Dragonfly recently attended a town hall event sponsored by a federal political party. During the event – which was organized to gather ideas on urban Aboriginal policy – the sponsor MP said, “We need to get back to ‘doing.’ We know that Aboriginal children learn by doing.”
Dragonfly hears this a lot, and unfortunately, it reflects a Eurocentric approach to learning. It also betrays a limited understanding of inclusive education (especially education offered to students labelled as having “behaviour” issues) and of learning in general.
With few exceptions, the European learning process starts with manipulation (doing) as a first step, after which students proceed to observation of results (seeing), processing (thinking), and, finally, a demonstration of understanding through further manipulation or communication. Science experiments, the Montessori process – it pretty much all follows the same format. The Aboriginal learning process is much different.
Prior to colonization, Aboriginal education was characterized by the “three Ls”: looking, listening, and learning. The three Ls reflect the fact that pre-contact Aboriginal cultures were primarily visual cultures: objects of everyday use, such as moccasins and tipi covers, were also high art; history was written in pictorial winter counts; and hunters, gatherers, scouts, and storytellers learned how to “read” animal behaviour, plant cycles, the cosmos, and the land. Read any of the stories in Robert Bringhurst’s trilogy of Haida masterworks, or Wovoka’s Ghost Dance poems, and you’ll see how visual culture interacted with oral culture. Aboriginal peoples were masters of inference and metaphor.
The Aboriginal learning process was/is a five-step process:
- Step 1: Demonstration of object or task (includes learning through listening, spirit memory, original instructions, and land-based knowledge)
- Step 2: Observation of object or task (seeing)
- Step 3: Processing (thinking)
- Step 4: Manipulation (doing)
- Step 5: Understanding (mind, body, spirit, and emotion)
(Steps 1 and 2 can occur in reverse order)
The most important part of looking and listening is the connectivity they both foster. Historically, Aboriginal children knew the ways of their people because they observed the adult world on a day-to-day basis, looking and listening long before they spoke up or took on responsibility for the completion of a task. They observed things they might not at first have understood, but through their connection with the adults around them, they were allowed to develop the emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical strength that would eventually enable them to understand.
Today, the practice of not separating children from the ongoing affairs of the community and nation sometimes backfires, as Aboriginal children sometimes witness dysfunctional situations that they are not emotionally equipped to handle, receiving little or no guidance or support from the adults around them. Their brains then become shaped for protective purposes, and in trying to avoid further distress, they remain on high alert, becoming suspicious, defensive, or uncooperative. This negatively impacts social, emotional, and intellectual development stages and it is why so many students from traumatized backgrounds are labelled as “behavioural.”
When educators insist that Aboriginal children learn best by “doing,” they’re managing behaviours, when what they should be doing is healing the root causes of these behaviours. The stress of living as a marginalized, colonized body in an oppressive environment – surrounded by traumatized adults who cannot meet your emotional needs – leads to psychological distress that causes crossed neural signals and consequent problematic behaviours. Guiding these learners toward realizing their potential doesn’t mean accepting the consequences of trauma and disconnection. It means addressing the causes of that trauma and disconnection and healing from it. That’s where looking and listening comes in.
The process of learning starts not with doing, but with an adult meeting a child’s emotional needs. This means creating opportunities for children to interact with adults who are present in the moment and who have unconditional regard for the children, with no conditions of worth attached to that regard, and where the adults demand no personal gratification. It means emphasizing the looking and listening of steps 1 and 2, where emotional bonds between adults and children are placed above everything else. That’s what creates healthy brains, bodies, and spirits – and that’s where learning begins.