Aboriginal Inquiry: Lifting All Learners

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

§ 8: Summary of overall impacts: Sustained, initiated and emerging

8.0 Summary of overall impacts: Sustained, initiated and emerging

To top of this section § ↑

In this section of the report we have sought to provide additional evidence from our interviews that illustrate the impacts the AESN is having on BC students, teachers, and districts. We have attempted to provide rich detail about how the Network operates structurally and over time in many different locations around the province to demonstrate the depth and scope of its impacts. When considering overall impact, as in our earlier discussions of the cases we created the categories of sustained, initiated and potential to help tease out the level and scope of impact. We therefore have summarized our assessment of impact into these categories.

8.1 A sustained overall impact on the culture of teachers, schools and districts

To top of this section § ↑

There is strong evidence to show sustained, deeply transformative impact in a range of school districts and schools. Both elementary and secondary schools are participants in the Network showing that its approach engages all teachers—from those involved in early learning initiatives to those who work with young adults transitioning out of the school system. This is because the inquiry model starts with the interests and needs of teachers within his/her own specific context. It provides space to develop thinking in diverse and unique ways and doesn’t impose a particular model or ‘way of doing things’ but rather enables the diversity that is the teaching force in BC . It also capitalizes on teachers’ deep interest in supporting student learning: this emphasis on putting learning results at the center of the teachers’ efforts to innovate is a spectacularly successful approach. It avoids all the pitfalls of top down, systemic efforts at programmatic change because it values the professional knowledge, experience and capabilities of teachers. It honours their commitment to teaching and making a difference, and then uses that natural energy and passion for the work to invoke deeper thinking about how they can enhance student success. We think the model of teacher-based inquiry is here to stay; as we heard from some participants, it has become embedded in their own ongoing efforts to engage in professional development and learning. A network that achieves the degree of commitment, passion and dedication we saw throughout this study tells us that it will be sustained even if only by the strength of will shared by its proponents. This is the Network’s deepest and most profound area of impact.

8.2 A sustained impact in creating and profiling leadership for change

To top of this section § ↑

It was often difficult to discern if leadership enabled change, or if the changes wrought through the Network enabled leadership. Certainly we can say that the initial leadership of Drs. Kaser and Halbert was fundamental to launching the Network. It was their initial vision and belief that change could be supported using a grassroots, invitational approach. Yet we can also say that leaders emerged from the work of participating within the Network, and from there, the spiraling of these emergent leaders’ influence to broader and more diverse contexts became evident. Several AESN members talked about ‘shoulder tapping’ as the way in which their strengths as teacher leaders within the Network were initially identified and recognized. Recognition did help to broaden the scope of Network impact as teachers could “see” role models that inspired and motivated. But it wasn’t just this informal system of identifying and promoting “innovative thinkers”; existing formal school and district leaders who had an interest in and capacity to stimulate Network efforts were also built into the Network’s early work. In this way, several prime locations for innovation were identified as early “lead organizations”—districts such as Prince Rupert for example, where school district efforts at improving Aboriginal student performance had been in place since at least 1989. In this way the process of embedding the Network into district cultures was both nurtured and modeled. In some ways, BC is educationally a small province, and as formal leaders, particularly Superintendents, are transferred from district to district, they imported their previous efforts to effect change through the Network, bringing new jurisdictions into the fold of inquiry-based districts. It is this two-pronged effort of nurturing existing innovative cultures and promoting or championing new leaders who emerge through the work that has the effect of bolstering the commitment of the AESN to a broader network of schools. The creation and promotion of educationally informed leadership is a significant and sustained impact of the Network.

In sum then, what we noticed was the importance of having educational leaders at the provincial level who have the capacity to support the work of local districts and schools, nurture the growth of new leaders and provide a professional ‘spark’ by creating and hosting events which profile promising and emerging practices in education that address diversity and create culturally inclusive spaces. In essence, these individuals bridge between multiple educational worlds by acting as knowledge translators for the field professionals they work with.

8.3 A sustained impact on student learning

To top of this section § ↑

We would be remiss if we did not highlight the scope and scale of change we saw in student learning, amongst both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners. The case study that examined more than 50 inquiry projects around the province illustrates the ways in which each and every inquiry traced and assessed the impacts of their inquiries on student learning. It is not that teachers do not regularly focus on improving their students learning; this is the everyday work of teachers as they work with their students. However, the Network provided a structure and a process for systematically collecting written summaries of this work into the case study format promoted by the Network leaders in each district. The cases illustrate in concrete form evidence of how teachers went about engaging in improving their practice and investigating ways in which learning might be better realized. As such, the cases provide a remarkable record of and a database for documenting and building on initial investigations. We are not aware of any other programmatic initiative in the province that has this feature of documentation and evidence gathering (although we do note that annual Accountability reports produced by school districts aggregate student achievement data more broadly).

As was indicated in the case study analysis, there were ranges of different learning impacts reported by AESN members, although a focus on literacy and performance standards in reading and writing were a frequent early emphasis of inquiry work. In this report we discussed how teacher learning appeared to work through stages of understanding about the learning that matters for Aboriginal students in particular. We argued that there was evidence of a staged approach; that the focus on student learning began with more of an interest in academic measures and then shifted toward understanding how self-esteem/self-worth and belonging/acceptance were even more important to effecting school success. Cadwallader’s (2010, BC Ministry of Education) Prezi, who makes this point: strong Aboriginal student identities are enabling. When learners have strong foundational roots into knowing themselves and their communities, they are more resilient and are less likely to feel they are being “forced out” of the schooling system.

This deepened understanding of the importance of identity required that teachers develop new or alternative ways to trace progress; we saw that some schools and districts were developing and/or modifying alternative forms of assessment, most notably rubrics that sought to map or chart students’ progression in the development of “Aboriginal understandings”. This points to another impact of the Network: its focus on assessing student learning in using different formative approaches so as to document over time the shift among students’ attitudes and beliefs about Aboriginal peoples. While in its infancy, we certainly saw evidence of how teachers are approaching the task of measuring non-academic outcomes more consistently and in ways that incorporate Aboriginal pedagogies, knowledges, and ways of knowing and being.

8.4 A sustained impact on Aboriginal education policy and programs

To top of this section § ↑

As we discussed briefly earlier in this report, there have been efforts to effect change in Aboriginal education at the provincial level; a short history of these efforts was provided in the literature review. What we noted was that systemic approaches—initiated by government or the Ministry—were framed through policies that sought to shape districts’ approaches to the goal of improving the success of Aboriginal students. This included collaboratively developed local Aboriginal Education Enhancement Agreements. We know that these were necessary initial efforts that would bring political attention for these matters to all school districts, but we also argued, by drawing from Williams’ (2000) research, how the development of local Aboriginal education measures was a more successful approach as it built on the diversity and strengths of local communities.

The AESN has been a sustained and effective mechanism through which to bridge the chasm between provincial policy intentions and the needs of local Aboriginal learners (and their communities). This is because policy documents do not mandate or include specific measures used in classrooms or schools; that isn’t their purpose. They offer a framework for value statements. But without the specific intentionality of action, policies are often more cerebral: they represent “good intentions” but they are more difficult to enact. The AESN structure enables and promotes a move to action. The Network relies on the “good intentions” expressed in the EA’s as a starting point, but bring it to life by requiring teachers to consider how to directly implement or bring those intentions to life in classrooms. This movement from policy to practice is a sustained activity of the Network and it has had considerable impact on the work done with teachers, leaders and community members as is evidenced by the data collected for this study. The Network has been a powerful catalyst through which local change has been realized. The Network has forever altered the landscape of Aboriginal education in BC , bringing it to a level of profile not experienced in its educational history to date.

8.5 An initiated impact on culturally responsive teaching practice

To top of this section § ↑

The AESN has made significant inroads into developing a space for how one goes about shifting teachers’ practices in ways that decolonize their approaches to teaching and learning. The AESN was an outgrowth of the NOII , as noted earlier. It provided an important early platform for introducing inquiry-based research into teachers’ daily practice. But it was when the idea of culturally responsive teaching and Aboriginal ways of knowing were incorporated into a second network, that significant changes in teacher’s beliefs and attitudes began to shift.

As the cases and narratives illustrate, there were many teachers for whom this introduction to thinking about Aboriginal ways of knowing and culturally inclusive practices was completely new. For non-Aboriginal teachers in particular, the familiarity of schooling and the idea that as teachers they played a largely positive role in the lives of the children and families they worked with was the norm. To have this challenged; to see themselves as part of the problem and not part of the solution was an enormous shift. The powerful stories individual teachers shared with us show the extent of the dissonance they experienced. But it also shows their perseverance and willingness to embrace new ways of being and teaching. We think there have been some immense successes; but we are not all the way there yet. As the stories from some Aboriginal educators makes evident, there are still patterns of privilege that exist in schools around the province. And the voices of Aboriginal teachers, while strong, isn’t always enough to end decades of settler thinking. We think that this is a powerful role that the Network can play; to model deconstructive thinking—by this we mean deliberate and ongoing efforts to unpack assumptions about education that serve to continually marginalize Aboriginal learners—and to promote what has been described in our literature review as anti-oppressive teaching practice. A focus on this, when coupled with the existing emphasis on understanding the holistic nature of teaching and learning with Aboriginal communities will ensure the impact builds towards sustained transformation.

8.6 An initiated impact on culturally responsive leadership

To top of this section § ↑

In a related observation we also believe that the Network has been exceptional in initiating practices that value and support the work of Aboriginal teacher leaders. As noted above, leadership is an absolute strength of the Network; but there is an opportunity to further nurture and support the work of Aboriginal educational leaders. The AESN has provided an important mechanism through which individual Aboriginal leaders have been both promoted and recognized, yet we believe this work has not yet reached a point where the understandings of Aboriginal leadership have permeated the culture of the Network itself. There is some structural work that could be done to the Network model through which to more actively promote the role that Aboriginal leaders can and should play in transforming school district cultures and approaches to Aboriginal education. Aboriginal educational leaders bring the strength of what was described to us as “walking in two worlds” or “speaking in two voices” to the Network model: their heritage, values and ways of knowing and being provide the foundation from which their pedagogy flows ensuring that their endeavours in meeting student needs is approached in a holistic manner. This is modeled well in some school districts where Aboriginal teacher leaders have been promoted into formal positions of leadership. There is room to explore how this might be formalized in the structure of the Network so that emerging Aboriginal leaders can be given roles to develop their strengths as educational leaders and transformational change agents. From this cadre of dedicated learning centred leaders, districts and Network teams alike will be able to grow their capacity to engage in culturally responsive practices and transform the cultures of their schools to ones that embrace the capabilities and passions of their Aboriginal learners.

8.7 An initiated impact on understanding learning as a community based educational partnership

To top of this section § ↑

We saw in the review of the AESN case studies that more inquiry teams are venturing beyond the formal classroom walls into the broader community and looking to find partners in completing their inquiries. We see this as a particularly positive development. In districts like Prince Rupert where Aboriginal peoples have been deemed partners for more than 20 years, the approaches to integrating services and support systems is deeply embedded and District leaders, teachers, non-teaching staff and community members (Elders and other leaders) are genuine partners in planning and delivering education in ways that embrace the potential that their Aboriginal students clearly possess. We are reminded in particular of the inquiry in Vanderhoof where an Aboriginal Network leader is actively working in both formal school and pre-school learning activities and is carefully tying together the strands of life-long learning with Aboriginal pedagogy and culturally inclusive strategies that engage learning support wherever it exists in the community: it is becoming a much more seamless and integrated approach to thinking about the learning needs of the family. There are other communities and schools around the province where this work is also in its early stages. This work needs to be more fully valued and recognized as a part of Network inquiry processes and believe that the Network structure could be altered so as to more deliberately support and encourage teachers to name how and who they are involving as partners in their work. Supporting community members to participate in showcases at the regional and provincial level might also be a tool through which this could be achieved. This could be accomplished by supporting community members who travel to share their learnings with teachers and leaders across the province.

8.8 An emergent impact on recognizing and disrupting colonial mindsets and actions

To top of this section § ↑

The AESN has had some very significant transformational impacts on schools, teachers, and districts around the province, the methods by which non-Aboriginal teachers are ‘taking up’ the challenge of deconstructing their existing colonial mindsets is in very early stages and so we characterize it as an “emergent impact”. Certainly some of the narratives we’ve included in this report point to the deep reflexive work of some non-Aboriginal teachers: the impact for these individuals is profound and important to their emerging identities as anti-oppressive educators. Yet this is not something promoted with regularity in the Network; nor is it regularly modeled by its participants in formal settings. Anti-oppressive educators and Aboriginal scholars make the point that the work of deconstructing one’s own privilege is an ongoing and necessary part of how one ‘becomes’ an Aboriginal ally. We would like the Network to find ways of more frequently highlighting the nature of continually engaging in this deep, deconstructive work as a hallmark of inquiry.