Meet The Self-Taught Astrophysicist Who Says Schools Are Failing Our Students (And Skies)
Karlie Noon is an exceedingly cool 28-year old Astrophysicist and Gamilaroi woman. Growing up in Tamworth, she couch-surfed her way through her HSC year and went on to become the first Aboriginal woman with a combined pure Maths and Physics degree in Australia. But don’t put her on a pedestal. This is the story of her triumph in the face of a eurocentric education system.
Learning how to learn changed my life.
I discovered at a young age that learning was my responsibility, not something I could solely depend on school for. School was always an unsafe place for me, amongst the bullying and low expectations. From the age of 7, I was lucky enough to receive tutoring outside of school for mathematics and English.
Looking back on it, receiving tuition from such a young age has been integral for my journey. It helped me understand how fun maths could be and that I did not have to depend on school to learn. At around the age of 13, I knew I had to take control of my learning, and that it was not the same as education. Education is institutionalised and prescriptive. Learning is something I can make my own.
In a society that rarely reflects my culture and values, old white religions are valued more than science. Australian history is completely distorted. Getting high marks is more important than the students’ understanding. Mainstream educational institutions were not serving me, so I left.
After leaving, I spent a lot of time learning some more advanced mathematics, something that was not available to me at school due to class sizes and low expectations. TAFE helped me out a lot and also supported my growth as a person. After spending a few years working on topics that I was interested in and doing work that challenged me, my elders encouraged me to go back to school.
“You did much better than I expected, you should be proud”
This decision was one of the hardest I have ever made. On the one hand, I feared school. For me, school was synonymous with misery. On the other hand, TAFE was no longer able to support the level of mathematics I was reaching. I accepted I needed to go back with the hope that it would be different this time.
Up until this point, I was a drag on the system. Before leaving, I had depended on them to give me the education I deserved. Going back, I was smarter, more mature and more in control of my learning than ever before.
Despite all this, low expectations remained. Since I hadn’t been at school for two years, they were even lower than before. I was placed in the lowest classes, despite trying to make the school aware of what I could achieve. All I could do was work hard, to show them I was worth more. Most teachers never really believed me until I graduated from Year 12.
When the HSC results came out, I had one teacher approach me: “You did much better than I expected, you should be proud”. I was not proud. I was disappointed they had such low expectations and held me back from achieving more.
Finishing school left me filled with frustration and disappointment, but I remained hopeful. I went off to Uni with dreams of being able to learn what I want, at the level best suited for me. I wanted a challenge. I enrolled in a combined bachelor of mathematics, bachelor of science, majoring in physics. I had no background in it, but what I did know was how to learn.
In the three months before starting university, I attempted to teach myself year 12 advanced mathematics and physics. I failed many times in my first year of university, but it didn’t matter. I was being challenged, and I was learning material I wanted to learn. I kept going and kept learning as much as I could, through the university and on my own.
In my final year, I was getting high distinctions. I am now three months out from completing a masters degree in astrophysics at one of the best universities in Australia with a distinction average.
My story is not to be taken as a suggestion to pack up and leave school. I would suggest the opposite. Education can lead to life-changing opportunities, but institutions alone will not get you there. You need to be the leader of your outcomes.
It is time to start teaching ourselves what the schools cannot. Who knows, future you may thank you for it.
Karlie was a guest on Insight’s NAIDOC week special episode titled ‘Deadly Future’. The episode is available on SBS On Demand.
Image credit: University of Newcastle