PEARL in Indigenous Australian Studies


Our study originally focused on Problem-Based Learning because this method is used in many Indigenous Australian studies classrooms in preference to other approaches. This is because the dialogic nature of PBL provides an opportunity for students and lecturers to air and discuss with each other the kinds of emotional and intellectual discomforts they are experiencing, and through this discursive exchange, create the possibility to replace old ways of knowing and being with something new (Boler, 2004, p. 129). PBL approaches also have strong resonance with the autonomous, embodied and experiential nature of teaching and learning in Indigenous cultures (Hooley, 2000). However, despite its possibilities for transformative teaching and learning, there has been little research on the application of PBL in the Arts and Humanities. Few researchers have explored PBL as transformative education and there has been very little study of the effectiveness of this approach in relation to Indigenous education globally.

The “problem” of PBL: Rethinking terminology

While we started with the term ‘PBL’, it became clear as the project progressed that the terminology we were using was not politically or pedagogically appropriate. As the data began to reveal, the research team became increasingly uncomfortable with the colonial underpinnings and associations of the term ‘Problem-Based Learning’ and began to explore the possibility of redefining what we do as something else entirely. The term ‘PEARL’ was developed as a way of encompassing the political, embodied, active, and reflective aspects of this learning approach. The shift from PBL to PEARL was unexpected but has resulted in exciting possibilities for migrating and extending theories of teaching and learning in Indigenous Australian studies into critical pedagogy and critical race studies.

Given the implications behind the change from PBL to PEARL, it is worth discussing the rationale behind the shift in terminology in more detail. Both students in focus group discussions and academics in forums where Mackinlay and Barney presented noted the issues around the problematics of the terminology ‘Problem-Based Learning’. Because of the history of framing Indigenous people as a ‘problem’ there are negative connotations. Also, the approach as applied in Indigenous Australian studies is more than just solving problems – but the term assumes that a scientific outcome is possible and that a solution can be found. There was also much discussion within Reference Group meeting two about the terminology. The project team members noted that as academics we have a responsibility not to treat Indigenous Australian studies as a problem and there are ethical implications for this. Students had also picked up on this and commented “It sounds as though we are trying to fix something that is broken”, “the word [PBL] is too ‘needy’” and that labelling can lead to boxing and constraining of the approach. A number of suggestions have been made by students to call the teaching and learning approach by another name, including ‘inquiry based learning’ and it was acknowledged that the term needed to engage multiple perspectives and convey the excitement of this way of teaching and learning. The project team noted that term has to be able to make space for change and the dynamic nature of this curriculum area.

Why the acronym PEARL as a metaphor

The metaphor of a pearl was chosen to describe the teaching and learning processes enacted in Indigenous Australian studies across the five university sites. The well-known phrase ‘pearls of wisdom’ goes some way in explaining the metaphor in the sense that both pearls and wisdom take a long time to grow, both may seem small but are extremely valuable and they both develop from a substance which is irritating, unwanted and unremarkable. It is the way in which a pearl is made which perhaps best clarifies why the metaphor is appropriate for pedagogical processes in Indigenous Australian studies. Like teaching and learning, a pearl is a gemstone which is created by a living creature – it is organic and grows in relationship to events and others around it. The pearl itself is formed when a foreign object such as dirt or a small piece of stray food gets inside the shell of an oyster (or other mollusc) by mistake. To protect itself, the creature covers the intruding object with the same substance that its shell is made of, a mineral known as nacre. The oyster or other mollusc continues covering the object with multiple layers of nacre, eventually forming a pearl. Pearls come in many shapes, colours and sizes. No single pearl is perfect or the same and nor does every oyster always produce a pearl. The stages of pearl development – the intrusion of something new, strategies that are put in place to cope with the intrusion, and then the resulting growth – are similar to the transformation that takes place in PEARL as a teaching and learning approach.

Together the project team and Reference Group then developed the following description of PEARL as a teaching and learning approach in Indigenous Australian studies:PEARL sketch by Mackinlay 2012


P (for performative, political, process, place based): We bring our experiences, knowledge and practice to the place where the current learning process occurs, reflecting and responding to the agency of the space and the elements of the place, performing our learning, embodying the process and recognizing their inherent political nature and knowing that we move through and out of the place and back to influence the places where teaching and learning occurs.

E (for embodied, experiential, explorative, engaged, emotion, empathy, experience): A holistic exploration that engages mind, body and emotion in empathetic dialogue. A transformative process based on equal collaboration.

A (for active, anti-racist, anti-colonial, active): Theoretical imperatives relate implicitly to anti-racist/anti-colonial discourses. Practically we view PEARL as aiding students to shirt from reflection to action through agency and awareness. The shift to action is a critical element of transformation and enabling students to become agents for change and decolonisation.

R (for relational, reflective, reflexive): Through reflection on particular structured learning activities, students experiences are transformed into knowledge and deeper wisdom which they apply to their personal and professional lives.

L (for lifelong learning): Learning in PEARL is learning for life, for change, for empowerment, for hope, for knowledge, to lead, to let go of assumptions, to liberate and to lustre – to shine!