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.

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