Challenging Assumptions in Aboriginal Education

Suzanne  -  May 10, 2012  -  , ,  - 

MacDonald Elementary: Vancouver's New Aboriginal School

Trustees for the Vancouver School Board voted 7-2 at a recent meeting to create an Aboriginal-focused school. The school, located on the city’s east side (where there is a high proportion of Aboriginal families), aims to reduce the 25 percent dropout rate in later years by offering Aboriginal students a culture-based program. The school will be up and running by September 2012 and will serve 150 students from grades K-3.

This is a good-news story, especially since the education system was once used as a tool of assimilation. Classroom approaches that are culturally responsive promote academic achievement by providing cultural relevance and a rationale for accepting school – especially important when one considers the mistrust most Aboriginal peoples have when it comes to the systems and institutions of the dominant society. The resocialization of youth within their own cultures is central to reaffirming marginalized cultures and in redefining the political, economic, and social priorities of Aboriginal peoples and communities in Canada.

But it’s not enough to include Aboriginal cultural teachings, or provide Aboriginal language instruction, or hire Aboriginal teachers and administrators. Students must also be given the opportunity to understand how their cultures relate to and interact with the larger Canadian society. As educator James Banks said at a recent symposium in Toronto, “Balancing unity and diversity is an essential goal of teaching and learning in democratic societies. We must support student identities while creating an allegiance to a worldwide community of human beings.”

Aboriginal Education Logo, Vancouver School Board

Unfortunately, Aboriginal education is too often found in a silo. In most cases, students are not asked to make connections to non-Aboriginal texts or to a diverse world or even to diverse parts of their own identities (nowadays, being mixed race is the norm rather than the exception). When culture-based education does not prompt students to reflect on the experiences, histories, and perspectives of other cultures, it reinforces the marginalization of Aboriginal cultures and supports a victimhood mentality. By examining the diverse societies around them, students see that they are not alone and that they might work together to become agents of social change for themselves, their communities, and the world – exactly the kind of identity-affirming but cosmopolitan existence to which James Banks refers. When educators connect culture-based programs to the provincial curriculum – water cycle, systems of government, and all – it shows the depth and breadth of Aboriginal knowledge, perspectives, and beliefs and provides students with competencies in the larger society (a position first espoused by the National Indian Brotherhood in its 1972 position paper “Indian Control of Indian Education”).

The Vancouver school says it hopes to hire Aboriginal teachers and an Aboriginal principal. That’s a great idea – if those teachers and administrators have a social justice, anti-oppressive, anti-racist, decolonized, restorative, culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. It’s also good if they have experience teaching through observation and example (rather than telling and questioning) and how to start with the big picture and work down to the details (rather than analytical, sequential, and linear). If they don’t have those things, then they just reinforce systems and methodologies that are fundamentally hostile to Aboriginal ways of being, teaching, and learning – everything from shaming to worksheets. The lived experience component is important, too, of course, but it’s not one’s lived experience that creates connection and empathy – it’s what you’ve learned from it. If Aboriginal teachers and administrators haven’t embarked on their own healing path, they inevitably reinflict onto their students the intergenerational trauma we all carry as colonized peoples. If Aboriginal children are to ever learn that there is a different way to be, then they need to see that way of being – every single day, modelled by every single adult in the school. Aboriginal education is about how we function as a collective – and how we practice Aboriginal cultural values in everyday life.

Finally, meeting the needs of Aboriginal students means meeting the needs of their parents and caregivers, too – which means that a cultures and traditions approach must be combined with mental health services, holistic health services, and the opportunity for the community to be actively involved in school programs. If students are to reflect upon and work through issues of trauma, cultural dislocation, and marginalization, they need to do that work in concert with their families, so that they are not forced to choose between home and school – and so adults learn how to better relate to their children instead of re-enacting their own internalized pain and anger. Education as community transformation leads to changes in relationships. When schools create opportunities for students and communities to address the shared social problems created by colonialism, then we start seeing the community renewal and revitalization that leads to real change.

There is no neutral space in what we teach or how we practice – especially when we’re talking about reaffirming marginalized ways of knowing within a neo-colonial world. We must expose and critique any and all assumptions and disrupt accustomed ways of understanding if we are to meet the needs of Aboriginal students and communities.

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