What the Best College Teachers Do and Indigenous Pedagogies

In the early 2010’s, I read Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do” (2004). One part jumped out at me then and I continue to quote and use it over and over. When describing the best college teachers’ classrooms, Bain writes

More than anything else, the best teachers try to create a natural critical learning environment: natural because students encounter skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating – authentic tasks that arouse curiosity and become intrinsically interesting, critical because students learn to think critically, to reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning using a variety of intellectual standards, to make improvements while thinking, and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people.

(p. 99)

He observes that in these natural, critical learning environments,

students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summative evaluation.

(p. 108)

The try, fail, receive feedback, try again cycle inspired me to create this graphic (feel free to use it, it’s shared under CC-BY):

In the best college teachers classrooms, “students encounter safe yet challenging conditions in which they can try, fail, receive feedback, and try again without facing a summative evaluation” (Bain, 2004) (Graphic created by Peter Newbury, shared under CC-BY)

I frequently think about this learning cycle and happily encourage instructors and other educational developers to think about it, too, and build it into their courses and support for those who teach. In other words, it’s always active in my head, always ready to leap up and join the conversation.

Imagine my thrill, then, when I read this passage from Pulling Together: A Guide for Indigenization of Post-Secondary Institutions (Curriculum Developers edition) by Asma-na-hi Antoine, Rachel Mason, Roberta Mason, Sophia Palahicky, and Carmen Rodriguez de France (2018):

[L]earning from mistakes is a common aspect of Indigenous pedagogy, as it involves experiential learning and self-development. In this view, mistakes plus correction equals learning. Indigenous communities and families have a cultural process for “fixing” a mistake by creating a safe place to acknowledge your mistake, to fix it, and then learn from it…After the process of acknowledging and fixing a mistake, it’s then time to let go, move forward, and continue to work together.

(p. 34)

🤯 Mind 🤯 Blown 🤯

Let’s take a close read to compare these Western and Indigenous approaches to teaching:

What the best college teachers do Pulling Together
students encounter skills, habits, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and (authentic) tasks they find fascinating it involves experiential learning and self-development
students encounter safe yet challenging conditions creating a safe place to acknowledge your mistake
try, fail, receive feedback, and try again mistakes plus correction equals learning
try, fail, receive feedback, and try again acknowledge your mistake, to fix it, and then learn from it
without facing a summative evaluation it’s then time to let go, move forward, and continue to work together

I’m so happy to continue confronting and correcting my colonial misconception that Indigenizing the curriculum means setting aside my Western knowledge and practices. How people learn is the same, and effective teaching is effective teaching, however we label and categorize it.

Western and Indigenous models of learning

As I start my new job at Red River College Polytechnical, I’ve been learning a lot about Indigenization, colonialism, and reconciliation and what they mean for teaching. I haven’t had to dig this deeply into Indigenization before and I’m learning a lot.

I’m always looking for patterns. Maybe that’s my math background. As I was reading about Indigenization, I saw an interesting connection between Indigenous ways of learning and the Western ideas of transmission vs constructivist models of teaching.

I like to think that recognizing this connection is an example of “two-eyed seeing” that Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall describes like this:

learn to see from your one eye with the best or the strengths in the Indigenous knowledges and ways of knowing… and learn to see from your other eye with the best or the strengths in the mainstream (Western or Eurocentric) knowledges and ways of knowing… but most importantly, learn to see with both these eyes together, for the benefit of all

— Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall
Two-Eyed Seeing (pdf) from the Institute of Integrative Science and Health

The Two-Eyed Seeing article goes on to say,

Two-Eyed Seeing adamantly, respectfully, and passionately asks that we bring together our different ways of knowing to motivate people, Indigenous and non-indigenous alike, to use all our understandings so we can leave the world a better place and not compromise the opportunities for our youth (in the sense of Seven Generations) through our own inaction.

Here’s the connection that’s becoming clearer for me as I compare my new Indigenous seeing with my much longer experiences with Western models of learning.

Most teaching in #HigherEd follows the transmission model: an expert stands at the front of the classroom and talks (and talks and talks and talks.) They fill the students heads with knowledge (the “students-as-empty-vessels” mindset.) While I fully advocate for short mini-lectures where instructors can model expert-like habits of thinking or share their unique experiences, we know teaching strategies based on the constructivist model of learning are more effective. That’s where the course instructor provides content, structure, and active learning opportunities for each student to construct their own knowledge, integrating new concepts and skills into their existing knowledge. We know this approach is even more effective when students work with others, helping each other build their understanding. That’s the social constructivist model.

Now consider the Indigenous approach to teaching and learning. Here’s Red River College Polytechnical Elder-in-Residence Paul Guimond, Little Eagle Bone, teaching his class. Everyone sits in a circle with no “front” for the expert. He asks questions and invites students to engage and contribute to their own understanding and the understanding of their peers. That sounds just like the constructivist model!

Elder Paul Guimond, Little Eagle Bone, teaches a class. He’s asking his students, “In the Seven Teachings, turtle represents what?” Notice everyone sits in a circle: there’s no stage for the sage. (Screenshot from “Truth and Reconciliation – Elders at RRC“, Indigenous Education, Red River College Polytechnical)

Next, here’s Chief Donny Morris of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation describing Indigenous children: 

From when you can walk, you’re taught certain little things like how to fish for little minnows or birds, to hunt them. You’re already at that stage when you’re on our own to learn those things. So when you’re a teenager or an adult, automatically that thing is already instilled in you, to hunt, to fish, to gather.

Chief Donny Morris, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation. (Screenshot from “Early Life in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug” by Reconciliation Education)

To me and my novice understanding, that sounds like Indigenous ways of learning are continually leading students into Vigotsky’s “zone of proximal development”, that area of learning a student cannot complete alone but can accomplish when they have the guidance and support of a teacher or peer with a higher skill set [Wikipedia].

I’ll be honest…

I’ll be honest: before working my way through “4 Seasons of Reconciliation” and “Pulling Together: A Guide for Curriculum Developers“, I was worried that I’d have to, like, choose between Western and Indigenous models of learning, and that respecting and advocating for Indigenization of the curriculum would mean tossing aside everything I know about how people learn. I see now that that mindset — that there has to be a winner — is a colonial way of thinking. So I’m happy and relieved that the right thing to do is follow the best practices of both approaches, especially when they have so much in common.

It’s still new to me, though, and I know my understanding will continue to grow and evolve (I hope I don’t read this post in 5 years and cringe 😅). I keep learning.

Searching for a job in #HigherEd

In February, 2022, I started a new job as an Educational Developer in the Centre for Learning and Program Excellence at Red River College Polytechnical. This came after 18 often tortuous months of searching for a job. That’s an unfamiliar experience for many of my colleagues so I tweeted this 🧵 to share what it was like and what they could do to help their friends and colleagues with precarious employment.

I’m so grateful for the RTs, like, and especially the replies. Despite what you often hear about Twitter, my community there has always been a source of warmth and reassurance.