Adult Education Principles & Aboriginal Perspectives: Adult_Learning_Principles_Wordle.jpg


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(These Aboriginal perspectives and adult learning principles have been excerpted from the Science 10 Level 3 Curriculum Guide , (Pihowich, 2007.) They bear repeating here too.)

The Diversity in Our Classrooms


Instructors recognize the visible diversities within our classrooms. Learners are immigrants, they are urban Aboriginals, they are mature men seeking new work skills or retraining, and they are Caucasian women looking to enter the workforce for the first time. They attend programs in a variety of locations – in northern and southern regions, on reserves and in rural and urban communities. Each community has its own characteristics, interests, and needs. However, the diversity in our classrooms extends beyond the visible. Learners play a variety of roles in their communities. They are parents, family members, and community members. They also have a wide range of personal experiences that are unique.

While we refer here to the diversity of learners, we must also recognize the diversity among instructors. Some instructors are new to Adult Basic Education while others have worked in this area for many years. Some deliver individualized programs, as opposed to larger, group-taught programs; some have continuous intake while others work in programs with block intakes. We represent multiple ethnic, classed, and gendered identities. These multiple identities affect our perceptions about teaching and instructional practices. Instructors and learners alike bring these diversities to our classrooms.

Learners come to Adult Basic Education for a variety of reasons. Some want skills to enhance their chances for employment or to gain academic certification. They want to make changes in their lives. Most hope to contribute to change for their children and communities. Others seek the tools to gain empowerment and achieve personal transformation.

The diversity in our classrooms is also reflected in the way in which learners view our roles as instructors. Some may expect us to play the role of “expert in control” of the classroom. For them, the concept of a good teacher is rooted in traditional teaching practices (lecture, test, rote-memory work, worksheets, and so on).

Diversity can pose challenges for all of us. Choosing more inclusive teaching approaches can also be challenging. Instructors and learners alike will be faced with many opportunities to negotiate across cultures. To negotiate effectively, individuals need to grow in their multicultural competencies. Cross-cultural competence is a skill that requires substantial effort to learn. We need to approach new relationships in a humble manner, recognizing and admitting to ourselves when we lack experience and comfort in working with others. Then we, like all adult learners, must choose to move towards social action by committing ourselves to learning more about others. Working with someone from a different ethnic tradition does not necessarily lead to uncovering differences in expectations, communication styles, and values. However, it can open the door for those negotiations to begin. As trusting, reciprocal relationships develop, perhaps we can then each gain the competence to be true bicultural negotiators.

While all learners are unique, special mention is made of the growing population of adult Aboriginal learners in our province. Nearly 60% of Adult Basic Education learners are Aboriginal (Saskatchewan Learning, 2002). Therefore, curriculum content and instructional practices and approaches need to be inclusive of Aboriginal peoples’ experiences and knowledge. For these reasons, Aboriginal perspectives and Aboriginal education are discussed throughout this curriculum.

Aboriginal Perspectives


There are many reasons why a disproportionate number of Aboriginal adults are attending Adult Basic Education. A lengthy, chronicled, colonial history in Canada has clearly documented the tragedies of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples (Wotherspoon & Satzewich, 1993). Many Aboriginal peoples and entire communities have experienced some type of trauma, and, in some cases, generations of people have experienced profound consequences that have affected every part of their lives. This is a trauma that flows from colonialism6 and the resulting layers of cultural oppression. This is the history that continues to hand Aboriginal learners their inheritance: school failure, social instability, domestic violence, language loss, financial insecurity, systemic discrimination, and racism.

Many Aboriginal learners will be actively struggling with the lingering effects of colonization. Joseph Naytowhow, Elder Representative, clearly understands the baggage learners bring with them to school. He reminds us, “Our students are damaged.” He knows intimately the struggle Aboriginal learners experience as they are asked to become workers with little or no work experience and to study and learn from materials that are not reflective of their knowledge or experiences.

To move past the negative to a positive process of education for learners and instructors, Aboriginal perspectives are integrated across curricula. This integration will help all participants to develop an understanding of and respect for the history, cultures, contemporary issues, contributions, and accomplishments of Aboriginal peoples. By developing informed opinions on matters related to Aboriginal peoples, non-Aboriginal learners are better prepared to participate fully in an inclusive and accepting society.

The goal in integrating Aboriginal perspectives into curricula is to ensure all learners have opportunities to understand and respect themselves, their cultural heritage, and the cultural heritage of others. These inclusive practices and perspectives will better equip learners with the knowledge and skills needed to fully participate in the civic and cultural realities of their communities and the workforce.

Aboriginal perspectives apply to learning experiences for all learners. Many recommended instructional approaches for Aboriginal learners are recognized as “best practices” for all learners7. However, there may be unique and particular learning experiences that apply only to Aboriginal learners.

Being inclusive of Aboriginal perspectives is not necessarily easy, for some will resist and even challenge its importance or relevance. Instructors need to be aware of attitudes and beliefs that have resulted from our shared history.

  • We cannot assume that all Aboriginal peoples have an understanding of their cultural heritage. The “Sixties-Scoop,”8 the child welfare system, incarceration, residential schooling, and other forms of systemic separation resulted in many individuals who visibly appear Aboriginal, but who have few connections with Aboriginal communities.

  • Some Aboriginal people have learned to ignore or dismiss their own identity. They will not respect or participate in discussions that focus attention on their identity. For them identity is an emotional issue; it has brought about racist attitudes. History has shown them that their identity works against them, and, ultimately, they work very hard to “pass.” Some will even lash out laterally at their peers and deny their classmates the expression of their own experiences.

  • When some learners experience an openness of Aboriginal content for the first time, it motivates and propels them on their healing path. For them, this work is extremely emotional.

  • Sometimes when instructors first share their own stories, they may unwittingly create a standard or norm that learners feel they have to measure up to. As a result, learners may feel embarrassed and threatened about sharing their own stories. For these learners, conversation can simply shut down.


We recognize that the diversity in our classrooms creates diverse expectations and assumptions about the educational experience. However, we also believe that delivery organizations and instructors who are responsive to the unique needs and interests of the learner can create a transformative environment for all. The next section discusses some ways to acknowledge Aboriginal perspectives in your learning environments
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Core Activities That Acknowledge Aboriginal Perspectives


Allow different voices to be heard in learning activities and units of study. A diversity of voices, including feminist, Aboriginal and multicultural voices, allows us to come to identify and to understand the structures that maintain difference in our society. Exposure to a diversity of voices, rather than a consistent focus on the dominant culture’s voice, brings about an awareness of the impacts and limitations imposed by racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. This is essential to understanding our collaborative work.

Demonstrate an attitude of acceptance. A wide range of theories support the idea that true progress can occur when we move past simple tolerance to acceptance. In this case, true acceptance is unconditional while tolerance maintains limitations for some people (e.g. “I wish s/he would quit acting so queer” – this statement implies limitation and judgment toward another person). Acceptance does not limit. Since childhood, we have all developed well-established biases and assumptions that unconsciously infiltrate our thinking about others who are different. Confronting our biases and assumptions is the first step in developing an attitude of acceptance, which is then revealed through our language and actions. To demonstrate a true spirit of acceptance is to cultivate an open mind about different cultures and peoples through a willingness to explore and cooperate in learning about others.

Apply the four Rs. Respect the cultural knowledge, traditions, values and activities that individuals bring with them. Relevance occurs when respect is embedded in the curricula, instruction, and policies. Reciprocity refers to the revising of relationships between student and instructor from a hierarchy to that of a relationship focused on mentorship. In this way, both individuals are viewed as learners. Responsibility demands that the instructor shares responsibility for change even if not personally disadvantaged by the barriers of the learner. The reward for instructors who apply the four R’s is the ability to continue to grow and develop professionally (Kirkness & Barnhardt, 1991).

Recognize the diversity of nations. Understand that there is no “universal Indian.” Know that while Métis people and First Nations peoples may have some common issues and goals, they are diverse. Avoid making stereotypical statements. To recognize diversity means getting to know your learners. Find out where their home community is. Honour them by learning something about their community or their language and provide opportunities for learners to share their experiences and knowledge.

Commit to understand and practice inclusion. Inclusive practices will benefit all: Aboriginal learners, their families and communities, and learners who do not identify as Aboriginal. Being inclusive will demand careful critical reflection about current practices and a willing desire to make change. Instructors may also transform as a result of this decision-making.

Understand that Aboriginal pedagogy exists. Seek to understand and use instructional approaches that have been proven to best suit Aboriginal learners’ unique cultural needs. Know that different ways of knowing exist and nations transmit knowledge in diverse ways. Aboriginal pedagogy is more than an instructional approach. There exists a philosophy of living in these approaches. For example, within Plains cultures the Medicine Wheel is commonly used to transmit knowledge and to organize learning. As a philosophical framework, the Medicine Wheel helps us understand the interrelatedness of all life. It also guides us to strive for balance in the mind, body, spirit, and emotional realms. However, we also need to remember the diversity of nations. We may have to seek out local interpretations and understandings so that our courses are more responsive to the needs of the people in each community.

Understand and accept that the process of healing is ongoing and an essential component to learning. Know that for most Aboriginal learners in Adult Basic Education, learning cannot be separated from healing. Some learners will, for the first time, learn the language to express their experiences. They may use words like racism, cultural genocide, and sexism. We can often feel attacked by these words. Learners’ development and use of this language is part of the healing process. In time, as broken people transform, they may learn to use new language to describe their experiences. By providing people with access to cultural teachings, physical activity, healing circles, and other supportive programming, we can facilitate healing.

Apply decolonising strategies to bring about personal, social, and systemic change. These strategies may include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. Seek local sources of knowledge. Learn about proper protocols when approaching Elders: offer tobacco. Seek out and invite a wide range of community-based resource people to share their knowledge.
  2. Critique your course materials (texts, videos, newspapers and the like). Re-examine the teaching resources that are Eurocentric and/or from male perspectives only. Integrate authentic materials and resources responsive to diverse voices.
  3. Use a variety of instructional methods including:
    • storytelling,
    • personal narrative and testimony,
    • spirit writing,
    • talking/sharing circles,
    • cooperative group work, and,
    • experiential learning.
  4. Consider different ways to view or organize learning. For example, The Medicine Wheel is an acceptable way of addressing the interrelatedness of all life (Graveline, 1998).
  5. Consider self-directed, critically reflective assessment.

Creating a positive environment where Aboriginal perspectives are acknowledged will benefit everyone. Adult Basic Education can be a place where all learners can appreciate how their cultural heritage helps to shape our provincial and national identity. Adult learners bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experiences that serve to form a foundation for learning. To better understand this, we now look to adult education principles.

Adult Education Principles


Critical to the planning and delivery of the Adult Basic Education Level 3 curricula is the understanding and implementation of adult education principles. Six adult education principles (Imel, 1998) that demonstrate the treatment of our learners as adults include:

  • Involving learners in planning and implementing learning activities. Adults’ past experiences, their current learning goals and their sense of self will influence what they want to learn and how they learn it. Instructors must actively engage adult participants in the learning process. They must also serve as facilitators, guiding learners to their own knowledge and helping them expand it rather than supplying them with facts to memorize.

  • Drawing upon learners’ experiences as a resource. Instruction that is personally and culturally relevant is vital for adult learners who bring with them a wealth of life experience and knowledge. By focussing on the strengths learners bring to the classroom, rather than their gaps in knowledge, learners are able to connect new learning with prior knowledge.

  • Cultivating self-direction in learners. In a supportive, caring, and safe learning environment, instructors become mentors to adult learners. They help learners to develop skills that lead to self-direction, independent learning, and empowerment (rather than assuming that all learners are self-directed when they enter programs). Empowered adults are those who see themselves as decision-making citizens, as proactive community members who are responsible and accountable to themselves, their families, employers, and society.

  • Creating a climate that encourages and supports learning. An atmosphere where learners can safely admit confusion, mistakes, ignorance, fears, biases, and different opinions is one that enhances learner self-esteem and reduces fear. Instruction must demonstrate respect and promote acceptance for diverse cultures, beliefs, values, religions, and lifestyles.

  • Fostering a spirit of collaboration in the learning setting. Collaborative learning stresses the interdependence of each member. Learners collaborate with instructors and with each other. Collaboration is founded on the notion that the roles of instructor and learner can be interchangeable.

  • Using small groups. This can help “achieve a learning environment that is more learner centred and collaborative than either large group or one-on-one, individualized approaches to instruction” (Imel, p. 4). Learning from peers and being accountable to a team also helps to develop social responsibility.