5 ways to indigenize your teaching
Lessons from a lifelong learning journey (Part 1 of 2)
Lydia Mestokosho-Paradis, from the Innu cultural centre, with Lori Palano and myself
It was a conversation with my niece, in her first year of university, that gave me the oomph to share my recent experience of indigenizing teaching. Like many of her generation, she is navigating the complex issues of our time with curiosity and humility on indigenous matters. Like many of my generation, I carry my responsibility to use my positions of power to change some encrusted ways of doing things. When I mentioned to my niece how important it is to me that the way I teach should reflect the content I am teaching — she leaned in. If you are teaching about anything related to decolonization, it makes sense to teach with decolonizing learning approaches. Can’t argue with that, right? But what might that actually look like? I shared how I have begun working with a framework of 10 ways to help align my courses to an indigenous approach to learning. Of course, my niece wanted to know more, and asked me to send her the list. I thought it wise to share in a blog post and here we are.
To clarify, before we jump in, I am a non-indigenous auntie. I have decades of teaching experience, a masters in education and a grounding in cultural anthropology. The first half of my career was in the formal education system (as a teacher, supporting teachers, in distance education and with the ministry of education). The second half of my career has been as a system change entrepreneur where I have developing novel trainings from an embodied horizontal leadership program to a practical conscious economics course. Recently, I began teaching at my local university in Montreal within a brand new program: International cooperation and solidarity. With my colleague Lori Palano, we teach an instructional design course in which we are pushing ourselves and the students to indigenize the course. I see it as part of my allyship journey in which I am both an expert and in my own learning journey. Here are 5 of the 10 ways that Lori and I are challenging ourselves, the students and the conventional teaching model. It’s far from perfect but it’s better to be doing something, then reproducing the status quo for fear of making a mistake.
1. Diversity of voices
An obvious place to start is the reading list. I am painfully aware that if I don’t pay attention the reading list it will be biased toward western voices, predominantly male. How diverse should a reading list be?
Lori and I invested time to do this and it was a gift that gave and gave — the non-western and indigenous academics AND practitioner voices brought fresh perspectives, edgy insights and profound critiques that imprinted the entire course. From an Ubuntu article on the decolonization of evaluation in education, to a UNESCO article, Old Ways Are the New Way Forward How Indigenous pedagogy can benefit everyone (foundational for our course and this article). My personal favorite was the video interview we did with Lydia Mestokosho-Paradis, from the Innu cultural centre.
For the first time, we actually tallied the numbers and types of voices we were including and shared the information with the students. We wanted to let them know the percentage of voices that were non-male and non-western (about 50% in our case). There was no applause or expressions of appreciation because students see this as normal, and that’s great.
2. The power of stories
Human beings tell stories to share knowledge, to connect and to heal. Stories anchor us and guide us and bring heart. For indigenous communities stories are a cornerstone of teaching and learning. How do I make use of stories in academia as a legitimate and powerful teaching method?
At the beginning of the session, students shared stories to create personal connections with the subject and each other. At the end of the course, students shared stories about a moment from the course itself, which helped to surface the deeper learning. Students are themselves in their own journey to see stories as a valid element of a university course, so we used a storytelling game for support. The storyteller is provoked with a theme, such as transparency or decision making, which helps to identify a story and to find their storyteller voice. The listeners have listening filters such as courage or kindness, which give focus and depth to the listening. The game helps reconnect with our natural practice of storytelling, it slows us down and surprises us.
With our subject matter experts we focused on stories rather than a powerpoint. We did it quite naturally: Tell us the story of how you approached needs analysis in your project? With the story comes the heart. Today, neurobiology can explain how stories are so effective for retaining attention, supporting connection and strengthening learning. We would love to go further and bring traditional indigenous stories and storytellers into the course.
Listen For… a storytelling game for connection and sense making
3. Community centred
In formal education we often think of the teacher as the source of learning. What if we saw everyone as a potential learner support or teacher? How might we value the different types of expertise of peers and community members to support learning?
Lori and I used a really simple process to help students support each other called the Pro-action Café. It is especially useful when people are working on a project, no matter what type. A few students who are ready to benefit from the perspective and contributions of their peers step up. They became the project holders. The other participants became the coaches and 3–4 coaches joined each project holder. The Project holder begins by responding to some key questions. Our questions were: What is your project you are embarking on? How is it the same or different from other similar initiatives? The coaches silently listen. Then the project holder turns their back while the coaches discuss what they heard. This allows the coaches to brainstorm together, without interruption, or feeling that they need to justify themselves. In a short 10 minutes a range of fresh ideas can emerge and revitalize the project holder, who closes the round by sharing their new insights. We ran a second round, each coach switching to a different project, with new questions: What are you planning on doing for your needs analysis? Who will you be speaking with? How do you feel about it all? All of this took place without any teacher intervention and the students were genuinely surprised that they could gain so much insight from each other.
When we begin to see everyone as potential teachers our world shifts. Beyond seeing classmates as teachers, what if we included our local communities?
Academia has a long legacy of focusing on one aspect of us human beings — knowledge. How can a university course bring in the wider aspects of human beings, beyond just the rational part of us?
Lori and I are acutely aware of our own cultural conditioning towards cognitive bias, at the expense of emotional, physical, or let me say the word spiritual aspects of learning. The western learning pioneer, Bloom, is the reference in learning taxonomies and the spiritual aspect is nowhere to be found. So we formulated 4 types of learning objectives for each module of the course. To help us with the spiritual domain we brought in an indigenous taxonomy from Marcella LeFever. If the idea of spiritual objectives makes you squirm, think of it more like belonging, wonder, self-actualisation. The impact of this shift showed up in the final self-reflection activity in which students spoke of care, empathy, wonder as much as other aspects of their learning. I believe this is such a foundational element of unlearning and relearning the compartmentalized and bring us back to wholeness. This was but the beginning of my journey on this point.
4 domain framework from Marcella LeFever
5. Learning by doing
“Within Indigenous worldviews, it is often believed that unless one learns by experience, the knowledge is not truly their own.” — Jean-Paul Restoule and Chaw-win-is.
How much do we really value lived experience as a key approach to learning?
Lori and I wanted students to study the theory, history, frameworks of our subject (instructional design) AND also live an experience of it so the learning would flow in all of them. To “study” a topic means more than reading about it or talking about it, there is a part of doing. Applying cognitive knowledge is fact higher level learning. It can be easy (or comfortable) to think “that might work for other courses, but not with my subject”. On the contrary with a bit of creativity (and courage) the doing can be a significant part of the learning. We had 4 applied learning projects in the course and they made up all the marks. That sent a clear message. The idea was to be able to connect the ideas and frameworks to applied work, and make that explicit. Of course this was destabilizing as students lost a feeling of doing things perfectly. What was great though is that we were establishing a culture of practice. Students shared how much this course obliged them to give up control and really step into deep learning.
As educators, we have a responsibility to rethink the way we teach, to co-create a better future, and to shift worldviews. This is the minimum we can be doing for the next generations. Call it generative, indigenizing or decolonizing education whatever the term, these ways make sense no matter what subject you might teach. I know I will get more comfortable and better at this by doing it more, not less. I have shared 5 of the 10 ways Lori and I have been attentive to. Stay tuned, as Lori will share the other 5 in part two.
- Diversity of voices: a reading/watching list with non-western voices
- Power of stories: valuing student and expert storytelling for learning
- Community centred: everyone is a knowledge holder and teacher
- Holistic: learning as knowledge, emotion, physical AND spiritual
- Learning by doing: taking knowledge into practice and doing
Thanks to the next generations, thanks to my niece.
Interested in going deeper?
Take the free online course: Aboriginal Worldviews and Education — A self-directed course for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal learners.
Attend a free Listen For… session as a way to better understand the potential of storytelling in your teaching.
- I co-teach at Université de Montréal in Montreal Canada with Lori Palano the course Ingénierie de la formation pour l’international that I translate here as Learning design for system impact.
- Old Ways Are the New Way Forward How Indigenous pedagogy can benefit everyone A Reflection Paper prepared for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO By Jean-Paul Restoule and Chaw-win-is Ottawa, Canada, October 2017
- Peter Beets & Lesley Le Grange ‘Africanising’ Assessment Practices: Does the notion of ubuntu hold any promise? January 2005 South African Journal of Higher Education 19(7):1197–1207
- Listen for… a storytelling game with a twist is available both online and physically.
- Neuroscience and storytelling: Armstrong, Paul B. Stories and the Brain: The Neuroscience of Narrative. Baltimore, USA, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020
- For a full explanation of the Pro-action café process
- LaFever, Marcella. Switching from Bloom to the Medicine Wheel: creating learning outcomes that support Indigenous ways of knowing in post-secondary education. In Intercultural Education, 2016 VOL. 27, NO. 5, 409–424 Marcella Communications, University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, Canada
And for good measure
Discover how indigenous worldview is making its way into the research domain: An Application of Two-Eyed Seeing: Indigenous Research Methods With Participatory Action Research