Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

7.1.3 Permission to be a learner

“Looking at what the student needs, how are we going to meet their needs? The Network made me ask for each child, “Who are you as a learner?” It made me understand who I am as a learner. It was an ‘aha’ moment. “Wow, I don’t even know how I learn”. That emphasis on the learner and learning is critical. That changed me, I was always a good teacher, but we moved from being good to excellent. That’s because we focused on who that learner is in each child… [so it’s a shift] from knowledge holder to learner.”

We learned a great deal from our participants about how the Network enables a shift to thinking about themselves as learners. In another Network interview a participant said “The inquiry process lends itself to learning… [it focuses on] the evidence base for learning: how do I know what they know?” Following threads of evidence leads teachers into knowing more deeply what will make a difference for learners. Another teacher said:

“If we are going to be professional, and thoughtful teachers, then we have to ask, challenge, and question: How do we do this better, make it better for kids? In our discussions, we’ve also come to understand that what is good for aboriginal students is good for everyone… but it took all of us challenging the status quo to finally figure it out.”

In these comments we can hear reflected how teachers themselves learned throughout the inquiry, but had to struggle with unpacking their own beliefs, approaches or ways of teaching that had been built on assumptions that all learners were the same, or that singular approaches work for all students. This is the hard work of inquiry, particularly for non-Aboriginal teachers who have lived and worked their entire lives in the Eurocentric world of education. But it doesn’t lay the blame with others—it centers their efforts on how they, as the teaching professional, need to approach their work differently. Another northern teacher put it thusly: “Inquiry brings it back to what am “I” doing—not just the data—which makes it more student focused, [but to] always keep coming back to “What am I doing to effect changes in student learning?”

We often heard participants use the term “inquiry mindset” and we think the comments here encapsulate what Network members and leaders mean when they use that term. It is at the center of how they approach their work with students in schools. Having an inquiry mindset is an important and powerful shift as the discussion above indicates. But how does the AESN structure enable this? It flows from the idea that the AESN is a Network devoted to asking personally and contextually situated questions that emerge from AESN members thinking about and examining the successes and failures of their own students. It seeks to answer the question “How can I/we better support student success?” While seemingly simple in its approach, it works well because it frames the effort of the Network as focused on the everyday work of teachers who have as their core purpose the engagement of students in practices of learning. It simultaneously places the teacher as an expert in learning facilitation, while constructing their primary work as an investigator and researcher rather than content or pedagogical knowledge expert. There is a strong appeal to this approach; as our interviews with teachers during our impact study made evident, teachers see this as a ‘natural activity’ they engage in all the time, everyday. It is also non-threatening because it does not ask teachers to investigate others’ promising practices or questions; it asks them to think about their own efforts as a teacher, but through the eyes/experiences of their learners. In other words, it moves the focus from thinking about teaching and the teacher, to thinking about learning and the learner. It feels natural and normal, because, at the heart of every teacher’s work is the task of bringing success to their learners. It also focuses on the incremental or the possible—with a focus on a single question—rather than on programmatic or systemic level changes that can often seem large, complex or difficult to implement.

From the perspective of the educational scholars reviewed earlier in this study, putting the learning of one’s learners at the center of one’s efforts to improve practice will enable deeper, more sustained learning among teachers who collaboratively engage through “reflection in and on practice” (Cochran-Smith et al, 1999, p. 276). The focus on context specific questions forces a way of considering how practices work as they emerge in classroom applications, rather than thinking about strategies others have generated that might be applied to a classroom situation (an example of knowledge of practice). When added to the cycle of meeting to talk about and reflect upon progress during their inquiry, it becomes more apparent how the Network structure impacts these teachers’ efforts at reforming and innovating in their classrooms.

My big learning – as long as the adults are engaged in learning in a supportive, deep, rich environment – as long as adult learners are given support student learners can move forward. The Network has led my learning. Before my involvement I was a good teacher – I am still a good teacher but I am a better person in the classroom because I have a deeper understanding about learning. Each day I am learning, and I am thinking about what I am learning. Experiencing metacognition makes me more tolerant of my fellow learners, whether young or old! I am more connected to my students.

Teachers need to know the current research and theories. We need to be able to be trusted to take that knowledge and turn it into practice, that works for us, in our classrooms. Belonging to the Network has not told me how to teach – it has expanded my thinking around teaching. The best part of being a member of the Network is that what I need to know is not sifted by the school district personnel. Having current knowledge around education practices, theories, research, etc. allows me to be a better teacher. I need the space and time to develop my understanding.