The Aboriginal learning curriculum toolbox…Summary by Lael Sleep

Posted by in Curriculum, Elementary, Secondary

Brandt, J., (2006): The Aboriginal learning curriculum toolbox: cultural philosophy, curriculum design, and strategies for self-directed learning. Owen Sound, ON. Ningwakwe Learning Press. By Lael Sleep

The Aboriginal Learning Curriculum Toolbox draws on the author’s experience as a researcher, teacher, and scholar in Aboriginal literacy and Indigenous learning circles. The manuscript is intended to offer insight and strategies to literacy teachers in the delivery and design of curriculum to adult Aboriginal learners. However, the author’s culturally based approach to philosophy, student engagement, communication and relationship building is beneficial and relevant to all learners. I chose this resource because it is a comprehensive start for integrating culturally based perspectives into curriculum. Brandt’s approach respects the learner, is relevant and inclusive of an Indigenous world views, offers a reciprocal approach to knowledge transmission, and focusses on self-directed learning and responsibility. This resource is available from Strong Nations publishing:

The manual begins by teaching about Indigenous knowledges and content in a chapter entitled Foundational Beliefs. Although this manual is situated in Haudenosaunee and Annishinawbe cultures, she teaches that Aboriginal people do not exist homogenously – each region or territory has its own way of doing things, their own language, and localized customs and traditions. While the author recognizes the diversity of knowledge systems from place to place, she focusses on shared Indigenous beliefs that are holistic and “based on the notion that people must live in respectful coexistence with the natural world, one another, and themselves” (pg 1). In this learning framework, it is the responsibility of the literacy practitioner to provide content and a structure that supports the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical needs of learners. Brandt writes that an awareness of how we learn is reflected in this holistic model and allows learning to become self-directed and responsive – both key elements of an Indigenous epistemology.

The importance of oral traditions to Indigenous knowing is similarly acknowledged in this chapter. Oral traditions highlight intergenerational knowledge, identity through creation stories, and offer lessons about and spiritual connections to history, place, and belonging. She explains the significance of Aboriginal learners hearing origin stories that answer who and where and that these stories help develop positive self-image and support empowerment. In this section Brandt explains culturally based communication protocols that are holistic and takes place on a many levels. For example, opening and closing learning circles with an acknowledgement of people, place, Creator and ancestors is a custom that is followed to ensure harmony within interconnected realms of knowing and learning.

Brandt’s lens is on adult Aboriginal learners which I found useful in guiding my interactions with parents and caregivers. The sections on bringing cultural awareness to different communication styles are a helpful reminder. She broadens communication to include messages conveyed through body language, tone, facial expressions, actions, and intuition (pg 11). She teaches that communication barriers may surface due to unfamiliarity with cultural nuances including shyness, eye contact, and hesitancy to express opinions that may be met with criticism or misunderstanding. She encourages active listening and openness on the part of the teacher to help develop “real communication and a reciprocal relationship” (pg. 13).

This resource is a good start for those in the initial stages of intercultural awareness and of integrating Indigenous perspectives. The chapter on foundational beliefs is a useful summary of widely held Indigenous perspectives on learning and teaching. The content is also validating for those that are further along this path and offers encouragement to keep adapting our strategies to meet the needs of diverse learners. I appreciated in Chapter 2 how Brandt acknowledged how collective historical trauma may be a barrier for Aboriginal learners. Understanding this cycle of oppression and its impact is an important awareness for teachers to consider both in our approach and delivery of content. Brandt encourages an emphasis on reciprocal relationships between teacher and student as the key to overcoming this potential barrier. Her connection to learners developing feelings of acceptance and belonging through relationship building reminds me of one of the guiding principle in the Aboriginal Enhancement Agreements – that learners must first feel a sense of belonging in order to have successful learning experiences. Brandt has several diagrams that teach to this Indigenous spiral of learning and relationship building; at the heart of each is that the learner develop sense of safety and well-being through meaningful relationship with the practitioner.

This core belief in fostering respectful relationships is useful to see articulated within an Indigenous perceptive because it aligns with manifestations in all best teaching practices. When we see these kinds of pedagogical similarities expressed, the integration of Indigenous perspectives becomes more seamless and connected to what makes any learning experience successful. This resource was workshopped in a professional book club at the school where I am currently teaching. My colleagues were sensitive to the question of how to integrate Indigenous content respectfully and meaningfully. Many expressed hesitation in engaging with the subject material lest they ‘get it wrong’ (personal communication). Making connections to what Brandt is sharing in the manual with what teachers are already doing in their classroom helps bridge this resistance. For example, Brandt highlights Indigenous maxims that are similarly embedded throughout the new Ministry curriculum such as place-based learning, personalized learning where students have the opportunity to pursue their passions and interests, experiential and hands-on learning opportunities, and learning in cooperation with one another. Becoming aware of this alignment then means shifting our lens to acknowledge that these are in fact Indigenous ways of knowing and of including content that is reflective of Aboriginal cultures and voices.

Brandt has included lesson summaries in this manual. The consensus among my colleagues was that these were less useful in application. Often in the interest of time or capacity, teachers seek very explicit directives with regard to lesson plans, particularly with material they are less familiar with. The learning activities in the manual has opened ended learning tasks that centre around asking broadly framed questions that are anchored in circle sharing and group reflection approaches. The lesson plan on how to best implement a greeting circle and of guiding circle discussions is one that I found particularly useful. All of the learning activities align with an oral-based tradition and include listening to stories from elders, learning songs, and having discussions in circles. These activities can be integrated into classrooms with permission and connections to local nations which for some, is part of the process but for others, may be too burdensome of a commitment.

This manual specifies a learning approach that is unique to Aboriginal cultures. In the last sections Brandt challenges teachers to develop a framework for the inclusion of culture based knowledge unique to Aboriginal learners. In the context of diverse urban classrooms however, the inclusion of Indigenous worldviews can benefit all learners. New Ministry curriculum aligns with this idea and is less about Indigenous people and more about teaching Indigenous perspectives and worldviews. Educators are invited to explore the potential that these knowledge systems contribute to a stronger more inclusive society. It is not clear who the audience for this is manual is intended for – Brandt simple refers to a literacy practitioner’. As a non-Aboriginal teacher who is committed to integrating Indigenous perspectives into schools, I found this manual a good overview and explanation of what this means with some useful lessons on how to take action and implement. Brandt opens her manual with a reminder that “humour and laughter are integral to a healthy Aboriginal identity” (pg V). Having a relaxed approach towards Indigenous curriculum integration is refreshing to read in a professional publication. Certainly we all can relate to the connective and healing power of laughter so that we can learn and laugh together.