Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

An Impact Assessment of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN)

§ 1: Introduction

1.0 Introduction

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This document reports on the work of the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (hereafter referred to as the AESN ), a professional learning network for teachers, principals, vice principals and support professionals who are employed in British Columbia’s (BC ) public schools, including both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators. The purpose of the AESN is to improve learning results for Aboriginal learners and to increase understanding of genuine Aboriginal culture and history for all learners. The Network is designed to build the capacity of teachers and principals through an annual cycle of inquiry, the application of current research, including Aboriginal knowledges and pedagogy, with an emphasis on classroom based performance assessment as a means for determining success and improvement. This Network has been in operation since 2009 and is effecting change in many BC schools, school districts, classrooms and communities. The research project was designed to identify effective practices of the Network; in other words, it seeks to quantify its impact on students, teachers, principals, vice principals and communities in reaching its goals.
The AESN has four major components:

  1. An annual cycle of inquiry at the individual level connected to the collaboratively developed Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements
  2. Regional meetings to share resources, research, and findings
  3. Submission and publication of inquiry reports
  4. Public sharing of such reports at regional and provincial forums

1.1 Assessing Impact

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While program evaluations are common in the education sector and guidelines well established in the past (see for example, The program evaluation standards, 2nd edition, 1994), recent trends in the social sciences literature document a shift towards how such evaluative exercises might provide better and more timely information to the organizations they work with, particularly in terms of realizing the organizational mandate or goals. Such thinking focuses more on the organization’s quality, its worth in terms of meeting client or participant needs, its significance or importance to a community or group, as well as how potential lessons might be learned. In other words, it is more of a value driven exercise than one driven by quantitative, final outcome measures (Stufflebeam, 2007). The term impact assessment has therefore become a more common way of framing how such value-oriented outcomes might be considered and reported. Marula et al (2003) for example, suggest assessment is better described as “… analogous to a reflective process through which social change actors and advocates articulate their change goals and formulate the criteria with which they will evaluate the successes and failures of change efforts. This in turn guides the actors in rethinking their change efforts, influencing whether and how their further efforts should be modified” (p. 58 as cited in Lall, 2011, p. 5).

Other trends in impact assessment include the use of participatory research methods (McGregor, Clover, Sanford & Krawetz, 2008) that emphasize a need for reciprocity– including co-researcher roles– processes of shared knowledge creation and dissemination, and realizing socially just outcomes. A related field of research that is particularly important in the Canadian context is the ethics of conducting research that involves Aboriginal, First Nations, Inuit and/or Métis populations. Ball and Janyst (2008) represent many Canadian social science researchers in pointing to the importance of developing mutually negotiated protocols prior to beginning the cycle of research with Aboriginal communities, the need to develop research methods that are inclusive of Aboriginal perspectives, that are conducted with Aboriginal peoples in partnership, that incorporate Aboriginal cultural practices into their research processes, including processes of analysis, knowledge construction and dissemination. “Valid, useful findings and the larger goal of restorative social justice can flow only with partners as active participants in generating and interpreting data and shaping plans for knowledge mobilization” (p. 45). The consequences of doing otherwise, they argue, are to reify the colonial past in which Aboriginal peoples were ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ of inquiry and to maintain systems of marginalization and exclusion. In the context of this study, such observations are incredibly powerful, given the purposes of the AES Network and the legacy of harm that educational systems have had on Aboriginal peoples.

1.2 Telling/sharing stories: Assessing impact in culturally inclusive ways

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Given the above, our project design endeavoured to create what we are tentatively describing as a culturally inclusive impact assessment. To paraphrase from Halbert and Kaser’s (2013) work, we want to incorporate “wise ways” in our research work and represent these in our final study document. This has been accomplished in a number of ways including: creating a research advisory group that included Aboriginal peoples that assisted in the impact assessment design and analysis; by following Aboriginal protocols in terms of respecting and honouring the knowledge of local communities and ensuring resources were attributed to their authors; and thirdly, by incorporating a narrative approach that honoured the tradition of story telling evident in many First Peoples cultures. More will be said about the specific processes of the analysis and methods used in the methodology section. However, acknowledging the centrality of story as a culturally inclusive means of describing impact seemed a powerful and compelling way to meet our goals of reporting on the impacts of the AES Network , and was very much in keeping with the AESN purposes of broadening the knowledge of non-Aboriginal peoples about First Nations histories, cultures and contribution to Canadian society. As a result, the design of our study sought to gather impact stories and this report will weave these stories among other data collected for assessing impact. We have also incorporated a number of visuals including photographs, charts and sample resources to help provide richer detail to support our analyses.

1.3 The structure of the report

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As a guide to the reader, we include a summary of the sections of the report that will follow.

Section I will include background information for the study including a more detailed history of the AES Network . Section 2 includes a summary of the literature reviewed in preparation for this report. The literature highlighted was selected based on an analysis of the original research questions so as to have evidence from which to measure impact and effect. The literature review therefore draws upon current thinking in how to best construct or approach Aboriginal education in the K-12 sector in BC ; professional development and teacher learning, including professional learning communities and forms of networked learning; and how non- Aboriginal teachers can learn about Aboriginal pedagogy and culturally inclusive teaching practice.

Section 3 provides greater detail about the impact study’s methodology; here the approach to data collection, the scope of the research inquiry, research sites and methods of analysis are summarized.

Section 4 will be the first of three sections that summarizes the data collected. Section 4 will discuss the Arrow Lakes school district; Section 5 will discuss the Prince Rupert school district. Section 6 includes an analysis of the inquiry based research projects completed since the Network began in 2009. Section 7 provides thematic analysis of the data from the focus groups and individual interviews conducted.

Section 8 contains an analysis and assessment of those areas of impact that have greatest significance. Section 9 summarizes the report’s key findings and implications for policy makers. This is followed by references and several appendices of resources shared by teachers and other members of the Network.

1.4 What is the AESN?

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The Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network (AESN ) was originally launched in 2009. The AES Network was an outgrowth of the well-established Network of Performance-Based Schools (NPBS ) launched in 1999, recently renamed the Network of Inquiry and Innovation (NOII ). The NOII currently operates in 16 regional networks across BC that are supported by approximately 50 volunteer leaders and its two lead facilitators, Drs. Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser.

The idea of creating the AESN as a parallel network structure came from the BC Ministry of Education Aboriginal Education Branch; the goal was to involve teachers, principals and Network leaders in a Network structure that specifically focused on Aboriginal student achievement. The principals of the NOII , Drs. Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser, were enthusiastic proponents of the idea, given that they had always promoted Aboriginal ways of knowing as a core “big idea” that helps teachers develop equitable, quality learning strategies that promoted the goal of enhancing student success for all students.

Like its original counterpart, the goal of the AESN is to work with educators around the province to focus teachers and school leaders on the specific goal of enhancing student success; specifically, the success of Aboriginal students. It also utilized the highly successful structure of the NOII , with one important addition: rather than focusing on specific curricular performance standards, it invited participants to focus on the local Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements that were in place for each school district in the province.

The network idea was launched in the spring of 2009 immediately following the annual Network Seminar (May, 2009). At this seminar Debbie Leighton-Stephens, a well known Aboriginal educator from Prince Rupert, provided a keynote lecture that highlighted the ways in which non-Aboriginal teachers might develop stronger ties with local bands/First Nations as a necessary first step in developing deepened relationships between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal communities that would form a foundation for creating a different approach to working with Aboriginal students. Network participants were also invited to explore the foundational principles of Aboriginal learning and pedagogy, such as:

  • Learning ultimately supports the well being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits and the ancestors.
  • Learning is holistic, reflexive, experiential and relational – focusing on connectedness, or reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place.
  • Learning involves recognizing the consequences of one’s actions.
  • Learning involves generational roles and responsibilities.
  • Learning recognizes the role of Indigenous knowledge.
  • Learning is embedded in memory, history and story.
  • Learning involves patience and time.
  • Learning requires exploration of one’s identity.
  • Learning involves recognizing that some knowledge is sacred and only shared with permission and/or in certain situations (BC Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 11).

From this point, active Network members were encouraged to consider how they might incorporate these principles/approaches into their specific NOII inquiries; several schools who were experienced in network inquiry and had served as catalysts for action within their school jurisdictions were contacted and asked to consider how they might take a lead role in this initial launch of the AESN . In its initial year, a total of 50 schools were involved in network questions specifically focused on Aboriginal student success. By the 2012-2013 school year, a total of 75 schools have documented inquiries as a part of the AESN .

1.4.1 Network structure

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The structure of the AESN is modeled on its successful predecessor, the NOII . Understanding this structure is also important to analyzing the extent of its impact. The Network’s central purpose is to shift teacher and/or Network members’ thinking from that of teaching and learning in order to sort learners (assessment to compare and rank students) to that of a learning centered system (Kaser & Halbert, 2009). The critical tool for shifting thinking is the emphasis on inquiry mindedness and how this enables deeper learning for students; an important parallel focus is that of the teacher as a learning professional. As Lieberman and Miller (2004) suggest: “An inquiry stance is far different from a solution stance. It requires that one ask questions of one’s practice rather than look for answers. It places contextual data collection and analysis rather than generalized solutions as the center of improvement efforts” (p. 41).

The Network design is centrally focused on how to engage teachers in moving from solutions towards asking questions informed by their local context and the needs of their learners. It is a team based approach; the Network structure requires members to work with others in their school, including their school principal or vice-principal, in structuring an inquiry question for a year-long effort to improve the success of their students. Ongoing meetings and discussions with colleagues/partners in the inquiry are encouraged; formal meetings are built into the model (2-3 per year) and at least one regional meeting of inquiry teams from a particular geographical zone is held where investigations can be shared – referred to as a “showcase” where individual teams share their questions and approaches to their inquiry and findings. One large provincial meeting is also scheduled in May of each year in Vancouver. Here again, individual teams selected to represent the diversity of inquiries around the province are invited to share their work and participate in seminars/discussions about current research from exemplary educational scholars. Finally, each team must write up a summary of their case which is submitted to the NOII principals for inclusion on the website and accessible to other Network members to use as a resource for future/current inquiry work. At the end of this process, each team is awarded a small grant; originally these grants were $1000.00 but due to funding have been reduced first to $500.00, and in 2012-13 schools will receive $250.00. Schools use such funds to purchase resources, fund release time, or attend professional conferences.

The AESN follows the process of the NOII to a significant degree, in terms of the structure as described above. One difference however, is the requirement for teachers to access and use their local Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement as the source for its inquiry and investigation of student learning. In other words, while the NOII requires teachers and their inquiry teams to investigate their teaching practice in a range of topics and curricular areas, the AESN structure and investigation model is designed to focus teacher attention on the performance and success of Aboriginal students. In this way it frames the investigation towards a particular outcome.

1.4.2 The inquiry process: Investigating and questioning practice

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While the structure provides the framework for the Network, the core work of the school or district teams is to deeply investigate the learning of their students. To assist in this process, inquiry is structured in a cycle that includes the following elements:[1]

  1. Scanning: This stage requires Network members to ask the question, “What is going on for my/our learners?” This first stage of the inquiry process requires members to examine many different forms of data or information about the learners in their school/classroom. All aspects of learning and student engagement need to be deeply probed, so that social/emotional learning, physical well-being and academic achievement are considered. While student performance indicators can form part of this scanning process, discussions with students as well as personal observations can be central features of this phase. An important scanning practice is to also consider what is known from the study of contemporary educational research. For AESN members, an important consideration is how the principles of Aboriginal pedagogy and cultural knowledge provide important guidance to the analysis of “how” students are doing. Members are also required to review the goals of their local Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement so as to ensure their inquiry meets one of the goals highlighted as important to their district and wider school community.
  2. Focus: In this stage, members ask the question, “What does our focus need to be?” Informed by their initial look at the needs of their learners through the completed scan, members of the Network begin to craft a question that could be answered through investigating and documenting their own efforts to change practices in their classrooms. Here previous questions can be considered, including questions that have been investigated by other Network members with similar or related inquiries into their learners’ successes and needs. Developing a good question for inquiry can take some time, and AESN members are encouraged to continue to revise their initial questions in order to clarify their purposes, foci, and efforts. It is important to note that the inquiry questions can be revised throughout the inquiry cycle in order to better reflect the core purposes of the investigation.
  3. Developing a hunch: In this stage the core question is “What is creating this situation, and how are we contributing to it?” This question is designed to have team members avoid the ‘blame game’ where others (such as the students themselves, parents, socio-economic conditions, ethnicity/cultural membership) might act as blocks to more deeply investigating how the school or school system itself is creating conditions that limit student success. This is an important component in all Network inquires, but of particular importance to the AESN members as it provides a context for teams to examine their own dominant or hidden beliefs about the social, cultural and racial assumptions they hold related to Aboriginal student success. Teams are encouraged to reflect beyond their own beliefs and to discuss with others in their school community (students, parents, community members) about how they perceive the forces that are shaping student experiences and success (or lack thereof).
  4. New professional learning: In this stage the core question becomes “How can we learn what we can do to change the situation that now exists?” While there may be important clues that have become evident in the early stages of the inquiry process, now the focus becomes how to search and assess alternative strategies, approaches, or practices that may be able to effect changes in the context being considered. However it is not so much the “know how” but the “know why” that needs to be examined; this speaks to an equally careful examination of learning theories—Network members are encouraged to draw from multiple sites of information, but careful attention has been given via the formal structure of the Network to highlighting approaches that have been proven to have considerable impact on student learning. What makes this stage in the inquiry particularly powerful is that inquiry teams become immersed in learning together; processes of investigation, knowledge sharing and questioning gives many opportunities for deep reflection and thinking about the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of particular approaches. Frequently teams bring in or consult with other ‘knowers’ in the field or the community; this can be an important phase for AESN members, particularly because cultural knowledge may be lacking among non-Aboriginal educators. Seeking knowledgeable community members to provide advice, guidance and be partners in the inquiry can be a significant asset to the learning done by the members in the inquiry.
  5. Taking action: At this stage of the inquiry cycle the new learning develops into an action plan; members are encouraged to construct their inquiries into short two to three week cycles so they can frequently discuss, report and share observations, and seek support from others who can serve as critical friends—asking questions in order to consider other potential actions, activities or approaches. Evidence is collected, including things like student comments and/or responses to planned lessons or activities. By using this shorter cycle of implementation and reflection, inquiry can be better sustained as dialogue and deeper forms of thinking emerge over time and result in repeated cycles of investigation, reporting and discussion.
  6. Checking: At this stage of the inquiry, several shorter cycles of action have been completed, and it becomes possible to ask the question “Has our inquiry made a big enough difference?” Here the goal is to measure success of the initiative; sometimes this is best achieved by comparing the early ‘scanning’ stages of the inquiry with the later outcomes. In the case of AESN member inquiries that can be focused more on social/emotional forms of learning, engagement, self-worth and/or motivation, this can mean more use of less traditional test measures and instead consider student representations of his/her learning. These results can be shared with other members of the community and their interpretation of the results also considered as evidence of success.
  7. What next? The final stage of the inquiry cycle asks its participants to consider what they might wish to modify, re-investigate, build upon or change for a subsequent question. It reports on what has been learned as well as gaps that have become apparent through the process, both of which lead its participants to continue to grow, learn and take action to respond to specific learner needs. Here it is important to note that the learning being considered and reported is not just student learning, but professional learning; it also illustrates how the inquiry cycle continues—it is a persistent and recursive process, not a one time event.

The AESN participants are encouraged and supported in the use of the cycle of inquiry as a part of the work they do in their AESN investigations. Again, as our earlier summary notes, this parallels the NOII inquiry process, although like the earlier structural description, the focus of the inquiry is always brought back to the goals of the local Enhancement Agreement; in this way the inquiry cycle is continually focused on constructing inquiries which meet the goals of the agreement, particularly in the early “scanning” and “hunch” phases, but also in the “checking” and “what next?” phases of the inquiry process.


[1] Taken from J. Halbert & L. Kaser (2013) Spirals of Inquiry: For equity and quality. BC Principals and Vice Principals Association: Vancouver, BC CAN.

1.4.3 Who is involved in the AESN?

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As the AESN grew from the original NOII , not surprisingly, there are significant overlaps between participants. In total, about 75 schools and approximately 400 teachers, teacher leaders, and school principals are involved in the AESN . Perhaps more interesting are the numbers of school support professionals (non-teachers) who have also become members of the Network. The team based approach of the Network structure and process has led many teams to recruit the involvement of other school professionals such as Aboriginal Education Workers, Educational Assistants and Special Education Assistants. Many of the AESN members are also themselves Indigenous; some declare as Status Indians, others as urban Aboriginals, mixed race Aboriginal people or Métis. Individuals from diverse First Nations are represented among the members of the AESN in BC public schools.

1.4.4 Leadership in the network

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An important reason for the growth of the Network and its growth since inception has been its ability to both create and sustain opportunities for leadership. When discussing leadership in this context, it is important to distinguish between formal and informal leadership roles; the AESN relies on both in its day-to-day operation. Formal leaders—principals, directors, superintendents and other leaders at the local and district level are involved in Network inquiry work either as members of teams or as informal coaches and supporters to existing and emerging school teams. This is an important aspect of how the Network gains influence and is able to extend its work beyond its current participants. Just as importantly however, it builds opportunities for formal and informal teacher leadership: many current Network leaders are individuals who began as team members and have emerged over time as individuals willing to play more formal roles in the operation of the Network and have taken on additional responsibilities. It is also important to note that the Network principals, Drs. Kaser and Halbert, have emphasized the lateral and non-hierarchical qualities of the Network itself. By this we mean that they emphasize the role that all participants play as learners and coaches to one another as they learn together. They also emphasize the purpose of the Network as being centered in creating the conditions for “all learners to walk the stage with dignity, purpose and options” (Halbert & Kaser, 2011, p. 8). This emphasis on shared, equitable educational purpose is designed to create a level playing field for all members, regardless of their status as formal or informal leaders. In creating this culture of shared purpose, inclusivity and knowledge building/mobilization, deep commitments typical of strong learning communities have emerged as a foundational feature of the Network. It is this collegial frame that builds trust among its members. As Stoll, Halbert and Kaser (2012) stated:

Their roles are diverse – from classroom teachers to superintendents – yet they manage to facilitate the regional Networks with considerable consistency. Network leadership requires a facilitative style with an interesting and unusual blend of qualities. Leaders work well in networked communities when they can be both authoritative and open, when they understand power and can give it up for the sake of a larger community, and when they are curious but defined by purpose (p. 12).

1.4.5 Connecting as learning and learning through connection

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As the above summary has revealed, the Network is a powerful tool for shared learning among teachers who have a desire to effect change in their schools and to advance the cause of quality, equitable learning for all learners. That it has many formal and informal leaders who influence others through invitation to get involved, speaks to another element of why and how it works. Yet these structures and processes, regardless of their power, may not, on their own, lead to the level of success the Network experiences. What is also apparent is how the network model has been taken up by formal leaders involved in other professional development and student achievement initiatives at the provincial and district level. For example, in districts like Prince Rupert, Nanaimo, Gold Trail, and Arrow Lakes, Aboriginal Education leaders (directors, district principals etc.) have formally recognized the value and effectiveness of the AESN , and have drawn upon its members to become engaged in similarly motivated initiatives in their school districts. They have also used their own resources to support the work of Network teams in their districts, by providing release time, professional learning supports, or other resources. In other words, they have exponentially grown the influence of the Network through their endorsation and integration of the AESN into their own district structures and initiatives. In these districts it often becomes more difficult to tease out the specific impacts of the Network given the way one approach seeds the other. Yet having noted this, it speaks to the success this model has had in reaching a diverse population of educators dedicated to improving the success of Aboriginal students.

1.4.6 Network funding

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The AESN was initially funded in 2009 by grants from both the Provincial and the Federal government. The province of British Columbia matched the initial funding of $75,000 from Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC ). This allowed $500 start-up grants to all participating schools and a further $1000 upon completion of their case studies and inquiry projects. In 2011-2012 AANDC provided a grant specifically to develop short video clips of promising practice in AESN schools that would be posted on the website and available across Canada. In 2011-2012 the province also provided a grant of $75,000 to support Network infrastructure, the creation of case studies of practice and to support the provincial seminar. In 2012-2013, there has been no funding to date from the province, however, AANDC provided a grant of $40,000 specifically targeted at a research study of Network impact.

1.5 Summary

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In this section of the report we have provided a description of how the AESN operates; this framework – an inquiry based model, is practiced among a diverse group of educators from across BC . This summary provides some initial clues as to how the Network has spread its impact from its original efforts with 40 educators to more than 400 across the province. The specific ways that participants in the Network describe this impact will be discussed in greater detail in subsequent sections of this report.