Co-creating a new reality

Teachers, students and the community of Yirrkala remain committed to a Both Ways approach to schooling

A remote Arnhem Land school’s approach could hold a key to reimagining the world together, writes Dan Yore

I am sitting next to Nuŋki, a Gumatj elder as he looks through a telescope for the first time. We are sitting by the beach near his homeland of Dhaniya in North-East Arnhem Land. He is in awe. The rings of Saturn are exquisite tonight.

We have just finished presenting a ”both ways” astronomy workshop for a group of students from Yirrkala School. Together with a group of Yolŋu artists he has just told us the mesmerising story of the Djulpan, a Seven Sisters song line. Following this the Yolŋu elders sat back humbly, as I the Western science teacher rather nervously took the microphone to explain orbits, light years and Greek mythology. They encouragingly clapped and cheered as my presentation finished.

Lying on my back afterwards with a few of the old women and a couple of students, we gazed at the Milky Way above, continuing to offer explanations from both worlds. “Bala ga lili”. Co-creating together. This is Galtha Rom: a special education ceremony for the students and teachers of Yirrkala School.

I moved to the Northern Territory in 2013 and spent four years teaching in Darwin. I had moved from the field of medicine as I had felt that the health system fundamentally was not capable of holistically improving people’s health and wellbeing in the 21st century world. It had not moved in response to the rapidly evolving globalised nature of chronic lifestyle diseases that we are now faced with.

For me education was a way of moving ‘“upstream” to a place where young people developed the capabilities needed to make choices about a life they deemed to be of value. However, as I began to get deeper and deeper into the education system an eerily similar pattern began to emerge. It was a system that valued conformity over creativity, individualism over community and the creation of workers over self-actualisation.

For me education was a way of moving ‘“upstream”…

However, some recent experiences have given me hope. For the past few years I have had the great privilege of working with the Yolŋu of East Arnhem Land in their community-led school in Yirrkala. The experience, professionally and personally, has been nothing short of transformative. More than that I have come to quickly see that there are here sophisticated educational methodologies, born out of millennia of cumulative wisdom, that I believe hold some keys to unlocking the 21st century educational methods our global community is so desperately searching for.

2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the song Treaty written by the world famous Yolŋu band Yothu Yindi. Lead singer Dr M Yunupiŋu, one of the first Aboriginal principals in Australia, was also one of a number of Yolŋu pioneers of this Both Ways educational approach in Arnhem Land. The main Galtha Rom camp for 2019 thus was a celebration of this anniversary and the educational legacy left by Dr Yunupiŋu.

The school returned to the beautiful homeland of Biranybirany where the Both Ways methodology was born and to celebrate the writing of that important song. At Biranybirany there is a special water place called Garma that provides a foundational metaphor for the school’s approach. It is a place where fresh water from the river (Yolŋu knowledge) and incoming salt water from the sea (non-Yolŋu or Balanda knowledge) engulf each other and give rise to newly formed foam (galimiṉḏirrk) on top. This new foam is the shared, co-created knowledge of Both Ways education.

There has been an increasing vogue in recent times towards prioritising critical thinking in mainstream schooling.

For decades this Both Ways philosophy has provided a framework for Yolŋu and Balanda people to co-create authentic and shared new realities out of seemingly incompatible knowledge systems. At the pinnacle of this process is Galtha Rom, an educational ceremony where the community negotiates roles and gathers together ideas as starting points for sorting out important issues.

There has been an increasing vogue in recent times towards prioritising critical thinking in mainstream schooling. However, from what I’ve seen on the ground, it seldom has the space or the teeth to provide the deep and contemplative inquiry I’ve seen in Galtha Rom.

Whilst we can surely deepen the ways we teach students to think analytically, of greater concern is a complete lack of focus on developing the means to reimagine a broken world.

Both Ways approaches like Galtha Rom are not necessarily a silver bullet. The most powerful solutions remain those organically and collaboratively developed locally. However, what these approaches do is provide a framework for processes that could be used to reimagine our reality through inclusive dialogue that leverages knowledge systems that for many generations have gone untapped. 

This article was first published in the Term 4, 2019 edition of the Territory Educator magazine