Aboriginal higher learner success factors at vancouver community college

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In summary, it is recognized that VCC will continue to operate in an increasingly complex environment, within the local and global marketplace, and will need to build capacity and maintain a competitive advantage. In order to fulfill the college mandate to serve the community (K. Kinloch, personal communication, October 26, 2010), this includes meeting the needs of the currently underserved Aboriginal population that is growing rapidly and will increasingly become important for the long-term viability of the college. Currently, Aboriginal voice and decision-making has been marginalized within the jurisdiction, control, and implementation of post-secondary education, compounding historical injustices that have negatively impacted Aboriginal learner participation at VCC.

The opportunity to fully serve the needs of the Aboriginal population who reside in the VCC region would support a growing labour pool that can meaningfully contribute to the development of the region, while also meeting the goals of the Transformative Change Accord (Government of BC, Ministry of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, 2005), the Aboriginal Strategy Plan (ALMD, 2007), the Aboriginal Service Plan (2010a), the VCC (2006) vision and mission, and the Consortium (VCC, 2007). Enhancing the relationship with Consortium partners is a priority, as is the planning required to and proactively recruit more Aboriginal employees within the college to increase the cultural integration and relevancy of the college through strategies, systems, policies, and process that institutionalize indigenization of the college’s programs and services to support the success of Aboriginal learners.

This chapter provided a focus and framing of the research project outlining the opportunity and its significance, examining the systems affecting VCC, and providing the organizational context to understand the factors that contribute to the success of Aboriginal higher learners. The next chapter includes a review of literature relevant to this research question.



The intent of this literature review is to identify key areas of information that inform the overall research. The research question was: What factors contribute to the success of Aboriginal learners at VCC? In the view of Battiste (2002), it is important to consider that in the context of Indigenous knowledge,

a literature review is an oxymoron because Indigenous knowledge is typically embedded in the cumulative experiences and teachings of Ingenious peoples rather than in library. The second point is that conducting a literature review on Indigenous knowledge implies that Eurocentric research can reveal an understanding of Indigenous knowledge. The problem with this approach is that Indigenous knowledge does not mirror classic Eurocentric orders of life. It is a knowledge system within its own right and with its own internal consistency and ways of knowing, and there are limits to how far it can be comprehended from a Eurocentric point of view. Having said that, literature on the topic of Indigenous knowledge and pedagogy does exist, although it is limited in scope and depth, particularly in the Canadian context. (p. 1)

Within this research question there are three thematic research areas. The first research area is an examination of educational systems as it affects Aboriginal learners, with subtopics that include traditional Aboriginal teaching, learning and values, residential schools, the current tertiary education system and models of Aboriginal education in Canada. The second research area is a description of current research and related inquiry of factors that contribute to Aboriginal higher learner success from academic and institutional literature, and the barriers external and internal to the post-secondary education system. This research is critiqued to reveal the underlying assumptions and their relevance to the success of Aboriginal higher learners. The third research area examines current integration strategies that support greater representation of Aboriginal peoples in VCC.

Educational Systems and Culture

This section compares and contrasts the traditional education system with imbedded First Nation values and the existing post-secondary system in Canada. It is important to recognize that within BC, it is particularly important to recognize that within the 203 First Nations we have the highest rates of Aboriginal diversity in the country, as demonstrated by the high representation of Canada’s Aboriginal languages (32/50), and 59 dialects (First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Culture Council, 2010, p. 4). In this section, I will attempt to identify a common foundational axiology.

First Nations Traditional Education System

In examining the educational systems of Canada and the traditional education system of Aboriginal peoples it is important to understand that educational systems, and indeed all systems and organizations are built according to the dominant culture’s values (Hofstede, 1984, p. 81). According to Hofstede, the culture becomes crystalized in the institutions (p. 82). In BC the foremost leading researcher on First Nations education is Dr. Lorna Williams (as cited in Geraldine Bob, Marcuse, Nyce, & Williams, 1993), who has stated that since time immemorial,

the traditional First Nations education system was a sophisticated system of information intergenerationally transmitted knowledge both declarative and procedural processes. The education processes were embedded in their social institutions, both formal and informal, occurring over a person’s lifetime. The education always focused on all aspects of the task including cognitive, emotional, physical and spiritual components. (pp. 40–41)

Traditional education systems were delivered largely through oral narratives that were relayed over thousands of year and contained axiology, ontology, and epistemology of each culturally distinct nation. Within oral narratives were each nation’s distinct foundational values within their creation story, which still today “explains what the group considers significant . . . [and] offers the foundational values for good living (Harmon, 2003). These education goals, morals and values were clearly understood by the community and in particular Elders who were the teachers and traditional knowledge keepers.

When examining these foundational values, Saunders, Redwing, and Hill (2007) cited a deep level of respect, relevance, and reciprocative learning common in Aboriginal teaching and learning. The theory of Tswalk (Atleo, 2004) is rooted in a sacred understanding of connection, also known as hershook-ish tsawalk, which is translated to mean everything physical and metaphysical in our reality is one (p. xi). This includes a sense of belonging through connectedness to their extended family, culture, and nature as a natural support system (Bowman, as cited in Marchant, 2002, p. 9). First Nations values include “sharing, non-competitiveness, politeness, not putting oneself forward in a group, allowing others to go first, being reluctant to speak out, present rather than future orientation, and norms of non-interference” (Whitbeck, Hoyt, Stubben, & LaFramboise, 2001, p. 50). Perhaps the most important value that is common to indigenous peoples in BC is the deep respect and relationship we hold with the land, demonstrated by many origin stories and oral narratives that form the basis of our traditional education system and identity.

In examining these values that have changed little over time and still apply to First Nations students, Battiste and Henderson (2000) recommended constructivist teaching methods that support Aboriginal traditional learning methods. Constructivist teaching methods include: harmony and unity, holistic perspectives, expressive creativity, and non-verbal communication (Pewewardy, 2002, p. 38), which are motivated by cooperation rather than competition, prefer shared decision-making processes, defer authority, and do not want to be perceived as being either above or below the status of others (Kawagley & Barnhardt, 1998). Aboriginal learners also benefit from integrating the values of community responsibility and relational accountability (Mixon, 2008a). The value of listening more than talking is widely acknowledged for all First Nations peoples, but was beautifully articulated by Walter Wright, who was a Tsimshian hereditary chief from the community of Kitselas. Wright was known for describing peaceful listening as a predominant state wherein one moves beyond deep, active listening with a peaceful heart (Robinson, 2003, p. 11). According to Battiste (2002),

The first principle of Aboriginal learning is a preference for experiential knowledge. Indigenous pedagogy values a person’s ability to learn independently by observing, listening, and participating with a minimum of intervention or instruction. This pattern of direct learning by seeing and doing, without asking questions, makes Aboriginal children diverse learners. The do not have a single homogenous learning style as generalized in some teaching literature from the 1970s and 1980s. (p. 15)

In summarizing Williams and Tanaka’s (2007) findings on traditional teaching and learning methods that still work well for Aboriginal learners they recommend: mentorship and apprenticeship learning, learning by doing, learning by deeply observing, learning through listening, telling stories and singing songs, learning in a community, and learning by sharing and providing service to the community. Facilitating sharing knowledge in relationship, sharing classroom control and responsibility, negotiating timelines, using humour in addition to metaphor, stories, sharing circles, deep observation, designing space for reflective learning, providing positive expectations and supporting achievement of these expectations, learning through role models and role modelling, and experiential and situated learning and through local protocols are also important (Mixon, 2008c). An excellent example within Canada of this kind of integrated teaching exists within the University of Victoria’s Masters of Education in Counselling for Aboriginal Communities and Schools where graduates receive training in: the History of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Education in Canada; Indigenous Epistemologies; EI TELNIWT and Aboriginal Education; Learning and Teaching in an Indigenous World; and Researching with Aboriginal Peoples: Aboriginalizing Research (University of Victoria, 2010). This training has included traditional projects such as totem pole carving, weaving, and traditional songs. “Graduates of this program will have the necessary background to provide culturally responsive counselling to Aboriginal communities and in schools. This program is community-based and developed with the support and guidance of local Aboriginal communities” (para. 1). Consistent with the traditional knowledge transmission that is heavily incorporated into the program, this program is known through community awareness rather than literature documenting its success.

The University of Victoria M.Ed. Program and most Indigenous Institutes of Higher Learning in BC utilize the power of traditional knowledge and respect protocols that empower learners through building upon, deepening, or celebrating their own cultural knowledge, beliefs and values, thus allowing them to “build cultural strengths thus enhancing self-concept” (Battiste, 2002, p. 15). Within this program and within Indigenous Institutes, there is a sacred respect for the role of Elders in teaching and a deep understanding of localized social cues (Mixon, 2008c) that support learners. One example derived from the traditional hul’qumi’num people from the Coast Salish Nations on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands is the practice of deep listening while looking down as a sign of respect, which can be easily perceived according to western values as not listening. In addition, alternative evaluations that allow for group learning, assignments, and grading are critical (P. Brownlee Baker, personal communication, January 23, 2009). Battiste (2002) supported this approach:

As teachers begin to confront new pedagogical schemes of learning, they will need to decolonize education, a process that includes raising the collective voice of Indigenous peoples, exposing the injustices in our colonial history, legitimating the voices and experiences of Aboriginal peoples in the curriculum, recognizing it as a dynamic context of knowledge and knowing, and communicating the commotional journey that such explorations will generate. (p. 20)

Because of the complexity and depth of knowledge one must accumulate to teach Aboriginal peoples effectively, First Nations have negotiated shared authority of education for Aboriginal students in grades K-12 through Aboriginal education enhancement agreements established in 1999 (Government of BC, Ministry of Education, 1999). This kind of shared decision making has not yet been negotiated with institutes of higher learning, but the Assembly of First Nations and many Aboriginal academics (Battiste, 2002; Cajete, 1999; Stonechild, 2006; Wilson, 2008) and First Nations in Canada have long advocated for enhanced control and authority in post-secondary education that is built upon a cultural foundation, traditional Aboriginal education practices that align with innovative new practices such as constructivism.

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