What needs to be done to position Australian students for this Asian century?

by Professor Michael Singh

Michael Singh’s look at the implications of the Asian century for Education in Australia offers a more extended blog than is usual. Enjoy!

Many Australians currently study one or more of the many Asian languages and cultures, either formally or informally as part of their family or job networks. However, there is a strong view that more Australians must study the languages and cultures of our neighbours. But why must they?

 Policy-makers claim that schools must help society gain the Asia-capabilities business needs through helping more Australian students learn Asian languages to get the better socioeconomic positions they deserve.

 The revitalisation of Asia and the growing global competition for high skilled jobs makes it more important than ever we provide a worldly education for our school students, including an education that looks at the world through Asian perspectives. Moreover, countries such as China are experiencing a renaissance as a global centre for knowledge production in key fields of innovation such as sustainability.  Much of this internationally important knowledge is being produced in Chinese.

 Seemingly, these are reasonable claims. However, they fail to speak directly to school children and their parents and teachers to persuade them on their terms for undertaking second language education. Policy-makers must recognise and directly engage the interests of learners and educators. Policy-makers must produce policies that explicitly address the reasons schools students from Kindergarten to Year 12 have for learning a second language, as much as the educational reasons for teaching languages.

 Is there a clear need for graduates to be able to speak Asian languages and work in Asia high on the list of priorities for business?

 Australian businesses need graduates willing and able to work in Asia. Accountants, architectures, lawyers and doctors as well as those working in property economics to business, engineering and biotechnology need to find ways to become familiar with Asia. The Australian Industry Group has found that businesses rate having senior staff capable of working cross-culturally in Asia very highly. They also rate having a strategy for Asian operations, strong local partnerships in Asia and knowledge of Asian business operations. The law firm King & Wood Mallesons has called for a national policy directed at promoting and supporting people-to-people exchanges in education and the professions. For business leaders the major challenge they face in engaging Asia more fully is attracting, retaining and leveraging “Asia-capable” talent. What kind of talent might that be?

 Writing in The Jakarta Post (02 November 2012), Dewi Anggraeni observes that the Australians desire to learn from Asian countries does not seem to be “motivated by the belief that they have some good things to teach Australia, but that Australia needs to know how they operate to avoid “pitfalls” in doing business with them, or in dealing in other matters, such as regional security. To think that countries in Asia are unable to sense this patronizing attitude is downright careless.”

 What is the current situation?

 The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (2008) identified as a major change in the world that is placing new demands on Australian teacher and school education, is that:

          India, China and other Asian nations are growing and their influence on the world is increasing. Australians need to become ‘Asia literate’, engaging and building strong relationships with Asia.

 Goal 2 of the Melbourne Declaration is, in part, that:

          All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens [who] are able to relate to and communicate across cultures, especially the cultures and countries of Asia.

 In the Australian Curriculum the cross-curriculum priority of “Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” will ensure that students learn about and recognise the diversity within and between the countries of the Asia region. They will develop knowledge and understanding of Asian societies, cultures, beliefs and environments, and  the  connections between the peoples of Asia, Australia, and the rest of the world. Asia literacy provides students with the skills to communicate and engage with the peoples of Asia so they can effectively live, work and learn in the region (ACARA).

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s guidelines for developing the Australian Languages Curriculum now make provision for first, background and second language learners.

Currently, it is Chinese-Australians – teachers and students – in senior secondary schools across the country who are now making a substantial contribution to securing Australia’s linguistic and intellectual engagement with speakers of Chinese within Australia, in China and around the world.

In addition, volunteer university graduates from China are supporting schools in Western Sydney in stimulating the learning of Chinese as a second language. With the support of these volunteers who are studying to be teacher-researchers, some 4,017 primary students and 1,358 secondary students in the Region’s schools are able to learn Chinese. This initiative is part of a 10 year industry/university training partnership established by the University of Western Sydney, the Ningbo Municipal Education Bureau in China and the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities.

A key implication of not carrying out this agenda is that it will exacerbate a situation in which Australian educational institutions have not produced a significant cohort of young Australians completing secondary education with deep knowledge of our region or high levels of proficiency in Asian languages. … the share of Australian students studying languages, including many Asian languages, is small and has fallen in recent times. (Australia in the Asian Century Implementation Task Force, 2012: 167, 168).

How might we now understand this “Asian Century”?

Some readers may remember when we studied the world through the lens of the British Empire, and then through an American lens. The idea of the “Asia Century” presents a new lens through which to look at the world. No matter what the crisis in Europe, the USA or Australia is, everything now seems to be linked to what is happening in Asia, more so than ever before. So increasing the depth and breadth of Australia’s intellectual engagement with a worldly Asia provides a lens through which to better understand the effects that China and India are having on Russia, Brazil and South Africa, and together what this means for Australia.

What does the “Asian Century” mean for languages education?

As we enter this Asian Century a deep engagement with multilingualism in general and a specific capacity in Asian languages are crucial for ever more Australians, to provide the grounds for collaborative knowledge production between Asia and Australia. However, it would be naïve to think this means ignoring other languages.

Among the impediments to the further development of languages education in Australia is the mistaken presumption that European languages are not being taught and used throughout Asia; this view limits Australia’s ability to meet the challenges of the changing multilingual landscape presented by this Asian Century.

It is significant for Australian languages education to know that China continues to teach a range of languages, including French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic. For example, since 2005, a further seventy-three higher education institutions in China have established French as a university major.

In recent years, bilateral trade and investment by Chinese enterprises in French-speaking Africa have increased rapidly. Learning French is integral to the ability of China to do business in Africa (Benin, Burkina-Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Mali, Niger, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, and Togo), along with Europe (Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Monaco, Switzerland, as well as Canada) well as Haiti, Seychelles and Vanuatu. So if you speak Portuguese which is spoken in China’s Macau you speak an Asian language!

Making multilingualism constitutive of Australia’s education system in order to navigate the Asian Century means exerting pressures to permit variations in responses to, and engagement with whatever linguistic opportunities present themselves.

What language policies might work?

Key reasons for the failure of some previous language policies are the monolingual focus on linguistic differences and the insistence on teaching only the target language, ignoring learners’ first language. However, many Australian school students who are just beginning to learn a second language need a policy for programs that focuses on the social and linguistic similarities between English and particular Asian languages. This is an important education policy issue if beginning learners are to experience success and the rewards necessary to stimulate their desire for further language learning.

 Further, with over half a million local and international multilingual students in Australian higher education institutions, there needs to be formal recognition of their multilingual communicative capabilities. With over 150 different languages spoken by Australia’s higher education students, formal acknowledgement of their linguistic capabilities as part of higher education programs would provide a valued and valuable stimulus to second language learning. This policy would enhance Australia’s positioning in the global multilingual economies and knowledge networks.

 Where can we go from a history of failure?

One of the intractable educational problems is to make Asian languages learnable for beginning second language learners in English speaking Australia. This is a preferable focus to the insistence on Asian languages being difficult for them to acquire, and that they must be acquired by ignoring students’ first language.

There is a need for universities, education systems and schools – in Australia and throughout Asia – to collaborate in the education of teacher-researchers who are capable of investigating ways to make Asian languages learnable for second language learners in Australia. This means finding ways to make Asian languages part of the local everyday languages of Australian school communities. Little is known about how to make these languages learnable.

The Western Sydney/Ningbo teacher-researcher partnership is producing evidence-driven knowledge that can embed Asian languages into everyday school communities through teaching/learning strategies that build on students’ existing knowledge of English and spur their self-confidence for continued language learning.

Policy needs to support programs and pedagogies that stimulate the interests of beginners at all level of schooling, to engage their enthusiasms, and to reward them with successful language learning experiences.

 What are the challenges educators face in intellectually engaging more fully in Asia?

A major challenge Australian students face in learning to engage more thoughtfully with people in different parts of Asia is their chance to participate in second language education programs and pedagogies that make Asian languages learnable. Policy needs to support teacher-researchers in developing pedagogies that work to reduce the ‘costs’ for beginning learners of Asian language so as not to make it a difficult and unfulfilling experience.

A key challenge for educational institutions is to develop teaching/learning activities and forms of assessment that reward students’ multilingualism and promote post-monolingual education such as the following:

  • Translation and translations: the systematic use of translations to highlight similarities and/or differences in the meanings of concepts, metaphors and images about educational issues under study.
  • Using evidence of multilingual online communicative capabilities: multilingual transcripts from online communication and/or from recorded face-to-face communication.
  • Demonstrating linguistically alternative ways in which a text can be written: alternative ways in which a multilingual text could be written, a multilingual speech act could be realized, a multilingual description could be performed, a multilingual dialogue could be conducted and what the similarity/difference in meaning would be.
  • Juxtaposing multilingual texts with similar informational content: different styles or genres of multilingual texts (e.g. poetry, proverbs, riddles), and have students consider how different styles convey the same information, albeit with different meanings.
  • Analysing affective and stylistic responses to multilingual texts: for analysing their own affective and stylistic reactions to multilingual texts containing non-Western modes of critique (involving at least one language they do not read, including texts written by school children).

 What should be our goals for institutionalising language education across the educational system?

To institutionalise language education across the educational system, innovative research-oriented school-engaged teacher-researcher education should aim for:

  • collaboration among Australia’s Federal and State/Territory Government agencies, Australian universities, local education authorities and clusters of primary and secondary schools which commit to a 12 year program
  • making the second language learning of students the primary focus of the education of teacher-researchers through education system/school/ university partnerships
  • directly engaging with educational concepts in the target Asian language as part of the education of language teacher-researchers
  • disseminating the evidence-driven knowledge generated by these teacher-researchers of their interventions in English and the target Asian language
  • assessing the education of these teacher-researchers in terms of its direct impact on school students’ second language learning and the students’ desire to continue studying the language to the end of Year 12
  • a scholarship program for local and international teacher-researchers that ensures the best graduates are registrable as teachers and secure full-time employment in Australian schools.

 What needs to be done to offer Asian languages, widely, economically and effectively?

Together education systems, schools and universities – in Australia and from across Asia – need to collaborate in delivering on the large-scale, long-term investment policy-makers promise to provide, and to do so through practical, on-the-job partnerships that educate teacher-researchers.

Teacher-research will provide a firm base for second language education in Australian schools and inspire the confidence of children, parents, teachers – and policy-makers.

This requires a teacher accreditation system that registers the graduates of such research-oriented, school engaged teacher education programs for employment in all States and Territories of Australia.

Michael Singh is a Professor in the Centre for Educational Research, School of Education at the University of Western Sydney 

Place, curriculum and the arts

from Dr Kumara Ward

There has been much commentary in this blog (Gray 2012; Malone 2012) and in other publications (Seed, Macy, Fleming &  Naess 1988; White 2004; Louv 2006; Ward 2011) about the importance of children developing a connection with the natural environment, and in particular their local natural environment, in order to develop a sense of belonging in place and a disposition toward stewardship for the environment. This is seen as essential if we are to develop new ways of interacting with and managing our planet as a finite resource and as our only home. The urgency for sustainability education is evident in educational curricula for all ages across Australia. It is a cross-curriculum priority in the Draft Australian Curriculum documents (ACARA 2010) and recommended as embedded practice in daily routines and curriculum in Outcome 2 of the Early Years Learning Framework (DEEWR 2009). The quality assurance process in the early childhood sector also highlights embedded sustainability education for young children in Quality Standard 3 (DEEWR 2010). The question considered here is, how do we best do this when working with young children?

This discussion draws on the findings of my PhD research (Ward 2011) and suggests that arts-based pedagogies can play a key role in expressing daily content about the natural world through music, drama, dance and the visual arts. We know that the arts engage multiple intelligences (Gardner 1995), encourage lateral thinking, problem solving, integration of concepts, aesthetic and creative development and comprehension on many levels of being and understanding (Russell-Bowie 2009; Wright 2012). What needs to be added to support children’s learning about nature is a deliberate injection of content (Cutter-Mackenzie &  Edwards 2006) and intentional teaching through arts-based pedagogies in which the focus is on the local natural environment (Ward 2011). Content introduced through the arts cannot replace actual experiences in the natural world but does help to interpret and extend children’s experiences of nature and weave the understandings they gain from their in situ experiences in the natural world into their everyday knowing about their place and their community. It is time that the arts were dusted off to become key elements of pedagogy for young children, particularly for education for sustainability.

In the early childhood field, what started out as environmental education in the 1980s, has evolved and become known as early childhood education for sustainability or ECEfS (Davis 2010). ECEfS is a term that encapsulates notions of connection to the natural world through first-hand experience, awareness of sustainability practices, management and design, advocacy and agency. In a practical sense, this often means gardening, worm farms, composting and cooking and perhaps even building design, landscaping and management practices but overall the uptake of ECEfS in Australia is limited (Elliott 2009). There is, in Australia and internationally, an emerging interpretation of ECEfS that emphasises the first hand experiences children have in the natural world and it is often called ‘nature education’.  In this interpretation of practice, the extent of time in the natural world can vary greatly and at its most basic may mean a couple hours per term in wild or unstructured environments. At its extreme it involves children spending all or at least a substantial period of time in wild or unstructured places. Whatever the case, it is the first hand experience that is paramount and the environment that is the teacher. The content of the experiences in the environment become the foundations for learning in many domains, in addition to the embodied, affective and physical experience (Warden 2005).

Early childhood settings and primary schools in Australia are by their nature not inclined to adventurous, unstructured or wild outdoor spaces (Walsh 2008; Little 2010). There are some exemplary settings, despite the majority tendency to build outdoor spaces according to minimum global requirements for space and the perceived need for amelioration of risk (Malone 2007; Little 2010). While many educators who are committed to providing opportunities for children to experience nature do their best to transform their environments so there are green and/or unstructured elements, there are invariably constraints related to budgets and resources. Arts based pedagogies can play a substantial role in assisting educators to interpret and deepen children’s understandings of the natural world and their understanding of place in their local community.

Connection with nature is often cited as an aim of nature education and of ECEfS (White &  Stoecklin 2008; Davis 2010; Wilson 2010; Ward 2011; Warden 2012), as an end in itself and as a precursor to developing dispositions toward sustainable living and stewardship. Pedagogies of place (Orr 2005; Sobel 2005; Somerville 2012) discuss the role that place has in the forming of identity and the sense of belonging to place. Ecopsychological (Roszak 2001) practice or practice aimed at ecoliteracy (Capra 1999) also promote connection to place in order to understand and feel connected to the natural world in a manner that supports psychological well-being and sustainable living. The common element is the connection with nature.

The nature of this connection can perhaps best be evoked by reflecting on our own embodied experience in natural environments and the multi-textured and layered sensorial encounters that can be part of a simple walk through the forest, a swim in a local stream or a daydream lying in a grass meadow. These sensorial experiences, while physically embodied, are filtered through the child’s metacognitive schema and become additional ways of knowing and understanding the world. They can be further explored, relived and reinterpreted through scaffolded creative arts experiences. For example, educators can assist children to recreate the movement of the water, clouds or grass in the meadow through dance and drama, to draw elements of the experiences and to create simple songs that reflect them.

An appreciation for the beauty of the natural world is also often cited as a worthy attribute to encourage in children (Seed et al. 1988; Capra 1999; Sherwood 2006; Wilson 2010). The emotional connection that arises through fascination, awe and wonder, whether it be at the markings on a beetle or a breathtaking grand landscape scene, are also types of knowing and knowledge according to Wilson (2010 p. 8) who describes wonder as ‘an emotion wedded to understanding based on intuition and natural instinct’.  Aesthetic appreciation is also a key feature of experience in the natural world (Capra 1999) with unlimited combinations of form, colour, shape, movement, pattern, sound and texture, all of which lend themselves to specific creative experiences that will resonate with children because they reflect their experience on a deep experiential level.

The various modes of the creative arts are innately reflective of the sounds, sights, smells, textures and colours of the natural world. They can evoke emotional, intellectual, creative and physical understandings and deepen knowledge. It is time we embraced them in our pedagogies.


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Wright, S. (2012). Children, Meaning-Making and the Arts, Pearson, Frenchs Forest.


Dr Kumara Ward is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney