The power of cultural learning and teaching

The student becomes the teacher at NSW's first bilingual Aboriginal language school

For primary school teacher Kye Foster and university lecturer Dr Anthony McKnight, education is much more than what is taught in the classroom.

Nestled amongst bushland on the NSW mid-north coast is a brand-new primary school embracing a new way of teaching, although the knowledge goes back millennia. 

Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School in Coffs Harbour is the first in NSW to teach in both English and local Aboriginal language, with a focus on embedding traditional First Nations knowledge into all aspects of schooling.

The school’s newest teaching recruit is Kye Foster, a University of Wollongong (UOW) Bachelor of Primary Education graduate and Gumbaynggirr, Yuin man, who made the move to his own Country in 2024. 

“It’s the coolest way to have education I've ever seen. It's inclusive of all kids and their differences, when teaching kids things that they can apply and contextualise for life,“ Kye says.

“Kids understand how to read Country, from little things like when the rain is coming, to how Country will communicate to you - it is really special for me.”

It’s a full circle moment for Kye, who experienced the importance of cultural learning through his time at UOW.

A man and two school children are on a beach Kye and his students often head into the outdoors for lessons. Picture: Instagram (@giingana_freedom_school)

“I remember not actually doing that well in the mandatory Aboriginal education class and thinking ‘this is my culture, and this is my thing’ and being disappointed,” Kye reminisces. 

“But then I spoke with my nan about it, and she had some wisdom for me about ways of thinking. Between those comments from Nan, and some stuff I did with Uncle Macka, that opened my eyes to the way that those two knowledge systems can come together and work symbiotically.”

Anthony McKnight, or Uncle Macka to Kye, is invested in intwining traditional knowledge into modern education. An Awabakal, Gumaroi and Yuin man, Anthony spent fifteen years as a senior lecturer in the School of Education, teaching future educators the importance of embedding cultural knowledge into their classrooms – where he met Kye. 

“I remember Kye at the lectures and he was very proud of his Aboriginality. You could see a real keenness of him wanting to learn more. From my observation, he had his eyes open that you can do things in two knowledge systems,” Anthony remembers. 

Anthony has since moved to the UOW Indigenous Strategy Unit, becoming Curriculum Transformation Lead which focuses on embedding culture and traditional knowledge into a university-wide context. 
“It is an invitation for non-Aboriginal people to take care of Country and shifting the perspective from being ‘on’ Country to ‘with’ to ‘for’ to ‘as.’ We have to see a change in the Australian culture if we don’t want our entities – our birds, our insects, our Songlines and our Dreamings – to disappear,” he explains. 

Anthony McKnight, Curriculum Transformation lead within the Indigenous Strategy Unit

Anthony McKnight has championed Indigenous education at UOW for more than 15 years. Picture: supplied

Years on, Anthony is grateful to see his former student thriving in an environment like the Gumbaynggirr Giingana Freedom School, passing knowledge on to the next generation. 

“I'm thankful that Kye and other students are willing to learn from Country. To me, that's a massive compliment,” he says. 

“It’s great to see Kye on his feet in a system that can be very challenging and that he is sticking to his integrity. I’m glad I met him those many years ago and that we've kept the relationship.”

The gratitude is mutual for Kye, who thanks Anthony for helping him get a deeper understanding of his culture. 

"Growing up, much of what I thought wasn't cultural was, and I'm grateful for Uncle Macka for opening my eyes to the teachings from Country. As soon as he taught me these protocols, and being able to think differently and apply that into my life. So much, so much in my world opened up to me,” Kye reflects. 

”I can trace a lot of my wisdom back to those few beginning tutorials where Uncle Macka challenged me and built my identity to be something of pride and something of and continue to look into. It’s not only changed the way I teach but the way I live my life.”