Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

§ 2: Literature Review

2.0 Literature Review

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One of the ways in which impact can be measured is to establish benchmarks that performance can be measured against. In the case of this impact study, one of the important benchmarks is what is known or understood about promising practices in education. While the scope of promising educational practice is very broad, in the case of this impact assessment we have selected scholarship and educational literature that is focused on what we know are promising practices related to Aboriginal education. More specifically, we have selected literature that as much as possible, represents what Canadian scholars and researchers who work in this field have offered in the way of insights into Aboriginal education promising practices.

This section also begins with a short historical look at approaches to Aboriginal education delivery in BC . Drawing attention to this history of how Aboriginal education has been offered in the BC context is important as it gives insights into the ways in which school districts and teachers have designed experiences to meet Aboriginal student needs. This background context provides important foundational information that informs how AESN inquiries are both constructed and interpreted.

Please note that the term Aboriginal is the word we have chosen to use throughout this and other sections of the report. While we recognize that other terms can be used (among them First Nations, First Peoples, Indigenous, Métis, or Inuit) for the sake of consistency we have adopted the use of Aboriginal to stand in for all Aboriginal Peoples.

2.1 Approaches to Aboriginal education in BC schools

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We begin by briefly highlighting the ways in which schools and school districts have responded to addressing the specific learning needs of Aboriginal students since the 1960’s. The focus on how provincial schools are responding to the needs of Aboriginal learners is critical because close to 80% of Aboriginal students are served by provincial schools (Richards & Scott, 2009). In this section, we rely in large part upon the knowledge of Dr. Lorna Williams, a member of the Lil’Wat First Nation, who has, for most of her career, worked in multiple educational settings in BC . This includes time working with the Mount Currie Indian Band, the BC Ministry of Education, the Vancouver School Board (as an Aboriginal Education district support teacher) and most recently as an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair of Indigenous Education and Language Revitalization at the University of Victoria. Dr. Williams has also been an active supporter of the AES Network .

2.1.1 Early models of Aboriginal education (1960-2000)

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Dr. Lorna Williams (2000) described the ways in which the Vancouver School Board (VSB) developed practices and supports for working with urban Aboriginal students and families. While VSB may not represent all approaches taken by school districts around BC , its position as a progressive force among BC school districts and its size make it a useful place from which to start a review. Williams begins by describing the historical approaches and the political antecedents that shaped the VSB’s responses to Aboriginal students. Aboriginal student numbers began to increase in the 1960s as a result of the closure of Residential schools. Beginning with home-school support workers, and later moving to rehabilitation program models, Aboriginal students were served largely through special programs created for them rather than the regular public school classrooms within the district. Resource teachers or itinerant models of resource support became more popular approaches into the 1980s and 1990s; this helped build momentum towards a model of integrating Aboriginal students in regular classrooms. Clusters of Aboriginal populations that moved into particular areas or neighbourhoods helped speed this transition. Importantly, as a result of consultations with Aboriginal community members and governments, both academic and cultural support for Aboriginal students became a priority.

The 1990s also emerged as a time in which a focus was placed on non-Aboriginal school personnel who worked with Aboriginal students, and professional training programs, workshops and resources were developed. Simultaneously, programs were developed district wide in which traditional values, beliefs, and cultural practices might be honoured, profiled and celebrated. Yet despite this, many schools developed what are described as ‘pull out programs’, meaning Aboriginal students left their regular classes to participate in Aboriginal educational opportunities with and among other Aboriginal students. As Williams (2000) noted, much of the rationale for these approaches was that it enhanced self-esteem while creating a positive acceptance of one’s Aboriginal heritage (p. 138), creating a belief among Aboriginal students and families that they could be considered participants in Canadian society with a strong Aboriginal identity. Yet there were tensions created by the special programming model, and periods of declining or static funding from the province meant that non-Aboriginal personnel began to question the ‘special status’ afforded Aboriginal students over others. The challenges Williams identified included the need to address the diversity of Aboriginal peoples – particularly language and culture, in urban settings where Aboriginal peoples often reside. While specific courses/classes were sometimes offered, the challenge was to integrate “First Nations content into school subjects… with teachers who are willing to take the initiative on their own” (p. 145). She concluded that the strategies used by urban school districts should therefore be flexible and multi faceted, and be the product of collaboration and engagement with Indigenous communities.

2.1.2 The contemporary context (2000- present)

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Many challenges face schools who want to enhance the success of Aboriginal students, but two are important in the context of this impact study. First, the role of teachers. As Williams (2000) identified, teachers play a significant role in student success given their autonomy in the classroom. But curriculum is also important; provincial policy makers have understood this, and devoted considerable efforts to creating resources that teachers can use to integrate Aboriginal knowledge across the K-12 curriculum. They have also created two provincially approved courses at the high school level: First Peoples English 12 and First Nations Studies 12. Despite this, enrolment in these courses remains relatively low, and they are not offered in all school districts. One study, Learning about Walking in Beauty (2000-2001) illustrated at least part of the problem when it reported that: “over two-thirds of [Canadian] young adults couldn’t recall discussing contemporary Aboriginal issues in elementary or secondary school, while 80 percent were ‘dissatisfied or strongly dissatisfied’ with existing Aboriginal Studies curriculum”. The study went on to suggest that “a pedagogy infused with Aboriginal perspectives will help all students build both a knowledge base and the critical analysis skills relevant to contemporary regional, national and international affairs” (Hyslop, 2012, para 6). More will be said about the importance of Aboriginal pedagogy in the next section of this report.

The BC Ministry of Education provides financial resources to school districts to fund support for Aboriginal education through its funding formula. However, in addition to this it has co-created several policy directions for BC school districts, with an emphasis on enhancing accountability for Aboriginal student achievement. The lack of success of Aboriginal students in the BC (and Canadian) school system was a growing concern for Aboriginal Communities and was becoming a more frequent topic of conversation among educational policy makers at all levels of government. The First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) is a notable partner in this discussion; it has been a significant organizational player in its efforts to shape the BC government’s directions in Aboriginal Education. An important outcome of their lobbying efforts resulted in the signing of a formal agreement between the government and Aboriginal Community leaders and a Memorandum of Understanding in 1999. One of the directions initiated as a result of this MOU was the requirement for school districts to similarly construct local Aboriginal Education Improvement Agreements as a means of focusing on Aboriginal student success. These later became known as Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements.

The provincial framework for these agreements highlights the need to: enhance Aboriginal voice in education through local consultations; focus on Aboriginal student success; and support the genuine infusion of Aboriginal culture and language throughout the BC curriculum (New Relationships with Aboriginal Peoples, Annual Report, 2009, p. 18). Many of these locally developed agreements have set in place specific targets and benchmarks to guide district efforts at effecting change for Aboriginal students. Annual reporting is required. As later sections of this report will document, nearly all school districts in British Columbia in place such agreements, and many are making significant efforts to effect changes in programming and services to Aboriginal students.

Aboriginal education remained a priority area among educational policy makers and Aboriginal communities alike. Evidence of this comes from the decision in 2006 to sign the Educational Jurisdiction Framework Agreement; government also legislated the First Nations Education Act in 2007. These events signaled an important increase in the priority given to Aboriginal students’ education in BC . Other initiatives the Ministry has spearheaded have included the development of several resources to support educators working with Aboriginal students, such as Shared Learning (2000/2006), the development and implementation of approved provincial courses for secondary schools, including First Nations 12 and First Peoples English 12, as well as incorporating Aboriginal perspectives into most provincial curriculum documents.

Another important policy antecedent was the adoption by the Ministry of what are called “Principles of Aboriginal Learning”. These were initially developed in partnership with the Provincial First Nations Steering Committee in 2008. School district and teachers are encouraged to use these principles in the design of Aboriginal educational programming. The principles are discussed in more detail in other sections of this report, but importantly for this general overview, they illustrate an emphasis on a more holistic and culturally responsive model of education that recognizes the importance of Aboriginal beliefs, culture, and knowledge for all students.

As this brief summary illustrates, there is a history of addressing Aboriginal Education in BC that emerged out of the closure of residential schools in the 1960s, although the last residential did not close in BC until 1986 (Oikawa, 2010). How jurisdictions responded in light of these circumstances has been illustrated by focusing on both the local (as in the case of the Vancouver school board) and provincial through government policy initiatives. This ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’ between these jurisdictional levels helps to illustrate several things: first, that there were common threads of concern around Aboriginal education that developed at different jurisdictional levels, but that the voices of Aboriginal peoples have been a consistent dynamic in demanding changing responses. However it also illustrates the dynamics of how dominant beliefs about Aboriginal peoples have shaped policy and practice provincially and locally.

There have been systemic efforts at effecting change. And while the intention has been to engage local school districts and communities in ways that will focus their efforts on Aboriginal student achievement, their successes have been modest as is evidenced from annual reports produced by the Ministry of Education, Aboriginal Education Branch. Improvements are being traced locally and districts are required to report on an annual basis their work in achieving the goals of their local Enhancement Agreements. This is bringing an increased level of visibility to the goals of bettering Aboriginal student success.

Williams’s (2000) observations, as noted above, are important to re-emphasize here because her description of the need for flexibility and locally developed partnership initiatives. This is important in thinking about the affordances and limitations offered by provincially mandated measures. If we take her advice, then it is locally and contextually specific features that work best when Aboriginal learners and Aboriginal communities are genuine partners in the design and implementation of district level agreements. In other words, there is need for a policy bridging tool; a mechanism and approach that can bridge between local contexts and provincial/district mandates. As later sections of this report will emphasize, we see the work of the AESN as such a policy lever through which change is being realized more effectively and comprehensively and responding to diverse local needs.

While the above discussion is necessarily brief, another important antecedent to understanding the approach taken by the AES Network comes from scholarship and literature about promising practices in teacher professional development, learning, learning communities and pedagogical approaches to Aboriginal education. In the next section of the report we begin by briefly summarizing Aboriginal educational research drawing from selected Canadian and New Zealand scholars, as these two jurisdictions share a common commitment to enhancing the success of their Indigenous learners.

2.2 Charting a new course: A pedagogical, research informed approach

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The ongoing cycle of First Nations education must be changed. Transformation of schooling and education is not merely a set of strategies related to changing learners’ behavior, changing governance, and so forth. Political, economic, and social changes also need to occur in the wider community context. Transformation and how it is attained requires a critical and political understanding, and eventually commitment to act. (Menzies, Archibald & Smith, 2004, p. 1)

2.2.1 Aboriginal pedagogy

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Aboriginal approaches to teaching and learning vary from the traditional notion of ‘pedagogy’ usually described in teaching and learning literature. An Aboriginal view of pedagogy goes beyond strategies, methods or approaches to promising practice and embraces the epistemological and philosophical beliefs of Indigenous peoples that guide cultural practices (Hodgson-Smith, 2000). It seeks to educate the mind, heart and spirit in a holistic manner (Archibald, 2008). And teachers—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—can be transformed by their immersion in these embodied approaches to the teaching and learning relationship (Tanaka et al, 2007).

2.2.2 Embracing a Relational, Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

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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”.

2.2.3 The BC approach to culturally responsive pedagogy

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As noted earlier in this literature review, the Ministry of Education promotes what it calls the “Principles of Aboriginal Learning”. Initially developed in partnership with an advisory group of Aboriginal scholars and educators who worked with the First Nations Education Steering Committee in 2008, these principles were designed to highlight how an Aboriginal pedagogy can reflect the context of British Columbia’s own First Peoples.

  • 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).

In reading this list of principles, it is apparent that they draw from the scholarship of Aboriginal pedagogy and anti-oppressive education. It also puts into relatively plain language the ways in which learning for all students is supported and enhanced through their application to educational settings, to policy and curriculum design. The principles have become an important benchmark that schools, districts and the Ministry now use to measure their efforts in Aboriginal education.

In the final section of this literature review, we highlight the field of teacher learning and professional development. Because of how the Network creates spaces for teacher learning, it is important to examine what we know are the features of ‘promising practices’ in promoting growth in teacher professional practices: How do field professionals learn best? This knowledge can then be used to assess the impact of the Network on the nature of teacher learning.

2.3 Teacher learning and professional development

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School change and improvement literature seems to have reached a common understanding that teachers play an important role in creating better schools (Borko, 2004; Lieberman & Mace, 2010). Therefore it is not surprising that professional development opportunities—spaces for teachers to learn—are systematically created within school jurisdictions with the intention of helping teachers to “enhance their knowledge and develop new instructional practices” (Borko, 2004, p. 3). While professional development opportunities can take different forms, the more typical school in-service or single day convention format common to many jurisdictions in Canada, remains a dominant model despite the fact that such one shot training sessions “are not likely to facilitate teacher learning and change” (Mesler, Parise & Spillaine, 2010, p. 326). Webster-Wright (2009) completed a comprehensive scan of professional development literature and reviewed more than 203 studies; they made an important observation about the nature of most teacher professional development by noting it had a “focus on programs and content rather than learning experiences” (p. 712). This finding reflects the current context and the emphasis of most Canadian educational jurisdictions.

Some scholars are now thinking more about the importance of teacher learning and the importance of examining professional practice. For example, Stoll et al (2006) shared international evidence that “educational reform’s progress depends on teachers’ individual and collective [teacher] capacity and its link with school-wide capacity for promoting pupils’ learning” (p 115, emphasis added). Stoll (2009) also detailed how these processes of developing capacity through shared efforts at questioning one’s practice can lead to much deepened form of professional sense making, a process she describes as knowledge animation: “by surfacing tacit knowledge and challenging existing assumptions… conversations that make presuppositions, ideas, beliefs and feelings explicit and available for exploration helps to promote knowledge creation” (p .3).

Knowledge animation differs significantly from other forms of professional development focused on “best” or “promising practices”. An important point here is how such processes of professional inquiry lead to the production of innovative or novel approaches or ideas. It is the ‘to-ing and fro-ing’ of inquiry, enhanced by dialogue, and questioning intentions and beliefs that brings the discussion or professional idea to life. This goes well beyond knowledge sharing; it is a social and professional learning process built on trust and a shared commitment to enhancing personal and professional learning that is central. Levin’s (2012) UNESCO report makes a similar finding: he highlighted how teachers who learn in context and through collaboration have contributed significantly to recent school improvement efforts in Ontario.

These two authors highlight the shift among professional learning scholars to think more deeply about how teachers learn and apply such learning to their teaching practice. In what follows, I briefly summarize several seminal authors in this more contemporary terrain of professional development and teacher learning.

2.3.1 Knowledge in practice: Reflection through inquiry

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An earlier but still influential conception of teacher learning stems from Cochran-Smith et al’s (1999) study that highlighted the difference between “knowledge of” practice versus “knowledge in” practice. This distinction provides an important entry into this discussion. The authors’ efforts to differentiate teacher knowledge from the “old” model of teacher professional development centered on “knowledge-for-practice” – and adopting a “new” model centered on “knowledge-in-practice” and “knowledge-of-practice” signals an important antecedent for subsequent scholarship in teacher learning. Specifically, from the perspective of knowledge-in-practice, teacher learning is based on the idea that “knowledge comes from reflection and inquiry in and on practice” (p. 267, emphasis added). In professional development initiatives based on this conception, “facilitators often work with groups of teachers, functioning as supportive outsiders who push others to question their own assumptions and reconsider the bases of actions or beliefs” (p. 271). While Cochran-Smith et al’s (1999) work emphasized the importance of context (i.e. the application of learning to specific interests or needs of teachers) and the role that facilitators can play in enhancing such learning, there is an equally important feature: that of deconstructing or reframing existing teacher beliefs and understandings about the nature of teaching, learning and students themselves. This echoes my earlier discussion of the literature on teachers’ beliefs as they relate to Aboriginal education. Questioning assumptions provides the catalyst through which learning is enabled, both generally as reported in the field of teacher learning, but also specifically in learning about Aboriginal pedagogies and practices.

Professional development, at least in its “traditional” form, is increasingly challenged and critiqued as an effective means to enhance teacher learning and a “paradigm shift” seems to be gathering momentum. Evidence of this comes from the work of Timperley and her colleagues (Timperley, 2011, Timperley & Alton-Lee, 2008, Timperley, Wilson, Barrar & Fung, 2007). These scholars have helped educators understand that the focus of teacher learning is derived from students’ needs and how professional development can help to support this goal. This alternative conceptual framework for professional development features cycles of inquiry and knowledge-building with student outcome in schools as its focus (Timperley, 2011). The effectiveness of this model is evidenced in their empirical study entitled the Teacher professional and learning development: Best evidence synthesis iteration (Timperley, Wilson, Barrar & Fung, 2007) and through reports on a nation-wide professional development project in New Zealand (Timperley et al., 2009). While the focus on student achievement is important, Hargreaves (2007) offered an important caveat, arguing that data-driven instruction can drive educators “away from the passion and enthusiasm for rich processes of teaching and learning in classrooms and enriched relationships with children, into a tunnel-vision focus on manipulating and improving test scores” (p. 183). To counter this, Hargreaves (2007) places an important emphasis on creating professional learning communities as these “make deep and broad learning their priority” (p. 192), rather than a narrow emphasis on particular forms of student achievement and concomitantly, testing regimes.

The shift in emphasis from single event, individual teacher learning to collective forms of learning and knowledge building through inquiry is also evidenced in the plethora of research now available on what are called Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). This literature posits that a PLC is a community “with the capacity to promote and sustain the learning of all professionals in the school community with the collective purpose of enhancing student learning” (Bolam et al. 2005, as cited in Vescio et al., 2008, p. 81). Stoll et al. (2006) listed five characteristics of PLCs including: 1) shared values and vision; 2) collective responsibility; 3) reflective professional inquiry; 4) collaboration; and 5) group, as well as individual learning (p. 226-227). In other words, a community is built on a common vision through which the group makes an ongoing commitment to work personally and collectively to enhance the success of his/her learners. This literature helps illustrate the ways in which learning is more effective when it is a shared and collaborative experience.

2.3.2 PLCs or inquiry?

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Some authors, such as Timperley and her colleagues, distinguish between PLCs and teacher inquiry (Timperley, 2011, Timperley & Alton-Lee, 2008, Timperley et al., 2009). It may seem unnecessary to tease out the differences between these approaches, yet it is useful to do so. For example, Nelson (2008) completed a comparative case study of three PLCs and argued that where the inquiry was sustained (in one of the three schools) both individual and collective learning were evident; in the other two schools such learning failed to materialize. What is evident in this study is that it is not PLCs per se that are doing the work, but a student-focused teacher inquiry stance that made the difference. School change does not happen simply because educators work collaboratively. Engaging in rigorous inquiry into teaching and learning practices helps educators to identify the gaps between students’ learning and teachers’ teaching practice, provide direction to teacher learning and changing teaching practices accordingly, which consequently leads to improved outcomes for students (Timperley, 2011). An inquiry stance also honours the knowledge teachers bring to PLCs, motivates individual teacher’s orientation to change and signifies a new relationship between the work of teachers and their commitment to the act of research/inquiry as central to their work and professional role.

Hipp et al.’s (2008) study also helped to distinguish between the issue of creating a learning informed culture and the processes of teacher learning. Their work addressed the dialectic relationship between PLCs and school culture suggesting that effective PLCs contribute to the collective beliefs, values and habits of a school, which are represented by the school culture and that such a collaborative school culture is a necessary component of school success. Just as importantly, productive and positive school cultures can make a significant contribution to creating professional learning communities that sustain momentum for school improvement over time. As schools transform into PLCs, “the conceptualization of the PLC becomes rooted within the school culture and a structure emerges providing both a foundation and a guide for learning goals, strategies and outcomes” (p. 177). Other scholars have actually foregrounded the change in school culture and the larger educational context as the factors that contribute to effective PLCs (Mitchell & Sackney, 2007; Mitchell & Sackney, 2011; Stoll, 2009a).

2.3.3 Networking for inquiry

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How are such connections and collaborations realized? The idea of networking is closely aligned with the notion of community, the heart of the PLC concept (Stoll et al., 2006). Network theory is also helpful in understanding personal capacity, where both strong and weak ties in personal networks are necessary for professional learning and development (Mitchell & Sackney, 2011; Mitchell & Sackney, 2001). According to Mitchell & Sackney (2011), strong ties in personal networks generally develop among educators with similar professional belief systems, providing a stable foundation and a safe environment for incremental change. Considering the characteristics of PLCs as described in the previous section, it is likely that such strong ties are typically found in effective PLCs. Weak ties in personal networks, on the other hand, generally develop between educators from diverse backgrounds and professional belief systems and “provide a rich source for new ideas and possibilities as well as a foundation for experiments in practice” (p. 28). Therefore, networks that link educators from different schools and regions hold more potential for these kinds of weak ties to develop and for educators to break away from their “horizon of observation” (Little, 2003, as cited in Vescio et al., 2008, p. 89). In a more contemporary sense, with the help of new media tools, networked professional learning communities enable teachers to get out of isolation by sharing teaching practices (Lieberman & Mace, 2010). With schools “going wider” through networks, lateral capacity building is promoted for improvement and change (Stoll, 2006). International networking experiences enable educators to break boundaries in their own thinking and bring about a generative and dynamic process of learning (Stoll et al., 2007). In this way networking implies a wider and more inclusive community where transformative learning can take place. This has been demonstrated in a recently completed research study completed by Stoll, Halbert and Kaser (2012). Their work demonstrated how deeper forms of school-to-school networking have enabled PLCs based on individual schools to form a wider school-to-school PLC, which is “organic” and “consistent with living system models and notions of complexity” (p. 13). Not only do networks make PLCs wider, they also help them to go deeper by facilitating knowledge animation (Stoll, 2009b) through inquiry and making a difference to learning at all levels—teachers, leaders and students alike.

2.3.4 Deeper forms of networked learning for teachers

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Some educators and scholar practitioners—particularly the principals of the AESN and NOII in BC (Halbert and Kaser), have sought to document the ways in which some networks enable deeper forms of learning for their participants. In a recent publication they have written about these differences from the ubiquitous references to ‘networks’ and ‘networked learning’ that dominate the scholarly literature on teacher learning and suggest that the deeper forms of networked learning are characterized by:

  1. Clarity of purpose through shared focus
  2. Collaborative inquiry that stimulates challenging, evidence-informed learning conversations
  3. Trusting relationships that build social capital for learning
  4. Leadership for learning through formal and informal roles, including skilled facilitation of networking links
  5. Evidence seeking about intermediate and end processes and outcomes linked to theories of action
  6. Attention to the connection between the network and the individual professional learning community of each participating school (Stoll, Halbert & Kaser, 2012, p. 3).

Finally, what becomes clear in the literature is that successful and sustainable PLCs operate like an ecosystem or living systems (Mitchell & Sackney, 2011). Such systems are fluid, flexible, diverse and self-regulated, rather than uniform, controllable or predictable. In a similar vein, educational change and school improvement are “organic processes” that emerge naturally from the interactions among and deep learning of the partners in a PLC and, like any human process, “educational change is paradoxical, ambiguous, multi-layered, and evolutionary” (p. 150). The messiness of such work is echoed in the findings of Halbert and Kaser (2013) who argued that inquiry processes are essentially recursive spirals that “pay attention to emergent knowledge and new practices by encouraging widespread micro innovations… so we can solve the tough problems involved in creating both high quality and equity [learning environments] for all learners” (p. 13). The emphasis on the application of new learning to emerging contexts also makes evident that inquiry is as much a stance (mindset) as it is an action cycle and a process of investigation.

This brief review has illustrated that effective PLCs and networks are forms of professional development that can enhance both teacher learning and student outcomes; yet building such structures is not easy. There are tensions and dilemmas concerning the question of what constitutes learning, where the inquiry cycle should start, and to what extent the educational structure may have to change or be modified so as to facilitate developing a nurturing culture through which professional learning can be supported and enabled. The current theoretical and empirical literature also holds implications for proliferating local practices with PLCs, networks and teacher inquiry, which can adopt and adapt successful practices from elsewhere to suit their particular contexts. It is also likely that creative local practices with teacher learning will contribute significantly to the body of literature and collective knowledge on professional development and PLCs and ultimately benefit all students in our education system.

2.4 Convergence between and implications of the above discussion

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While teasing out the differences between the strands of knowledge and research about teacher learning and Aboriginal pedagogy and teaching is important, it is also imperative that we consider how they might inform one another. There are several common threads that these thematic areas touch upon. These include: the importance of teacher beliefs and values as a catalyst for effecting pedagogical change, the centrality of inquiry or a critical questioning stance, the importance of learning guides or facilitators, as well as the centrality of relational ways of learning in community. After exploring these similarities, I will turn to the implications of the above, particularly in thinking through what kind of support systems may enhance and enable teacher learning about Aboriginal and non Aboriginal students. Before doing so however, it is important to acknowledge that this scholarship serves to demonstrate the complexity of the terrain of teacher learning and how to effect change in schools, school systems and the policy frameworks developed to manage such changes. As the scholars above have highlighted, and this section will reiterate, there are many ways in which teacher learning can be enabled or enhanced, providing what we have learned about deepened forms of teacher learning are integrated into these responses.

2.4.1 Shifting teacher beliefs

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One area of commonality in the literature is the need to find ways of shifting teacher beliefs. Aboriginal scholars emphasized cultural immersion and deep questioning of assumptions and ‘othering’ of Aboriginal peoples. Similarly, professional learning community scholars suggest a focus on inquiry related to student success/ achievement is necessary for sustained teacher pedagogical change. The discussion does not suggest that such approaches create transformational change, as the Aboriginal scholars suggest, but that sustained inquiry can cause changes to what teachers believe about learning and create a platform from which to continually consider and reconsider the ways in which professional decisions are made. By implication then, we may be able to tentatively suggest that teacher learning models needs to address both approaches: cultural immersion and ongoing inquiry. This is not meant to suggest that a particular structured approach needs to be used; as was stated in the first paragraphs of this summary of implications, the terrain of teacher learning is complex and situated in a range of contexts, with trajectories for action emerging from multiple locations. Both horizontal and vertical ties need to be considered; catalysts come from both locations, as Mitchell and Sackney (2009) document. We want to argue however, that non-Aboriginal teachers will need to have supportive and challenging critical partners in these activities; difficult questions must be asked if colonial mindsets are to be interrupted. Like Williams (2000) who emphasized flexible responses to successful Aboriginal program design, we suggest that the process of teacher learning is necessarily iterative, and that approaches should be flexible and respond to particular needs, contexts, and communities. A relationally based, partnership model provides the best evidence for how Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal educators can work to achieve a shared common purpose: helping all learners succeed.

2.4.2 Moving beyond performance to student identity

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We do believe a focus on student success and achievement is important. Yet we accept the caution highlighted by Hargreaves (2007) that a singular focus on achievement may result in a technical rather than personal approach. This is an important caveat: as the literature in Aboriginal approaches to education reminds us, student success involves more than test scores. It must embrace a wide definition of student success to include self-worth, cultural pride, and community aspirations. Here again the professional learning community literature is critical when it emphasizes the ways in which learning-centered cultures and ongoing relational learning is central to effective PLCs. Sustained efforts in inquiry are built when relationally informed, collaborative knowledge building is enabled, sustained and shared.

Both bodies of literature also emphasize the need for learning to be deeply informed by local circumstances and contexts, but also the value of having learning support systems (such as coaches, mentors or guides) in place in order to enrich and prompt deepened forms of learning. By extension, one could also argue that structural approaches, which facilitate the connection between teachers and communities, such as networks, could also be a tool that facilitates learning.

Finally, and likely most importantly, both bodies of literature emphasize the need to engage relationally for deep learning to be manifested. In other words, teachers who are engaged in deep personal and pedagogical learning are aided in this work when their practices and inquiries are collaboratively initiated and, by working with others, create a culture through which such learning is continuously reinforced and enabled. While the term relationally isn’t specifically evident in the literature described above, the emphasis on making interpersonal connections with students, community members, colleagues or Aboriginal community members is evident and emphasized by the authors cited.

2.4.3 Constraints on teacher learning

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Before ending discussion of the implications of the above literature, we want to draw attention to a potential gap in how these scholarly fields consider professional learning; that is attention to the pre-existing, dominant discourses that teachers bring to his/her practice. Discourses are powerful semiotic markers that allow us to ‘see into’ how teachers conceptualize and practice their craft, as they serve as frames through which the act of teaching is delivered, enacted and understood. There are many powerful discourses that shape teachers’ beliefs and practices; one worth highlighting in the context of the literature reviewed for this study is that of ‘deficit thinking’, and the inter related beliefs about Aboriginal students.

As the Aboriginal scholarship in particular notes, deficit discourses permeate teachers existing practices and approaches to working with Aboriginal students and communities. As such, they are often naturalized responses that enable the construction of personal and professional narratives that explain the attributes or limitations of particular classes of learners or communities. The tendency to label and categorize students is also reinforced through institutional systems that use categories to construct approaches to teaching and learning. Recall the earlier discussion about how Aboriginal education was initially delivered in school districts through separate programming: such responses are examples of systematic approaches to service delivery targeted to specific populations, in this case, Aboriginal learners. While rationalized as ‘support’ or ‘help’ for targeted students, as Williams (2000) points out, such approaches act to ghettoize or isolate learners, and also fail to influence the practices of mainstream teachers. What can be drawn from this scholarship and analysis is the need for approaches to Aboriginal education that dismantle deficit discourses and builds in structures and processes that continually seek to deconstruct naturalized discourses that reinforce professional tendencies or predispositions to approach education through the lens of homogenization; that is, where students are grouped or described as a category of same featured individuals, a feature of the colonizing processes of schooling. In other words, a move from “othering” to “respecting and embracing difference” must be a fundamental feature of teacher approaches for how to create enabling learning environments, essentially a strength or asset based approach to thinking about students and their communities.

2.5 Conclusion

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This literature is an important backdrop to understanding the notion of the impact of the AESN because it highlights what are known as ‘promising practices’ in Aboriginal education, how to best effect change in teacher practice, and transforming or altering the conditions for Aboriginal student learning. These ideas will be re-visited and used in conducting an analysis of the data collected for this study so as to consider the degree and scope of impact the Network is having on teachers, schools, districts and the success of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students.