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Theory / and / Action

The experience of working with the Sandon Point community happened in 2013 – at the very beginning of this project. First year Engineering at Wollongong University included an opportunity for students to engage with the Engineering Without Borders (EWB)  mChallenge – a project-based approach to learning about design, teamwork and communication through real, inspiring, sustainable cross-cultural development projects (

It was decided to explore the possibility of applying that project approach to a local context, and Sandon Point was an obvious choice. However, in contrast with EWB it was possible for students to visit the actual site, which raised a number of issues about the propriety of doing so. In resolving how to address each of these issues the concept of the 5Rights© began to emerge as a coherent set of guiding principles. Their existence as a set of operating standards preceded the idea of the Sandon Point project, however applying them in this context highlighted how they simultaneously provide guidance and help to identify constraints operating in such contexts. Using them in this context set in train the evolution of this project, as well as the overall model which emerged from subsequent research, analysis and further applications of their way of guiding interactions and shaping connectedness.

The term ‘Abductive’ may not yet be as familiar as ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ in describing types of research but is the one most applicable to how this particular research has been evolving. In effect our work emerged from the theories embedded in the combined practice of those involved, rather than from application of theoretical concepts to those practices.

There is nothing so theoretical as good practice, nor so practical as a good theory, and these two inter-related concepts have been the guiding forces shaping the progress of our work.

As we move into the next phase there is opportunity for  co – creating theory and practice through engaging students and staff in the journey of re-discovering Aboriginal Engineering achievements, in the manner of the recent posting at

Which explores some of the science of Aboriginal civilisation, in much the same way we are re-discovering the engineering.

Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part Three)

Engaging with Aboriginal Perspectives using 5Rights© Jade Kennedy

The 5Rights© are, collectively, a guide to our recommended approach to integrating Aboriginal perspectives into engineering education. These are responsibilities – not entitlements – and their origins are anchored in that Knowledge Gap outlined in the first of this series of entries. When people on each side of the knowledge gap are ignorant of the others’ body of knowledge, and do not appreciate its underlying values and principles, at least three possible avenues are available for action. The most damaging of these is in play when knowledge is assumed to be absent from one side. Conversely a ‘deficit model’ assumes the superiority of one set of knowledge, and operates ‘as if’ problems are solved by use of its ‘more progressive’ solutions to relevant contexts.

The 5Rights© recognise that different knowledges are involved, guides a process for acquiring the requisite knowledge to ensure that planned activity is based on adequate awareness, and even-handed acceptance of, the whole of the context. At the beginning of any collaborative process there is agreement that no one has ‘more’ – or ‘better’ – knowledge of how to define a ‘good outcome’, and each has sufficient curiosity about what everyone else brings to the setting.

Like the elements of an Aboriginal perspective these five factors must be initially considered in the sequence presented below. And, just like those other elements, they are closely interconnected, such that any one may prove to be a good starting point for preliminary exploration, while this sequence represents the order in which to proceed –

  • Right People
  • Right Place
  • Right Language
  • Right Time
  • Right Way

Each of these is described in more detail in the Blog entry titled Describing the Five Rights, (June 10th) and you are invited to explore their meanings by reading about them there.

The 5Rights(C) in Action

The case study below describes a time when all five rights aligned to create a most successful learning experience for a large group of engineering students, while simultaneously providing a wealth of options for the local community’s consideration and demonstrated that an adequate understanding of how to address the knowledge gap benefited all those involved.

Right People

In this project the people involved were SPATE members, local government staff, academic staff and university students. The most vital ‘right people’ were the SPATE members involved, a fact which was highlighted 12 months later, when the absence of those same people meant the project could not be developed further. (see the note on Right Time)

Right Place

Sandon Point is near the university campus and readily accessible. There is quite a lot of readily accessible information about SPATE and the history of its activities. There was a strong need to address the various engineering related topics for the students to exercise their creativity. The students met SPATE representatives on site, enabling them to get a deeply personal sense of what is involved in establishing and maintaining such a place.

Right Language

The situation at SPATE was discussed with the people on site, using their own words to identify their priorities and needs. Similarly discussions with the local government staff were conducted in terms of their perceptions and priorities. While the academic staff involved were the one most directly involved, the students were kept well advised.

Right Time

2013 was a moment in time when everything was aligned for such a project, as noted in ‘Right People’. And this fact emphasises the interconnectedness of all five Rights. By 2014 the series of changes that had occurred meant that Sandon Point could not be revisited in the same way.

Right Way

This is perhaps the most complex factor and is both first and last in terms of sequencing. As with so much else in life there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to get things done. Approaching a project like this while using an entirely Western worldview would have failed, because that kind of framework seldom allows scope for attending to philosophical and social beliefs  prior to taking action. Taking time to visit and sit with the Embassy people, providing detailed information about appropriate ways to treat the land. Setting technical criteria to replicate local traditions ensured that students experienced the ‘right way’ of approaching such a context, and their feedback reflected enhanced awareness of what it means to be Indigenous.

Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part Two)

All human cultures have unique features, as well as characteristics shared with all other humans. Being human involves a range of physical factors including managing family and group life, engagement in social and individual activities like work and play, and making sustained efforts to provide for basic health and safety needs. How all these elements are enfolded into particular cultures is uniquely shaped by intangible factors called – variously – beliefs, values systems or philosophies. These intangibles are powerfully strong in shaping actions and reactions, yet also very subtle and therefore hard to discern either from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ their sphere of influence. Those for whom a particular set of beliefs and values are the ‘norm’ find it hard to consider that anything else could be viable, while those for whom it is unfamiliar and even ‘strange’ often have a highly judgmental view of what is unfamiliar, based on their comfort with what they know.

Given this very human condition it is not so surprising that Aboriginal culture and society was not well regarded by Europeans arriving on Australian shores from the 18th century. These new arrivals were used to living in large well-built structures, traveling on surfaced roads using wheeled vehicles, and residing ‘permanently’ in one location while having the capacity to move between cities and smaller towns. They expected to own property including land and houses, and did not understand that they were meeting a culture that had little time, or need, for material possessions and certainly did not ever consider that any one might ‘own’ the land.

Aboriginal culture as it had developed within Australia’s shorelines from around 40,000 thousand years ago, had taken a very different path from that which had evolved in Europe. Its philosophical underpinnings created a different set of actions in regard to land and property and relationships with land and each other.

In Europe, as on other continents, some beliefs are held in common across a wide span of land, while each national grouping, within that space, has its own highly specific characteristics. It was no different on the Australian continent. Aboriginal nations had delineated lands whose boundaries were more or less clearly understood by all involved. Similarly their social and cultural beliefs shared a large body of common knowledge, while there were also highly specific and distinct sets of localised knowledge and beliefs. This fact is not well understood, even in the 21st century, and there continues to be a widespread tendency to assume a complete absence of variation among Aboriginal peoples in Australia.

Localising this Aboriginal Perspective

Accepting that ‘difference’ does not mean ‘less than’ or ‘more than’ requires acknowledging the existence of this diversity of beliefs and cultures. It also means understanding enough about the underpinning differences. Such ‘understanding’ is not expected to extend to unquestioning adoption of specific beliefs and values, however it is essential for sustaining respectful attention to their implications for achieving effective communication.

To achieve this within the constraints of the Engineering Across Cultures project we have drawn on a specific set of beliefs based in the Illawarra region of Australia. While anchored in the wider traditions of Aboriginal Australia, and grounded in the proposition that applications of our model, outside this region, uses of this perspective must be calibrated with perspectives of the region where it is to be used. As far as possible we have formulated this perspective to align with the broader framework of Aboriginal beliefs as we understand them. However it is vital for users of the model to establish for themselves the local perspectives of the region where they will be working.

An Aboriginal Perspective

The five items are listed in this order to indicate their cumulative impact on the behaviours and relationships among Aboriginal people. While they are presented in sequence here, even a superficial inspection will show that they are in fact a cycle wherein each one leads to the next, and back to the beginning. Connectedness leads back to country and country points in the direction of inter-connectedness. From this perspective there are no singularities.

  • Country – refers to ones connection to place. The intimate relationship one has with the surroundings, one’s nature.
  • Kinship – one’s connection to people (family, kin, people of significance). There are roles and responsibilities/obligations that evolve with these relationships, over time shaping how they bind you to ‘your’ place.
  • Culture – there is a core understanding that culture is a lived day-to-day expression of who had how to be. This culture is a reflection of the history (story) experienced within a place (country) and is particular and specific to that place and people.
  • Journey – one’s lived experiences (these can be shared, and regularly are). They are one’s lived and experienced connections over time to place, people and day-to-day happenings.
  • Connectedness – All things are inter-connected! There are inter-relationships among all things, and the harmonisation of concepts creates one’s true sense of belongingness

Keeping these five elements in mind means that non-Aboriginal parties involved in negotiations, shared learning experiences or other collaborative activities can become more adept at appreciating how Aboriginal participants engage with both people and the land.

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

Aboriginal Maths

Misconceptions about Aboriginal cultures and their access to an understanding – and use – of mathematical concepts have had a powerful and enduring impact on beliefs about their level of sophistication. One widely held belief is that Aboriginal cultures had very limited language references to numbers, being associated with a belief that ‘numbers’ are essential for measuring and assessing things (mathematics tasks) this combination has created a perception that these cultures are, therefore primitive and ignorant of facts known to ‘more sophisticated’ cultures.

Were this to be a fact rather than merely a belief, much that is known about the achievements of Aboriginal cultural principles and practices – in regard to living with, and managing, the diversity of environments across the Australian continent – could not have been possible.
In other words perceptions of the ways that Aboriginal cultures built shelters, harvested food stuffs and travelled extensively (to name a few achievements) are seriously hobbled by mistaken beliefs, cultural misperceptions and misunderstandings about what was being observed and recorded by early Europeans.
Two recent books on the history of the development of mathematical concepts provide good examples of how the issue of ‘Aboriginal maths’ is treated in general texts about the present understanding of mathematical knowledge. Both books focus almost entirely on the development of Western/European concepts, giving less attention to knowledge from other cultures and even less to the practical uses and applications of maths. While this is an entirely reasonable approach, given their stated intentions as authors. However each addresses, in quite different ways, the state of current awareness of maths in cultural and social contexts beyond those addressed in their books.

Flaws and Inaccuracies

In his book on ‘From O to Infinity in 26 Centuries – the extraordinary story of Maths‘, Chris Waring  (Michael O’Mara Books UK, 2012) displays a seriously flawed and limited understanding of the nature of Aboriginal occupation of this continent. He indicates no awareness of the complexity and diversity of cultures, differences among national identities as indicated by (for example) language differences, and dismisses their practical capabilities as evidenced a toss the landscape, when he writes that
Australian Aboriginal tribes were living in a hunter-gatherer society when they were first encountered during the eighteenth century. The tribes that possessed a concept of numbers generally had words for one, two and sometimes three. Any numbers larger than three they made by adding together a combination of the first three numbers. So a tribe with the numbers one, two, three would have been able to count to nine by saying one, two, three, three-one, three-two, three-three. The fact that these people had no word for numbers larger that three suggests that they very rarely, if ever, needed to use them.

So much is open to challenge in this bald assertion (no referencing is supplied) that two items will suffice to demonstrate its errors, and illustrate the damage to perceptions about Aboriginal culture, made by such an ill chosen set of words. First, there is no suggestion that the ‘tribes’ might differ greatly across the continent, implying that ‘these people’ were therefore all so similar that a single assertion about a ‘lack of need for numbers’ applied to all without differentiation. If this perspective were to be applied in reverse we can imagine that Dutch, Portuguese and English visitors to ‘Terra Australis’ from the 1600’s onwards were all regarded as members of ‘one tribe’ and whatever characteristics were ascribed to one set of visitors could accurately be ascribed to them all.  We can readily see what a nonsense statement this is.  Yet this is what Waring implies in his dismissive clumping of all ‘these people’ as members of a single undifferentiated entity.
The second challenge raises issues of even more concern. If, as Waring suggests, Aboriginal cultures ‘very rarely, if ever, needed to use’ numbers it indicates his ignorant acceptance of misleading information about those cultures and their achievements. For example an understanding of water flow, fish spawning cycles, weather patterns and food supply and distribution are all explicitly illustrated in the extensive fish trap arrays at Brewarrina, NSW. Similarly, knowledge about load-bearing limits of building materials, tensile strengths of materials and market locations and demands are on display at the Wilgie Mai ochre mine in Western Australia, where it is estimated around 40,000 tons of ochre were produced during approximately 8.000 years of mining. Finally (for now) an in-depth knowledge of numbers is displayed at the astrological site of Wurdi Youang in Victoria, where astrophysicists have demonstrated that the only viable explanation for a highly ordered patterning of stones demonstrates understanding  of the concept of the seasons as marked by the arrival of the solstice –

Waring’s  dismissal of Aboriginal maths exemplifies a ‘Western/Eurocentric’ perspective that seems  unable to see things that do not fit within its view of ‘how things are’, and, moreover, writes as though things could not any other way. We can only wonder how Waring imagined that Aboriginal people lived and thrived for all that time without numbers. Or whether such a thought occurred to him at all.

Appreciating the unknowns

On the other hand Ian Stewart in his book ‘Taming the Infinite – the story of mathematics from the first numbers to chaos theory‘ (Quercus, UK 2008) has a more speculative view on the relationships between culture and maths. While his work focuses on only the last four Millenia and is confined to the northern hemisphere, he does suggest that there is room to explore those relationships and that, perhaps, this need not be done through either a Western worldview or a conventional Mathematical one, when we writes that –
Whether you like maths or not, it is hard to deny the profound effects that numbers have had on the development of human civilisation. The evolution of culture, and that of mathematics , has gone hand in hand for the last four Millenia. It would be difficult to disentangle cause and effect – I would hesitate to argue that mathematical innovation drives cultural change, or that cultural needs determine the direction of mathematical progress. But both of those statements contain a grain of truth, because mathematics and culture co-evolve.

As this project is addressing issues of Aboriginal engineering, Sttewart’s perspective on the co-evolution of maths and culture opens up possibilities for exploring Aboriginal engineering without the need for a prior acceptance of maths as a prerequisite for engineering knowledge.

In the context of widespread evidence of Aboriginal engineering knowledge throughout the Australian landscape, it is important that anyone referring to Aboriginal knowledge and use of maths does not fall into the trap of perpetuating old myths. This is an important aspect of the wider work of this project.

Intersecting Worldviews with which to explore Aboriginal Engineering

Intersecting Worldviews with which to explore Aboriginal Engineering

Wherever there are competing worldviews, there are also competing motivations and agendas. Awareness of this shaped our exploration of how engage with Aboriginal students, and their communities, in regard to developing greater interest in engineering as a career.

In seeking to focus our work we identified three particular worldviews with which to explore aspects of the interactions among engineering activity and community needs and goals. These worldviews were chosen from among the many that are available, and we use them as tools for exploration, without suggesting they are the only ways of seeing the world.

They are, respectively ‘Engineering’, ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘European/Western’. Each shares some features with the other two, and some features with only one other. We use a Venn diagram to represent these worldviews and specifically to focus attention on the Intersection where all three connect and overlap. Exploration of this Intersection is helping conceptualise how to manage relationships among different ways of thinking and identify what needs to be understood in order to achieve mutually acceptable outcomes. The Venn diagram is way of representing all this – it is not a way of quantifying anything.

Engineering worldview

  • Engineers learn to deal with the world, and address human needs, through a uniquely ‘Engineering way of knowing’ that places primary focus on ‘problems’ to be solved. This is coupled with attention to the practicalities of ‘how to’ approach the problem, and develop and implement actual solutions for the problem as it is eventually defined. This mindset is not common to all Western thought nor all Aboriginal thought. It is developed in response to a complex mix of preferences, training, capabilities and interests. An engineer in Western traditions will be doing much the same as an engineer in Aboriginal traditions. They share an interest in solving problems. The principles informing how they do so, differentiates their work.
  • Aboriginal Worldview

Indigenous ways of knowing inform language usage, relationships and connections among the more than 200 Aboriginal (pre contact) Australian nations. However, while Aboriginal culture exhibits all the familiar aspects of human endeavor, its underpinning philosophy and beliefs have an entirely different base to either Western/European or Engineering. The peoples who had successfully inhabited Australian land for between 60,000 and 40,000 years all share core beliefs and traditions, which have, over time, been customized to fit local needs and conditions. The base does not change, but particular features are implemented, and communicated to the young and those from beyond its boundaries, in different ways that are shaped to match the living context of each group. For example relationship with ‘country’ has a very specific meaning and set of core principles for Aboriginal people, as described vividly by Mary Graham

The land is a sacred entity, not property or real estate; it is the great mother of all humanity. The Dreaming is a combination of meaning (about life and all reality), and an action guide to living. The two most important kinds of relationship in life are, firstly, those between land and people and, secondly, those amongst people themselves, the second being always contingent upon the first.

Western/European Worldview

  • Western thinking is frequently characterised as being built on deductive reasoning, the rule of law and monotheism. Logic, objectivity and reason are its touchstones. Also in the mix is what has been called the ‘work ethic’ and a belief that the land and its products are to be possessed. While ‘Western’ is an understood convention to describe the worldview of people whose origins are traceable to the western hemisphere of the world, the ways in which it is enacted are not uniform. Wile sub-groups in this extended geographic area have cultural roots in a Western tradition, details of language usage, social relationships and connection with the physical world, all differ according to political and national norms. Consider, for example, the similarities and differences among English, German and Romanian culture and traditions.

The Intersection

‘Intersection’ is the term commonly used to describe the space in a Venn diagram where related ‘sets’ overlap. In this work we are not implying that there is, or is ever likely to be, easy agreement about how to operate within that space. When a Venn diagram is used to indicate relationships among components in science or maths the intersection includes only those items that are in all subsets. In our use of a three circle Venn diagram the intersection is considered to refer to places, objects and stories about which all three Worldviews have an opinion or claim a stake in its management. We are not suggesting that all three worldviews will – or should – be expressed in the same way, only that they have an interest (of differing strength) in the place, story or object.

‘5 Rights’ – applied to Sandon Point

Values and beliefs influence every aspect of how we suggest managing relationships among the factors in the intersection. In this regard we developed a set of principles we call the ‘5 Rights’ to guide interactions among the three worldviews.

These ‘5 Rights’ are not about entitlements. They are about appropriateness and suitability of behaviours, and are intended to guide thinking and actions in those complex situations where the Worldviews are interacting. The ‘5 Rights’ are

right People

right Place

right Language

right Time

right Way

The following story illustrates their successful application to a specific teaching context.

Sandon Point

Sandon Point is a water front site on the south coast of NSW. In 2000, severe storms revealed it was also the burial site of an Aboriginal man interred around 7,000 years ago. As it was tagged for residential development there ensued a tense tug-of-war between the local Aboriginal community and developers, culminating in the establishment of Sandon Point Aboriginal Tent Embassy (SPATE) – which has now occupied the site for 15 years. From an Aboriginal Worldview the site is sacred. From a Western Worldview it is ‘prime real estate’ and from an Engineering Worldview it is a location where various technical problems exist. The Tent Embassy is a collection of structures sitting on flood prone land that lacks many of the facilities usually associated with residential occupation.

The need to develop Engineering solutions for some of these problems, became the focus of work as part of this project and that has been fertile ground for other aspects of our work. It was not hard to see that looking at this one space from three such different Worldviews leads to very different perspectives about what is significant within, and about, the space. In 2013 Sandon Point was chosen as the context for an assessment task within a first year Engineering subject. The process was aligned with that used for Engineering Without Borders projects – with a major variation. The students were introduced to the site, given detailed information about an Aboriginal perspective on life, society and the importance of the site, and then asked to develop engineering solutions appropriate to the site and culturally acceptable to the residents. Their solutions were shared with the local government authority, which also benefited from the care with which the students attended to the cultural sensitivities of the site while developing 21st century solutions for such problems as water supply, power generation and waste disposal.

With regard to the ‘5 Rights’ here is how they were applied to this context.

Right People

In this project the people involved were SPATE members, local government staff, academic staff and university students. The most vital ‘right people’ were the SPATE members involved, a fact which was highlighted 12 months later, when the absence of those same people meant the project could not be developed further. (see the note on Right Time)

Right Place

Sandon Point is near the university campus and readily accessible. There is quite a lot of readily accessible information about SPATE and the history of its activities. There was a strong need to address the various engineering related topics for the students to exercise their creativity. The students met SPATE representatives on site, enabling them to get a deeply personal sense of what is involved in establishing and maintaining such a place.

Right Language

The situation at SPATE was discussed with the people on site, using their own words to identify their priorities and needs. Similarly discussions with the local government staff were conducted in terms of their perceptions and priorities. While the academic staff involved were the one most directly involved, the students were kept well advised.

Right Time

2013 was a moment in time when everything was aligned for such a project, as noted in ‘Right People’. And this fact emphasises the interconnectedness of all five Rights. By 2014 the series of changes that had occurred meant that Sandon Point could not be revisited in the same way.

Right Way

This is perhaps the most complex factor and is both first and last in terms of sequencing. As with so much else in life there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘wrong way’ to get things done. Approaching a project like this while using an entirely Western worldview would have failed, because that kind of framework seldom allows scope for attending to  philosophical and social beliefs  prior to taking action. Taking time to visit and sit with the Embassy people, providing detailed information about appropriate ways to treat the land. Setting technical criteria to replicate local traditions ensured that students experienced the ‘right way’ of approaching such a context, and their feedback reflected enhanced awareness of what it means to be Indigenous.