Image caption: Cover detail from the 2010 ACDE Accord on Indigenous Education, which is now being renewed.
On behalf of the Association of Canadian Deans of Education (ACDE)
AS A COLONIAL NATION, Canada is founded on the theft of Indigenous lands through settler invasion, which must be understood as a structure rather than an historical event. What this means is that colonialism is not a thing of the past; it continues to shape economic, political, and social structures through its intent to displace and disempower Indigenous peoples. Tuck and Yang (2012) argue that at its core, colonialism and its need to ensure “settler futurity” is about control over the land. Education has been an instrument of colonialism, therefore complicit in the dispossession of Indigenous people from their lands, languages, and livelihoods. As part of the “civilizing” and assimilating agendas of Canadian society, schooling was designed to harm Indigenous people, particularly through the erasure of Indigenous ways of knowing and by disrupting family and community systems. The imperative for Canadians to understand and recognize this foundational context of colonialism has been part of educational directives for some time. This includes the 1996 Canada’s Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which called for inclusion of Aboriginal perspective, traditions, and worldviews in the school curriculum and programs to address stereotypes and anti-Indigenous racism as educational priorities for improving educational outcomes for Indigenous learners and setting directions for Indigenous-settler relations in this country.
In 2010, under the leadership of Indigenous scholars Jo-ann Archibald and Lorna Williams, and Education Deans Cecilia Reynolds and John Lundy, the Association of Canadian Deans of Education (ACDE) launched the Accord on Indigenous Education. This marked the end of a three-year process of pan-Canadian consultation, engagement, and feedback at a time of limited understanding of the realities of settler colonialism in the consciousness of most Canadians. The Accord aimed to address this through a series of objectives meant to inform and transform both teacher education and K–12 classrooms. The Accord states that “the processes of colonization have either outlawed or suppressed Indigenous knowledge systems, especially language and culture, and have contributed significantly to the low levels of educational attainment and high rates of social issues such as suicide, incarceration, unemployment, and family or community separation” among Indigenous peoples in Canada (p. 2).
The key principles of the Accord include supporting a more socially just society for Indigenous peoples; respectful, collaborative, and consultative processes with Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge holders; promoting partnerships among educational and Indigenous communities; and valuing the diversity of Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing and learning. These principles guide the Accord and its overarching vision that “Indigenous identities, cultures, languages, values, ways of knowing, and knowledge systems will flourish in all Canadian learning settings” (p.4). To achieve this vision, the Accord lays out a series of goals, including respectful and welcoming learning environments, curriculum inclusive of Indigenous knowledge systems, culturally responsive pedagogies and assessment practices, mechanisms for promoting and valuing Indigeneity in education, affirmation and revitalization of Indigenous languages, Indigenous education leadership, and culturally respectful Indigenous leadership.
Many deans of education have looked to the Accord to advance changes in teacher education, including the creation of mandatory Indigenous education classes in some programs and the intentional weaving of Indigenous knowledges, content, and perspectives into education courses in other BEd programs. The Accord has been used to advocate for revisions to provincial curricula across the country, especially when the curriculum was silent or only superficially inclusive of the historical and contemporary voices and experiences of Indigenous peoples. The influence of the Accord can also be traced to the creation of First Nations education frameworks in several provinces, the creation of teacher competencies or professional standards, efforts by school divisions to improve the experiences of Indigenous learners in classrooms and school communities, and the implementation of policies at local and provincial levels that aim to improve the experiences of Indigenous learners. In Alberta, the Teacher Quality Standards outline a requirement for teachers to have foundational knowledge of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, and in British Columbia, the First People’s Principles of Learning build on the aims of the Accord by centring Indigenous knowledge in education. In addition to policies, principles, and standards for education, the Accord has been cited numerous times by academics whose work challenges settler colonialism, influencing the growing body of research and scholarship in Indigenous and anti-colonial education.
In the years since the Accord was launched, many more efforts to recognize the truth of Canada’s history and improve Indigenous-settler relations have unfolded. One of the most significant is the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the resulting 94 Calls to Actions. Reconciliation as a framework for education has inspired Faculties of Education to create reconciliation advisories, hire Indigenous faculty, develop strategic plans, revise and enhance Indigenous offerings in curriculum, and provide professional development for staff and faculty to deepen their understanding of colonialism and Indigenous perspectives and knowledges. As it takes hold in educational spaces, we can all appreciate the way reconciliation facilitates decolonization, equity, and more recently, Indigenization. However, reconciliation has also been subject to critique, especially in light of the growing anti-Indigenous racism, illegal incursion on Indigenous lands, denial of Indigenous rights, and the heightened inequities within Indigenous communities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (Styres & Kempf, 2022).
Further orienting Faculties of Education to Indigenous education priorities has been the emergence of the Idle No More movement, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Girls and Women (MMIGW), and the Federal Government of Canada’s commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). For example, in B.C., UNDRIP became legislation through the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act and an Action Plan that specifies Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination as a core element of Indigenous-settler relations, including Indigenous people’s right to education in their languages and cultures. Given these emerging policy directives and social and political movements, the time was right to renew the Accord on Indigenous Education. This was precisely the request made to ACDE by the executive members of the Canadian Association for Studies in Indigenous Education in 2019.
The process of renewal that is underway draws inspiration from Cree Elder and scholar-educator, Dr. Verna Kirkness’s (2013) leadership approach that asks us to consider the following questions: Where have we been, where are going, how do we get there, and how do we know when we are there? Pan-consultation and feedback sessions are being held by deans of education from across Canada over the coming year, who will “listen and lift” the voices and perspectives from early learning, K–12, teacher education, and communities. The process of consultation and the work of the deans emphasize responsibilities and actions that help learners understand their entanglements in settler-colonialism, draw from the diverse and rich Indigenous knowledge traditions in their lives, and advance Indigenous rights and priorities through anti-racist, decolonial, and sovereign approaches. A revised Accord on Indigenous Education will seek to align its goals with the rights acknowledged in UNDRIP, the TRC Calls to Action, and the MMIGW Calls for Justice. Given all that has unfolded since the Accord was first launched, there is an imperative to move from a language rooted in the politics of respect to the politics of rights, creating new opportunities for educators to deepen and expand their understanding and their practice in ways that actively confront the colonial relations of Canada, moving us into an Indigenous-settler future in ethically relational ways (Donald, 2009).
Association of Canadian Deans of Education. (2010). Accord on Indigenous education. https://csse-scee.ca/acde/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2017/08/Accord-on-Indigenous-Education.pdf
Donald, D. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1–24.
Kirkness, V. (2013). Creating space: My life and work in Indigenous education. University of Manitoba Press.
Styres, S. D, & Kempf, A. (2022). Troubling Truth and Reconciliation in Canadian education: Critical perspectives. University of Alberta Press.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future: Summary of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education& Society, 1(1), 1–40.
UN General Assembly, United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples: Resolution adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295. https://www.refworld.org/docid/471355a82.html
Caption for banner image at top:
Cover detail from the 2010 ACDE Accord on Indigenous Education, which is now being renewed.
First published in Education Canada, September 2023
Although statistics vary across provinces, Canadian schools in general were closed for a total of 51 weeks during the pandemic – placing the nation in the highest bracket globally for school closures (UNESCO, n.d.). Unsurprisingly, provincial policymakers across Canada continue to be concerned about the negative short- and long-term impacts of the disruptions created by these closures on students’ learning and have been focusing their attention on improving achievement in traditional content areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, and science. The dominant political and popular media discourse is that students have fallen behind and need to “catch up” in these foundational subject areas. Certainly, international research suggests that this concern is well-founded, and that students’ learning has been significantly disrupted during the pandemic.
Learning loss within and outside of Canada
International research is beginning to document the learning losses students experienced due to school closures, shifts toward online and hybrid learning, and other impacts associated with successive waves of the pandemic. Although these studies are relatively sparse, a limited number of Western nations such as the Netherlands (Engzell et al., 2021), Germany (Depping et al., 2021), Belgium (Maldonato & De Witte, 2021), and the U.S. (Bailey et al., 2021) suggest learning essentially stalled during the pandemic. These studies also suggest that the pandemic may have exacerbated existing inequalities, with lower socio-economic status (SES) students falling even further behind their more affluent peers. Collectively, the emergent literature suggests that learning and the academic resilience of students globally have been particularly threatened during the pandemic (Volante & Klinger, 2022a).
Unfortunately, Canadian large-scale assessment research, which is used to draw reliable and comparative measures of student achievement and system-level judgments, has been particularly constrained during the pandemic. Indeed, the administration of international, national, and provincial assessments have all been adversely impacted, with numerous cancellations during the initial waves of the pandemic. Further, those assessment programs that did occur met with high levels of non-participation, impacting sampling designs. These challenges have made it difficult to make provincial comparisons of student achievement. Those studies that do exist are confined to select geographical contexts such as Toronto (Toronto District School Board, 2021), or offer predicted losses extrapolated from summer learning research (Aurini & Davies, 2021). Collectively, the available research in Canada has been unable to quantify, with any level of certainty, the pandemic’s impact on students’ achievement.
Nevertheless, Canadian education systems, including higher education settings, are reporting important gaps in student learning, suggesting that learning losses have occurred for students in K–12 and beyond. International organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2020) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2022) have also reported that lower SES students and their families have been unable to secure the necessary resources needed to succeed in online and hybrid learning environments amidst the turmoil created by the pandemic. These challenges are also well documented in popular media stories across Canada and reflected in the policy interventions adopted by various provincial governments to try to support our most vulnerable student groups. Nonetheless, the relative success of these efforts and interventions has not been measured.
Policy trends across Canada
One of our recent studies provided a pan-Canadian analysis of educational policy developments from January 2020 to December 2021 that were specifically related to academic resilience in the wake of the initial waves of the pandemic. Not surprisingly, our findings suggested greater attention was devoted to academic issues – namely learning outcomes in cognitive domains – with relatively fewer policies and resources to support mental health and general physical wellness (Volante et al., 2022c). Our analysis also suggested that there was also a general lack of policy differentiation in terms of how specific resources and supports were to be directed within provincial educational jurisdictions to help support at-risk students. Without such differentiation, we have argued that the resources developed will not be fully realized, and will undoubtedly fail to stem the growing disparities between low- and high-SES student populations that have been amplified by the pandemic.
Collectively, our policy research also underscores the importance of reconsidering how provincial education systems operate to achieve positive outcomes for students and how these outcomes might be “measured” and evaluated. Although a great deal of work is already underway by provincial testing bodies, large-scale assessment measures currently do not offer a multifaceted picture of student development. Conversely, international achievement measures such as those administered by the OECD and/or the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), provide background questionnaires that attempt to capture student-, school-, and system-level factors that may be related to student outcomes. As an example, these international measures increasingly include factors and outcomes that could be classified as non-cognitive skills, drawing attention to the importance of non-cognitive and mental/physical wellness outcomes.
Challenging the dominant discourse
One would be hard-pressed to find any educational stakeholder group that does not recognize the importance of student achievement in traditional subject areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, and science. Nevertheless, the pandemic has highlighted how achievement in traditional cognitive domains offers a necessary, but incomplete picture of the pressing challenges that face Canadian youth. As Volante, Klinger, and Barrett (2021) noted in a previous Education Canada article, Canadian children reported disturbing trends in relation to mental health and general wellness. Similarly, the promotion of non-cognitive skills such as growth mindset represents an increasingly important cadre of key attributes that contribute to resilient students, schools, and education systems in general (Volante & Klinger, 2022b).
Thus, provincial policymakers are faced with an important dilemma. Namely, to develop a comprehensive vision of student learning and wellbeing that emphasizes cognitive (i.e. reading, writing, mathematics, science achievement), non-cognitive (i.e. learning habits, self-beliefs, growth mindset), and general wellness in the face of dominant historical and political ideologies that have focused almost exclusively on standards-based education reform. Indeed, standards-based reform and achievement of the “three R’s” (reading, writing, arithmetic), has largely driven large-scale reform agendas in much of the Western world for more than half a century (Volante et al., 2022d). In spite of the concerns and evidence that have arisen with respect to the impact of the pandemic, every provincial jurisdiction in Canada continues to adhere to a standards-based reform model that emphasizes a hierarchy of subject areas and achievement outcomes. The importance of other critical factors and outcomes may be acknowledged, but receives little if any formal attention, and there is little effort to build on the information being collected by international assessments that now include such measures.
Rethinking large-scale reform
It is often written that adversity is a catalyst for growth and change. Certainly, the last several years have likely presented the most formidable adversity that many students, families, and teachers may face in their lifetimes. Rather than return to status quo approaches that emphasize a narrow set of achievement outcomes, this critical epoch in our collective history offers an opportunity to rethink our approaches to large-scale education reform to provide a more nuanced recognition of the skills and attributes required to face the challenges of the future. Certainly, any student, parent, or teacher will tell you that more than academic content was lost during the pandemic – capturing and addressing the multifaceted complexity of this “loss” requires a new conception of what quality education looks like in a post-COVID world. Failing to recognize the latter could undoubtedly result in students catching up in academic content, only to fall behind in the non-cognitive skills they require for further success. It is time for us to look for ways to link provincial, national, and international assessments and surveys in order to obtain the data needed to examine the complexity of learning that supports the whole child.
This research is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Aurini, J., & Davies, S. (2020). COVID-19 school closures and educational achievement gaps in Canada: Lessons from Ontario summer learning research. Canadian Review of Sociology, 58(2), 165–185. doi.org/10.1111/cars.12334
Bailey, D. H., Duncan, G. J., Murnane, R. J., & Yeung, N. A. (2021). Achievement gaps in the wake of COVID-19. Educational Researcher, 50(5), 266–275. doi.org/10.3102%2F0013189X211011237
Depping, D., Lücken, M. et al. (2021). KompetenzständeHamburger Schülerinnen vor und während der Corona-Pandemie [Alternative pupils’ competence measurement in Hamburg during the Corona pandemic]. DDS – Die Deutsche Schule, Beiheft, 17, 51–79. www.pedocs.de/volltexte/2021/21514/pdf/DDS_Beiheft_17_2021_Depping_et_al_Kompetenzstaende_Hamburger.pdf
Engzell, P., Frey, A., & Verhagen, M. D. (2021). Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(17), 1-7.www.pnas.org/content/pnas/118/17/e2022376118.full.pdf
Maldonato, J. E., & De Witte, C. (2021). The effect of school closures on standardised student test outcomes. British Educational Research Journal. doi.org/10.1002/berj.3754
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on student equity and inclusion: supporting vulnerable students during school closures and school re-openings. OECD Publishing. https://oecd.org/education/strength-through-diversity/OECD%20COVID-19%20Brief%20Vulnerable%20Students.pdf
UNESCO. (n.d.). Dashboards on the Global Monitoring of School Closures Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. https://covid19.uis.unesco.org/global-monitoring-school-closures-covid19
Volante, L., & Klinger, D. A. (2022a). PISA, global reference societies, and policy borrowing: The promises and pitfalls of academic resilience. Policy Futures in Education. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/14782103211069002
Volante, L., & Klinger, D. A. (2022b, January 27–28). Assessing non-cognitive skills to promote equity and academic resilience [Paper presentation]. Advancing Assessment and Evaluation Virtual Conference. https://aaec2022.netlify.app/_main.pdf
Volante, L., Klinger, D. A., & Barrett, J. (2021). Academic resilience in a post-COVID world: a multi-level approach to capacity building. Education Canada, 61(3), 32–34.
Volante, L., Lara, C., Klinger, D. A., & Siegel, M. (2022c). Academic resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic: a triarchic analysis of education policy developments across Canada. Canadian Journal of Education, 45(4), 1112–1140.
Volante, L., Schnepf, S., & Klinger, D. A. (Eds.) (2022d). Cross-national achievement surveys for monitoring educational outcomes: Policies, practices, and political reforms within the European Union. Publications Office of the European Union. https://data.europa.eu/doi/10.2760/406165
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
“Ongoing staffing challenges, lack of daily staff supports for post-pandemic recovery, daily bus cancellations, lack of system navigation and social work for all families, and a focus on ‘catching up’ when massive structural issues continue to be major challenges. The idea that we are ‘back to normal’ seems to reign, yet every day is a challenge for staff and families. This places incredible pressure on administrators and staff who consistently attend work, further burning out essential staff. With labour challenges at the forefront and possible strikes, it remains unseen how much more the system can bear.” – Elementary school principal, Northern Ont.
The start of the 2022-23 school year was the closest to normal that students, families, and educators have experienced since September 2019 – but how are schools, educators, and students really doing? Three years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the newest findings from People for Education’s Annual Ontario School Survey (AOSS) provide valuable insights. This article will focus primarily on the data collected from the 2022-23 AOSS,1 which received responses from 1,044 principals across all 72 publicly funded school boards in the province.
When the pandemic first shut down schools in March 2020, the list of challenges that emerged seemed endless. There now exists a substantial body of research documenting how the relentless pivoting between no school, virtual school, hybrid school, and eventually in-person school triggered a domino effect of issues that included families troubleshooting technology, juggling remote learning and work, and navigating perpetually evolving health and safety protocols (People for Education, 2021a). None of us had ever gone through a global pandemic before, so it was natural to be focused on the logistics of COVID-19: monitoring positive case counts, screening tools, social distancing, and never leaving the house without a mask – or at all. In the meantime, people’s mental health and wellbeing were progressively being impacted by feelings of anxiety, isolation, or depression, to name just a few (Vaillancourt et al., 2021).
The first AOSS conducted after the arrival of COVID-19 immediately shone a light on the toll that the pandemic had taken, specifically on the wellbeing of school principals. More than half of the 1,173 principals who responded during the 2020-21 school year disagreed or strongly disagreed that their levels of stress felt manageable (People for Education, 2021b). This same finding occurred in the following 2021-22 school year, along with principals’ concerns about the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff (People for Education, 2022). At this point in time, principals’ perceptions about the availability of school resources to support staff and student mental health and wellbeing were mixed:
However, in October 2022, when asked to indicate the level of support needed from boards and the Ministry of Education for recovery from COVID-19, the vast majority of schools (91%) reported that they require some or more support for mental health and wellbeing, with almost half (46%) reporting that they need a lot of support.
At the beginning of the pandemic, most of the focus in schools was on COVID-19 safety and the logistics of remote learning; three years into the pandemic, mental health and wellbeing supports have emerged as a top priority. Numerous principals shared insights about the specific challenges they are witnessing in the current school year.
“Children are excited to be back at school and there is an energy in the building. That said, many students have never experienced school pre-COVID and as such, are needing support in basic expectations regarding how to behave at school. We are noticing significant self-regulation challenges in primary; anxiety and fears of coming to school in junior; and a lot of sexualized /swearing/inappropriate language in our intermediates. And all grades struggling with conflict resolution skills.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
“Student needs have increased significantly due to COVID-19: self-regulation, literacy, numeracy, mental wellness. Due to the impact of COVID-19 many students are experiencing many more challenges. These challenges are being met as best we can with the resources we have. Human resources are the most important type of resource.” – Elementary school principal, GTA
Although mental health and wellbeing was identified as the area where schools feel that support is most needed, staffing was also consistently underscored as a critical issue. This finding is not surprising, given that:
“Supporting increased children’s mental health needs with no increases in resources stresses the staff and leads to increased absenteeism. The lack of replacement staff (especially for Educational Assistants (EAs) and designated Early Childhood Educators (DECEs)) causes this problem to snowball.” – Elementary school principal, southwestern Ont.
The lack of sufficient staff has been regularly highlighted over the past three years (People for Education 2021a; 2022). Early in 2022, a wave of the highly transmissible Omicron variant prompted an investigation into staff absences across numerous school boards and found that the number of daily unfilled teaching jobs was, on average, steadily increasing (Teotonio & Rushowy, 2022). School boards used various strategies to cover staffing shortages, such as removing the caps on the number of days worked by retired teachers, permitting student teachers to work, assigning teachers classes to cover during their planning time, and principals stepping back into classrooms.
These survival tactics, however, did not come without a cost to the mental health and wellbeing of school staff and students alike. When asked if there were any challenges so far in the current 2022-23 school year, one elementary school principal in northern Ontario wrote:
“People are burning out way more quickly post-COVID, partly due to staffing challenges; learning and mental health needs of students are exacerbated post-COVID; the staff shortage impact on daily triage of student needs because of illness and no one to cover; having all expectations of a ‘normal everything open year’ without allowing educators to build back up before being expected to go all out for everything.”
The finding that 91% of Ontario schools need some or more support for mental health and wellbeing supports is inextricably tied to the finding that 82% of Ontario schools reported needing some or more support for school support staff. After all, one of the primary ways of addressing mental health and wellbeing is with more staff who specialize in this area. An elementary school principal in southwestern Ontario explained, “Full-time mental health care workers are required in schools to be present and available to support students and families on a DAILY basis, and to offer support for staff who are struggling to deal with the class dynamics erupting from mental health challenges.”
While 78% of schools expressed needing some or more support for teaching staff, only 19% noted needing a lot of support, which is markedly less than the 35% of schools who expressed needing a lot of support for school support staff (e.g. educational assistants, administrators, custodians, etc.) (See Figure 2). This finding is significant, given recent events related to job action and labour negotiations for education workers in the province (McKenzie-Sutter, 2022). While teaching shortages do exist, there is currently a higher demand for education support workers. One elementary school principal in southwestern Ontario described the situation: “Staffing shortages are leading to a crisis in education. Addressing the shortages across all employee groups has to be a priority for the government.”
As we look ahead to the remainder of the 2022-23 school year, it is essential to consider what actions are necessary to address the needs of Ontario’s publicly funded schools. Here are some ideas suggested by principals:
Three years into the pandemic, COVID has taught us the importance of mental health and wellbeing, as well as the incredibly huge role that schools play in our lives. If public education is the foundation of our society and the key to solving many of society’s current problems, it is crucial to learn from the challenges of the past few years and get our priorities right as we plan for a happier, healthier, and more hopeful future. As one elementary school principal from southwestern Ontario put it:
“A recovery plan for a global pandemic, hmm… I think it is an opportunity to rethink some aspects of public education. Could be a great opportunity.”
McKenzie-Sutter, H. (2022, November 4). What you need to know about the Ontario education workers’ strike. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/9253376/ontario-cupe-education-worker-strike-explained
People for Education. (2021a). Challenges and innovations: 2021-20 annual report on Ontario schools.
People for Education. (2021b). Ontario principals’ challenges and well-being: Annual Ontario School Survey 2021. https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/People-for-Educations-report-on-Ontario-Principals-Challenges-and-Wellbeing-AOSS2021.pdf
People for Education. (2022). A perfect storm of stress: Ontario’s publicly funded schools in year two of the COVID-19 pandemic. https://peopleforeducation.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/People-for-Education_A-Perfect-Storm-of-Stress_May-2022.pdf
Teotonio, I. & Rushowy, K. (2022, February 7). ‘Really severe challenges’: Ontario school boards struggle with unprecedented staff absences. The Toronto Star. www.thestar.com/news/gta/2022/02/07/really-severe-challenges-ontario-school-boards-struggle-with-unprecedented-staff-absences.html
Vaillancourt, T., Szatmari, P., Georgiades, K., & Krygsman, A. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of Canadian children and youth. FACETS, 6(1), 1628–1648. doi.org/10.1139/FACETS-2021-0078
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 The 2022–2023 AOSS is the 26th annual survey of elementary schools and 23rd annual survey of secondary schools in Ontario.
Photo caption: Chief Mi’sel Joe facilitates the final Elders’ sharing circle for 2-Eared Listening.
During a 2018 National Restorative Justice Week event in Newfoundland and Labrador, panellist Chief Mi’sel Joe of Miawpukek First Nation concluded his remarks with, “If you want to know about restorative justice, just ask.”
dorothy vaandering, Co-Chair of the Restorative Justice Education Consortium-NL, which hosted the event (and co-author of this article), took up the invitation. This developed into a collaboration with the Chief, a group of Memorial University colleagues, and an Indigenous community advisory committee to plan a gathering that contributed to decolonizing the way many participants thought about justice. The collaboration resulted in Two-Eared Listening for Deeper Understanding: Restorative Justice in NL, a community-wide event that hosted 170 people with diverse roles in government, education, community, and justice contexts. This event came to be called The Gathering (influenced by Hager & Miwopiyane, 2021). It reflected Mi’kmaw scholar Marie Battiste’s (2002) description of decolonizing education, in that it was an opportunity to raise the collective voices of Indigenous peoples, expose the injustices of colonial history, and contribute to deconstructing the social, political, economic, and emotional reasons for the silencing of Indigenous voices (p. 20).
Chief Joe stated that the primary responsibility of The Gathering would be to create space for truth-telling about settler colonialism’s past and ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples. He said, “Never have Indigenous peoples in this province had an opportunity to tell their stories.” Such truth-telling is an act of decolonization (Waziyatawin, 2005).
From the start of the planning, Chief Joe guided the group to focus on how the work we were engaged in was and would be truth-telling. “Before you can restore justice, you need to listen to the stories of injustice. At the heart of justice is listening,” he said. As such, the Gathering grew into an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to listen and learn about Indigenous history in the province from the lived experience of Indigenous Peoples. The role of listening was accentuated by fact that non-Indigenous leaders, whose voices are typically privileged, were not given roles as speakers but, instead, were explicitly tasked as listeners.
The shared stories reflected the impact of colonization both pre and post Newfoundland and Labrador joining the Confederation of Canada in 1949, amplifying the explicit choices made by various governments to “write Indigenous people out of existence.” Elders Emma Reelis and Ellen Ford spoke about their experiences in residential schools and their lives as Inuit women. Chief Mi’sel Joe and Chief Brendan Mitchell (Qalipu First Nation) spoke about their respective communities’ complex histories and the impact of uninformed decisions made by provincial governments, and Elder Calvin White described the impact of imposed hunting and fishing regulations on the social fabric of his community. Elder Elizabeth Penashue shared the catastrophic impact on the Innu Nation of NATO’s decision to practise low-level flying over their living and hunting territory, disrupting every aspect of their lives. The current Indigenous communities’ realities were also shared and illustrated how colonial attitudes persist, as their successes and needs continue to be supplanted by the dominant population’s more “pressing” demands. These stories are not commonly known, as demonstrated by their absence from courses and learning resources at all levels of formal education in the province.
Indigenous culture was woven into The Gathering through daily smudging, a Mide-wiigwas, music, and on-site meals that reflected the cultural importance of sharing food. People gathered in a unique environment purposefully set up for truth-telling and for deep listening to Indigenous stories of injustice that would challenge many participants in ways not ordinarily experienced.
Listening with two ears
A Two-Eared Listening protocol was shared with participants. It read:
Elders tell us that we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen more than we talk.
At the Two-Eared Listening Gathering, we invite participants to listen deeply with the intention of learning and understanding. Deep listening requires the listener to receive new information through an open mind and to suspend judgment with an open heart.
Two-eared listening is an act of conciliation by promoting respectful relationships through building trust and nurturing understanding.
As you participate in this Gathering, please:
Such listening is an important component of decolonization work as all sectors of Canadian society strive to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action (2015a). To practically support participants in engaging fully with these five elements, the Gathering space was designated as “technology-free” from the start.
Elements of two-eared listening
Listen with two ears: Listening to stories of injustice involves more than hearing the sounds of words being spoken; it involves more than listening with our ears. Two-eared listening involves listening with our emotions as well. Stó:lō educator and researcher Jo-Ann Archibald (2008) describes listening with “three ears: two on the sides of our head and the one that is in our heart” (p. 8). Chief Joe explains that listening in this way communicates a sense of caring to the speaker:
“Injustice is about hurt and pain so that brings in parts of our body, including the heart and soul. [This talking] includes body language [and] knowing someone is listening and caring. If you are listening from your core, you will understand the telling of these stories of justice and injustice.” (Joe, vaandering, et al., 2022)
According to Métis scholar Jo-Ann Episkenew (2009), Indigenous stories generate empathy, enabling settlers “… to understand Indigenous people as fellow human beings. Empathy, in turn, has the potential to create a groundswell of support for social-justice initiatives to improve the lot of Indigenous people” (pp. 190–191).
Be open to receiving new learning: Deep listening involves listening to and understanding stories that have come from different life experiences and through different lenses that challenge the dominant narrative. For example, assumptions that land is “empty” and thus open for resource extraction or military exercises shifts to realizations that land is teeming with life. Taking in new learning may require adjusting the frame of reference through which the world is understood. Mezirow (1997) explains that “frames of reference are the structures of assumptions through which we understand our experiences” (p.5) and “We transform our frames of reference through critical reflection on the assumptions upon which our interpretations, beliefs, and habits of mind or points of view are based” (p. 7). In this way, decolonizing requires a transformation of our frames of reference.
Suspend judgment: Two-eared listening requires that we listen without judgment. In responding to questions about residential school records, Father Ken Thorson (Findlay, 2022), a Canadian Oblate priest, speaks to the importance of how we listen:
“… too often the institutions… have led the conversation, have set the narrative. And we’re in a time now when, rightly, Indigenous Peoples are setting the narrative and are full partners in the conversation… our primary role at this time is to humbly listen to our Indigenous brothers and sisters, their experience, their pain and not to judge, but to listen.”
Suspending judgment allows the listener to take in what is being said and hold it with an open mind. Reactions are replaced with opportunities for change and understanding.
Listen with intention: Cree scholar Dwayne Donald describes colonization as the “extended process of learning to deny relationships” (2022). At the core of this, there is an “intentional imposition of a particular way of understanding life and living, understanding human beings, understanding knowledge and knowing… a gridwork of understanding knowledge and knowing” (2022). Listening deeply and learning from the stories of others, particularly stories that are counter narratives, challenges this gridwork way of understanding the world. Two-eared listening is listening with a willingness to hear what is said with the possibility that what I hear will change me. Two-eared listening becomes part of the extended process to nurture relationships.
Purposefully engage in (re)conciliation: The act of two-eared listening has the potential for leading people into authentic engagement with (re)conciliation. “By listening to your story, my story can change. By listening to your story, I can change” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 15). This reciprocal act of listening to the truth leads to contemplation, meditation, and internal deliberation (Augustine in Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015b, p. 13). However, given that harm was inflicted by societies of people promoting colonizing ways of being, the act of reconciliation will be embodied when non-Indigenous people of privilege move beyond tokenizing and consulting with Indigenous peoples and embrace being led by Indigenous people.
BEFORE THE FINAL MEAL together, Chief Joe concluded the Gathering symbolically by inviting everyone to stand in a large circle holding hands for a final prayer. His closing words, “Go in peace, be friends, enjoy,” encapsulated the common feeling in the room. The deeper understanding gained through two-eared listening to injustices experienced by Indigenous Peoples was palpable. Two-eared listening had shown itself to be a universal skill across the diversity of those present for respectfully engaging in an active process that is traditionally understood as passive. As truths of injustice were shared, participants listened with intention, opened their minds to new learning, and suspended judgment. They slowed down in order to truly witness the truths, focused on being present, and did not rush toward desired predefined outcomes. The challenge of listening (and not talking) permeated every aspect of The Gathering. Those who planned the event, and those who responded to the invitations to share or to listen, caught a glimpse over three days together of what is possible in establishing a context for the stories and truths of members of multiple Indigenous groups in Newfoundland and Labrador to be heard.
Drawing on Palmer (1980), we must listen our way into a new kind of thinking. And this, in turn, can become the basis of reconciled relationships.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with colleagues
Present the term, along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk, to the group you are working with in a staff or committee meeting.
Explain the five components of two-eared listening, then invite them to think about what this will mean for:
Use a talking circle with one round for each topic for colleagues to share their ideas. Finish with a 4th round for each to summarize their key learning from hearing each other’s ideas.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with K–6 students
Present the term two-eared listening along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk.
IDEAS for Educators: Two-eared listening with 7–12 students
Present the term two-eared listening along with the statement that we have two ears and one mouth so we can listen more than we talk.
 Traditional Mi’kmaw giveaway.
Acknowledgement: Event funded by SSHRC and Memorial University.
Photo: Bob Brink
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Archibald, J. (2008). Indigenous storywork. UBC Press.
Battiste, M. (2002). Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy in First Nations education: A literature review with recommendations. Apamuwek Institute. www.ainc-inac.gc.ca/pr/pub/krw/ikp_e.pdf
Donald, D. (2022). Personal communication with the author.
Donald, D. (2020). Homo economicus and forgetful curriculum: Remembering other ways to be a human being. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VM1J3evcEyQ
Episkenew, J. (2009). Taking back our spirits: Indigenous literature, public policy, and healing. University of Manitoba Press.
Findlay, G. (2022, March 23). Rome Indigenous archive to open [Radio broadcast transcript]. CBC Radio. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/march-23-2022-episode-transcript-1.6396755
Hager, S. N. & Mawopiyane. (2021). The gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler relations. University of Toronto Press.
Joe, M., vaandering, d., Ricciardelli , R. et al. (2022, July 8). Two-eared listening is essential for understanding restorative justice in Canada. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/two-eared-listening-is-essential-for-understanding-restorative-justice-in-canada-185466
Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative Learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education, (74), 5–12.
Palmer, P. J. (1980). The Promise of Paradox. Ave Maria Press.
Findlay, G. (2022, March 23). As It Happens [Radio broadcast transcript]. CBC Radio. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/march-23-2022-episode-transcript-1.6396755
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015a). Calls to Action. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015b). Canada’s residential schools: Reconciliation. Final Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Waziyatawin. (2005). Relieving our suffering. In W. A. Wilson & M. Y. Bird (Eds.), For Indigenous eyes only (pp. 189–205). School of American Research Press.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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
Auditor General of British Columbia. (2015). An audit of the education of Aboriginal students in the B.C. public school system. Office of the Auditor General of British Columbia. www.bcauditor.com/sites/default/files/publications/reports/OAGBC%20Aboriginal%20Education%20Report_FINAL.pdf
Cochran-Smith, M. (2015). Teacher communities for equity, Kappa Delta Pi Record, 51(3), 109–113. doi: 10.1080/00228958.2015.1056659
Donald, D. (2009). Forts, curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian relations in educational contexts. First Nations Perspectives, 2(1), 1–24.
Donald, D. (2022, September 19). A curriculum for educating differently. Education Canada, 20–24. www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently
Ermine, W. (2007). The ethical space of engagement. Indigenous Law Journal, 6(1), 193–203. https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/ilj/article/view/27669
Gaudry, A., & Lorenz, D. (2018). Indigenization as inclusion, reconciliation, and decolonization: Navigating the different visions for indigenizing the Canadian academy. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 14(3), 218–227. doi.org/ 10.1177/1177180118785382
Kirk, J., & Lam, M. (Hosts). (2020, October 8). Indigenizing education (No. 26) [Audio podcast episode]. In Leaning in and Speaking Out. BU Cares Research Centre. www.bucares.ca/podcast/n5c2968wkajahe2
Pidgeon, M. (2022). Indigenous resiliency, renewal, and resurgence in decolonizing Canadian higher education. In S. D. Styres & A. Kempf (Eds.), Troubling truth and reconciliation in Canadian education: Critical perspectives (pp. 15–37). University of Alberta Press.
Schnellert, L., Davidson, S. F., & Donovan, B. (2022). Working towards relational accountability in education change networks through local indigenous ways of knowing and being, Cogent Education, 9(1), 2098614. doi: 10.1080/2331186X.2022.2098614
Smith, G. H. (2000). Protecting and respecting Indigenous knowledge. In M. Battiste (Ed.), Reclaiming Indigenous voice and vision (pp. 209–224). UBC Press.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2015). Truth and reconciliation commission of Canada: Calls to action. www.trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_ Action_English2.pdf
Yee, N. L. (2021). Review of inclusive and special education: Final report. Department of Education for Yukon Territory. https://yukon.ca/en/review-inclusive-and-special-education-yukon-final-report
In 2018, during their 50th anniversary, the Whyte Museum in Banff, Alberta, hosted an extraordinary sculpture exhibit of 100 human busts. Christine Wignall, the sculptor, reflected on her work:
“When I began the project, I thought I would simply start and see where the muse would lead. It wasn’t until I had completed about ten heads that I began to realize who they represented and from where they were coming. My memories and imagination were giving life to the clay and each one of the heads took on the character of someone I had known while growing up… Many of these folks are dead now, a lot of them, but they do haunt my memories. They walked the streets of Banff while the museum was being planned. It is good to remember them all.”
One of the reports on the exhibition stated, “Wignall captured the faces of prominent Banff people… the faces were so full of life” (Szuszkiel, n.d., para. 8). Indeed, the collection was impressive. But when I saw the exhibit with a colleague, what struck me was that 96 of the sculpted busts in the exhibit were those of individuals who had settled in the Banff area. The exhibition included four people from the Stoney Nakoda Nations.
The Stoney Nakoda, comprising the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations, are the first peoples in this region. And unlike all the other sculptures in the exhibit, only one of these four sculptures was of a named individual, Walking Buffalo. We wondered, if more people from the Stoney Nakoda Nations were to be included, who might those individuals be. Who were some of the important members of the Nations?
I was fortunate to lead a professional learning and research organization, Galileo Educational Network (Galileo) in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. Those of us at Galileo had a history of developing research-practice partnerships to engage in professional learning with teachers, principals, and district leaders. Galileo had an ongoing research-practice partnership with the school district in the Banff corridor, focused on nurturing excellence in instruction and leadership, also known in the district as NEIL. In one of the monthly co-design meetings with educators from the school district, we shared our observation about the exhibit at the Whyte Museum. We proposed that perhaps one of the teachers in the district might want to work with one of our professional learning mentors to engage in a project that would involve members of the Stoney Nakoda Nations to learn who from their Nations they considered to be important and to learn their stories. One of the public schools in the school district, whose population is comprised primarily of students from the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, was put forward by district leaders as the one most likely to have an interested teacher. A Grade 4 teacher, whose students were all from the Stoney Nakoda Nations, stepped forward.
The school’s success coach joined the first meeting between the Galileo mentor and the teacher. The success coach, who had worked with the Stoney Nakoda Education Authority for 18 years, brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the first design meeting. While offering to assist with the overall initiative, she also stated she could assist with making connections with Elders within the community. It was imperative to us at Galileo that Elders be involved in this project, right from the beginning of the design process. While we had engaged in a number of research-practice partnerships with First Nations communities and Elders prior to this one, this would be somewhat unique as we wanted to invite Elders to collaboratively design (co-design) the classroom activities and tasks with us. Having Elders as co-designers added a new and valuable dimension to this classroom initiative.
As this was not only a professional learning initiative, but also a research initiative, I felt it was important to take a participatory research approach. Within participatory design, the individuals involved in creating the design make a resolute commitment to ensure those who will be impacted by the design be significantly involved in the initial and subsequent iterative work of design (Bødker et al. 2004). In participatory design initiatives, the partners are not merely informants; rather, they are legitimate and acknowledged participants in the design process. In this initiative, the teacher, success worker, and the Elders contributed in all phases of the design work, and throughout all the iterations. As legitimate partners it is important that the participants “be involved in the making of decisions which affect their flourishing in any way” (Heron, 1996, p. 11). For it is through their participation they experience a sense of well being.
At the next meeting, four of the respected Elders from the Nations accepted our invitation to join us in conversation. They agreed to join the initiative; however, when it was suggested they provide the names of members – heroes from the Nations – they were not forthcoming with names. The Elders, although intrigued, spoke of intellectual property, of acknowledging who “owns” the stories and who has the right to hear or to re-tell the stories. They spoke of the disconnect many students have to their own heritage, their families, and their identities. At this point they saw an opportunity that those engaged in the previous design work had not seen. The Elders saw an opportunity for the students to learn about who they are by having them identify their own ancestors and trace who they are related to. The Elders wanted to work directly with the students to help them connect with their culture, their community, and their own families. They were confident they would be able to help each student trace back their lineage to a Stoney Nakoda “hero.” Through genealogy, students would then have the intellectual property rights to the stories of their own ancestors. As the Elders instructed, the students’ ancestors’ stories are their stories.
Over the following month, the teacher worked with the students and their families to identify the names of family members. Most students came back with family trees that extended to their grandparents. Some had more. Some had less. Regardless of what students were able to come up with, it would serve as a starting point for the next step.
At the next meeting with the co-design team, the four Elders brought an additional four Elders to the meeting. The teacher and her Galileo mentor brought the family trees to that meeting to show the Elders in hopes that the Elders would review the family trees. However, the Elders were clear: the children needed to be present when they reviewed the family trees. This new information necessitated a change to the design. The eight Elders would be invited into the classroom, where the children would share their family trees. What became evident to the entire co-design team, is that the initial four Elders recognized their own need to bring in more Elders to help fill in the gaps in students’ family trees. In addition, the Elders were not interested in merely viewing the family trees that students had created without the students; rather, they wanted the students to hear the stories of their ancestors from the Elders themselves.
The eight Elders began their teachings with the children with an opening prayer and a sharing circle in which the students were encouraged to speak their names clearly and proudly. The Elders and the children immersed themselves in the important work of tracing ancestral lineages. Speaking with one child, an Elder stated, “You are a descendent of great warriors. Your name comes from your ancestors.” In another corner of the room, an Elder looked at a child and said, “Your great, great, great grandfather was a powerful Shaman. People came to see him from far away because he had supernatural powers. He could heal people.” Where one Elder’s recollection ended, another one carefully filled in the gaps. The conversations and collaboration between Elders and students were a powerful sight to witness. The Elders circled the room going from one student to another, from one family tree to another, helping each other remember when there was a gap that needed to be filled or confirming each other’s recollections. Throughout the day’s activity, the family trees that initially seemed so small were now expanding beyond the constraints of the chart paper. Notes were added to one family tree to show how this student’s lineage continued onto another student’s chart. Elders continually reinforced to the students, “You are family. Get to know each other. Now you need to look out for each other, because that’s what families do.”
We did not end there. The now 11-person co-design team invited Christine Wignall, the artist whose exhibition inspired this project, to join the initiative. While sculpting busts with nine- and ten-year-olds was a bit daunting to her at first, she willingly agreed to accept the challenge. The local Canmore community arts centre, artsPlace, agreed to open its doors to Christine and the children. The children had all selected one of their ancestors as their hero, had learned the stories of their ancestral hero from the Elders, and now they were ready to sculpt a bust of their hero to fill in the missing people from the original 100-head exhibit. The local news media (Lucero, 2019) featured the work of the students, and the public was invited to attend the exhibition of their hero sculptures as part of the National Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations.
I had more than 20 years of experience in research-practice partnerships with teachers and school leaders. However, with this project, I and my colleagues at Galileo had the opportunity to learn how to weave what we knew with the wisdom of the Elders who participated with us to co-design classroom learning for children. It was our opportunity to engage in a process of unlearning – unlearning professional learning and research, and unlearning classroom and curriculum approaches and processes tethered to “colonial logics of relationship denial” (Donald, 2022, para. 8).
What began fairly naively as a school project to connect children with their community grew and surpassed any of our expectations. The Elders brought us into relationship with each other, the children’s ancestors, and historical events that not only shaped this region, but also so many regions across Canada. One of the Elders commented, “Not only was this experience incredibly beneficial for the children, but for the Elders as well.” A number of the Elders noted that as they helped each other remember, they were reminded of stories, family members, and cultural histories that have not been spoken of in some time. As one Elder stated, “This is good for our community.” I would add, this was so good for me as well. I witnessed the ways in which even the best intended curriculum approaches often remain tethered to colonial logics. Opening myself to the teachings of the Elders and being in the presence of their work with the children showed me how to begin the work of unlearning in a good way – a way that honours and respects. Perhaps my unlearning is best captured by the words of an Elder who was such an integral part of this entire project, Elder Skyes Powderface. Elder Powderface has now passed on to the spirit world, but I am left with his words: “This is what reconciliation is all about.”
The Galileo Educational Network created a short video documenting this project:
Stoney Nakoda Heroes Project https://vimeo.com/333252310/5f9b208c95
Photos: Amy Park and and Sharon Friesen, Galileo Educational Network
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Bødker, K., Pors, J. K., & Simonsen, J. (2004). Implementation of web-based information systems in distributed organizations: A change management approach. Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems, 16(1). https://aisel.aisnet.org/sjis/vol16/iss1/4
Donald, D. (2022). A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Education Canada, 62(2). www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently
Heron, J. (1996). Quality as primacy of the practical. Qualitative Inquiry, 2(1), 41–56. doi.org/10.1177/107780049600200107
Lucero, K. (2019, June 20). Stoney Nakoda heroes: Uncovering lost family history with guidance of elders. RMOTODAY.com. www.rmotoday.com/mountain-guide/stoney-nakoda-heroes-uncovering-lost-family-history-with-guidance-of-elders-1574369
Szuskiel, D. (n.d.) Whyte Museum 50th anniversary. https://whererockies.com/2019/05/10/whyte-museum-50th-anniversary
IN 2019, THREE of us (Leyton, Joelle, and Carol) attended a conference in San Diego that focused on professional learning networks (PLNs), with a specific emphasis on how they enable educators to “tear down boundaries” to connect and learn with colleagues beyond our own schools. It was a productive meeting of scholars from North America and multiple European countries. The group focused on professional learning, collaborative inquiry, and educational change, sharing varied perspectives. But as we reflected on our learning, we began talking about what wasn’t part of this conversation: the ways in which PLNs can reproduce colonial ways of knowing and being, by:
In fact, little attention has been paid to the colonizing practices and assumptions embedded in the vast majority of professional learning (PL) initiatives (Washington & O’Connor, 2020). Donald (2012) describes the colonial project as one of division, excluding ways of being and knowing as well as value systems that are different from a Eurocentric point of view. Present-day education systems are implicated in this colonial project, where curriculum (a focus on constructing subject areas that privilege a particular type of knowledge), pedagogy (approaches to teaching and instruction), and classroom routines (e.g. grading, grouping) contribute to institutional structures that privilege some students to the expense of others who are often racialized and minoritized within this system (Yee, 2020).
Alas, from these observations, the idea for the Decolonizing Professional Learning event, held in St. John’s, N.L., in August 2022, was born. The 30 participants were educators and researchers from across the country who were already working to develop decolonizing education practices. They were focused on cultivating culturally sustaining, relational pedagogies in ethical relationship with equity deserving communities (Donald et al., 2011; Ermine, 2007). The central goals of the gathering were two-fold:
Ultimately, our goal is to rethink and reconstitute professional learning as a collaboratively constructed, transformative, and decolonial practice.
At the centre of the gathering was the concept of decolonization. Decolonizing professional learning is about decentring settler colonial practices and their curricular and pedagogical Eurocentricities. All levels of education in Canada are working to implement initiatives that respond to the 94 Calls to Action put forth by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015). In turn, terms such as decolonization, reconciliation, and Indigenization are now being taken up in higher education and the K–12 schooling systems.
The scholars and practitioners who attended the gathering came together to discuss their understanding of decolonizing and how they promote this concept in research and professional learning. Some drew on the concept of decolonizing education as intentionally identifying, challenging, and dismantling colonial practices and policies (Lopez, 2021), while others focused on interrogating and unlearning colonial ideologies (Donald, 2022).
The intent of the gathering was not to agree on a single definition of decolonization, but rather to share ideas and create a network for learning in which we move forward together. We came together guided by our “learning spirits” (Battiste, 2013, p. 18), sharing the stories of our collective work to disrupt colonial school systems in our local settings.
There is an assumption of neutrality in professional development approaches; therefore, we sought to disrupt the “typical” conference format when designing this event. We wanted a less hierarchical approach – so instead of having a few presenters deliver an address to a largely passive audience, we offered a series of collaborative experiences. Across the three days, we worked to create space for all participants to share their work within small groups of interested teachers, administrators, and researchers.
The gathering was guided by a series of questions, for example:
Coming together: The event began at a small gathering place at a local park. Mi’kmaw knowledge keepers Sheila O’Neill and Marie Eastman welcomed participants to the traditional territory of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq. Following introductions, they shared some of the history of the land, discussed the ongoing struggle for the recognition of Indigenous Peoples in the province, and talked about their work with Mi’kmaw communities to strengthen the language and culture.
Small fires: Each day, participants could choose from among three to five “small fires,” each hosted by one of the attendees. In these small groups, the hosts shared their research and practice related to decolonizing professional learning. Each SSHRC-funded participant served as a small fire host on one day of the program.
Sharing circles: Once each day we came together in Sharing Circles. Participants chose one of three different circles – such as mindfulness practice, nature walks, and talking circles – to participate in. Attendees reflected on what they were noticing or wondering, and connections they were making to their own practice. These sharing circles invited deeper conversations about what we heard in the small fires and our experiences in different contexts (K–12 schools, post-secondary institutions, communities).
Writing activities: To support the building of connections within this emerging community, we embedded daily opportunities for collaborative writing. We began by inviting everyone to write about their own decolonizing work. Next we invited people to explore the connections and intersections between their work and the work of others. We hoped that discovering these relationships would encourage continued collaboration and sharing once everyone returned to their communities.
VoicEd panels: Two live-streamed panel discussions were hosted by Stephen Hurley from VoicEd Radio. Colleagues discussed colonization and placelessness, disrupting deficit thinking, inclusion and exclusion, educational change networks, and more. Online participants were encouraged to submit questions to the panel. Recordings of the Decolonizing Professional Learning panels are available on VoicEd Radio.
Final sharing circle: To end the gathering, we all joined in a final circle to share our thoughts about our time together and how we might move forward together. Each person had a turn to share what they thought were key themes, next steps, and opportunities missed. Attendees spoke of forming a network, meeting together virtually and/or in person, writing an edited collection of chapters, presenting together at conferences, and this Education Canada issue.
What was evident to us all was that we had not collectively defined decolonization, and that future collaborations between us need to both honour the diversity of our approaches and include opportunities to define key terms and expectations. In this debrief, participants also surfaced the different aspects of power and privilege we carry and/or do not have in our various roles and contexts. Our identities, roles, and educational change efforts can and must be returned to as part of decolonizing work, and trying to move too quickly to consensus and definitions is counterproductive. This work takes patience and time.
The Decolonizing Professional Learning gathering that took place in Newfoundland was a starting point for what we hope will become a larger conversation and impetus for collaborative action across Canada. There is already some pan-Canadian work that genuinely connects researchers and practitioners with a commitment to educational change and improvement. We know from previous research that a considerable number of professional learning activities are happening across Canada, but there are inequities in access to quality professional learning for people who work in education (Campbell et al., 2017). There is also a need to consider the purpose and content of such professional learning. If educators are to care for all students and support them in developing to their fullest potential, it is essential that professional learning activities for educators are critically examined to ensure that structural inequities are not un/intentionally reproduced.
We are at a moment in time when valuing Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, fulfilling the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and addressing and undoing systemic racism from generations of colonialism and genocide are urgent and essential. This is the call to move forward with conversations to understand and share approaches to decolonizing professional learning and to act together – researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers – for educational equity and improvement in Canada.
An important starting point is for further discussion about the concept of “decolonizing professional learning” itself and the linked work of “unlearning” historically embedded assumptions. As educators, it is our job to continuously learn, but that can be challenging when confronting ingrained colonial ways of seeing and living in the world. We also need to consider what this work looks like in practice. Bringing together practitioners with applied researchers was a beginning, but it is important to share our stories, our evidence, our ideas, and our examples widely. Deprivatizing individual or isolated practices and mobilizing knowledge by sharing in conversations and communications are powerful strategies.
This collection of articles for Education Canada is a way to reach out and call on people across Canada (and beyond) to join in connecting, collaborating, and sharing to advance decolonizing professional learning in and through education.
Photo: Nicholas Ng-A-Fook
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
It is important to share the understandings that guide and frame decolonization work. Below we offer working definitions of some key terms, recognizing that these terms can have different meanings in different contexts.
Decolonization: Decolonization is about decentring Eurocentric, colonial knowledge and practices, and recentring knowledge and world views of those who have been placed on the margins by colonization.
Decolonization involves active resistance to colonial practices and policies, getting rid of colonial structures, and centring and restoring the world view of Indigenous peoples. It demands an Indigenous starting point; Indigenous people will determine appropriate approaches and acts of decolonization. It also involves recognizing the importance of land – in particular, how colonized peoples were cut off from their land and traditions – and the return of land to Indigenous peoples.
Indigenization: Indigenization calls on educational institutions and stakeholders to establish policies, processes, and practices that are led by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples toward ensuring their particular ways of knowing, being and doing are nourished and flourish.
This includes creating opportunities for K–12 school leaders and teachers to learn how to develop and enact curriculum that honours First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Peoples’ histories, perspectives, and contemporary issues. It also calls on school leaders and teachers to embed relational and responsive culturally nourishing pedagogies and curricula as part of the values of their K–12 school community.
Positionality: Positionality refers to one’s identity – how we position ourselves within our society. To identify your own positionality, you need to consider your own power and privilege by thinking about issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, educational background, citizenship, and so on.
As educators, our positionality impacts how we make sense of the world and how we engage in it. It takes self-assessment and reflection to identity the ways in which our assumptions and beliefs, as well as our own expressions of power, influence how we (co-)create learning environments in our classrooms and schools.
Systemic racism: Systemic racism refers to the aspects of a society’s structures that produce inequalities and inequities among its citizens and specifically, the institutional processes rooted in White supremacy that restrict opportunities and outcomes for racialized and minoritized peoples.
Systemic racism includes institutional and social structures, individual mental schemas, and everyday ways of being in the world. Schools and school systems must engage in anti-racist education practice to address the systemic issues particular to racialized students.
Unlearning: Unlearning involves removing ideas, practices, and values grounded in coloniality and colonialism from everyday practice.
It is rethinking and reframing what we thought we knew about many aspects of everyday life, including traditions grounded in Eurocentric ways of knowing, and replacing it with decolonized knowledge.
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER LEARNING
Culturally Nourishing Schooling for Indigenous Education, University of New South Wales. www.unsw.edu.au/content/dam/pdfs/unsw-adobe-websites/arts-design-architecture/education/research/project-briefs/2022-07-27-ada-culturally-nourishing-schooling-cns-for-Indigenous-education.pdf
Decolonizing and Indigenizing Education in Canada, Eds. Sheila Cote-Meek and Taima Moeke-Pickering. https://canadianscholars.ca/book/decolonizing-and-indigenizing-education-in-canada
Indigenization, Decolonization and Reconciliation (chapter in Pulling Together: A guide for curriculum developers). https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationcurriculumdevelopers/chapter/indigenization-decolonization-and-reconciliation
The UnLeading Project with Dr. Vidya Shah, York University. www.yorku.ca/edu/unleading
Truth and Reconciliation Commission. https://ehprnh2mwo3.exactdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Executive_Summary_English_Web.pdf
Universities and teachers’ associations provide myriad resources to support the development of anti-racist practices in schools. See, for example: www.ualberta.ca/centre-for-teaching-and-learning/teaching-support/indigenization/index.html
Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Purich Publishing Limited.
Campbell, C., Osmond-Johnson, P., et al. (2017). The state of educators’ professional learning in Canada: Final research report. Learning Forward.
Donald, D. (2022, September 19). A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Education Canada, 62(2). www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently/
Donald, D. (2012). Forts, colonial frontier logics, and Aboriginal-Canadian relations: Imagining decolonizing educational philosophies in Canadian contexts. In A. A. Abdi (Ed.), Decolonizing philosophies of education (pp. 91–111). SensePublishers. doi:10.1007/978-94-6091-687-8_7
Donald, D., Glanfield, F., & Sterenberg, G. (2011). Culturally relational education in and with an Indigenous community. Indigenous Education, 17(3), 72–83.
Ermine, W. (2007). The ethical space of engagement. Indigenous Law Journal, 6(1), 193–203.
Lopez, A. E. (2021). Decolonizing educational leadership: Exploring alternative approaches to leading schools. Springer International Publishing AG, ProQuest Ebook Central. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mun/detail.action?docID=6450991
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, education and society,1(1), 1–40. https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/des/issue/view/1234
Washington, S., & O’Connor, M. (2020). Collaborative professionalism across cultures and contexts: Cases of professional learning networks enhancing teaching and learning in Canada and Colombia. In Schnellert, L. (Ed.), Professional learning networks: Facilitating transformation in diverse contexts with equity-seeking communities. Emerald Publishing Limited.
Yee, N. L. (2020). Collaborating across communities to co-construct supports for Indigenous (and all) students. [Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia.] UBC Library Open Collections. https://open.library.ubc.ca/soa/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0392533
OVER TEN YEARS AGO, the Urban Communities Cohort (UCC) was established at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Education to ensure teacher candidates were better prepared to work within urban priority schools (UPS’s). We (a group of professors, school administrators, and educators in the field) saw the need for teacher candidates to be ready to challenge inequities that were pervasive across priority schools. In many ways, the initiative grew out of our collective frustration at the resistance to change throughout the system that is linked to institutional and systemic racism. For example, we observed:
The UCC was originally framed as a way of supporting teacher candidates to engage with students and teachers in UPS’s and to advance their own understanding of equity and social justice. In this article, we trace the evolution of this school/university partnership that began with the UCC and a focus on teacher candidates, and led to further spaces for critical conversations that continue to provoke and support our unlearning and learning. What has emerged over the past decade is more multifaceted than we could have first imagined.
Let’s step back and consider the beginning. Linda, a university researcher and lead author of this article, spent three months immersed in one UPS where she spoke with everyone – students, custodial staff, teachers, and administrators – to gain a critical understanding of the culture of the school (Ibrahim et al., 2012). This school, like the other 32 designated as urban priority schools across Ontario, had very low scores on Grade 9 and 10 literacy and mathematics standardized tests, a history of comparatively high suspensions and expulsions, and a public perception of being a “difficult school,” perhaps even a “failing school.”
The in-depth ethnography revealed what the administrators and educators within the building already knew – that the profile failed to capture the calibre of the educators and students; it missed “who and what we were in the school,” as one staff member put it. The EQAO scores measured where the students were at a point in time, taking no account of where they had come from or their future promise and potential. The school population included newcomers to Canada, along with youth displaced by conflict, who may have spent recent years in refugee camps and who might not have had consistent schooling even in their own language, let alone in English or French. For these students the school was a safe haven, a building with walls as opposed to a tent. Yet if the school was to support all of these students in their learning journeys, there was a critical need for a teaching staff who were better equipped to do this work.
So began the partnership through which teacher candidates and university professors became part of the school community. The UCC supported teacher candidates to develop culturally sustaining, relevant, and responsive pedagogy, and immersed them in urban school communities from day one of their teacher education program. University classes were taught within the building and the school administrators were integral to the teacher candidate’s professional learning – speaking to teacher candidates on the first day of school, walking them through the corridors, welcoming them for their required school-based practicum, inviting them to experience and feel what it takes to become a teacher committed to social change.
Hard Conversations was started by Kristin Kopra, Sherwyn Solomon, and Geordie Walker, who are lead partners in the UCC. This initiative brings together school administrators and university researchers to engage in challenging conversations about what is happening in their schools. Over the past four years, this group has worked outside the school board, gathering in their own time to examine the relevant research, understand their own positionality and roles, grapple with systemic biases within their schools, and most importantly commit to actionable strategies they can take back into their daily practice. Their goal is to first understand and then dismantle systemic barriers so they, as school leaders, can better serve Indigenous, Black, and racialized students, families, and communities. Put simply, group members consider their role in perpetuating inequities and what each individual can do to change practices in their own schools. Kristin, a UPS principal who began as a program lead for Indigenous education, explains why the group was started: “We didn’t do it for any other reason than we need things to change for kids in schools.” Many of the topics taken up in this group focus on the power of administrators and teachers and the damaging choices that the Education Act legitimizes.
Now in its fifth year, the group has grown to well over 70 colleagues engaged in these critical conversations. Membership is open to all and includes school and central administrators, senior staff, managers, University of Ottawa professors, and sometimes teacher candidates. Meetings have varied in frequency and in format, ranging from small group pods to larger university-based weekend-long conferences (including guests such as leading researchers in equity and racism and Indigenous leaders).
An example of the work of the Hard Conversations group is challenging the disproportionate numbers of suspensions for Black, racialized, and Indigenous students. Kristin recalls from her own school’s statistics in her first year that “if we were not the highest, we were the second-highest in the district; ridiculous!” This reflects what Sherwyn refers to as “hard-baked” structural obstacles, where our ignorance gets perpetuated as law. In Ontario’s Education Act the suspension of a student is at the discretion of the principal. While administrators might be well-meaning, Sherwyn underlines, “A principal’s perspective on what is acceptable school conduct and what is not is often colonial in nature, as these emerge from the imperialism that has had an impact on what schools look like across the globe.” There is no learning in a suspension, which reaffirms the exclusion of the student and causes harm that may reverberate for generations. The data speaks for itself in Ottawa schools: if you are Black or Middle Eastern, you are two and a half times more likely to be suspended. Hard Conversations provides a forum where administrators can examine critical questions around the discretionary suspensions for which they have authority, such as: How does removing students from what might be one of their few safe spaces serve already vulnerable students? How might race be playing into our suspension decisions? What will you do differently rather than suspend Black youth? The conversations, critical reflection, and transformations in principal practices emerging from Hard Conversations should be celebrated. But we are mindful that they represent a small initial step within some schools, and that colonialism pervades our education systems and guides decisions and practices that retraumatize those who have already been traumatized. As educators we ask the question, how can we avoid the re-traumatization of marginalized individuals and groups?
In our ongoing university/school partnerships to support teacher education, in-service educators, and youth, we are repeatedly made aware of how each of us is unlearning and re-learning in our work with students, student teachers, and in relations with each other (Donald, D. 2022). We recognize that we are all, regardless of ethnicity and positionality, impacted in our work and relations by colonial structures.
Our conversations bring to the surface what we have been taught and raised to believe – certain narratives about society, about other people, about positionality – and the structures that support these narratives. These histories and understandings have been passed from parents and grandparents and transmitted to us in institutions such as schools and universities. They become what we know to be true. But what happens when we start examining these past truths in light of other realities we see around us, and question if our long-held narratives are true? Geordie, former principal and now part of the UCC teaching team, asks, “Why is it so hard for me as a white person who is a dad to believe it is necessary for my Black friend or Indigenous friend to teach their kids to proceed with extreme caution in police interactions and how to survive an arrest, when that was never part my children’s education or learning?” With this question, he underlines that it starts with the individual journey. He shares that his own decolonization process is about “becoming as educated as you can about the past.” Understanding the past and the present context as educators and as teacher educators requires an openness to examine history, to recognize or acknowledge what culture is, whose it is, the backgrounds of the people in our schools, and how they see their own history from different perspectives.
At Le Phare Elementary School, Sherwyn has established an Equity Advisory Committee, a parent group that names and challenges social injustices and advises on things they would like to see going on at the school. As part of the district and school learning plan, Sherwyn encourages his school community to incorporate more Algonquin teaching, learning, and understanding, as well as more knowledge of the school experience of Black and other marginalized groups. Sherwyn argues that such initiatives go part way to addressing racism like that he experienced in his own childhood as a Black newcomer to Canada – such as having to learn to speak without his Caribbean accent, and the colonial violence he and his family faced as immigrants. Across the school district, student groups, such as the LGBTQ2+, Indigenous, and Muslim student groups among others, are being led by people with that lived experience. This school-based change has not come without resistance, and equity coordinators have had to work tirelessly to demand that, after years of being pushed to the margins as “urban problems,” these groups are placed at the centre stage of education.
Since the beginning of the UCC, decisions made at faculty and program levels have presented structural and other challenges. For example, from the start of UCC, cohort leads worked with school principals to create UPS practicum placements for UCC teacher candidates. Recently this has been discontinued by the Faculty, and UCC teacher candidates find themselves with placements across the spectrum of local schools, while other teacher candidates unaccustomed to urban priority schools are posted in the UCC partner schools. Additionally, we have now seen the community service learning component, where all UCC teacher candidates would become part of the school community at the start of the school year, come to an end. Despite these ongoing challenges, we continued to invest in the UCC by gaining research funds to support critical learning possibilities for educators (pre-service and in-service). In particular, we worked with civics teachers in UPS’s to open up spaces for students to find different points of entry into that course. This was done by inviting students to share their lived experiences – either as newcomers to Canada, as long-time settlers, or as First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples – first and foremost in this course. Working within these diverse contexts, we have attempted to contribute to a decolonizing process by breaking down subject silos and enabling interdisciplinary learning through a pedagogy of relationship building within and beyond the classroom.
After 30 years in education, Geordie perhaps conveys best what education and teacher education might look like in practice: “It is about prioritizing relationships over curriculum, being humble, and learning from kids.” When we think about our own work of unlearning through UCC and Hard Conversations, we envision educators (ourselves, teacher candidates, teachers, and school administrators) coming to education not because we are specialists in a subject, but because first and foremost we want to serve students and build relationships. As educators, we need to be able to put aside our biases and prejudice and embrace whoever comes through our door and provide a sense of belonging for every student in the classroom regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, language, or any other false barriers. In the UCC, we are supporting teacher candidates and teacher educators (ourselves) to engage deeply with teacher identities and lived histories, and to examine the truths and untruths we hold on to. Decolonizing teacher education requires providing opportunities for teacher candidates to build relationships based on care and compassion that prioritize students’ potentials and possibilities and reject deficit thinking.
THE UCC PARTNERSHIP has provided a space for multiple and ongoing hard conversations and professional un/learning across university and school contexts. A decade of critical conversations, research, and collaborative action in the service of students in urban priority schools has transformed our own practices in university and school classrooms. In our shared quest to unlearn taken-for-granted assumptions and “truths,” we continue to challenge ourselves and each other with the responsibilities we have in relations to each other and with students, families, and communities.
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
Ibrahim, A., Radford, L. et al. (2012). Urban priority program: Challenges, priorities and hope. Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
Donald, D. (2022, September 19) A curriculum for educating differently: Unlearning colonialism and renewing kinship relations. Educating Canada, 62(2). https://www.edcan.ca/articles/a-curriculum-for-educating-differently/
In 2021, a white, French-language Catholic school principal was removed from his school two years after wearing a Black student’s shaved-off hair as a wig during a cancer fundraiser, and again for Halloween months later – but only once these two occurrences were reported on social media by Black Lives Matter London (CBC News, 2021). Since school improvement is unlikely to be successful without effective educational leadership (Rodgers et al., 2016), it is imperative for leaders to examine the verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities they – intentionally or unintentionally – communicate toward, or about, racialized persons through racial microaggressions. A racial microaggression is a brief, everyday indignity that (re)produces racial slights or insults toward Black students, principals, or teachers (Brown, 2019; Frank et al., 2021; Sue et al., 2007.)
What do we know about systemic anti-Black racism in French-language education? A limited number of studies have explored systemic anti-Black racism within minoritized French-language education in Canada (Ibrahim, 2014; Jean-Pierre, 2020; Villella, 2021). These studies provide insight into how systemic anti-Black racism manifests itself within this context. For example, Schroeter and James (2015) found that Black francophone immigrant students felt that white school staff, including a school principal, give white immigrant students more help to reach their career goals. Madibbo (2021) identifies three conditions that illustrate and/or enable systemic anti-Black racism within this context:
Examining critical incidents
My PhD thesis (2021) details systemic anti-Black racism critical incidents in educational leadership within francophone Ontario and their impact on Black and francophone students, teachers, families, and community partners.
This narrative case study explored the intercultural and anti-racist competency of educational system leaders through critical incidents in leadership. A system leader, such as a school principal, is an individual who also represents a professional organization, and creates and or implements a society’s policies, procedures, and regulations (Villella, 2021). A critical incident is a positive or negative experience that affects one’s leadership by confirming it, by changing it, or by shattering it (Sider et al., 2017; Yamamoto et al., 2014).
Nine educational and system leaders, most of whom were, or had recently been, school principals, completed three semi-structured interviews and a survey. Data analysis revealed that almost all the critical incidents mentioned by the nine participants as being intercultural in nature centred around Black school community members, and mostly Black boys and men, including a Catholic priest. While their survey responses suggested that most of the nine participants’ intercultural competency was well developed, the way in which they dealt with critical incidents involving Black students, staff, families, and community members indicated that their anti-racist competency needs further development. In the case of intercultural and anti-racist competencies, little to no university courses or workshop training was reported by the participants; they mostly trained themselves through international volunteer work, reading, and personal experience sharing. As such, they mostly did informal training (Villella, 2021). It should therefore not come as a surprise that critical incidents revealing systemic anti-Black racism and racial microaggressions manifested themselves in the participants’ leadership.
What the data reveals: Multiple racial microaggressions
Below, I present and analyze four systemic anti-Black racism critical incidents (translation by the author) through Brown’s (2019) racial microaggression framework of pathologizing, cultural insensitivity, persistent devaluation of Black teachers’ competency, second-class citizenship in schools, and the myth of meritocracy. Brown indicates that such microaggressions are not only steeped in anti-Black ideology, but they are also documented reasons why Black teachers1 leave the teaching profession.
“I had a meeting with the principal. So, I think that there is a former colleague of mine, I will go and see him… He says, ‘[Hassan], you’re in the white people’s staff room with me here.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You don’t see? The immigrant table is over there.’ So, I have to tell you that even when I was there, there were two staff rooms.”
In this school, Black teachers (and especially Black immigrant teachers) are the targets of systemic anti-Black racism in the staff room in the form of second-class status (Brown, 2019; Frank et al., 2021).
“[Students] were telling him off, I mean, plus [he] spoke with a rather pronounced accent. This was probably one of the first Black people they saw in person… it was one of the first classes that he had in Canada, because he had just been substituting in Montreal, if I recall correctly… In the corner at the back of the class [were] four young men who had fun putting him down: ‘Sir, I don’t understand anything, I don’t understand when you talk. It makes no sense.’”
In this example of racial microaggressions toward a Black teacher, there is a persistent devaluation of his capabilities for teaching (Brown, 2019; Frank et al., 2021) by the students and as well as by the participant, but there is also racialized linguicism (Madibbo, 2021), i.e. a combined linguistic and racial discrimination toward a Black person who is also a recent immigrant.
“They’re unable to integrate… and that, that’s despite trying to coach them. We tried… the traditionalism is too entrenched in their practices… you get into a conflict, and that’s where there are layoffs, where there are unsatisfactory assessments.”
Here, we can observe another racial microaggression whereby a white administrator pathologizes Black teachers through his fixed vision of competency based on conformity to French-language education that can be traced back to the white ideologies historically normalized within educational policies and practices.
“I’ve done interviews, and the questions we were asking, we already had an idea of what we wanted as answers… A few times, I realized that we weren’t talking about the [Black] person’s competency. Someone said, “Well, the person said this or that… and they may hit the child to discipline them.”
In this example, the racial microaggressions manifest themselves as a form of pathologizing (Brown, 2019 ; Frank et al., 2021).
“I’m doing a follow-up evaluation with… a teenager from mainland Africa… who had had very large gaps in schooling… and I had concerns about the level of work he is being given [by his classroom teacher]. Because sometimes… if a student does not know how to read, there is a tendency to pick up materials for learning to read in the younger ones… but it’s not cognitively stimulating… because I have a 15–16-year-old [male] who… is practising bobo -baba [sounds]. But this is a young person who is being treated like a… student who has a disability.”
Here, one can identify that this Black student is experiencing microaggressions in the form of micro-invalidations regarding his reading needs that are grounded in second-class citizenship, cultural insensitivity, and persistent devaluation of competency (Brown, 2019 ; Frank et al., 2021; Sue et al., 2007).
Although these are only some of the critical incidents of anti-Black systemic racism within educational leadership that emerged from my study, they are informational vignettes representing a snapshot of how systemic anti-Black racism (re)produces itself about and toward Black school-community members within French-language schooling in Ontario.
How can studying critical incidents help us (un)learn systemic anti-Black racism?
Yamamoto et al. (2014) explain that the stories we tell ourselves, share, and tell others, and once again tell ourselves regarding a critical incident is a loop allowing leaders to evaluate if they will maintain the same practices, slightly adapt their leadership, or completely change their practice in the future. As such, these critical incidents are not only formational (Sider et al., 2017), they are also informational (Villella, 2021), revealing the professional (un)learning that is required to combat systemic anti-Black racism. The question that now emerges is: what can French-language educational system leaders, such as school principals and teacher educators, learn by examining such critical incidents?
First, it is important to remember that systemic anti-Black racism is not just an Anglo-Canadian issue. It is present in education, regardless of the language of instruction.
The analysis of critical incidents in leadership in French-language education can help school administrators, trainers, school principals, and superintendent associations, as well as French-language community organizations, understand how certain practices contribute to marginalizing Black children and adults that they serve. The ways in which leaders respond to Black teachers can contribute to the reproduction and thus persistence of systemic anti-Black racism, rather than contributing to building a more inclusive educational environment and society that mitigates against it. Either way, educational system leaders send a clear message to Black students, staff, and family members about whether or not they are valued in society.
Studying critical incidents as professional (un)learning in relation to systemic anti-Black racism provides educational leaders the chance to change how they respond in future situations, in order to be proactive and reduce harm to Black community members. As such, narrative case studies can help leaders decipher systemic anti-Black racism through professional (un)learning.
What we can do now: A few recommendations
System administrators, such as superintendents, need to support all staff who wish to develop preventative strategies to decrease the likelihood of systemic anti-Black racism from being (re)produced through racial microaggressions. The provincial government and school boards/districts need to require measures that track systemic anti-Black racism incidents, and to transparently report on them. Developing a mixed approach of both qualitative and quantitative data collection is important for better understanding of the underlying issues, which should not be reduced to a case of immigration status or mother tongue language as central identifiers.
Finally, initial and continual training opportunities need to be allocated to educational system leaders at all levels who wish to be trained, or to train their school teams, about racism and anti-racism. Specific areas of needed training include: culturally sustaining pedagogy and leadership, race-based data analysis, and questioning school board pedagogical and discipline policies regarding students as well as hiring practices related to staff. Such training requires that resources not only be developed in French, but also that critical incidents of systemic anti-Black racism are based on examples collected within francophone education systems.
Although some educational leaders may be more aware of systemic anti-Black racism incidents related to their leadership, such critical incidents still exist and persist. That said, we should not be dissuaded nor discouraged from developing inclusive and equitable French-language education systems. Instead, these incidents should cause educational school and system leaders to reassess how to better build relationships with each Black student, staff member, and community partner, and how to go beyond the deficit thinking and stereotypes that lead to racial microaggressions. That process begins and continues with fully participating and engaging in decolonizing professional (un)learning. The knowledge then needs to be applied within local communities to create more equitable and inclusive spaces of belonging for Black students and staff, and for those from other equity-deserving groups within la francophonie. Not only do Black students need Black educators, so does the rest of Canadian society. Inclusion is, after all, meant for each and every one.
For the most effective self-study experience, read in the order presented.
Black francophone experience
Critical race theory
Additional French-language resources are listed in the French version of this article
First published in Education Canada, January 2023
1 While the Brown (2019) study focused on Black teachers, Frank et al.’s (2021) study focused on Black math teachers specifically.
Brown, E. (2019). African American teachers’ experiences with racial micro-aggressions. Educational Studies, 55(2), 180–196. doi.org/10.1080/00131946.2018.1500914
CBC News. (2021, May 31). London, Ont., principal removed for wearing Black student’s hair like a wig says he’s sorry, ‘ashamed.’ CBC News. www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/luc-chartrand-black-student-wig-apology-1.6047068
Ibrahim, A. (2014). The rhizome of Blackness. A critical ethnography of hip-hop culture, language, identity and the politics of becoming. Peter Lang Publishing.
Jean-Pierre, J. (2020). L’appartenance entrecroisée à l’héritage historique et au pluralisme contemporain chez des étudiants franco-ontariens. Minorités linguistiques et société/Linguistic Minorities and Society (13), 3–25. doi.org/10.7202/1070388ar
Frank, T. J., Powell, M. G., & View, J. L. (2021). Exploring racialized factors to understand why Black mathematics teachers consider leaving the profession. Educational Researcher. doi.org/10.3102/0013189X21994498
Madibbo, A. (2021). Blackness and la Francophonie: Anti-Black racism, linguicism and the construction and negotiation of multiple minority identities. Les Presses de l’Université Laval.
Rodgers, W. T., Hauserman, C. P, & Skytt, J. (2016). Using cognitive coaching to build school leadership capacity: A case study in Alberta. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’éducation, 39(3). www.jstor.org/stable/canajeducrevucan.39.3.03
Schroeter, S. & James, C. (2015). “We’re here because we’re black”: The schooling experiences of French-speaking African-Canadian students with refugee backgrounds. Race, ethnicity and education, 18(1), 20–39. doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2014.885419
Sider, S., Maich, K., & Morvan, J. (2017). School principals and students with special education needs: Leading inclusive schools. Canadian Journal of Education, 40(2). http://journals.sfu.ca/cje/index.php/cje-rce/article/view/2417
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M. et al. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life. American Psychologist, May-June. https://gim.uw.edu/sites/gim.uw.edu/files/fdp/Microagressions%20File.pdf
Villella, M. (2021). Piti, piti, zwazo fè niche li (Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid) : le développement d’une compétence interculturelle et antiraciste de neuf leaders éducatifs et systémiques d’expression française de l’Ontario, formateurs bénévoles en Ayiti. Unpublished thesis. University of Ottawa. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/42728
Yamamoto, J. K., Gardiner, M. E., & Tenuto, P. L. (2014). Emotion in leadership: Secondary school administrators’ perceptions of critical incidents. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 42(2), 165–183.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have increasingly shown the critical role schools play in promoting the health and wellbeing of students and staff. Now more than ever, a coordinated approach that takes action at all levels of the education system is essential to addressing mental health, safety, and belonging in schools. An approach that is gaining recognition among school districts across Canada for its value in promoting the wellbeing of students, teachers, and other members of the school community, is Comprehensive School Health (CSH).
Increasing knowledge, understanding and skills of the school community through formal and informal learning opportunities:
Creating policies, guidelines, and practices that:
Collaborating and engaging with:
When a Comprehensive School Health approach is taken, entire school communities can experience improved wellbeing, healthier educational spaces, and improved student learning outcomes. However, research points to the need for schools to invest time and resources into building a health-promoting environment that supports the wellbeing of students and staff. While this may seem like a daunting task, there are small steps everyone – school leaders, colleagues, parents, and community members – can take to drive change. An important first step is to continue educating ourselves and others about Comprehensive School Health and its benefits.
Byrne, J., Pickett, K., et al. (2016). A longitudinal study to explore the impact of preservice teacher health training on early career teachers’ roles as health promoters. Pedagogy in Health Promotion, 2(3), 170–183. doi.org/10.1177/2373379916644449
Byrne, J., Pickett, K., & Rietdijk, W. (2018). Teachers as health promoters: Factors that influence early career teachers to engage with health and wellbeing education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 69(1), 289–299. doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2017.10.020
Koenig, A., Rodger, S., & Specht, J. (2018). Educator burnout and compassion fatigue: A pilot study. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 33(4), 259–278. doi.org/10.1177/0829573516685017
Kolbe, L. J. (2019). School health as a strategy to improve both public health and education. Annual Review of Public Health, 40(1), 443–463. doi.org/10.1146/annurev-publhealth-040218- 043727
Langford, R., Bonell, C., et al. (2015). The World Health Organization’s Health Promoting Schools framework: a Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health, 15(1), 130–130. doi.org/10.1186/s12889-015-1360-y
Russell-Mayhew, S., Ireland, A., et al. (2017). Reflecting and informing a culture of wellness: The development of a comprehensive school health course in a bachelor of education program. Journal of Educational Thought, 50(2&3), 156-181. www.jstor.org/stable/26372402?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents
Squires, V. (2019). The well-being of the early career teacher: A review of the literature on the pivotal role of mentoring. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 8(4), 255-267. doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-02-2019-0025
Viner, R. M., Russell, S. J., et al. (2020). School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including COVID-19: a rapid systematic review. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health. doi.org/10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30095-X
My teaching career began as a high school mathematics teacher, yet my focus over the last ten years has been in elementary, both researching and now teaching. I am currently teaching math to two Grade 5/6 classes, with half of them having IPPs. They are a complex group.
My interest in elementary math began by watching my own kids struggle. What was holding them back? Why did some students struggle more than others? Both of my kids, early in school, were labelled with learning disabilities in mathematics. Now both are achieving at a high level, one in high school, the other in junior high. My work with them was a journey that ebbed and flowed between barriers and progress. It often felt like going through a maze, heading in one direction, and then hitting a barrier. So, we would turn around and try another direction. Over time, patterns emerged in those barriers, and one telltale characteristic began to reveal itself: memorization. Through this recognition, the barriers became easier to avoid. Upon hitting a barrier, I would ask, “OK, what in this task am I expecting them to just remember without understanding?” Once identified, we would go back and focus on developing the conceptual understanding or image in their mind for this idea or symbol. Once they were no longer expected to memorize a process or a symbol without understanding, they would progress in leaps and bounds, often exceeding my expectations. Where there had previously been a brick wall there was now a passageway.
The barrier for many students is not the math but the ability to remember. Presenting students with symbols along with a series of steps that represent concepts before they have sufficiently grown their own personal understanding or image for that concept can be a major barrier. Students who memorize easily have an advantage, but is that advantage rooted in mathematical understanding? I have worked with many students who can find an answer but do not understand the underlying math.
How can we be more inclusive while focusing on the growth of understanding for the majority? It was this question that took me down the path of exploring how we absorb information and what types of activities contribute to the growth of our mental images for mathematical ideas. Are there ways of offering students information that are richer than others?
May I suggest three categories for offering information, ranked according to their ability to give us information as directly, originally, and optimally as possible:
The first mode of presenting a mathematical idea is through the oral discussion of mathematics and its written symbols. This is the emptiest way of presenting the meaning within a mathematical idea. We absorb information through our senses, and these symbols visually look nothing like the ideas they represent. If a student has not grown the understanding of these symbols, we are not offering them anything with meaning. Symbols are just the tip of the conceptual iceberg; the meaning, which is so much bigger than the symbol, lies underneath the surface. The symbol for four (4) can represent a distance, position, or quantity, which can be represented in an infinite number of ways. The shape of the symbol (4) itself offers no meaning; it is the students themselves who bring the meaning.
The second form, the imaginative, is the act of visualizing. Zimmerman and Cunningham (1991) state that the intuition that mathematical visualization affords is not a vague kind of intuition; rather, it is what gives depth and meaning to understanding. This internal offering of information for the idea through your personally developed images has much to offer in terms of growth in understanding. Images beget more images, leading to deeper understanding.
It has been well documented in both sports and music that growth occurs through the act of visualizing. As a teenager, my husband’s swim coach would ask the swimmers to lie on deck with their eyes closed while he orally described a swim race, guiding them through it, while they imagined themselves in the race. The description by the coach is a signitive offering, but where each swimmer takes those oral descriptions imaginatively is different for each person. In a meta-analysis done to answer the question Does mental practice enhance performance? (Driskell et al., 1994) the researchers concluded that “mental practice is effective for both cognitive and physical tasks; however, the effect of mental practice is significantly stronger the more a task involves cognitive elements” (p. 485). In this discussion, it is noteworthy to mention that physical practice was the most effective form, and that those who were experienced in physical practice (perceptual) benefited more from mental practice (imaginative) than those who were novices in the task. The reason suggested for this is that, “the novices who mentally practiced a physical task may not have sufficient schematic knowledge about successful task performance and may be spending their effort imagining task behaviors that could turn out to be somewhat counterproductive” (p. 490). This supports the idea of the importance of establishing the perceptual level of activity, which allows for continued growth when visualizing.
Our world is perceived not only in terms of object shapes and spatial relationships, but also in terms of environmental possibilities for action. A perceptual experience in mathematics, I suggest, is the acting out of a mathematical idea. It is within the spatial acting out that meaning is given or “lived” in the most direct, original, and optimal way, for we are experiencing the mathematical idea through our senses when, for example, we physically cut the shape into equal parts, connecting us to the concept of fractions. This physical act will allow for growth when we later imagine this act.
It is important to distinguish and emphasize the importance of this third category (perceptual) because it is a sensory act. It is this act that allows for the deepening and continual growth of images. So, when a student is stuck and struggling to understand, some kind of perceptual experience must be offered, some level of active interaction with the environment to promote further growth.
The imaginative and perceptual are closely intertwined. In fact, they are hard to discuss as separate entities, for together they are one idea – spatial reasoning. Spatial reasoning is more than just passively receiving sensations; it is the intentional act of perceiving and then engaging our bodies purposefully (Khan et al., 2015). Through acting out a mathematical idea there is a co-evolving that occurs in both our mental and physical skills. The actions being discussed are not only physical actions, spatial reasoning encapsulates mental actions as well. Visualizing is very productive within mathematics, as spatial reasoning ability and mathematical ability have been shown to be intimately linked (Mix & Cheng, 2012). Mental interactive playing and exercising of our images can stimulate growth in and of themselves without actually engaging our environment, but a foundation for this imagining must first be established (e.g. physically counting, organizing, regrouping, building, drawing, etc.). It is through these physical acts that our imaginative and perceptual experiences interact seamlessly with each other, building and strengthening images.
The idea that the math classroom benefits from the interaction between the signitive, imaginative, and perceptual is the arena in which my research lies. The perceptual and imaginative strengthen and evolve as we engage with our environment, but also within mathematics there is a strong signitive element that must be attached (memorization) to our mental images. How can these elements interact to the mutual benefit of all three?
The classroom teacher and I worked with her Grade 5 students in a school for students labelled with learning disabilities. We began with the foundational ideas of fractions. In our preassessment the students presented as having minimal understanding, many not knowing how to write a fraction (signitive). We had four days with them, offering perceptual experiences that were always combined with the signitive to encourage the association with their growing images. We would have them physically cut shapes (perceptual), practising the concept of splitting into equal parts. Yet before they cut the shapes, we would discuss and imagine how to ensure that they would end up with equal parts (imaginative), i.e. we would fold the shapes and then cut them. Next, the students would write the symbols representing the fraction pieces (signitive). This interaction with pieces offered them a visual, embodied, and imaginative experience connected to the mathematical concept. Later they would combine (perceptual) these different pieces and write the fractions (signitive) using an addition symbol.
Although we started with the basics, we continued stretching the complexity of the topic to see how far their images/understanding would take them. By day four, we played a game called imagine-build-steal, in which we offered them a signitive question first, such as 2/4 + 1/2 The students were then asked to imagine and give a solution. None were able to answer the question based solely on this signitive offering; they had not yet grown sufficient images. They needed more from their environment to deepen their own images. To promote this further enhancement, the students were asked to build (perceptual) using the fraction pieces that they themselves had cut out. This they could do; they had grown sufficient images for looking at the signitive offering and building the solution. So, we continued with this cycle of signitive first, then asking to imagine, and then offering a perceptual experience. Their images continued to grow until by the end of that period, students began to offer up imaginative solutions to expressions like 2/3 + 2/6 + 2/8, based solely on the signitive offering. They had reached the point of sufficient growth of their personal images to solve this complex expression without having to build it.
The growth of mathematical understanding is a complex process, as seen over and over again with my own kids, in my research, and in the classroom. It is also personal; each student must grow their own images for the mathematical ideas in order to be able to visualize and make use of them. For some, they can be slippery. This is true of both the student who finds it easy to memorize and the one who does not. I find spatial reasoning tasks to be a great equalizer in a classroom. The student who struggles to memorize and therefore follow steps may reason and visualize with ease, but those who can follow a series of steps to an answer may struggle to visualize the mathematical concept. Math, however, is about ideas and concepts, not a set of memorized rules. My experience and my research support the claim that mental images are a key element to mathematical understanding that is often underappreciated. Far too frequently, the goal is to get the student as quickly as possible to an answer rather than to deep understanding of the idea.
If these mental images are the key to deep understanding, then what factors influence the growth of these images? If we accept the idea that images are grown through a dynamic process of restructuring based on a stream of perceptual encounters and conceptual revelations (Arnheim, 1969), then playing with, utilizing, and exercising these images can support their growth. A classroom focused on growing images is one in which students are engaged in imagining, drawing, moving, and regrouping objects while incorporating the signitive to encourage association. If all we offer students are symbols on a piece of paper, only those students who have already grown sufficient images can benefit from such a task. As educators, we are then not providing new opportunities for growth to the various levels of student understanding that every classroom contains.
Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual thinking. University of California Press.
Driskell, J., Copper, C., & Moran, A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance? Journal of applied psychology, 79(4), 481–492.
Khan, S., Francis, K., & Davis, B. (2015). Accumulation of experience in a vast number of cases: Enactivism as a fit framework for the study of spatial reasoning in mathematics education. ZDM: The International Journal of Mathematics Education, 47(2), 269–279.
Mix, K. S., & Cheng, Y. L. (2012). The relation between space and math: Developmental and educational implications. In J. B. Benson (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (Vol. 42, pp. 197–243). Academic Press.
Zimmermann, W., & Cunningham, S. (1991). Editors’ introduction: What is mathematical visualization. In W. Zimmermann, & S. Cunningham, Visualization in teaching and learning mathematics (pp. 1–7). Mathematical Association of America.
This webinar is primarily for school district leaders, principals, and vice-principals, and school or district wellbeing leads as well as anyone interested in K-12 staff wellbeing.
We know that wellbeing – especially cases of burnout – are issues in Canadian schools. We know a lot of this is systemic – involving organizational culture, structures, priorities, and policies at various levels of the education system. However, research is still evolving about how approaches taken at the school level or the individual level could help educators cope with their daily stress. In a 12-month research project, The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) set out to develop two simple approaches that could be scaled district-wide.
This webinar broadcasted on June 16, 2021 discussed findings from this research project outlining what worked, what didn’t work, and lessons learned that can be used to support education leaders in ensuring their staff’s wellbeing.
Wednesday, May 19 at 1pm ET on Zoom | One-hour webinar
Presented by Karen Mundy and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay
Like so many families and children around the world, Canadians are looking with relief to a more open, carefree summer and normal return to school later this year. But after 18 months of profound disruption – will ‘normal’ be good enough? Are we on track to set all children up for success in a world that often seems more uncertain – and unequal – than ever before?
This webinar, sponsored by online learning toolmaker IPEVO, will examine how Canadian schools have fared during COVID19 compared to those in other jurisdictions. We then turn to evidence-based ways that educators can ensure a better, stronger, and more equitable start in September 2021.
If you sign up to receive special offers by email from both the EdCan Network and IPEVO, your name will be added into a draw at the end of this webinar to get one of two IPEVO Document Cameras!
Karen Mundy is a Professor of Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto (OISE/UT). An expert on educational reform in lower-income countries, she is also an advocate and parent committed to improving educational equity in Canadian schools. She recently launched an academic support program that partners OISE volunteers with underserved students in the Toronto District School Board.
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is an Assistant Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. Past roles include Research Director at the Future Skills Centre and at People for Education, and Northern Director of Akitsiraq Law school in Nunavut. She has two kids in public school.
IPEVO is a design-driven company dedicated to creating teaching, learning, presentation, and communication tools for the connected world, with a focus on Document Cameras. IPEVO has been leading the communication and visual transmission industry for more than 10 years and it is the number one choice for educators across the globe.
Published by the EdCan Network in partnership with
On a global scale, we’re faced with complex societal and environmental challenges such as climate change, poverty, inequality and environmental degradation that we must address in order to achieve a more sustainable future for all. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) lay out 17 action areas aimed at sustaining life (both human and non-human), ending poverty, and achieving social justice. These are the building blocks of global well-being.
For educators, the SDGs have enormous educational importance and potential. They offer cross-curricular relevancy and invaluable learning opportunities for students to discover their crucial role in solving local, regional, and global problems, starting in their own community. Simultaneously, education ministries, school districts and school communities will discover that engaging with the SDGs can support students in the important goal of acquiring the six pan-Canadian Global Competencies identified by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), to equip them to thrive in and shape their world.
In this issue, we explore how educators can engage students to become active global citizens and authentically address global issues in empowering and hopeful ways.
Cover photo: courtesy MCIC
Whew. We made it through the winter. For many of you it has been, professionally and/or personally, the hardest winter ever. But with vaccination underway and warm weather ahead, we think we see light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel.
After a year that forced educators to teach, or lead, reactively in response to a mountain of new challenges, we thought it might be a welcome change to look forward to a more aspirational approach to teaching and learning. Yes, there are ongoing and critical COVID issues. But we can also start thinking about how to re-engage students, build school community and make education the best training ground possible for our future leaders and citizens.
Taking on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), whether as a school or as a class, is an exciting way to address all three of these goals. I like to think of this issue as a seed catalogue. The catalogue arrives when it’s still too cold to plant, but it conjures up big dreams for gardening season. We hope this issue will sow lots of ideas, and also lead you to the resources to develop them into a real plan. How great would it be to cover the curriculum in a way that engages students in real-world problems, encourages them to claim a stake in making the world a better place, and develops essential competencies in the process?
The authors in this issue are in the vanguard of integrating the SDGs into Canadian schooling, and part of an international network of educators who are helping to achieve these ambitious Agenda 2030 goals while providing their students with a positive, empowering opportunity to learn about and take action on global issues that are also urgent problems here at home, such as clean drinking water for Indigenous communities, homelessness, climate change, food insecurity, and racial inequities. See how other schools have taken on one or more of the goals in our article on UNESCO Schools, from our partners at CCUNESCO (p. 11). Or dive right into the features to learn about what the UN SDGs are, why they present such a great opportunity for educators, and how to integrate the SDGs into your classroom and school.
I hope this issue inspires educators, schools, and school boards to start planning how they might get involved in this world-changing initiative – and sow the seeds for a sustainable future.
Photo: courtesy MCIC
We want to know what you think. Send your comments and article proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org – or join the conversation by using #EdCan on Twitter and Facebook.
BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) K-12 students and staff experience lower levels of wellbeing. Yet, a growing focus on wellbeing approaches such as mindfulness, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, and self-regulation can have harmful effects on racialized students and educators and may lead to cultural appropriation (i.e. adopting aspects of a culture that’s not your own). These approaches to wellbeing often don’t take into consideration the unique experiences and perspectives of BIPOC students and staff.
Wellbeing is systemic. When wellbeing is understood as one individual’s experience, it fails to account for the harmful effects of systemic racism, White supremacy, and colonialism that create unwelcoming, exclusionary, and unsafe environments for BIPOC students. This approach absolves systems from taking any responsibility in creating and perpetuating harm, which could look like:
1) There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Place identity – such as race, gender, sexuality, abilities, social class, and faith – at the center of approaches to student and staff wellbeing.
2) Avoid taking individual approaches to wellbeing that place both the source and solution of wellbeing with individuals and instead take a more systemic approach. This includes identifying and disrupting structures and policies that have had disproportionate effects on access, opportunity, and outcomes for BIPOC students and staff.
3) Connect with students, staff, families, and communities in meaningful ways to understand the experiences of institutional harm (e.g. residential schools).
4) Embed multiple understandings and approaches of wellbeing that value the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual needs of students and staff.
By not acknowledging the depth and breadth of systemic racism, we end up focusing on symptoms rather than the root causes of achievement and wellbeing, while expecting individual students and staff members to overcome the numerous structural barriers placed before them. When schools take a systemic approach, they instead identify and take action to change the ways in which student and staff wellbeing is impacted by anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and other forms of racism. Every student and educator deserves to feel safe, valued, and know that they belong at school.
Anti-racism: the active identification and elimination of racism and intersecting forms of oppression, by changing systems, structures, policies, practices and attitudes, for the equitable redistribution of power and resources.
Streaming means that students are placed into groups defined by their ability levels. Students may be grouped by ability either for a subject (for example for mathematics or reading) or for all or almost all their instruction. Students’ assignment to an ability group may be temporary, changing during the year, or relatively permanent.
White supremacy refers to a political, economic and cultural system in which Whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of White superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of White dominance and non-White subordination are daily re-enacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings (Ansley as cited in Gillborn, 2016, p. 48).
Colonialism: systems and practices that seek to impose the will of one people on another and to use the resources of the imposed people for the benefit of the imposer. Colonialism can operate within political, sociological, economic and cultural values and systems of a place even after occupation by colonizers has ended (Assante, 2006).
Dei, G.J.S. (2008). Schooling as community: Race, schooling, and the education of African youth. Journal of Black Studies, 38(3), 346-366.
Dion, S. (2014). The listening stone: Learning from the Ontario Ministry of Education’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit–focused collaborative inquiry 2013-2014. http://www.ontariodirectors.ca/downloads/Listening_Stone/Dion_LS_Final_Report%20Sept_10-2014-2.pdf
James, C. E. (2012). Students “at risk”: Stereotyping and the schooling of black boys. Urban Education, 47(2), 464-494.
James, C.E. & Turner, T. (2017). Towards race equity in education: The schooling of Black students in the Greater Toronto Area. https://edu.yorku.ca/files/2017/04/Towards-Race-Equity-in-Education-April-2017.pdf?x60002
Thompson, R. (2020, Sept. 29). Addressing trauma in the K-12 workplace: The impact of racial trauma on Black and non-white educators. https://www.edcan.ca/articles/addressing-racism-in-the-k-12-workplace/
There is a unique opportunity before us to inspire and mobilize our students to engage with the world’s most pressing issues, as defined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs provide educators with a wonderful canvas to embed global issues that require collective expertise and solutions into our curriculum. In this article, I share my experience with incorporating the SDGs into one of my courses to help students realize their lifelong mission and career purpose. While the example I provide was used in a post-secondary setting as a career education framework, my intention is to inspire you to consider how you might incorporate a similar approach toward helping your K–12 students connect with these critical topics and relate them to their own career aspirations.
I teach a post-university transitions course at both the University of the Fraser Valley and Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia. The main course objective is to ensure students are well prepared for their journey after post-secondary graduation. I elected to use the SDGs as a framework to help students consider three ambitious questions that can evoke personal values and their sense of purpose:
Rather than simply pose these questions in a single lecture, I elected to embed them in various capacities within assignments and activities throughout the term. In particular, I chose to structure these as “renewable assignments” that aim to provide value and impact beyond the course, as opposed to disposable assignments that students set aside once they are completed.
The results demonstrated immediate impact; students felt that the content was engaging and they immersed themselves into their assignments and activities. As one student noted:
“This course [and the SDG components] has me more focused on my dream of being more than a teacher… to ensure children are receiving more than a quality education… [and that they] do not go without food, have access to clean water, are healthy (mentally, physically, and emotionally), have equality, and gain skills to thrive in their community.”
Furthermore, a common insight that many students shared is articulated in this student’s comment about introducing the SDGs within the K–12 system:
“I found it surprising that the SDGs… (or the MDGs, which was the earlier version) were not introduced earlier in my undergrad, or even while I was in elementary and high school! Learning about them earlier on would have helped me better connect what I want to know and how I can help my community.”
I agree with this student that the SDGs can and should be introduced at a much earlier age. Three assignments that resonated particularly well with my students are described below, along with ideas for adapting them to suit the K–12 environment:
In the course, students are asked to research labour market information related to their career aspirations, using search engines such as the Government of Canada’s National Occupation Code (National) and WorkBC’s Labour Market Information Office (Provincial). What skills, education, and experiences are required to enter the occupation? What might be their career outlook and prospects, provincially and nationally? Having conducted this research, students are asked to consider which of the 17 SDGs their chosen profession or field might help advance and how.
Applicability to K–12: This assignment and its activities are likely suitable to the more senior secondary school years to help students further their research literacy and critical thinking skills. Students may also use this opportunity to explore the types of work – both in terms of paid employment and unpaid volunteer/service pursuits – that directly support or are involved within one or more of the SDGs, to help expand their understanding of how diverse occupations might be.
In the information interview project, students speak with three individuals whom they believe can provide insight into a type of work they are considering, and then they reflect on these conversations. One of the reflective questions embedded in the project asks them to consider the common themes that emerged in their conversations, and how they believe these themes and individuals shed further insights into the SDGs.
Applicability to K–12: This assignment can be adapted to suit a particular grade level, from teachers providing a list of questions to ask in the lower grades, to empowering students to generate questions on their own in the higher levels. This assignment might be comparable to a career/occupation activity where teachers invite guest speakers to visit the class and talk about their profession, resulting in a group information interview where any students can pose questions. For example, a student interested in pursuing an occupation in trades might interview an electrician and learn that she is either explicitly or unknowingly supporting SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities by sourcing and using local materials in her projects, as well as SDG 5: Gender Equality through her advocacy work as a female in her trade association. If an obvious connection isn’t immediately made, the student and professional can engage in a conversation about how someone working in the profession could potentially align their work with one of the SDGs. This then becomes an interesting two-way instructional opportunity where the student can, in turn, help educate the professional about the SDGs.
Students develop their mission statement as part of an ePortfolio. During the development process, they consider: What is the work they want to pursue? Who are they doing this work for? And how might the SDGs be furthered as a result of their work? In the last question, they are able to again infuse the SDGs and talk about the overarching goal and connect it back to their ideal work and profession.
Applicability to K–12: Teachers can adjust the scope of this project based on the grade level to have students identify what they can do in their own life to help advance one or more of the SDGs; a charter of sorts. This may also align with a research project on how one can make a specific impact in their local (school or neighbourhood) community.
Ultimately, the SDGs as a career education framework can be used with students to generate ideas on occupations they’d like to pursue. Using the UN SDGs as a framework helps them expand their current career aspirations by asking, “Which of the SDGs do you think you can contribute to as you work in your chosen field, and how so?” By doing this they can better connect their work aspiration to a bigger purpose, and that purpose can also be a motivating factor in their coursework and post-secondary options. Additionally, the SDGs can help students who are unsure about their occupational goals answer the question: “What is a cause I am passionate about and how might I contribute to that cause, either through paid work or through volunteering?”
I’d like to offer a few tips for educators who wish to incorporate the SDGs into their curriculum as a means to enhance their students’ career development:
In the case of my students, the response has been very positive. I’ve had students and graduates tell me they are incorporating the SDGs in their job and graduate school applications and even during job and admissions interviews.
This quote from one student reveals the seemingly lifelong impact that embedding the SDGs into my curriculum achieved:
“Something that I have learned about myself in relation to the UN SDG(s) that I have identified was that it is not easy to accomplish these goals right away, as it happens over time… The way I treat others and the actions I take always depend upon peace and justice as everyone should be treated equally and be able to have a second chance to grow from their mistakes.”
Photo: Adobe Stock
Canadian Commission for UNESCO. (2020). Teacher’s toolkit: UNESCO Schools Network in Canada. UNESCO.
Saskatchewan Council for International Cooperation (2021). Online global citizenship education resources.
Join us for a special virtual event focusing on the increasing importance of supporting social-emotional learning (SEL) amidst a global pandemic. This event will feature Avon Maitland District School Board in Ontario, who will be sharing their experience implementing and measuring SEL using Peekapak resources. The flexibility of Peekapak’s SEL in either remote or in-class formats makes it easy for educators to implement. This event is intended to help school administrators support their educators, and it will be recorded and available to all those who register.