In fact, it’s fair to say that in seven Aboriginal communities in western New South Wales, something revolutionary has been happening.
Since the introduction in 2012 of ‘Yes I Can!’, a model which takes a campaign approach to improving literacy, communities which formerly had very low levels of adult literacy have shown literacy education completion rates of more than 65 per cent.
This is five times higher than Indigenous students’ completion rates for formal, accredited Foundations Skills courses run through the national vocational education and training (VET) system, which aim to get students to a similar level on the Australian Core Skills Framework.
Enngonia, nestled just below the Queensland border, has reached 100 per cent literacy.
Meanwhile there’s been a 24 per cent reduction in illiteracy in Bourke, a 20 per cent reduction in Wilcannia, and, amongst all graduates, 60 per cent are women.
The model which is co-ordinated by the Literacy for Life Foundation (LFLF), has been taken from Cuba to 30 countries in the global south, including Australia’s neighbor Timor-Leste, where it reached 200,000 people.
One key to the success of Yes I Can! is the model of teacher-training developed by the Cubans.
Initially disseminated through radio and then VHS, today students learn to learn and teachers learn to teach by following lessons on DVD, in a series of dramatised episodes that follow the passage of five students through the process of learning literacy.
The teachers watch the DVD during lesson preparation with advisors, they then follow the modelling provided by the teachers on the DVD and teach the lesson by showing the DVD to the students and helping them complete the activities which the ‘actor-students’ are doing on the DVD.
Dr Bob Boughton from the University of New England does the evaluations for Literacy for Life and has been involved from the beginning.
He says that the training and engagement of local Aboriginal community members as literacy teachers is critical to the success of Yes I Can! in Australia.
Local community members deliver the program, supported by LFLF advisers.
Speaking with EducationHQ, Boughton observes that “it’s often their family members who are the teachers, and that means the students are much more willing to participate in the classroom,” he says.
“The students are often wanting the teachers to succeed as much as the teachers want the students to succeed!” he adds.
And according to Boughton, the community involvement doesn’t stop at the classroom.
“The campaign has a local leadership as well, which consists of local Aboriginal leaders, who are often related to the students too.
“The leadership group often comes to class too, and they come to all the events like graduations and award ceremonies… so the whole community is really doing it together from beginning to end.”
The community approach ensures that adults in the community become engaged with learning and achieve literacy.
This creates the conditions for children to achieve literacy and remain engaged with schooling.
As Boughton puts it, “the best predictor of a child’s ability to succeed at school is the extent to which their parents are engaged with their learning. If the adult can’t engage with what’s happening at school because they lack basic literacy then there is no way that the child is going to come home to a household where their learning will be actively supported, even as it may be encouraged.”
“So what we’ve found is that once parents begin to re-engage with learning and start to have a more positive experience, that attitude transfers to the children, and the parents themselves become more actively involved.”
Boughton recalls the testimonial of a teacher in Enngonia: “she told us that the parents were coming to the school to borrow books and the parents started reading to their kids in the holidays - this was something she’d never seen before.”
For teachers trying to engage children and young people in learning literacy, the problem is not just that adults in households have low literacy or are illiterate.
“Parents without literacy will find it much harder to engage with things like school newsletters, plus, adults who have low literacy tend also to end up with a whole lot of other problems - they're often unemployed, they've often got issues around health, a good number get into trouble with the law, ... so there’s all these other things going on”, Boughton says.
“So if you’re living in a low literacy household as a child, chances are that household will have a lot of other issues besides the kids struggling with school work. It isn’t just that the parents can’t help them, there’s other things as well.”
The model is already having a multi-generational effect, with children, parents, and grandparents succeeding in literacy learning for the first time.
It is also hoped that this will improve future numbers of qualified Aboriginal teachers in the formal schooling system.
Another future hope is that the program can be trialed in central Australian Aboriginal communities, where English or Aboriginal English is not the primary language spoken.
Either way, the success of Yes I Can! has only underscored the importance of improving literacy in Australia.
This issue is often overlooked, Boughton suggests, because policy-makers and other influencers can assume “that low literacy is not a problem in this country due to the provision of universal and compulsory education”.
But with around 44 per cent of Australian adults lacking the literacy skills required for everyday life, the Aboriginal community teachers who are turning around their literacy rates might just be showing us all the way.