As schools launch into operation, teachers are gearing up with a new B.C. curriculum, one designed to address 21st century challenges and one that embeds Aboriginal perspectives and ways of learning.
The province has long been working to improve school success for Aboriginal students, but they are incorporating the Aboriginal worldview into the content for all students, embedding nine “First Peoples Principles of Learning” into the classroom approach of teachers in every subject.
The nine principles, some of which match known best practices in education, were gathered by a B.C. curriculum team and are a summery of the learning approaches in Aboriginal societies.
“These [nine principles] are the ways Aboriginal students learn, but it is good for everybody,” said Agnes Casgrain, Director of Instruction for Aboriginal Education in the Coast Mountains School District.
The principles are as follows:
(1) Learning ultimately supports the well-being of self, family, community, the land, the spirits and the ancestors.
Casgrain said this is about developing students to be healthy and contribute to the world and their communities and to respect the land.
“Everything we are teaching is going to be about making good people who function well in the world and contribute to the world… it’s always coming back to land and community,” she said.
The principle is also about understanding and embracing the beliefs of Aboriginal peoples. As an example, Casgrain said that years ago she was teaching about things that are living and non-living, and one Aboriginal student was not sure how to categorize a rock. “Because according to his culture there is a belief about the spiritual world… everything has a spirit,” Casgrain explained. So, to incorporate his beliefs, a new category was made for the rock.
(2) Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).
“Holistic” means that a student’s emotions, stress-level, home life, and everything affects them as they learn.
“If the child comes to school stressed, you say, ‘you are not ready to learn, let’s figure out what you need, and let’s get you to a place where you are ready to learn,’” Casgrain said. “You are teaching the whole child, all of their feelings and all of that weaves in.”
“Reflexive and reflective” means that teachers to are willing to change plans to respond to individual students and to the whole class based on energy-levels, emotions and interests. If a class is studying turtles, and students start asking about turtles in other places in the world, the teacher should be willing to alter their focus to dig deeper into that question, Casgrain explained.
“Experiential,” refers to a renewed focus which is being placed on hands-on learning to help students learn more deeply.
“We can’t just learn from books, we have to give them experiences, we need to take them out, do experiments and put things in their hands,” Casgrain explained, adding that this is a much stronger way for students to learn and retain.
“Relational” is about teachers building relationships with students, taking time to learn about their lives and families. This encourages a sense of belonging, which fosters healthy learning.
(3) Learning involves recognizing the consequences of one’s actions.
Teachers will work to help students see how their choices have an impact.
“It’s about the way that we affect things,” Casgrain explained. “If you pick every plant you see, there’s not going to be any left for us… it you take more than your share, it affects the person beside you.”
(4) Learning involves generational roles and responsibilities.
Casgrain said one of the key aspects of this is respecting elders and listening to what they have to say.
It also involves respecting the roles people play in society, such as the role of mothers. Both elders and mothers have important leadership roles in the Aboriginal culture.
“When you are teaching, you have to recognize some of that,” Casgrain said.
(5) Learning recognizes the role of indigenous knowledge.
“Aboriginal people have been here far longer than we have… so there is some knowledge that they have just from being here and living on the land for so long. We need to recognize that and weave it into teaching,” Casgrain said.
This includes knowledge about nature, but also about relationships and society and structures, she added.
(6) Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.
In the Aboriginal culture, story-telling is very important, “sitting down and listening to your elders, listening to your parents and grandparents is important,” Casgrain said.
Teachers recognize that background in students, and will use that approach more.
(7) Learning takes time and patience.
“Students need more time to learn deeply about things, not just on the surface, but deeply,” Casgrain said. “They need time to explore on their own. So instead of all the information coming from the teacher, the teacher might ask pointed questions or give a framework and ask students to do some research, either individually or in groups.
“The learning that goes on when we teach like that is far more significant,” she said.
(8) Learning requires exploration of one’s identity.
Part of developing healthy, strong adults is encouraging students to talk about and understand their identity: where they came from and who they are, Casgrain explained.
“You need to know who you are: you need to find out ‘who am I? What are my strengths? What can I contribute? What are my needs? Which areas will I need support in?’” she said. “They need to know that. We need to talk about that in order for them to have some self-direction.”
(9) Learning involves knowing that some knowledge is sacred and only shared with permission and/or in certain situations.
Everyone has personal knowledge of people and things, and stories that are not meant to be shared outside of certain circles, and it is the same way with certain stories in the Aboriginal culture.
Casgrain says it is important for teachers to recognize and respect what students share and not assume it can be written and shared without permission.
The government websites says the education transformation “extends Aboriginal perspectives into the entire learning journey, rather than in specific courses or specific grade levels. This means that from Kindergarten to graduation, students will experience Aboriginal perspectives and understandings as an integrated part of what they are learning.”
The goal of integrating that specific worldview, they say, is to “ensure that all learners have opportunities to understand and respect their own cultural heritage.”