Diversity, Equity, Indigenous Learning

Welcoming Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Decolonizing and building relationships through education change networks

Photo caption: Land-based learning with Knowledge Keeper Anona Kampe

How can education change networks (ECNs) support Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators and community members to create relationships and ultimately better meet the needs of Indigenous (and all) learners? We have been investigating this question as part of an emerging field of research concerned with developing decolonizing education practices in relationship with Indigenous communities. Overall, we have found that ECNs based on relationality within ethical spaces of engagement have the greatest potential for positive change. Specifically, our research has found that ECNs are most effective when they keep the focus of the learning explicit, acknowledge local protocols, make space to engage with local Indigenous knowledge and Knowledge Keepers, and identify and address structural barriers.

Colonialism in Canadian education

We recognize that colonialism continues to shape educational systems and student experiences across Canada (e.g. Pidgeon, 2022). For example, many educators may communicate lower expectations for Indigenous students as opposed to the other students in their classes (Yee, 2021). Colonial learning contexts can be traumatizing for Indigenous and other historically marginalized students, families, and communities, and deeply troubling for teachers and administrators struggling to meet the needs of Indigenous (and all) students (Yee, 2021). Educators often do not know how to begin a process of transformation or what changes to make (Donald, 2009). At the same time, Indigenous communities may be eager to work with and influence Western educational systems, but may not have opportunities to participate in educational change (Yee, 2021).

Decolonizing possibilities in education

We propose that to move away from colonial practices, educators can begin by exploring decolonizing possibilities. Niigan Sinclair (Kirk & Lam, 2020) suggests that decolonization involves dismantling racist and oppressive ideas. It requires us to reflect on our beliefs and assumptions and how they are connected to the various forms of privilege we experience (e.g. cultural, socio-economic, gender, etc.). In education, decolonization involves disrupting classroom and school practices that maintain power imbalances. However, it is vital that educators do not stop there. As Graham Smith (2000) suggests, it is critical to reimagine what is possible and what should be implemented, in relationship with Indigenous Peoples. Gaudry and Lorenz (2018) talk about Indigenization as including and advancing the perspectives and intellectual priorities of Indigenous communities to support Indigenous cultural resurgence. When we collaborate with Indigenous Knowledge Keepers and educators, we can create more inclusive learning communities for Indigenous (and all) learners.

To explore decolonizing possibilities in education, researchers, school districts, and Indigenous communities can come together in ECNs to de-centre dominant ways of knowing and reimagine teaching and student success. ECNs are learning networks that engage diverse teachers, administrators, community members, parents, and students as collaborative inquirers and co-constructors of equity-oriented teaching practices (Cochran-Smith, 2015; Schnellert et al., 2022). Collaboration between educators and Indigenous community partners within ECNs offers tremendous potential for co-creating teaching practices that foreground local Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and for supporting system and practice change.

Education change networks in action

The Welcoming Indigenous Ways of Knowing ECN, where Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers, school administrators, academics, and school district personnel work together with syilx Elders and Knowledge Keepers, provides an example of how ECNs can support educational change (Schnellert et al., 2022). Five times during the school year, on professional development days, this B.C. ECN meets as one large group to experience land-based teachings from local Indigenous Knowledge Keepers. Then in the afternoon, educators complement this learning by participating in smaller inquiry groups (6–15 educators) to plan and implement their new understandings in classroom practice (Schnellert et al., 2022). In this way, ECNs can support disrupting and transforming classroom teaching and learning, thus taking up Principle of Reconciliation 4 that requires engagement in “constructive action on addressing the ongoing legacies of colonialism that have had destructive impacts on Aboriginal Peoples’ education” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p. 3).

Ethical relationality

In our work we have found that efforts to decolonize are best realized when they are shaped by ethical relationality. Nêhiyaw (or Cree) scholar Dwayne Donald explains, “Ethical relationality is an ecological understanding of human relationality that does not deny difference, but rather seeks to more deeply understand how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other” (2009, p. 6). This understanding means that members of the ECN embrace their Indigenous or non-Indigenous positionality, and vulnerably speak about their own understandings, experiences, and the learning they feel they need. Within ECNs, this kind of approach allows us to open decolonizing possibilities through critique and the recognition of diverse ways of being and knowing. Building from a stance of ethical relationality helps create a solid foundation for the work to be done in ECNs, but can only unfold in an ethical space of engagement.

Ethical spaces of engagement

Even though ethical relationality requires vulnerability, non-Indigenous ECN members may fear being called out for their role in colonialism and Indigenous ECN members may fear continued colonial violence. As such, creating an ethical space of engagement is key. According to Ermine (2007), when Indigenous and Western knowledge systems come together, a space to “step out of our allegiances” (p. 202) can emerge. This ethical space of engagement invites us to share assumptions, values, and interests we each hold, while creating opportunities to learn (and unlearn) more deeply and authentically. Members can co-construct this space by discussing how they understand respect, for example, or how they might centre Indigenous perspectives as part of their decolonizing process. Creating an ethical space means taking a holistic stance – considering and attending to our personal thoughts, feelings, and actions and their often unintended impact on others. If members build this space together, agreeing on processes for sharing, decolonization becomes more relevant and responsive to those in the room. To summarize, ECNs can be structured as an ethical space to support Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators and community partners to collaborate in disrupting and transforming classroom teaching and learning by valuing and welcoming Indigenous ways of knowing.

Lessons learned

Our collaborative research with ECNs offers insights that can support similar efforts in other Canadian contexts. In the next section we reflect on a few lessons we have learned through the ECN described above, but also from our diverse experiences working in this area over the last decade.

  1. Make the focus of the learning explicit

Central to exploring decolonizing possibilities is asking educators to interrogate their own identities and their role as educators, deconstruct ways that classrooms and schools reproduce privilege, and reimagine their practice to welcome Indigenous ways of knowing. We have found that explicit attention to these goals and activities is important. Educators attend professional development opportunities – and networks – with the assumption that they will receive strategies to take away and use in their contexts. While this may be part of the work of ECNs, decolonizing processes first and foremost require educators to examine their own privilege through multiple lenses. To reference Donald’s work (2022), surfacing and addressing unconscious bias within ourselves and our teaching involves unlearning. This unlearning is uncomfortable, but ECN members report that it is also powerful; educators need opportunities to encounter colonial truths, explore their identities, commit to a co-constructed vision of education, and then work to align their practice accordingly. Participants in one ECN shared that they are more confident in identifying and disrupting teaching practices that reproduce privilege as a result of these kinds of experiences within the ECN (Schnellert et al., 2022).

  1. Create protocols that make space

Also key has been the introduction of protocols that make space for Indigenous and historically marginalized participants to share their experiences and insights within the larger work of the ECN. Circle protocols, where each participant has an opportunity to share and other ECN members are invited to listen without judgment, have been important. Other strategies include building in time for IBPOC educators and participants to meet (caucus) as a separate group, and ensuring that Knowledge Keepers are introduced and thanked with appropriate recognition of their role, the knowledge they bring, and the responsibilities they carry. Sometimes we demonstrate respect and reciprocity through food. When working with Indigenous communities, it is also important to clarify how knowledge can be shared. Some knowledge is sacred and not to be shared freely. It is key to be responsive to and respectful of local protocols as a way of centring Indigenous perspectives.

  1. Engage with local Indigenous knowledges and Knowledge Keepers

One of the most impactful aspects of ECNs has been the opportunity to engage with local knowledge and Knowledge Keepers. ECN members in one study expressed appreciation for local Indigenous Knowledge Keepers, the impact of engaging with foundational ideas over several convenings, and opportunities to work with Knowledge Keepers to apply what they were learning in their classrooms with students (Schnellert et al., 2022). For these ECN members, a particularly transformative aspect of the work with Knowledge Keepers involved land-based learning. Educators said that they engaged more deeply with local Indigenous stories and concepts when ECN meetings happened on the land (Schnellert et al., 2022).

  1. Identify and address structural factors and barriers

From our work with ECNs, we have identified several factors related to systems-level educational change that need to be identified and addressed in order to open decolonizing possibilities within education systems. Lack of knowledge has consistently been surfaced as a significant concern (e.g., Schnellert et al., 2022; Yee, 2021). Most educators were not educated with a decolonizing or Indigenizing lens as students or in teacher education. Educators valued learning about how colonial history has influenced what is taught and how we teach in schools. Using this lens, we can disrupt perceptions of neutrality in the school system. Another key structural factor to consider is pervasive anti-Indigenous racism – in particular, the racism of low expectations (Auditor General of British Columbia, 2015). Increased awareness has led teachers to engage with Indigenous learners from a strength-based perspective, to mentor and encourage Indigenous students, and to explicitly address comments that perpetuate stereotypes (Schnellert et al., 2022).

Education change networks are a strong tool for opening decolonizing possibilities across the educational system and within schools. Specifically, we explore decolonizing and Indigenizing possibilities as we work in ethical relationality across difference, in ethical spaces of engagement. In our collective experiences, we have found it important to keep the focus of the learning explicit, acknowledge local protocols and make space, engage with local Indigenous knowledge and Knowledge Keepers, and identify and address structural barriers. In this way, educators can come together to more effectively open decolonizing possibilities within themselves, and for the next generations in our classes.


Photo: Leyton Schnellert

First published in Education Canada, January 2023



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Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Leyton Schnellert

Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

Leyton Schnellert, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Curriculum & Pedagogy, and Pedagogy and Participation Research Cluster lead in UBC’s Institute for Community Engaged Research.

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Dr. Sara Florence Davidson

Assistant Professor, Simon Fraser University

Sara Florence Davidson, PhD, is a Haida/Settler Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. 

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Dr. Nikki Yee

Nikki Yee, Ph.D., is a settler scholar of Chinese and Mennonite ancestry in the Teacher Education Department at the University of the Fraser Valley.

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Bonny-Lynn Donovan

Bonny-Lynn Donovan is a Métis PhD student in Community Engagement, Social Change, and Equity at UBC Okanagan.

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