Gawa Christian School
: an 'on country' and 'bothways' philosophy of education

  • Ben Van Gelderen

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    The establishment of the fully staffed and resourced Christian school at the Warramiri Yolŋu, remote Indigenous homeland of Gäwa in northeast Arnhem Land is an impressive narrative of vision and resilience. However, even more impressive is the complex and profound philosophy of education that sits beneath this narrative and continues to supply the inspiration for Gäwa Christian School.

    The ‘on country’ perspective functions as the axiological foundation for the school, maintaining that true teaching and learning can only eventuate when the right people are living holistically together on their right land, utilising their right language. In contradistinction to the ex-Mission community centralisation or ‘hub’ town model of government educational planning, at Gäwa the priority remains firmly on children being raised on appropriate yirralka (clan home-land-identity centres) with their Warramiri Elders, and other appropriate Yolŋu, as determined through the gurruṯu (kinship) system. Furthermore, at Gäwa there is an emerging evolution of the philosophy to incorporate a ‘through country’ emphasis, highlighting the land’s active role in the education process via
    the development of a seasonal-cycle digital curriculum.

    ‘Bothways’ education was first expounded by Yolŋu educators in the 1980s, through the sharing of various metaphors from moiety and clan structures, ceremonial practices and water/food sources to explain how balanda (white) schooling systems should mirror the balanced and negotiated common ground where new knowledge can be produced in the Yolŋu cosmology. Despite the pressures of the standardised Australian Curriculum and the dominance of English literacy and numeracy benchmarks in the last decade, at Gäwa this
    traditional Yolŋu ‘Bothways’ approach is still pursued. Indeed, due to the transculturation history that the Warramiri clan, in particular, have shared with waves of ‘outsiders’ to Yolŋu shores over many centuries (including Methodist missionaries, ‘Macassans’ and even older sea-faring visitors), the ‘Bothways’ epithet is an apt summary of the epistemological foundation of the school’s philosophy. At Gäwa, new metaphors have been supplied to renew this ‘Bothways’ approach from a distinct Warramiri perspective and multiliteracy
    pedagogies have been developed to integrate traditional Warramiri, Christian and balanda English literacy priorities into a synthesised learning environment.

    The elucidation of the ‘on country’ and ‘Bothways’ philosophy of the Gäwa Christian School is a significant project as it will assist future balanda and Yolŋu teachers to maintain the Warramiri vision in the local Gäwa context and supplies a model to grow a network of Yolŋu Christian homeland schools across Arnhem Land. In an era of increasing educational confusion and dysfunction in remote Indigenous Australia, the current research is a profound but clear example of an educational philosophy application functioning to support genuine Indigenous self-determination.

    Date of Award2021
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorRuth Wallace (Supervisor)

    Cite this