Monthly Archives: June 2015

Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part One)

At the recent Aboriginal Engineering summit in Melbourne, we presented the model underlying our recommended approach to integrating aboriginal perspectives into engineering education. – (open link here) EAC Flyer 2015-1

This entry is part one of three entries exploring the model itself and introducing underlying principles and philosophies that inform the work of the ‘Engineering Across Cultures’ project.

As the culmination of a great deal of thought, analysis and discussion, we are finding that the simplicity of the sequence represented in this single image is both attractive and readily creates curiosity and conversation. Different people are tending to zero in on one or other aspect of the whole as they link our ideas to their own interests and understanding.

The model has the capacity to generate conversations and enquiry in ways that are both exciting and challenging. A brief description of each ‘step’ in the image of the model must begin with an understanding that it is a cycle, or spiral of development. Each step opens up avenues for exploration of the knowledge and concepts it represents. And no single visit to the model provides a complete or comprehensive understanding of its detail.

In this respect it somewhat resembles an Aboriginal approach of revealing knowledge through repetition and revisiting concepts and principles as understanding evolves. Therefore this summary of the elements within the model is not intended to be comprehensive or complete. Readers are invited to explore the image, question the model it represents and explore the elements that interest them most. The whole model is then likely to take on new meaning as emerging thoughts and ideas are integrated into an understanding of how we propose that Aboriginal perspectives on – and knowledges of – engineering can be integrated into modern engineering education.

Beliefs informing the model

Underpinning convictions that inform many efforts to redress past wrongs in regard to Aboriginal peoples are based on a superiority/inferiority dichotomy. Applying this view to the status and capabilities of Aboriginal peoples produces a ‘deficit model’ and positions European achievements – in regard to such things as health practices and engineering – as the goal to be sought. In doing so, it ignores equivalent Aboriginal achievements. In fact it does more than that – it actually denigrates and denies them, and very effectively conceals the possibility that pre-contact Aboriginal society was capable of complex thought. (see the Blog entry on ‘what is wrong with this question, to see just one example of an otherwise smart man trapped in that negative view).

Realisation of this problem emerged from exploration of the question ‘what is Aboriginal Engineering?’ This question was prompted by the puzzled enquiry from many people about ‘what engineering did Aboriginal peoples have?’ Exploration of archaeology and anthropology sources revealed the simple, and very powerful response that ‘Aboriginal people had exactly the same kinds of engineering skills and knowledge as any other civilisation. The difficulty in finding it lies in the fact that it was applied in a very different manner, in accord with a quite different social and moral philosophy summarised by the phrase ‘cause minimum harm’.

Thus the new philosophy informing our approach to integrating aboriginal perspectives into engineering education is simply – but profoundly – to begin with the concept of a knowledge gap. Conventionally educated engineering educators have not learned about Aboriginal engineering – in the same way that Aboriginal school kids do not learn about either their own traditions or more evident western engineering practices.

The knowledge gap is equal – both sides are ignorant of what is available to be learned. Acknowledging this leads to a panorama of learning opportunities that simultaneously remove the stigma of a ‘superiority/ inferiority dichotomy’, and invite collaborative exploration of how engineering principles can be so similar in conceptual terms yet create such divergent outcomes.

In short – the knowledge gap opens up learning opportunities that position all parties as equal and locates ‘knowing’ as something to be achieved through collaborative exchange of information and beliefs.

Three perspectives

For more on this aspect of the model see the Blog entry ‘Intersecting Worldviews with which to explore Aboriginal Engineering’ (May 8th 2015).

At this point the key fact to be emphasised is that the Venn Diagram presents a coherent and yet complexly challenging way of representing three overlapping Worldviews – identified respectively as Aboriginal, Engineering and Dominant. At the central point of intersection arise many opportunities for understanding more about both the Worldviews themselves, as well as exploring how over-reliance on one perspective can blind the user to the existence, and contributions of the other two.

The Dominant perspective contributes heavily to the ‘deficit model’ described above. It assures those who hold it that theirs is the ‘right view’ and forms and shapes much of what is ‘taken for granted’ in daily social interaction. Paradoxically, it is probably the ‘least obvious’ of the Worldviews given its dominance. To use the analogy of fish in water, the Dominant perspective is so integral to the surrounding social context that its influence is largely invisible, simply because it is ‘what we know’ and what we do not question.

An Engineering perspective is usually acquired through sufficient time and study within the carefully controlled conditions of an academic environment. It enables those who become familiar with it to see the world in terms of such things as measurement, construction, and problem solving. Regardless of whether an ‘engineer’ was trained in ‘Western’ or ‘Aboriginal’ concepts the perspective applied to any given set of problematic conditions will be an ‘engineering’ one unfamiliar to those who have not had equivalent training.

An Aboriginal perspective is gained through familial and social engagement from birth. Like any other social grouping, Aboriginal families assist their children to learn about the world in particular, and specific ways. This perspective is learnable, but usually restricted in the first instance to families with an Aboriginal heritage. In our model we pay particular attention to this perspective, since it is the one least known or understood by the wider community.

One Intersection

The central point of Intersection, in the Venn Diagram, provides opportunities for any two individuals to explore how the differences in the ways they view the world offer exciting opportunities for extending their understanding of all three perspectives. For engineers this is especially important, since a good understanding of both their own views, and those of Aboriginal owners of land, who are possessors of a very different set of insights into how the world works.

The next Blog entry will explore five aspects informing that insights, along with 5Rights © that provide a behavioural and knowledge map to guide interactions among all those involved in engineering projects.

Describing the 5 Rights

The 5 rights are presented here in a logical sequence likely to be the one most frequently applied to engineering projects. However it is important to realise that all five are interconnected, and any one may turn out to be the beginning point for any particular project. They were developed by the ALTC project team with Jade Kennedy


The key factor here is learning how to be confident that the people with whom you are engaging in conversation are the ‘right people’.

While it is important to find and connect with the ‘Right People’ – doing so will be complex, difficult and at times quite opaque. A general focus is on ‘elders’ – however these are not always readily distinguishable from ‘olders’. And each term and group members will need to be explored with care. Elders are acknowledged for their contributions to community, their knowledge and leadership and their ability to influence decision-making.

Each community has different lines of relationship, and no two communities are ever the same, nor will they stay the same in any one place. While this may seem complicated think of the local sports club, P&C society or political party!

Questions here include

  • Do we have the Right People for our project goals at this time?
  • How do we know?
  • What steps have we taken to assure ourselves of this?
  • What risk assessment have we done to be ready in the event that things have/are changing and we no longer have access to the ‘Right People’?

Key to success is transparent honesty about actions and intentions, avoiding reliance on ‘useful’ but inappropriate links.

Also included is valuing the people on their own terms – which will need to be discovered. Be prepared to be quizzed, and challenged.


This has four components.

  • ‘meeting places’ where discussions and negotiations occur

Meetings – will be affected by factional issues. When planning where to meet, take into account the people with whom you want to engage. One community had three possible locations – Health Centre, Community Centre and Lands Council. While everyone could access them all, planning a meeting in any one these clearly signalled a factional bias. Reaching out to the community as a whole required using a ‘neutral space’.

  • an ‘artefact place’ – when the project is based on a physical location

If the project involves a physical ‘place’ there will be sensitivities about it. Listen carefully. Respect what is said about the place – avoid expressing personal opinions about it. Observe it carefully – there is much to be seen that will probably not be evident on first viewing.

  • intergroup connections place/s

when an ‘artefact place-based’ project involves significant boundaries to be crossed consider how Aboriginal traditions dealt with such crossings and work out how to model that as far as possible.

  • Place for the work of the project

Most of the work about an ‘artefact place’ will occur on campus, not on site. Keep in mind the fact that the project itself will, to some extent sensitise participants to the importance of ‘place’, since that is part of what they will be working with.

It is vital to be highly sensitive to all these issues of ‘Place’ as it influences all that follows. The aim is to find, and ‘climb over’, the invisible wall of ‘taken for granted’ social/community mores.

Questions may include –

  • Where are all the possible places?
  • What is the appropriate place for this project? Is there more than one?
  • How do we use it respectfully?
  • If we enter other peoples’ places what is the appropriate behaviour of acknowledgement?


It is important to know the needs and timeframes of everyone involved. Being alert to the sensitivities of timing involves a lot of waiting and watching.

Patience is the watchword. Knowing the needs and priorities of the people you are meeting is vital. If they are ‘elders’ they are unlikely to be young and very likely to have needs you must find out about [e.g. ‘no meetings at 7pm to avoid interfering with a favourite TV program.’ Provide transport – a sign a courtesy. Know when – and where – they feel most comfortable.

It is likely that some meetings will begin later than you intend. And it is also likely that not all meetings will go as you intend. Allow more time than you need. Bear in mind the sequence of group development – identified by Tuckman as Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Mourning.

In Aboriginal traditions the Forming phase carries particular weight. It can take a long time to get to the point. Complexity theorists know that ‘the beginning shapes everything’ so allow the beginning to take its course and focus on what is being shaped by the combination of your patience and willingness to wait, and their interest in understanding the intentions behind your proposal.


Elders are entitle to respect – their knowledge may have no parallels in western or engineering contexts but it is vital and valuable and must be treated as such. You speech must be clear and concise, without condescension. If you are experiencing a sense of not being understood, do not impose meaning. Check for understanding – and wait for it to arrive. Eyesight, and hearing may not be what they once were. Allow for time to translate language from your terms and phrases into theirs.

An Aboriginal leader involved in the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service once described his solution to his difficulties in working with the legal jargon of white lawyers. “I hear the big words” he said “and then I listen to what follows. The meaning will always follow on from the big words.” Reversing this strategy means that good use of language begins with familiar words and terms, and only when necessary adds relevant professional terms and other jargon. Think about – rehearse – how to describe your goals without using language that is specific to your profession.

Appreciate the absence of education. The referendum acknowledging that Aboriginals are ‘people’ for the purposes of society in Australia was held in 1967! That is well within the lifetime of many people you will work with. Be alert to any unexpected prejudices you may discover about educational standards within yourself.


In some respects this is the most difficult word/concept of all. However paradoxical it may seem, it is true to say that there is, and is not, ‘One Right Way’. On many occasions it is simultaneously possible to get things ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – this may be because you have dealt with one group and got things ‘right’ only to find it is ‘wrong’ for another. The Hindmarsh Island Bridge case – – is an example of this. It has a long and well-documented history, and continues to be an example of the complexity of such issues.

Stephen Covey wrote about the important concept of ‘beginning with the end in mind’ – see This seems a viable parallel for the concept of ‘the right way’ since what you want to achieve will emerge from your management of all of the factors relevant to achieving Aboriginal engagement.

Beginning with the end in mind helps shape the ‘Way’ you operate when attending to the other four ‘Rights’. Complexity theory include acknowledgement of ‘an interconnectedness of everything’. Buddhism suggests ‘our existence only becomes meaningful through interaction with, and in relation to, others’

Mary Graham describes Aboriginal thinking on this issue in this manner –

The Dreaming is a combination of meaning (about life and all reality), and an action guide to living. … The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our human-ness. … the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations. Therefore all meaning comes from land.

You are not alone in the world.


All five ‘rights’ must be aligned to achieve outcomes that will benefit all parties. While any one factor is misaligned or absent, there is unlikely to be an acceptable resolution.

What is the impact/importance of a ‘Deficit Model’

Deficit Model

Let’s begin with a definition –

  • research grounded in a deficit perspective blames the victims of institutional oppression for their own victimization by referring to negative stereotypes and assumptions regarding certain groups or communities (Gale Group 209)

An intriguing thing about such a perspective is that, those who are not subject to it, will usually find it quite hard to identify what it ‘looks’ like. Grounded in the language of the more prominent community, a ‘deficit model’ appears reasonable and normal to its members, even while proposing a view of the world where those identified as ‘deficit’ are, in more or less explicit terms, defined as ‘less than’. Conversely viewers, who are members of a community identified as ‘deficient’, eventually succumb to implicit acquiescence in the ‘truth’ of the implied ‘lesser’ perspective.

Sufficient iterations of a message of ‘in-born inferiority’ will inevitably lead to beliefs – and consequent actions – that appear to prove the message. This phenomenon is summarised in the expression ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’ – in effect

Once we have labelled someone, our – and even their – expectations of their behaviour from then on seem to be almost wholly determined by that label. (Uncommon Knowledge)

If ‘I’ – and others like me – are superior and have abundant evidence to support that fact, then “it stands to reason” that others who are ‘unlike me/us’ must be inferior. And as I enact, and speak, my superiority I simultaneously enact and speak a ‘deficit position’ for those ‘others’. I make them ‘less’ by speaking of them as such.

Arguments, underpinning such an imbalanced worldview, are often presented as ‘facts’ apparently not open to challenge, and may remain un-assailed for generations. See for example the post on ‘What is wrong with this question?’ in this Blog.

Recognizing a ‘deficit model’ perspective in operation is not simple, but is a vital first step in implementing effective engagement with Aboriginal Engineering as a valid, factual, teachable and researchable body of knowledge. In the context of the ‘Engineering Across Cultures’ project we have concluded that it is important to have prior knowledge of the danger of unthinking (mindless) labeling. Catching one’s self in the act of speaking from within a ‘deficit model’ shifts attention to the hidden assumptions unknowingly shaping it. Acknowledging that things may not be as they have been previously described becomes an opportunity to explore what might be available for discovery. It opens up avenues for exploring ‘gaps’ in knowledge that lead to misunderstandings and wrong thinking.

Understanding the nature of Aboriginal society as knowledge-based, and acknowledging the importance of bridging the gaps between false information and accurate data, is a key early component of developing the capacity to work effectively with Aboriginal knowledge, communities and students.

What is wrong with this sentence?

What is wrong with this sentence?

Why did Australia not develop metal tools, writing, and politically complex societies?

The answer is both simple, and very complex. The question was posed by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the past 13,000 years, (first published in 1997). His thesis is that –

  • It is impossible to understand even just western Eurasian societies themselves if one focuses on them. The interesting questions concern the distinctions between them and other societies. Answering those questions requires us to understand all those other societies as well, so that western Eurasian societies can be fitted into the broader context.

Thus his book is about understanding ‘western Eurasian’ society in terms of comparisons with others that are neither ‘western’ or Eurasian’. It is in this context that he feels able to ask a question which misdirects attention and misrepresents the facts of life in pre-contact Australia.

The simple answer to the question

Only one part of the question is accurate. It is true that Australian Aboriginals (the intended meaning of the word ‘Australia’ in the question) did not develop metal tools. in different ways the remaining sections of the question imply a set of ‘facts’ that are not true, but in different ways.

Writing and ‘civilisation’

Diamond’s assertion that there was no ‘writing’ in Australia in the pre-contact era is totally false; his position is that

  • … until the expansions of Islam and of colonial Europeans, it was absent from Australia … and the whole of the New World except for a small part of Mesoamerica. As a result of that confined distribution people who pride themselves on being civilised have always viewed writing as the sharpest distinction raising themselves above ‘barbarians’ or ‘savages’.

And his writing exhibits exactly that ‘pride’ of which he writes, revealing his assumption that the ‘writing’ he knows and uses is the only form of writing. However, Australian Aboriginals did develop and use writing in several different formats and varying in regard to both purpose and geographic location. While Aboriginal literary traditions are considered verbal rather than printed even that statement is only partly true. The linguistic difficulty here is that the word ‘writing’ has taken on highly confined meanings and written means of communication used in the pre-contact era do not conform to the narrow definitions of writing. So the charge that Australia did not develop ‘writing’, and in Diamond’s thesis was therefore not ‘civilised’, is wrong. Yet it is widely accepted, and as such contributes to the continuation of the kind of ‘deficit model’ that inhibits progress towards respectful acknowledgement of the actual nature of Australian Aboriginal civilisation.

Complex societies

And finally the assertion about an absence of ‘politically complex societies’ is also inaccurate in regard to the assumption that Aboriginal society pre-contact was primitive or unsophisticated in regard to its management of internal and external relationships and exercise of power. As Sveiby and Skuthorp demonstrate in their book, it was a knowledge-based culture, highly sophisticated in its capacity to manage relationships of all kinds and operating continuously for more thousands of years than western ‘democracy’.

To demonstrate how this is so, the three words need to be considered separately. ‘Politically’ in Diamond’s lexicon refers to the concept ‘of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government’ (Merriam-Webster) and ‘government’ in terms of such structural elements as ‘elections’, ‘electorates’ and ‘voters’ was not how Aboriginal society was managed. Knowledge, capacity for learning and in depth knowledge of genetic relationships were among the key ‘management tools’ that sustained the cultures and civilisations living in close communion with their environment for 40,000 years.

Rewriting the Question

To provide a factual answer to the question requires rewriting the question along these lines

To what extent did the pre-contact inhabitants of the Australian continent create metals, employ writing to communicate and record their lives, and apply management activities to ensure the survival and continuity of their societies?

And then we can engage in a totally different conversation about the sophistication of Aboriginal society.


Diamond, J (2005) (Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the past 13,000 years,

Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorp (2006) Treading Lightly Allen and Unwin

Merriam-Webster – accessed 4/6/2015 at