Raising our valuation of traditional ecological knowledge

In the spring of 2016, I had the privilege of hearing Mr. Tom Child recount the story of a Kwakiutl elder, Ms. Sara Sampare, who described her experience during the Great Depression of the 1930s. She had spoken of how during this time of national hardship, when everyone across North America was always hungry, the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples never experienced that same scarcity. Rich and sophisticated traditional ecological knowledge had resulted in more than enough food to meet the needs of the community.

Hearing this story made me question the sustainability and wholeness of western technological advances, and the low valuation western societies have placed upon traditional ecological knowledge. As a result, I started to ask some questions about the need to address implicit bias and the racism of low expectations that continue to plague the systemic beliefs and values in our education system. We decided to take action through intentionally designing learning experiences that are highly engaging and focused on increasing mainstream valuation of traditional ecological knowledge.

School District 85 (Vancouver Island North) has developed an emerging culture of community-partnered STEM-based learning at both the school and district levels. Our relationships with local First Nations are of key importance in serving students and families. Our region is rich in its cultural practices and Aboriginal worldviews/ perspectives are highly valued from an organizational perspective. With a strong leadership focus on equity, robust relationships, rich cultural practices and access to sacred traditional knowledge, all of the important elements to create innovative learning experiences emphasizing the value of Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives are in place.

A desire to connect our hands-on STEM learning approach to these highly important elements led us to ask this question: How might exploring Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) through the lens of STEM learning raise consciousness of implicit bias and address a racism of low expectations?

Currently there is a provincial, national and international movement towards addressing inequities in education and incorporating Aboriginal ways of knowing and learning into the classroom. Considering the United Nations Declaration on the Right of Indigenous Peoples, the final Report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 2015 Auditor General’s report on the status of Aboriginal Education in British Columbia, we must take an active approach in ensuring equity, improved outcomes and success for all learners. Provincially this movement has been strengthened through hosting regional gatherings in support of the development and release of the 2015 Ministry of Education document: Aboriginal Worldviews and Perspectives in the Classroom. It is our belief that exploring TEK-STEM is one of many ways that we can continue to support this movement.

TEK-STEM Challenge

Working collaboratively with the Kwakiutl Nation’s Manager of Lands and Resources Mr. Tom Child, we began designing a learning experience that was innovative, embedded Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives, and raised consciousness of implicit bias through placing high value on traditional ecological knowledge. Our approach intentionally interweaves much of Tom’s personal and professional work with research based educational practices. Together we drafted the following guiding statement:

The premise of this year’s STEM challenge is to create a highly engaging learning experience that increases our mainstream valuation of the richness in Traditional Ecological Knowledge. With no prior knowledge of the specific task, students will be challenged to create a product/system used to harvest and enhance one of 4 traditional food sources. Students will be required to use a standard set of materials to create a replica of their product/system, demonstrate the use of that product to elders and related industry professionals and explain why they chose this particular food source for harvesting. Students must also be able to account for how their practice will be not only sustainable but enhance this food source. Tom’s research guided us to the important message for the theme of the day that Traditional Ecological Knowledge keepers had everything necessary to sustain our world. We want to ensure that we shift people’s thinking from phrases such as ‘hunter gatherers’ to something more appropriate including ‘caretakers/ enhancers or stewards of the natural balance’. Tom further included that it is worthwhile to spend time on the messaging that part of the valuable knowledge was to capitalize on the seasonal variation that ebbed and flowed as parts of natural systems. We want to include the sacred geography of our region and the spiritual elements of each ‘place’; telling the stories of these places.

Ultimately, our mission will be rooted in 3 key premises:

  1. Raising consciousness of the implicit prejudices associated with colonial thinking
  2. Embedding Aboriginal Worldviews and Perspective in our practice
  3. Developing Innovative Learning Environments as described by the OECD

Fundamental to ensuring a truly innovative learning experience that maximizes creativity is that students and teachers were given very little information about the nature of the challenge prior to the event itself. Instead, teachers were given 4 or 5 relevant TEK-STEM principles that could be applied to the challenge and asked to ensure that their learners were prepared to do so.

Challenge Event: May 11, 2016

As a district wide challenge, all Grade 6/7 students in SD85 participated. Additionally, independent and band operated schools were invited, which resulted in a group of approximately 200 learners. Upon arrival, students were given a brief presentation about platforms for STEM learning and its various applications. A variety of previous STEM learning challenges were shared and a small introduction to four different traditional food sources was shared. These four traditional food sources were salmon, eulachon, clams and a root garden. Students were then presented with the challenge and the standard materials lists. Working in teams of up to six, students designed and created tools and systems for harvesting and enhancing one of the food sources discussed. After a short lunch break, teams were called upon to demonstrate the design features and use of their system to industry professionals and elder knowledge keepers who acted as appreciative judges to provide feedback. While waiting for the judges, each participant was required to connect with two other teams to ask questions about and learn from their designs. After all teams were finished sharing their designs with the judges, the whole group gathered to view a follow-up presentation demonstrating the traditional methods used by the Kwakiutl peoples to ensure the long-term sustainability and enhancement of these resources.

Embedded within the learning experience were all the elements described by the OECD for effective innovative learning environments:

  1. learners and learning were placed at the center of our focus;
  2. the learning was social and collaborative;
  3. there was an emotional connection to the challenge itself and to the local context;
  4. the individual perspectives that each learner brought helped strengthen the designs for their team;
  5. all learners were stretched and found success from basic to highly-complex designs;
  6. all learners received rich feedback about their designs; and
  7. horizontal connections were made across curricula.

Beyond these elements, we were able to challenge the pedagogical core as we questioned these concepts: Who are the learners? Who are the educators? What is the curriculum? And what is the classroom?

In an effort to collect data about the impact of this experience, students were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their beliefs and attitudes toward traditional ecological knowledge prior to engaging in the challenge (see inset for questions), and then again after participating in the challenge and hearing an additional presentation focused on how the Kwakiutl traditionally enhanced food sources. On average, the value students place on traditional ecological knowledge increased, and students made connections to how this knowledge is applicable to modern technologies. Information collected indicated that all students demonstrated an increase in their valuation of Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives with an increased desire to learn more about traditional ecological knowledge.

Important aspects of the learning experience included both self and peer assessment practices. Teams were required to describe the strengths and weaknesses of their design in relation to the assigned STEM principles and expectations of the challenge. Individual students were expected to evaluate the designs of other teams providing peer feedback. As incentive, names were entered into a draw for door prizes. An important aspect to our STEM challenge is a cost analysis to account for the large scale production of designs; accordingly, each group was provided with a materials price list and expected to provide an explanation of building cost. Finally, all students were provided with judging criteria as an example to guide the design and building of their products, so students could develop an understanding of how best to meet criteria for success.

Reflections

The results of this challenge are positive and clearly indicate that exploring traditional ecological knowledge through the lens of STEM learning can raise the value placed on Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives. While this is a promising result for the future of these learners it is imperative that educator’s attitudes and beliefs are taken into account. Future practices will need to incorporate data collected directly from teachers.

All members who contributed to or participated in this learning experience benefitted. Students gained an increased appreciation for Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives while being highly engaged through an innovative learning experience. Educators were given opportunity to learn about how to design innovative learning experiences and were challenged to address a racism of low expectations. Aboriginal learning partners on the North Island were able to share sacred knowledge for the purpose of learning and in doing so raised the general valuation of Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives. School District 85 benefitted from this experience as both staff and students performed exceptionally well during a learning challenge and raised consciousness of implicit bias. Above all, the collaborative relationships formed between School District 85 and the Kwakiutl nation have provided a foundation for increased perspective taking and extended contact.

Future Practice

Reflecting on this experience, I consider the origin of this inquiry and recognize how my own learning has evolved. I have new questions about how to embed this practice in classrooms and how to build in an inquiry approach. Next steps will involve transferring these learning experiences from singular learning events to extended explorations which translate into deep learning. Immersion with the exploration of Aboriginal worldviews and perspectives through STEM learning is well suited to meet many of the criteria for learning in the redesigned curriculum. Ultimately, it is our goal to continue strengthening relationships with local Aboriginal learning partners and provide opportunities for the creation of new partnerships that support the goal of improved outcomes for all learners.


D’Arcy Deacon is Principal at Eagle View Elementary in SD85 (Vancouver Island North). He can be reached at ddeacon@sd85.bc.ca. School website: https://eagleviewelementaryschool.edublogs.org/

This article first appeared on the April 2017 issue of the BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association (BCPVPA) publication, Adminfo. BCSTA would like to thank Richard Williams, BCPVPA Manager of Communications, for granting permission to republish.

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