‘Please let us in!’ the children said, as they were caught climbing a two-metre-high brick wall to break in and join the class. The enthusiasm was obvious from the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal primary school children eager to learn.
Daily we read of reports that classrooms are increasingly violent, children are not engaged, school absenteeism is at alarming numbers, and teachers are exhausted and frustrated, with many planning to leave the profession. Are the solutions to these problems really all that hard to find?
One approach has no classroom behaviour problems, with students engaged and teachers loving their work. It is based on a timeless Aboriginal approach that works wherever it has been tried and is even now echoed by organisations, including NASA, who believe that the age of 10 is pivotal to how children approach their lives and even how they think about what they want to do in the future.
The approach is very straightforward and can be used in any environment to address the problems that beset education across the nation. It deserves consideration by those grappling with how education can best occur.
Before colonisation, many Aboriginal nations, particularly those in Central Australia, achieved excellent physical and mental health with an approach that included traditional healers, the Ngangkari, taking aside young people at about the age of 10 and giving them the knowledge to become the next generation of healers. The children learned about bush medicine but also how to look out for those in the tribe whose spirit, their kurunpa, was sad or lost. They developed the skills to help others find mental wellbeing.
In the 21st century it works like this: the project is called Young Doctors for Life. Children aged nine, 10 and 11 are chosen and form a group of 15 – Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children together. Over 15 weekly sessions of 90 minutes, they then learn from Elders, doctors, dentists, paramedics, environmental experts and others. People who know things that the children find useful. They also engage in hands-on learning at hospitals, medical services and cultural centres.
In the first session, the children create their own set of behaviour rules and they then manage them with the guidance of the leader. The Young Doctors have agency and so there are no problems. They learn about health leadership, nutrition, hygiene, health literacy, environmental health, and social and emotional wellbeing. This works because the curriculum is relevant and delivered in a way that is enjoyable. The result is very high attendance (one school ran the project on Friday afternoons and attendance rose by 60 per cent). The children can’t wait for the sessions every week and pester their teachers about when it is on. One Young Doctor said, ‘My favourite is learning about everything.’
Other children in the schools beg to be able to join in.
The Malpa Project has already trained more than 3,000 child doctors in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Dr Simon Judkins, of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, observed ‘Watching the kids engage with each other, learn techniques to look after their mental health and be excited about education was an absolute privilege.’
The staff love their work. They co-design their own projects in line with state and national curriculums. They are paid well, given time to prepare their sessions, resourced properly, professionally supported and trusted to get on with the job.
One principal commented, ‘This program has had such a profound impact on the student and life outcomes of some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged [kids] from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal backgrounds.’
None of the principles in this project are difficult. The results are universal – happy kids keen to come and learn, as well as happy staff who get real pleasure from their work. Happy families and communities take pride in the achievements of their children and see how their family benefits from the health knowledge.
This is not child’s play, but deadly serious work as it tackles multiple issues including closing the gap. As one national charity CEO commented, ‘This is not bleeding hearts. This is bleeding obvious.’