The ‘strong and smart’ philosophy

Dr Chris Sarra is a remarkable Australian.

The public debate concerning education and indigenous policy is loosely defined by two groups*: those that argue for removing perverse incentives that detract participation, and those that argue for positive incentives aimed at encouraging participation.  The second group claims to be more inclusive, whilst the first claims paternalism as an underpinning policy style.

Whilst not necessarily discounting the importance of removing perverse incentives, the achievements of Dr Sarra demonstrate the potential of shaping positive incentives.  With a doctorate in psychology, I wonder at the power and influence that further development in this field might entail, particularly given the complex relationships of indigenous identity, social capital, self-esteem, and its place in the dominant culture (for want of a better word).      

Using the ‘strong and smart’ philosophy, Dr Sarra embraces Aboriginal identity as a tool to re-enforce positive education and social practice.   

Consider this exchange with his students:

CHRIS SARRA: We’re all black here, aren’t we?

KIDS: Yes.

CHRIS SARRA: Hands up if you think that’s a great thing, if you love being Aboriginal.


CHRIS SARRA: Hands down. If we’re all Aboriginal in here, which we are, that doesn’t mean that we have to be at the bottom. It doesn’t mean that we have to be missing from school. It doesn’t mean that we have to put up with rubbish. It doesn’t mean that we have to expect ourselves to be on the ground. Because that’s not about who we are.

And what I expect from you is better than I see at the moment. And you tell me every week that that’s what you expect from yourself. Well, stop telling me about it and give it to me! I watch you work hard in the classrooms – strong and smart, young and black and deadly. We bring on challenges for you and we put you to the test. It’s like we say in our song. And sometimes you meet the test. But this is the challenge I’m bringing to you at the moment. The attendance in the school is getting better, but it’s still not good enough. 

The ‘strong and smart’ philosophy is an area within itself, and is part of an educational framework.  But it is also linked to the indigenous knowledge economy, because it involves the use of Aboriginal knowledge and identity as a resource.    

Dr Sarra explains this value:

I come with the flash degree, and the teachers come with flash degrees, but we’re not the experts on the children of the community. The people that are from the community are the experts of the children in the school. They come from the same lounge room, the same kitchens, as the children in the classrooms. 

The Australian Story program was produced some years ago, and was at the height of observing the practical achievements of Dr Sarra at a specific school context.  Since then there have been regular media reports. 

In a policy context, I’m suprised at a perceived absence of theory and work in relation to Dr Sarra’s philosophy in relation to school and educational policy, at least to the extent of media publications, research think-tanks and other policy development conduits.  

It appears that the application of a strategic approach based on Dr Sarra’s thoughts would be an ideal pilot project, with a view of assessing it using evidence-based approaches.  Perhaps it is, but I ask why there are not local or national media reports or public statements explaining the outcomes.

Perhaps I’m researching the wrong areas.

 * The arguments are always much more complicated in terms of their social impact, but dividing these groups draws a more accurate picture in terms of the political divisions, which sometimes translate into policy depending on which group is in power.


3 Responses to “The ‘strong and smart’ philosophy”

  1. 1 AJ
    13 December 2007 at 12:26 pm

    Hi John,

    I’ve just found your website and I’ve really enjoyed your blog and the wide range of topics you’ve written about. This one particularly hit home for me; I have considered taking up teaching in Aboriginal communities after working for 10 years as an anthropologist. Chris Saara is inspiring; I would love the opportunity to take up the challenge to implement and examine the effectiveness of his philosophy first hand. However, when I discovered just how poorly NT teachers are paid (save those at the executive level), combined with the sheer difficulty of negotiating access to this kind of double-gated research (eg. both the NT education dept and land council processes), I quickly decided it was too hard – even for someone with 10 years of experience and reasonably good skills in Arrernte.

    There are a couple of side issues here:

    -why are NT admin staff paid so highly? (unqualified A02 earns nearly the same as an entry level teacher … go figure!). Where are the incentives for excellent people to take up leading roles when the message is to reward mediocrity and those with low skill levels?

    -within the NTG there is a thriving anti-research culture. The cult of ‘outcome-oriented action’ and managerialism means that lip service is given to lateral thinking and innovation, and the quality of programs are rarely evaluated or reflected upon. Until we purge this and get some -dare I say- boffins with excellent communications skills in the NTG and change the culture, I can’t see much happening.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this story and keep up the great work.

  2. 28 August 2009 at 8:44 am

    Dr Chris Sarra gives me the kind of knowledge and understanding that puts a smile on my face when I get up to go to work.

    I have more to share but the bell has gone and so I must get to class.

    I am an IEW working at a highschool in Darwin, NT.

    Later brothers and sisters, cousins and unties etc

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