that entails embracing everyone’s voice and prior knowledge for all to belong. Cultural diversity must become normative in the early learning centre and seen as a key theme for developing pedagogy and curriculum. Students must have opportunities to learn about their own cultures and languages and each other’s cultures and to explore the Australian multicultural context.
ECA: You have a strong connection with educational movements and thought leaders around the world including the Foundation Reggio Children‑Centro Loris Malaguzzi. What brought you into contact with the work of Loris Malaguzzi and how does it inform your own research directions and philosophy of education?
LIR: It seemed like a nature fit for me to become a member of The Foundation Reggio Children Centro Loris Malaguzzi Scientific Committee. I had read the extensive research archive of Carla Rinaldi and Loris Malaguzzi and understood the theory of the competent child, child 100 languages, participation and democracy, pedagogical documentation and Progettazione. My research career has been influenced also by Dewey, Vygotsky and Freire that saw all children as intelligent inquiries that when engaging with others, this frames for thinking on their own. These findings re-shaped my own view of myself as teacher where I adopted the role of facilitator and co-constructor of knowledge – not content provider to children.
My research development of Australian CRP theory advocate for practices that pedagogically validate a child’s cultural intelligences as important resources in teaching and learning. Findings from educators is that children are more likely to meaningfully engage in learning when their identities belong, and their socio-cultural context is invoked. Therefore, educators must cultivate authentic relationships that position students, parents and Elders as co-designers toward effective and culturally responsive learning
ECA: Finally, is there a single important idea that you hope people will take away from your keynote presentation at the ECA National Conference?
LIR: We live in a time of change and ‘super diversity’. How can we help to create a better world? Working for everyone to feel included can be achieved by teaching to and through (learners) cultural strengths, and intellectual capabilities. I look forward to seeing you all at the conference. Please say hi.
Professor Lester-Irabinna Rigney was a presenter at the 2019 ECA National Conference in Hobart 25-28 September.