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Redefining success in Aboriginal learning in Canada

Jarrett Laughlin and Dilys Leman


Source: Canadian Council on Learning. Redefining How Success is Measured in First Nations, Inuit and Métis Learning. Ottawa: CCL, 2007.

During the recent economic recession, Aboriginal Peoples in Canada —First Nations, Inuit and Métis— bore the brunt of job losses. According to a Statistics Canada study released May 13, 2010, Aboriginal unemployment rates rose from 10.4 per cent in 2008 to 13.9 per cent in 2009 compared with six per cent to just over eight per cent for non-Aboriginal Canadians. Policy-makers consider education and training as key to reducing persistent high rates of Aboriginal unemployment, poverty, incarceration and other socio-economic challenges, which as statistics affirm, far exceed those faced by non-Aboriginal Canadians. Yet despite decades of policy and program development, the learning outcomes of Aboriginal Peoples remain low, suggesting widespread disengagement from the formal education process.

Recognizing the need for informed, effective policy to engage Aboriginals as learners, the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) and its Aboriginal partners across Canada undertook an innovative approach to redefining Aboriginal learning success. The initiative began with the creation and development of three Holistic Lifelong Learning Models —one each for First Nations, Inuit and Métis— that demonstrate the many aspects of Aboriginal learning and help Canadians to understand the diverse aspirations and perspectives of Aboriginal Peoples.

Created in 2007, the learning models are being explored and applied by Aboriginal communities and organizations across Canada. This is a significant accomplishment as First Nations, Inuit and Métis encompass hundreds of communities with profoundly diverse cultures, languages and nation-based governance and treaty-related rights. Yet integral to each learning model is a shared core principle: the need to recognize Aboriginal cultures, traditions and values, while incorporating the Western knowledge and skills required to participate in Canadian society.

The learning models are a necessary part of a process to restore Aboriginal Peoples’ learning heritage. Historical assimilation policies, including the removal of Aboriginal children from their families to attend residential schools, disrupted Aboriginal systems of learning. The consequences were profoundly tragic and enduring, including the severance of critical social and cultural connections such as traditional leadership, ancestral languages and spiritual practices that for centuries had sustained Aboriginal communities. Government policies to address the mounting marginalization effects have been mostly piecemeal and ineffectual, largely for two reasons: they do not recognize that an Aboriginal perspective on learning fosters the necessary conditions for nurturing healthy, sustainable communities, and they fail to generate the complete evidence and knowledge needed to make effective policy and program decisions.

Current policy and measurement approaches tend to reflect a mindset that equates learning with performance in formal education (such as completion of high school) or on standardized tests. Knowledge and experience acquired outside the classroom (in the home, community, workplace and on the land) is not usually factored in. Consequently, policy typically focuses on reducing the discrepancies in high-school completion rates between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth and often overlooks the many aspects of learning that are integral to Aboriginal communities. Policies and programs, therefore, rarely reflect the specific needs and aspirations of Aboriginal Peoples. Aboriginal disengagement is an inevitable outcome, contributing to, for example, low rates of high-school attainment among Aboriginal youth.

The three Holistic Lifelong Learning Models provide a broadened understanding of the many aspects that constitute First Nations, Inuit and Métis learning success. Each model uses a stylized graphic to map the dynamic relationships among learning purposes, processes and outcomes across the lifespan, from infancy to the senior adult years, affirms Aboriginal values and beliefs, and provides the basis for developing a comprehensive framework for measuring success.

The learning models highlight the many factors upon which Aboriginal learning success and quality of life depend. Learning from —and about— culture, language and tradition is considered an essential element, part of a highly social process that serves to nurture relationships in the family and throughout the community, a cornerstone for teaching and learning about cultural heritage. Learning at school is considered an integral component of the process, but just one of many within this holistic system. Experiences such as participating in social, cultural and recreational activities are also highly valued, as they can foster a desire to learn and can help with the acquisition of new skills. Importantly, the learning models demonstrate how the relationship between learning and community well-being throughout life is regenerative.

CCL has used the learning models to develop the Holistic Lifelong Learning Measurement Framework, an innovative, first-of-its-kind measurement tool that incorporates more than 30 statistical indicators reflecting the full range of learning opportunities for Aboriginal Peoples. The framework combines the use of conventional indicators, such as high-school attainment and prose literacy levels, with indicators that reflect the many types of learning experiences that take place outside the classroom: from ancestral language use and participation in cultural ceremonies and hunting, to distance learning and job-related training. Many of these indicators are overlooked by policy-makers as essential aspects of success in Aboriginal learning.

The learning models and measurement framework have the potential to shift the current focus of policy and program development from one that reacts to learning deficits alone, to one that recognizes, builds upon and celebrates strengths —the kind of critical building blocks that can contribute to future improvements. They are intended to be living documents that can be adapted to address local priorities. Communities, researchers, educators, governments and others are exploring their use as tools for a variety of purposes including: community assessment, planning and development; curriculum development and teacher training; and renewal of cultural connections and intergenerational bonds.

However, successful use of the learning models and measurement framework requires the full partnership of First Nations, Inuit and Métis. To realize transformative change in Aboriginal learning, policy-makers will need to understand the value of holistic, lifelong learning and engage Aboriginal Peoples as full participants in fostering that change.blue square

Jarrett Laughlin is Senior Research Analyst and Team Lead at the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL). Dilys Leman is Senior Writer at CCL. For more information on CCL and the Holistic Lifelong Learning Models and the Holistic Lifelong Learning Measurement Framework, visit www.ccl-cca.ca.

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