Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

2.2.2 Embracing a Relational, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Baskerville’s (2009) study of her own efforts to engage Aboriginal learners—in this case New Zealand Maori students—in her drama classes, offers important insights into the work of relational pedagogy, largely through the lens of how teachers must engage in and with the protocols of the cultural community. She argued that this approach—one based in cultural immersion—was foundational to her adopting practices that were respectful of the cultural traditions of her students. In particular, this approach created a way in which Maori knowledge and experiences were seen as valued attributes of the students’ learning experiences, rather than the more typical deficit way of thinking that she had used when rationalizing why her Aboriginal students were not succeeding.

Tanaka et al (2007), take a similar approach in describing how pre service teachers and Aboriginal community members worked emergently to develop their knowledge of the Coast Salish peoples of British Columbia through a pole-carving course. Pre service teachers’ immersion in the cultural protocols of pole carving, taught by local carvers and Elders, provided a pathway into knowing/learning about themselves as culturally responsive teachers and provided a means through which to embrace an Indigenous informed pedagogy. The narratives of the participants provide a rich description of the ways in which dominant paradigms and beliefs were challenged through shared experiences in creating the pole and sharing their stories as a part of a public, ceremonial raising of the pole. Approaches to learning that are emphasized in the article include collaboration within a learning community, shared knowledge creation activities, and the power of having a shared goal or purpose.

The importance of altering teachers’ beliefs about Aboriginal students is also identified in Bishop, Berryman, Wearmouth, Peter & Clapham’s (2012) case study of a teacher professional development program designed to help teachers better address Maori student learning needs. The learning program developed and implemented in a series of schools (33) over a six year, two-phased implementation period, emphasized the need to develop alternative discourses that teachers could use to problematize their assumed thinking, as well as offering them experiences that exposed the contradictions/tensions between their pre-existing beliefs and alternative conceptions: a form of cognitive dissonance. The goal was to create conditions necessary for teachers to see themselves as change agents, individuals capable of affecting the conditions under which their students might better learn. A primary means of supporting this learning was through the introduction of a local facilitator, someone who could provide support to teachers as they attempted to implement new approaches or practices through their personal inquiries. This was in addition to learning support provided by a team of university researchers knowledgeable about promising practices in Maori relational pedagogy. There were both formal and informal learning spaces created for teachers and school leaders to engage in collective and personal questions of inquiry, although a foundational component included the integration of cultural protocols and student stories about their school experiences. Maori student achievement was also tracked and a number of statistical analyses completed, with the researchers concluding that sustained changes in culturally responsive teacher practices led to sustained and significantly higher student performance, particularly in comparison with schools who had not engaged in the Maori informed teacher learning program. At the same time, levels of student engagement as measured by researchers over the course of the project increased considerably beginning in the first year of the program, and were consistently sustained over the six-year period.

Other scholarship is important to highlight here as it relates to the idea of dissonance and discomfort. While the previously referenced scholarship brings to light the importance of teachers engaging in new ideas to transform or shift their practices from ‘old’ to ‘new’, there is also a need to acknowledge the colonial histories which embed much western educators thinking about Aboriginal peoples and their ability to succeed in school. Readers will recall the earlier discussion of William’s (2000) history of Aboriginal education in Vancouver that highlighted how dominant discourses of ‘remediation’ were developed and sustained through the special program delivery models used to support Aboriginal student populations. Deconstructing these beliefs is an essential part of what it means to become a culturally responsive pedagogue and an “anti oppressive educator” (Kumashiro, 2000).

Anti oppressive education calls for a way of moving teachers and students into unfamiliar spaces through which one can “unlearn” and “relearn” what it means to include others. Teachers, Kumashiro has argued, “find comfort in the repetition of what is considered to be common sense, despite the fact that commonsensical ideas and practices can be quite oppressive” (p. xxxviii). What are some of these commonsensical ideas? One is that of the “pull out” support program: essentially this approach reinforces a view of Aboriginal students requiring remediation so they can “re-join” the “normal” classroom after intervention. Remedial models essentially measure students as ‘deficient’ and reiterate the colonial mindset present since the advent of Residential schooling. Alternatively, culturally inclusive, anti oppressive teachers value and respect the diverse and different knowledges that students and their communities offer and suggest that classroom spaces need to be re-constructed to profile the value and contribution of diverse peoples; in the case of this study, the value and contribution of Aboriginal peoples.

In summary, the above literature highlights how teacher’s beliefs, practices and approaches to teaching and learning activities are a central feature of shifting towards a culturally responsive pedagogy; the links between student learning and teacher beliefs were also briefly highlighted. This discussion makes evident the importance of teacher learning, an activity the AES Network is designed to support and promote. In the next section we briefly highlight how BC has envisioned putting this approach to the importance of culturally responsive pedagogy into practice with what are described as “principles of Aboriginal learning”.