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Aboriginal education needs to be place-based education

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"Indian Control of Indian Education" was a brilliant piece of agenda-setting in the early 1970s.

Anything governments did about Aboriginal education from that point on could be measured against a common yardstick: Is this what the community wants? Is it what parents want?

All over Canada, education agreements have been negotiated with local Bands and other Aboriginal organizations on the basis of that simple idea. 

The trouble is that the realities are not simple.

Aboriginal students are extremely diverse, and the histories and current situations of their communities are extremely diverse. Yet schools have a hard time dealing with diversity – not just in Aboriginal communities or towns and cities with large Aboriginal populations, but everywhere.

The fact is that schools were designed, back in the 19th century, to create a more homogenous, unified, mobile population across Canada. That is basically what schools are for. Sure, they can be tweaked in various ways to try and accommodate local differences, but such efforts are add-ons, not part of the basic logic of school.

Aboriginal students are extremely diverse, and the histories and current situations of their communities are extremely diverse. Yet schools have a hard time dealing with diversity – not just in Aboriginal communities or towns and cities with large Aboriginal populations, but everywhere.

A good example is the teaching of Aboriginal languages in schools. Bringing a community language into school changes it, and how students identify with it. Ironically, the effect can be to emotionally distance students from the language, especially if they don't encounter it in daily use in the community.

This kind of double-bind is at the heart of the problems experienced by Aboriginal students. If they buy into the logic of school, they will find it very difficult to balance that view of the world with a strong sense of rootedness in a particular community and place. If they reject the logic of school, it can be a pretty meaningless and hostile environment to have to endure. 

The solution, I think, is to come up with a different vision of schools in general – one that emphasizes their connections with place and community. 

Aboriginal education needs to be place-based education in order to attend to the particularity of each community and nation, without making assumptions about the identities, backgrounds and values of individual students. By place-based, I mean that as much of the curriculum as possible should be taught in ways that connect directly with the history and circumstances of where and how the students and their families live.

Aboriginal education needs to be place-based education in order to attend to the particularity of each community and nation, without making assumptions about the identities, backgrounds and values of individual students.

This implies different ways of training teachers, different ways of designing curriculum, and different ways of teaching. It implies getting away from the simple idea of "control" of education. Control means relatively little unless you can change the logic of school so that the local and particular become more central to its mission.

In Canada, good place-based education has to be, among other things, good Aboriginal education. Aboriginal history, values, perspectives and issues need to have a central place in any authentically place-based curriculum. So do, for example, issues of environmental awareness, resource management, energy use, habitat protection, social justice, economic equity, democratic governance, fair trade, human rights, mental and physical health, sustainable agriculture, and so on. 

These are issues of concern in every community in Canada – precisely because they are not fully amenable to local control, and larger forces that care nothing for community needs (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike) are steadily undermining our ability to address them.

Our ambitions for Aboriginal students need to extend beyond academic success as currently defined. We need schools dedicated to their well-being as whole persons, and to that of their communities and the natural systems that sustain them.

Enough of add-ons. Let's tackle the heart of the problem.


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