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Infusing Indigenous Knowledges into the Classroom

December 14, 2011

Yesterday, the University of British Columbia announced changes to their faculty of education, stating a renewed focus on diversity, social justice and aboriginal knowledge. These topics would not be taught as separate subjects but ‘infused’ throughout the curriculum.

This is a fantastic step forward. By weaving it through the curriculum it should highlight aboriginal ways of knowing, how they differ from mainstream, dominant forms of knowing and how these multi-centered ways of knowing can positively contribute to social justice and equity. It focuses on Indigenous knowledge as a system of thought, a way of coming to know the world, rather than just a topic to be studied.

After such a positive step, the next question inevitably arises: How do you do this? How  do you infuse Indigenous knowledges into your curriculum?

Before I examine some of the possibilities of such a project, I want to highlight some of the challenges. Indigenous ways of knowing (see this article on some of the dynamic of aboriginal vs. indigenous) are active, embodied ways of knowing that rely on connection to land, spirituality, community, etc… Western curriculums as they exist now are built on the separation of body and mind (with the denial of spirit as valid in knowledge production), divorced from embodied experience through the reliance on reason, and designed to alienate and fragment communities. Can you really simply ‘infuse’ Aboriginal knowledge or ideas of equity into a system that has worked for so long to subvert and pervert these ideas?

This might sound harsh but the reality is that schooling in North America has an abysmal track record when it comes to valuing difference in any form. From Residential schools for Aboriginal students to school bullyings of queer students which had led to suicide – the system is not very friendly to difference. If the framework is ‘rotten’, can we change it simply by ‘infusing’ it?

I’m not entirely sure of the answer but  I don’t think, as instructors, educators and faculty, that we can allow the problems and challenges to cripple us, to force us to inactivity. So, if we were to look at how we can bring Indigenous or Aboriginal ways of knowing into our classrooms in ways that promote social justice and diversity – where would we begin?

I’m going to give you this chapter as a starting point, it comes from a recently published book titled, Spirituality, Education & Society and is titled “Connected: Indigenous Spirituality as Resistance in the Classroom”. It examines some of the principles and underpinnings of Indigenous ways of knowing and how they can be useful in the classroom – let me highlight.

1. Recognizing and affirming difference. “It is the teacher’s role to “candidly explore all the emerging contestations,
contradictions and ambiguities in peoples’ lives” as a way to value them, rather than sweeping them under the rug.

2. Affirming collaborative learning. “Collaborative learning begins when the teacher/student dichotomy is broken down
in a positive way that allows for everyone to contribute their lived experiences to the process of knowledge building, regardless of position or credentials.”

3. Creating a space of openness and belonging. “One way to do this is to createwhat Kessler (1999) calls “an authentic community”, a space of openness where students feel comfortable exploring their relationships and connections. It is also a
space that allows for different experiences and is open to new possibilities in exploring spirituality, such as through play, creative learning such as art or drama, story sharing, or even silence.”

4. Creating a space for active, embodied learning. This “takes students out of the traditional classroom and engages them with nature, history, philosophy, community, mythology, and the whole self in ways that make the knowledge active and alive. The students interact within the community and within nature in ways that allow them to explore spiritual connections. Thinking of an active, embodied spiritual learning will sometimes entail thinking outside of the box of the educational system, of the classroom, and the assigned curriculum in an effort to provide an inclusive education that centers each student and allows them to explore their spiritual and whole selves.”

I see these as beginning steps in thinking about how to integrate Indigenous ways of knowing into the higher education classroom. Issues of diversity, social justice and aboriginal knowledge are important ideas and ways of knowing to highlight in our institutions but we need to continue to think of and challenge how we bring these ideas into these spaces.

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