Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

7.3.1 Dissonance, discomfort and irritation

Shifting to, or engaging in an inquiry mindset is tough, often difficult work. An educator whose professional identity is founded in an inquiry mindset is highly cognizant of the fact that for transformation of their own and others learning to occur, they must approach their practice with humility and authenticity. They must be open to the dissonance, discomfort and irritation involved in the shift in self-perception from expert knowledge holder to vulnerable learner – willing to admit their knowledge is incomplete, while simultaneously giving themselves permission to learn. They must move from being reflective practitioners to reflexive practitioners; modifying, adapting, changing, questioning to better meet students’ learning needs.

This is an important difference: reflection asks you to consider and examine, but reflexivity invites you to make this change a part of who you are as an educator. It means acknowledging the complicity we share in having constructed the contexts in which Aboriginal learners have been labeled as unsuccessful, deficit or problematic. In other words, these individuals must be committed to making the invisible visible, to making the unsaid heard, to build capacity for shared responsibility for student learning. As mentioned, such work is difficult and discomfiting. Earlier we highlighted this idea by canvassing Kumashiro’s (2000) calls for an anti oppressive education; this type of reflexive practice moves educators and students out of the comfort and safety of resting assuredly in their existing knowledge into a space unfamiliar, or “queer” where we “unlearn” and work to “relearn”. He argues that stepping into the unfamiliar or uncomfortable is difficult as teachers are “often invested in the status quo” (2009, p. 54) and “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). He posits that our comfort levels – even our sense of self is maintained when we learn only that which reinforces our previously held beliefs about ourselves, our position in the world, our position vis a vis “other” and about the structures, institutions and modes of being with which we are familiar. For educators, discomfort occurs when they refuse to retreat from exploring the controversial – when they acknowledge the emotional and political nature of issues such as racism and yet proceed to explore them anyway, and where disruption of dominant discourses can result in crisis – existential or otherwise (Kumashiro, 2009, p. 31), and where they are aware of the “partial” nature of their knowledge, and continue to turn their lens not just outward, but inward to interrogate their own unconscious complicity “with different forms of oppression” (p. 31). A shift in thinking that embraces the dissonance, the discomfort of not knowing requires a concomitant shift in recognizing that having only partial knowledge does not make one deficit; nor does it absolve educators from tackling the problems faced by marginalized populations in schools and society. A moral and philosophical commitment to equity, justice and fairness precludes the maintenance of the status quo.

I have a basic fundamental belief about teaching that was supported by my inquiry data and that was,


We all want our students to hit targets. But if we are not considering if our students have their eyes open when they shoot or what direction they are shooting in or what tools we have given them to hit the target or how far back from the target they are starting, how can we accurately assess?

What they come in knowing matters and race, gender, poverty, etc. all affect that initial ability to connect. It is not a matter of accessing prior knowledge, it is about providing prior knowledge for our students most at risk.

I think the most significant finding involved the distribution of power. I have a journal entry from January 11th, 2010 that I would like to quote…

“I hoped that the impact on writing would improve if Native students saw themselves within the content and it did, significantly. But I was surprised at how many other impacts that this question would have outside of the obvious answer or data collection. I did not fully think about how giving the power of understanding certain concepts (especially those that non-first nations students might not have encountered), would put my First Nations students at an advantage for talk, reading, and writing…the same advantage that we usually afford other students. Racism is when one group has power over another.

I know that racism is a very powerful word. It does imply some negative intention, which I do not believe teachers foster. I believe that teachers are involved in education to make the world a better place. It is important however, once we become aware of a practice that does not promote that agenda, to change the way we think and act. Being part of the Network helped me to understand that in order to change the way we think and act, we need the support of others; a network as it were, where collaboration and change are part of the learning cycle.

This learning mindset was evident in a number of situations that we heard about over the course of our data collection. One district leader discussed how the AES Network provided a safe space for educators to have conversations about Aboriginal students, the diverse cultures and heritage values within those cultures and their families as well as the impact of inquiry on Aboriginal student learning. The courage to engage in those types of conversations – the dissonance of not knowing all of the answers was summed up by this leader: “As a teacher in the early 80s, the mindset was, if you’re a teacher, you are supposed to know all, be all, and we are finally getting to a shift to say ‘I am a learner’ to actively engage with students in learning.”

A district principal from northern BC echoed this idea: “We are all learners. We know lots of stuff, but there are areas that we need help with. The inquiry gets us to learning and learning from each other. It’s safe. It’s safe to say I don’t know about this, can you help me?”

My involvement in the Network, particularly my Aboriginal focus, keeps me aware and awake to the Aboriginal culture in my community, nationally and internationally. In my quest to honour, recognize and integrate Aboriginal culture on a daily basis I find myself continually looking for opportunities within the school day. This has led to the creating of an Aboriginal logo and an Aboriginal garden at my former school. The students and I worked together to shape, plan and establish the garden. The students took responsibility for their work as we co-created, co-problem solved and co-reflected as we learned from and with each other. As a result there have not been any incidences of vandalism. Each day I strive to be a facilitator of learning when working with my students and encourage them to guide their own learning. The Network has helped me aspire to situate myself in a transformation orientation to my teaching. I now strive to teach in a holistic manner which is quite different than my previous teaching practices. Adopting a more holistic approach to my practice allows me to continually stop, reflect and be culturally aware of the needs of all my students. I feel I would not be engaging in inquiry if I did not continue to be an active participant in the Network and for that I am truly grateful. I try to instill in my students to be the best they can be and the Network allows me to strive at being the best I can be.

As our case study of the Arrow Lakes district revealed, teacher learning plays a significant role in the efforts being made by educators to engage their Aboriginal students in the learning process. Forming an inquiry around weaving Aboriginal ways of knowing and being into the existing Woodwork and Outdoor Education curricula required the teachers involved to pursue their own learning: while the overt skills that they gained were apparent in their teaching, a less overt yet equally significant shift in their understanding helped to deepen their appreciation for Aboriginal peoples.

“My Aboriginal unit in the Outdoor Ed class isn’t so much about culture and the stories of Aboriginal peoples or the spirituality side. I make them do things in the environment. Picture yourself as an Aboriginal person in the field…you have a stick, an antler, now try and survive. So I have the students try this out. I had to learn about knapping – how to chip rocks to make arrowheads. Then we get the kids to do it…The archery equipment we use is standardized; the Aboriginal people didn’t have that. No two arrows shoot the same no two bows shoot the same. They see how difficult it is/was. So it’s an appreciation thing.”

The “expert-learner” tension can be alleviated to a certain extent through a supportive network of like-minded individuals. A district leader from Vancouver Island discussed how the structure of the Network provided an avenue for educators to explore their own learning:

“It gives adults an accessible way of accessing First Nations agreements and goals without feeling they don’t have enough information. The AESN gives them a structure and an approach to be successful; where they don’t have to feel like they are the experts about the content, the history, the protocols, etc…In many ways as teachers we are more at ease talking about ancient Egypt that our own Aboriginal cultures, so building this level of comfort for the adults is critically important. Inquiry provides a far deeper way of learning; you have to reach into the areas of teaching and learning where you don’t know what to do, otherwise you wouldn’t be investigating it. This is what makes it most powerful; it asks you to take a risk, examine what you aren’t doing so well or could learn more about. Yet it does it in a safe way; framed as professional growth and focused on learning for kids.”

Framing the integration of Aboriginal ways of knowing and being as both professional growth and moral responsibility might help to mitigate some educators’ concerns about their lack of knowledge. As an administrator from Vancouver Island noted:

“It’s very difficult; teachers are very busy, it’s a busy profession, the best intentions you have, to want to introduce a new curriculum, and sometimes it doesn’t happen. A lot of teachers who openly say they don’t feel they have the expertise or knowledge to present – a sense of reticence, hesitation. You can understand that…I had that feeling when I presented on Métis peoples, I don’t have that background. Is this legitimate? It may not be your expertise, but you have to do it…That sense can often accompany many teachers who are hesitant to teach Aboriginal history or culture.”

Another educator from the interior of BC expressed his initial fears about integrating Aboriginal content into the curriculum: “I had concerns at the beginning; I am going to have calls from non-Aboriginal parents anticipating they would be troubled by the inclusion of Aboriginal questions. That they would say ‘okay, great to include local culture, but what about our culture?’ But there hasn’t been that response.” Dispelling his fears gave him the confidence to move forward and the courage to continue making concerted efforts on behalf of Aboriginal students: “A lot of times what happens is we see a need, and we just do it. If people or administrators or district people want to support it…we are going to do it anyway, it has to be done.”

During my third year teaching English at a Secondary School, I began working on an inquiry for the Aboriginal Enhancement Schools Network. In our district at the time, thirty percent of our students were Aboriginal, and many were having difficulty transitioning successfully through secondary school. I collaborated with another English teacher and together we explored how we could better meet the needs of our at-risk Aboriginal learners. WE wanted to explore the reasons why they were having difficulty and hopefully be able to make changes in our teaching that would positively impact Aboriginal student learning.

We decided that before we could meet the needs of these learners, we needed to understand exactly what their needs were. With the support of the AESN , we began research into the area of Aboriginal education. We were drawn to the work of Russell Bishop, whose work explored Maori student success in New Zealand. He gathered information by interviewing several Maori students. Hearing students speak passionately about their own learning was powerful. The results of this study suggested that Maori student success was highly influenced by a classroom context where caring relationships can be developed to support learning. The impact of Bishop’s study had a significant impact on teachers in New Zealand; as a result, many embarked upon changes in their practice to better meet the needs of Maori students. Inspired by this new knowledge, we created our inquiry question: Will consistent positive, personal interactions with Aboriginal students and their families have an impact on Aboriginal student success?

We created a plan for our inquiry. In very deliberate and explicit ways, we were going to engage in consistent, positive personal interactions with Aboriginal students and their families as a way to create trusting and authentic relationships. We then wanted to interview our Aboriginal students so that we could gain insight into their educational experiences. Our purpose was to illicit honest, unbiased information from our Aboriginal students on their experiences in school.

We began our inquiry in our grade 9 English classrooms. Throughout the year, we built authentic relationships with our Aboriginal students, engaging them in conversation and creating positive interactions whenever possible. We also worked hard at establishing a positive relationship with their families, calling home regularly with updates and information. After a few months, these conversations became longer and more comfortable. Many families started asking me questions about their child’s learning, and some even started calling me for updates.

At the end of the term, we wanted to hear from our Aboriginal students and get their perspective in their own words. We asked them three questions:

  1. What sorts of things hold you back in school?
  2. What helps you do well in school?
  3. If you were able to coach a teacher so that what the teacher did meant you would do well in school, what would you say to them?

Many common themes emerged. First of all, many students believed that negative relationships with teachers inhibited their success. They felt they couldn’t succeed if they felt a teacher did not like them. Secondly, they believed it was important for teachers to make them feel comfortable, welcomed, respected and encouraged. These factors would help them be more successful in school. Lastly, Aboriginal students stated that extra help, clear expectations, and fun and innovative lessons would have a positive impact on their learning.

We were profoundly touched by the candid responses of our Aboriginal students. It was validating to hear how much they appreciated positive relationships with teachers and how much they valued engaging and respectful learning environments. We also were struck by how simple their learning needs were. They wanted to feel cared for, welcomed, and respected. They wanted to learn in new and innovative ways. They wanted to learn relevant and meaningful material. This inquiry taught us that making the effort to connect with our Aboriginal learners makes a difference and is well worth the effort. The spirit and structure of an inquiry-based learning community such as the AESN gave us the inspiration, support, and knowledge necessary to make real and lasting changes in our practice.