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Curriculum, Engagement, Indigenous Learning, Opinion, Policy

Engage Aboriginal Students In Education

Engaging students in their own culture, language, and worldview will heighten success

I must state that I am a non-Aboriginal person who has worked in the field of First Nations Education spanning 30 years. I am not an expert in First Nations education, but I have worked with many First Nations students, educators, elders, and leaders in Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Manitoba.

What I have learned from my experience comes mostly from my students. Their perspective is the most interesting and valid because the opinions and ideas that they have shared with me – as their teacher and/or administrator – comes from a place of truth and reality, unaltered to suit an agenda or edited to conform to another’s requirements. I mention this because in education, we are most often provided with criteria, guidelines, and requirements before we complete a written or oral assignment. It sometimes causes us to focus on what the reader or evaluator wants to see more than what we have to say. It can be a distraction from the truth.

The concept of “student engagement” can be viewed in many ways. Some educators define it as a student who listens, pays attention, participates, makes eye contact with the teacher, and follows all school rules related to behavior. He is engaged; he is a good student; he tries.

Schools that focus more on embracing the student than promoting and rewarding conformity will provide a higher quality education to Aboriginal students.

Student engagement is actually much more complex as it is defined in a comprehensive way, such as students having the power of choice in school – that they have influence on what, and how they learn. This approach of student engagement allows for students’ culture, language, and worldview to come alive in their learning. They see themselves in the curriculum and their process in terms of ways of knowing and doing in the pedagogy. And while this process is less prescriptive, students meet and exceed the outcomes.

Student engagement can allow for students to take ownership over their own education – to learn how they want to learn through setting their own goals and measuring their own success. Multiple intelligences, differentiated learning, cultural intelligence, cultural education, and holistic education can all be addressed through authentic student engagement. This approach requires trust from educators that the students will choose to learn; and that they will make decisions that will take them on a path of academic success. It can be done; it has been done. It happens in classrooms and schools that take risks and trust that students naturally want to learn when provided with an opportunity that validates them and their perspective on the world. Schools that focus more on embracing the student than promoting and rewarding conformity will provide a higher quality education to Aboriginal students. More of these success stories should be shared with educators, leaders, and policymakers. Whether the documentation shares how a certain policy was developed to create student engagement or how not following the policy actually created student engagement and an environment more conducive to quality programming is interesting to note.

The most basic requirement for student engagement is attendance and reciprocally; attendance requires engagement. Many Aboriginal students face enormous challenges that interfere with attendance and engagement. Schools must engage these students in a way that connects with their strengths and validates their experience.

It may take a long time to convince many educators, policymakers, and curriculum developers to adopt this holistic approach, so decision-makers need to continue to pursue the available avenues within First Nation and provincial jurisdiction to develop more schools that are based on different philosophies. 

It may take a long time to convince many educators, policymakers, and curriculum developers to adopt this holistic approach, so decision-makers need to continue to pursue the available avenues within First Nation and provincial jurisdiction to develop more schools that are based on different philosophies.

The short answer to the question of what needs to change to improve the success of aboriginal students is recognition of First Nation jurisdiction in education by the government and the allocation of the necessary resources to develop and sustain an education system that fits within the cultural framework of the individual First Nation. In this context, students will then be engaged.


This blog post is part of CEA’s focus on aboriginal student success, which is also connected to Education Canada Magazine’s aboriginal student success theme issue and Facts on Education fact sheet on what the research says about how can we create conditions for Aboriginal student success in our public schools. Please contact info@cea-ace.ca if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.