In this study, First Nation community members in Canada’s Yukon Territory share their stories about teaching and learning, both in informal and formal settings, in an effort to identify practices that might serve teachers to be more responsive to their First Nation students. In all, 52 community members between the ages of 15 and 82 shared their stories and assisted in identifying eight categories of practice and thought associated with effective teaching practices for this First Nation. Based upon these categories of thought and practice, we present a pedagogical framework for teachers and, finally, illustrate how this profile and the stories about teaching and learning are being used for adjusting and improving teaching practice in this First Nation.
More recent developments in Canada’s Yukon Territory draw attention to how political changes have potential for accelerating practices in education that are responsive to Indigenous People’s cultural knowledge systems and practices. In contrast to other provincial jurisdictions across Canada, treaties were historically never negotiated in the Yukon. Over the past three decades the Governments of both Canada and the Yukon have moved towards actualizing policy developments with YFNs (Yukon First Nations), called Self-Government Agreements (SGAs). SGAs, which are unique to the Yukon, are complex and wide-ranging, and include financial compensation, land, harvesting rights, heritage resources and operative governance structures in areas like education and justice. The SGAs have come to finalization within the last decade and set out the powers of the First Nation government to govern itself, its citizens and its land. Self-government agreements provide self-governing First Nations (SGFNs) with law-making authority in specific areas of First Nation jurisdiction, including education. With the establishment of SGFNs, each FN with the required co-operation of Yukon Education (YE), faces the challenge of reversing assimilation and regaining a sense of identity especially within the processes that influence the education of their children.
Typical of most Aboriginal peoples, YFNs presently participate in a school system that has been drawn from the dominant culture, in their case southern Canadian school system models. Because of this, school processes and practices such as decision-making in regards to the content of curricula, pedagogical practices and language of instruction have both intentionally and unintentionally for more than a century have denied the inclusion of those aspects of [YFN] culture that have value and are important to [YFN] children (Bishop & Glynn, 1999). Consistent with the tenor of SGAs to work towards education practice more responsive to the Yukon’s 14 First Nations, “culture-based education” has been more recently identified by YE and its Education Act as one of the foundational principles for school development in the Yukon. YE policy requires the activities of organizations in YFN communities to create, preserve, promote, and enhance their culture, including arts, heritage and language in classrooms (Yukon First Nation Education Advisory Committee, 2008). This policy is based upon the principle that culture in all its expression, provides a foundation for learning and growth, and that YE should support individuals, organizations and communities to promote, preserve and enhance their culture (Yukon First Nation Education Advisory Committee, 2008). The educational experiences should be reflected not only in the management and operation processes of the school but also in the curricula and programs implemented and pedagogies used in classrooms (Yukon First Nation Education Advisory Committee, 2008).
First Nations people make up about 25 percent of the total Yukon’s population of approximately 42,000. There are 14 First Nations in the territory, the majority of which constitute the majority population in rural communities. With some exception, each First Nation community is a different language group. As examples, in the northern Yukon where this project is situated, Old Crow is the home of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation who speak Gwich’in and Dawson City is the home of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation who speak Han. Today, all YFN languages face extinction. YFN are in a situation currently seen as similar to that identified more recently in Aotearoa-New Zealand (where the first author conducts research in education). Within the New Zealand education system, the realization that Te Reo Māori (the language of Māori) was in the “last throes of language death” provided the impetus for Māori to prompt radical action to defend and validate their language and culture in an educational system that perennially was essentially designed to reproduce and perpetuate the aspirations of the status quo of Pakeha (white New Zealand) dominance (Smith, 1997). The developments that have occurred in Aotearoa-New Zealand since then appear to be resonating with current developments surfacing within the Yukon context among YFN, especially within the context of schooling. The perilous status of YFN languages and the recent development of SGAs are accentuating the imperative for broadening the cultural base of schools through the inclusion of resource and language materials appropriate for each YFN. More importantly, of concern is identifying and accommodating the culturally located pedagogical processes calling attention to the imperative to move beyond the what of classrooms to, more importantly, the how of classrooms. As Stairs (1995) asserts, in Aboriginal communities the formal learning processes of schools can often be radically different than the informal learning of home culture and that successful classrooms are likely to reflect these home practices.
In response to these current developments and an increasing call for school’s to be responsive to YFN claims, this study attempts to determine what teaching practices are indicative of good practice and of learning consequence for YFN students. That is, it intends to identify culturally located and appropriate responsive pedagogy for teachers of YFN students. Although culture-based education may be rhetorically premised as the foundation of Yukon classrooms, what would classroom environments and teacher practices look like that are, indeed, reflective of YFN students’ preferences? Based upon the formal and informal learning experiences of YFN community members, what would culturally responsive teaching look like?
This area of research is informed by two major categories of thought - culturally responsive teaching and critical pedagogy. Culturally responsive teaching is defined as using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them (Gay, 2000; Stephens, 2003). As suggested by Gay (2000) culturally responsive teachers teach to and through the strength of their students. The underlying premise of culture-based education is that the educational experiences provided for children should reflect, validate, and promote their culture and language. These experiences should be reflected not only in the management and operation of schools but also in the curricula and programs implemented and pedagogies used. It assumes that students come to school with a whole set of practices, beliefs, skills, and understandings formed from their experience in their world, and that the role of the school is not to ignore or replace these understandings and skills, but to recognize the teaching practices and understandings within the cultural context and affirm these in formal classroom settings (Stephens, 2003; Watt-Cloutier, 2000; Wyatt, 1978-1979).
This advocacy for culturally responsive teaching has long been held in northern Canadian schools. As Stairs (1995) has asserted, northern students’ lack of educational success can be attributed to, to a greater degree, the inability of northern schools to meet the learning needs of their Indigenous citizens through the experiences offered and pedagogies used in classrooms. She asserted that this failure includes not only resource and language materials appropriate for each context, but also, more importantly, the culturally located pedagogy that moves beyond the what of classrooms to the how of classrooms. Stairs identified in her ethnographic research that the formal learning of northern schools is radically different from the informal learning of home culture and that successful classrooms are likely to reflect these home practices. These claims have been advocated for but tragically ignored for decades in Indigenous settings (Barnhardt & Kawagley, 2010).
Culturally responsive teaching is commonly referred to as one form form of critical pedagogy. Critical pedagogy is defined as an educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect this knowledge as a foundation for taking constructive action (Giroux, 2010). The primary intent of the YFN SGAs is a response to a critical awareness of the injustice of existing social orders, including education, that have historically and, arguably, continue to this day disenfranchise YFNs and this study’s case, the classroom pedagogies perceived to influence students’ learning. In response, critical theory, similar to the underlying premise of the SGAs, re-examines and, ultimately assists in the re-construction of practices in order to work towards a social order based upon a reconceptualization of what can and should be. Most evident within the critical theory writing is the emphasis on the idea of a growing ‘consciousness’ of one’s condition amongst individuals, a ‘conscientisation’ as Freire (1970, 1998) refers, as the first step to constructive action in an educational practice of consequence for students. It is this growing ‘consciousness’ that the authors would like to emphasize as important to the research presented herewith and, we feel, is most evident in the conversational data presented in this study..
As purported by Bevan-Brown (1998), our overall aim of this research was motivated by our desire to better inform and benefit YFN students and their teachers to see the realization of YFN aspirations for education, especially because of the potential SGAs have in precipitating major changes in education, especially in classroom practices. Our central research question is: What teacher-specific and learning-environment characteristics and social interaction behaviors do members of a YFN community perceive contribute to learning success in both informal and formal contexts? The research itself was motivated and invited by a YFN Education Director familiar with the authors’ similar work in Nunavut (Lewthwaite et al., 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011). The methodology for the overall research project is informed by participatory action research (PAR), especially that conducted by the authors in Aboriginal communities of Nunavut. In this previous and ongoing research, the collective aspirations of each Aboriginal school community (i.e., its teachers, students, parents, administrators, and supporting elders) worked as researchers in collaboration with the authors to (a) identify common goals, (b) implement strategies for achieving these goals, (c) evaluate the effectiveness of efforts to achieve set goals, and, finally, (d) respond to the evaluations with further courses of action (Lewthwaite et al., 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011). Because this Yukon project, overall, endeavors to critically identify, challenge and, ultimately, provide direction for the patterns of action of local institutions might use in being response to locally identified goals, including the pedagogy in Aboriginal schools and their classrooms, it is emancipatory as well (Authors, 2012). Although the research is informed by the aspirations and processes typical of PAR, we are very aware that the guiding framework for the research was to be informed by the YFN’s Chief and Council who made it very clear to the researchers that our requirements as researchers was, first and foremost, to “not just listen, but ensure we hear[d] what the community was saying” (Chief, personal communication, May 2011). It was made apparent to the researchers that although there were ways in which we might have been accustomed to carrying out research, we “may need to change how we go about things to ensure we get the full story” (Education Director, personal communication, May 2011). As asserted by Smith (1999), the way in which we as researchers conducted our research needed to be informed by the custom of the very people for whom the research would serve and be centred upon their concerns.
Participants and Data Collection
Initiating the research required the researchers to follow through with a variety of measures to ensure the YFN community at large was aware of the research being undertaken and its intent and that its intent was consistent with their aspirations. As directed by the Chief and Council, the first author was expected to inform the YFN community of the research through a newsletter regularly distributed bi-monthly to the community. The first author was required to attend the monthly eldership meeting to describe the research intentions to eldership and encourage suggestions as to how the research focus and procedures could best bring satisfactory outcomes for YFN students. At this meeting, what was most important to eldership was that “everyone who wanted should be allowed to say” and that simply choosing a few to participate was not acceptable. The YFN eldership demanded that the “opportunity to talk” (interviews) was made possible through multiple options including (1) individuals or group interviews with the researchers in homes or at the FN hall; (2) interviews over the phone; or (3) individuals or group interviews with eldership identified FN Research Assistants in homes or at the FN hall. These assertions for encouraged participation by the eldership council challenged the authors’ views of research protocols associated with ‘sampling’ and ‘saturation’. As well, if youth (those under 18) wanted to speak for themselves, they were allowed to speak and parent approval was not necessary to sanction their voice.
As researchers, we employed a variety of data sources to improve the confirmability and transferability in the findings (Bogdan & Biklen, 1998). These sources of data included (a) individual interviews with 17 YFN recent school-leavers, (b) individual interviews with 13 parents and grandparents, (c) group interviews with 14 parents and grandparents, (d) individual interviews with four teachers who previously had taught in the community, and (e) individual interviews with three teachers currently teaching in the community. In the semi-structured interviews, we asked questions that focused on individuals identifying (a) teaching and learning experiences they had had within informal contexts, such as in their homes or on the land, (b) teaching and learning experiences that people had had within more formal contexts, such as in school, and, in these experiences describing, (c) what their teachers (both informal and formal) did to help them to learn, (d) what was happening when they were learning best both in informal and informal settings, (e) what they would change about their teachers’ teaching to assist them in their learning, and (f) teachers of good consequence and the characteristics of these teachers, both in informal and informal settings. In all cases, the interviews were a chat (Bishop & Glynn, 1999) based upon the need for collaboration between researchers and researched to construct the final story as evidenced in the vignettes and themes to be presented in a subsequent section.
All of the 37 interviews involving 52 community members lasted between 20 minutes and two hours. All interviews were, where permitted, audio-recorded and transcribed. The transcriptions were verified as accurate by those interviewed. After the interview stage, the first author, again, reported to the eldership council. He described how any segments of the interviews that focused on teaching and learning practices would be highlighted and used as identifiers of effective teaching practices. It was suggested by the eldership that although identifying themes regarding teaching and learning practices was important, presenting each person’s story and the community’s story about teaching and learning was important. Abbreviating the stories was frowned upon, but understood as necessary for research purposes [such as the reporting in this paper]. As one elder stated, “our stories [about teaching and learning] are important. The stories help to tell what is important for us. For a long time our stories have not been heard”. Based upon this dialogue, it was decided the narratives, once abbreviated, would be compiled into a document to be used to guide the next phase of the research (Authors, Under Review). That is, these stories could assist teachers in adjusting their practices in line with the identified effective teacher behaviors and the influence of these practices on student learning could be determined. The eldership endorsed these actions and asserted that the compilation had to include all participants who approved of their narrative inclusion and to ensure their anonymity if they so desired. Eldership also asserted that these narratives were “to be listened to” by the school’s teachers and Yukon Education.
Results and Discussion: Perceptions of Teaching Practices and
Beliefs Influencing Teaching Overall, we sought to make sense of the respondents’ personal stories about classroom learning and how these stories intersected (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992). We sought to understand learners’ and teachers’ behaviour from their own frames of reference. Within the experiences of the participants, we identified common themes associated with characteristics of teaching (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). In identifying these themes, we isolated those elements of the conversation that spoke directly to what we interpreted as ‘observable’ behaviors. Since we were ultimately in our research attempting to determine what culturally responsive teaching ‘looked like’, we focused on teaching characteristics that were regarded as low-inference as opposed to high-inference behaviors (Murray, 1999); that is, specific and observable teacher behaviors that influence learning indirectly or directly help learners to learn. In all, 52 teacher behaviors were identified. Because the purpose of this research was to identify what participants identify as influences upon their learning and characteristics of effective teachers, both informal and formal, we have organized the themes from our data around these headings. Again, what we report primarily focuses on comments where consensus was evident among the participants. In each of the sections, we present two responses (as extended narratives as per request of the Council) that correspond with the theme category. It is noteworthy that these 16 responses are exemplars and do not capture all of the 52 low-inference behaviors that were mentioned.
Theme 1: Beliefs about students and their communities
Although there were 52 low-inference behaviors identified by the researchers in the 52 conversations, one high-inference (non-specific, non-observable) behavior was more prevalent than any other low-inference behavior. This behavior is regarded as a disposition of teachers that influences all other practices. As two respondents stated:
I don’t know if teachers know how much impact they have, good and bad. Like, you can really tell if a teacher believes you can do ok [at school]. I guess because I was always fairly social, teachers saw me as having potential. But [my friend] thinks that because she was really quiet she wasn’t seen as being interested. I would get more attention than her even though we were both interested. I just showed it more. I would be one of those to press and ask, and she would be more quiet – but it didn’t mean she didn’t care. Then, when I began to get lower grades it was like this was expected. I don’t remember anyone really challenging me [at school] to do better. I still wonder if they just expected I would eventually begin to not do as good [because I was First Nations]. My mom really would chew me up though if I wasn’t doing well and tell me to do better. But she would be bossy but at the same time encouraging. Then, in Grade 11 I felt [two teachers] really believed in my potential. That was the difference. I think they saw everyone had potential. It didn’t matter who you were, you had potential.
(Grant – A Recent Graduate)
Much of your success as a student is about whether teachers know you and really believe in you. I can see that those teachers I respected were the ones you knew were committed to you [and your learning]. Some teachers put emphasis on what needed to be learned. That was what was important [to them]. It wasn’t about you as a learner. Then there were those who put the learner above the stuff to be learned. That’s what I think. You can see it even today with my [children]. When I am with [my children] they will say “Hi” to one teacher and not say anything to the next. This really is about whether they see that teacher as believing in them. If they believe in you, [the teacher] wants you there and see’s you as important. If they don’t see you being able to do it, then it’s like ok, you don’t belong and I picked up on it. Sometimes you weren’t able to do what was required to pass, but still you needed someone there to have that belief in you. That’s what comes through. They would work with you and show you that you were capable as a learner. Sometimes, you just knew you weren’t welcome – it just wasn’t going to work. You just have to see everyone as being able to learn. As soon as you get labeled as a bad learner, that’s where it begins. Then you just end being on the side. There are just too many [First Nations students] that end up being left that way – just for the few that can make it through.
(Harold – A Parent)
Commonly apparent in the conversations were comments associated with teachers’ perceived views of learners. In several conversations, participants perceived they were viewed by teachers as ‘lesser’ or ‘not as capable as’ [non-native learners]. These beliefs, in turn, influenced how teachers interacted with students. As Bishop et al. (2003) assert, at the heart of many school systems’ thinking is a belief or, at least, an assumption that Western ways are superior and that Aboriginal culture and specifically students may bring deficits to classrooms, not assets. Such thinking suggests that not only are students’ background experience and knowledge of limited importance to promote learning, but so are their cultural foundations. Deficit thinking or theorizing, as it is called, is the notion that students, particularly low-income, minority students, fail in school because they and their families experience deficiencies such as limited intelligence or behaviours that obstruct learning (Bishop, 2003; Castagno & Brayboy, 2008; Valencia, 1997). In contrast, teachers of significance in this study were perceived as individuals who believed students possessed a ‘worthwhileness’ and, in turn, manifested. this belief through a variety of actions that follow.
Theme 2: What are the learning priorities?
A common concern voiced by community members, especially older members, was associated with the learning priorities of schools. As two members commented:
It is like for many years we have watched this thing you call ‘education’ occur in our town. I know there is much that can occur in the school that is good, but it does not make a person wise. In our culture there is nothing more important than the learning that makes a person wise. The main thing [your] culture wants from school is ‘head knowledge’. That is what it has always emphasized. I do not know why. It intrigues me. Your focus is mainly on the gaining of a kind of knowledge that seems to have little value in understanding the world and to make us wise people. I see it has some value, but maybe this value is only to make someone seem better than another. I think that schools can become focused on this. I think this is why many of us in the past questioned the very purpose of schools. It seems to focus on the individual and their future, not the future of the community. Our community would say that is only a small part of what schools should be about – it is about ‘making a human being’ that can contribute to our society. There is much to learn from our culture, not only our knowledge of the natural world but maybe, more importantly, how one should live in this world. It is most important this learning about how to live in the world. This is not seen as important. Without this things will not go well, both for the person and the world as a whole. In our culture the wise person has qualities like being innovative and resourceful for the benefit of others, or a willingness to persevere and not give up easily or contribute to the welfare of the group. All of these have not had much value in school, but now I hear it is becoming that way. This must happen.
It’s like if you can’t learn just this one way, then you can’t be a good student. That is what we have to think about. If you don’t get it that way, then you need remedial work. There has to be thinking that there are more ways to show you can be a good student. Learning in different ways, because the one way that usually decides whether we can be a good learner is not good enough. It’s like all the students need to change how they learn because this teacher thinks this is the way students have to learn. Who decided that there should be one way on how to learn? Then the next year they have to change to learn a different way because this teacher believes in a different approach. There has to be a purpose in education. It has to be much more than just learning things that might one day be used for a future career. If that is what education is, then really it’s pretty limited in value. It has to be about learning knowledge and skills and values that are important for life. If it is about these thing asserts it has to be more than just in a classroom or what a classroom can offer. I think it is odd there are classrooms for a whole year and then another classroom for another year. What is that about? Does that mean you can’t learn anymore from that that teacher? I think there is much more going on at school now, but the way you become successful still has to do with just how you do in those academic subjects. There has to be ways kids can show they are successful other than just with mathematics and writing. If these are the ways we have success then most students would choose not to go to school. Why would you go to school to prove you can’t be successful? I think when we think about education, we have to see it as allowing more opportunity and more things being important.
Both of these commentaries present a very thoughtful critique and a ‘consciousness’ of the education being provided in their community. Both question an orientation to education that is focused simply on an academic rationalistic view of education (Eisner, 1979). As Eisner suggests, increasingly schools, and education, are focused on the intellectual growth of the student in those subject matter areas most worthy of study, usually reducing the focus on personal and social goals. As Kemmitt contests (2012), education is, ultimately, about the formation of persons who in turn become a part of the collectives of communities, societies and our shared world. Unfortunately, as Kemmitt suggests, schooling can often interfere with education because schools and schooling can be suffocated by a dominating focus on curricula and assessments and students’ achievement. Clearly, the commentaries above suggest that many would question an education that focuses on an academic rationalist orientation, subscribing to a need for a critique of the learning and teaching priorities of school.