Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

7.6.1 Tracing student learning outcomes: From academic performance to pride and acceptance

Early AESN inquiry questions were structured in ways that carefully mimicked the earlier NOII process. In NOII inquiries, performance standards in academic subject areas were the primary focus. So one of the effects this had was that performance standards for Aboriginal students in literacy and numeracy were often selected as starting points to explore how teachers might better enable deepened learning. Many of the rubrics used to measure inquiry impact then involved employing pre and post inquiry tools that used standard performance measures, such as “meeting” “exceeding” or “not yet meeting” performance expectations.

An example of this kind of inquiry was conducted at an elementary school in 2008-2010. As their case study highlights these teachers were “determined to engage our learners and believe that a greater emphasis on Aboriginal knowledge and wisdom will help our learners meet both our school goal and the Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement goal of reading at grade level. Our primary teaching staff took a keen interest in our Aboriginal focus area and made it a priority for the reading program for all of our learners. Our school as a whole had a week-long literature based unit focused on the book Secret of the Dance, culminating in an Aboriginal Celebration”. Their inquiry question asked “Will the use of Aboriginal content improve reading for our primary Aboriginal students as measured by the PM Benchmarks?”[2] Three rounds of assessment were conducted throughout the inquiry to measure students’ performance as a guided reading approach, using the Aboriginal text as its core resource. The summary of this inquiry discusses how there were significant improvements made in Aboriginal students reading performance, with a 31% increase in those learners “approaching” or “meeting” expectations for grade 2, and later in 2010 how “90% of grade 2 and at risk grade 3s were meeting or exceeding expectations, a 64% improvement”. They summarize their next steps as wanting to integrate even more “Aboriginal texts” in subsequent inquiries as they sharpen their focus to thinking about improving writing performance as well.

In this example, the focus of the inquiry is on those aspects of the AEA that focus on “improving reading success in Aboriginal students”. We can infer from the work of these teachers that they understand that Aboriginal content and knowledge, when inserted into mainstream curriculum, shows a value and respect for different ways of knowing and being in the world: when this is incorporated into curriculum activities, it will better engage Aboriginal students in relevant and meaningful texts which in turn become a useful tool through which reading performance can be enhanced. This is an important aspect of culturally responsive teaching practice and is reflective of the Aboriginal learning principle “Learning recognizes the role of Indigenous knowledge”. Yet as our discussions about transformed and inquiry mindedness have suggested, it requires more than this to fully incorporate a culturally responsive approach. In sum, it is not yet evident from this particular example that the teachers are engaged holistically in understanding the inter relationship between Aboriginal student achievement and the valuing of cultural practices, intergenerational learning, or the ways in which their own beliefs and approaches to teaching reflect a privileging of dominant beliefs about what constitutes success. The inquiry, as it is structured, retains the role of the teacher as knowledge expert, the one who facilitates and delivers learning, rather than one that sees learning as a shared, collaboratively constructed process. We can infer from this framing of the inquiry, and approach to the process of learning (teacher centered) that these teachers’ professional identities remain firmly tied to the formal role of knowledge holder. Their level of knowledge about the importance of cultural texts has grown, but this has been largely a reflective rather than reflexive activity.

Another case from 2010-2011 in a different school district provides a much different example. In this school all 86 students are of Aboriginal ancestry. AESN participants describe their context thusly: “Our students bring cultural capital and a varied understanding of their traditions to school. We want to enhance their knowledge and increase their level of school connectedness… We want to develop the whole child and integrate a First Nations worldview in our teaching. Educators need to become sensitive to and knowledgeable about the First Nations cultures within their school community and elsewhere. The district agreement also acknowledges the need for informal opportunities for teachers to build relationships with families and to celebrate with parents and community ways that demonstrate the importance of the relationship between the school and the community.” The question they posed was: “Will the integration of traditional First Nations resources and activities across curriculum areas result in an improvement in the social responsibility and self regulation of our students?” In describing their inquiry, the AESN members reference cultural and informal events between teachers and community members, cultural language initiatives, the presence of Elders in their school, as well as experiential cultural program elements (such as a beading and drum making project) and place based activities such as visiting salmon streams and historic cultural sites. Community mentors from among its Indigenous population involved in trades are also highlighted, but traditional practices including drum making by local artisans are referenced. In other words, they describe a very complex, multi faceted and intergenerational approach to building an enhanced commitment for all learners in the school—with an emphasis on the need for teacher learning to understand how they can support and enhance their students sense of self and identity as a proud member of their cultural community. In this second case, the teachers clearly have a much deeper awareness of Aboriginal pedagogy and the principles of Aboriginal learning, drawing upon 6-8 of these in the approaches they are using to work across the school site and within the community. One can infer from the words and approaches taken here that teachers are deeply examining their own beliefs and expectations for students, and that they themselves are gaining a deeper appreciation about the ways in which what we do reflects who we are as teachers.

As a result of the AESN my thinking changed. When I first went to this school, I was like the other white professionals, I wanted a good résumé, and I wanted to move somewhere where I could live with others like me. I did not care that teacher autonomy created non-connected classrooms and I did not care if the students were successful after they left my classroom. As I looked at the community, students and the families and thought about the Network’s main goal “Every student has the right to: graduate with dignity, purpose and options.” I started to wonder and challenge what was happening in the school I was working at. I have now moved, but I have many friends from this small First Nations community and I respect this First Nations group’s determination to have the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures respected by the non First Nations culture that migrates through the school. I have a better understanding of the struggles of our First Nations people. I now feel strongly that these small districts should be amalgamated with larger districts so that white Professionals that work in this community can be connected to seasoned professionals picked from a large group of trained teachers and these professionals can learn about the First Nations culture and move someday back to their home community and share the knowledge they learned. We do not send student teachers to work in these challenging environments so why do we allow first year professionals to work there? Maybe some would stay. I might have stayed if the turnover of staff and whirlwind of ideas from the non-connected classrooms had not drained me.

I still work in the same small school district, but in a larger school. This school has a much smaller population of First Nations students but I see many of the same issues. The First Nations families, traditions and cultures do not seem to be respected. First Nations language is not a priority, but the teachers do try to teach French. (I am smiling.) The First Nations students do not see themselves reflected in the material the school provides and the white culture does not understand many of the ways of the First Nations. For example, when someone dies in the First Nations community the students take a week of two off school. Through inquiry I have learnt that during this time away from school the First Nations students are learning more about life and less about educational hoop jumping. Through inquiry I have learnt that when the students are away because of a funeral the students are learning through modeling, cultural practices and traditions.


[2] PM Benchmarks is a widely used standardized set of reading assessment measures designed to determine students’ independent or instructional reading levels. The levels of reading are used to measure students’ ability to meet or exceed grade level expectations.