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Isumaqsayug: Education that makes good people

November 5, 2012 — 

SSHRC Insight grant aims to strengthen Nunavut middle years science education and improve student achievement

Prof. Barbara McMillan and her colleagues are helping to bring Inuit culture and traditions into Nunavut classrooms.

Drs. Barbara McMillan, Brian Lewthwaite, Robert Renaud and Frank Deer received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight grant in April, 2012. The funding was awarded in order for the team to build on work previously accomplished in Nunavut schools by Lewthwaite, McMillan and Renaud as part of a Centre for Research in Youth, Science Teaching and Learning (CRYSTAL) project. The CRYSTAL project was funded by a major National Science Engineering Research Council (NSERC) grant between 2005-2011.

The CRYSTAL project made it possible for Drs. Lewthwaite and McMillan to work with three Nunavut communities to develop science curriculum that was intended to interest and improve students’ success in science by making it place-based and culturally relevant. Place-based education is a philosophy that uses the local community and it’s challenges as the primary resource for learning. As a result, Inuit elders and community members, including teachers, students, and pre-service teachers, contributed to the development of science curricula that built upon traditional Inuit knowledge. This curricula engaged students in investigations that helped to scientifically explain why traditional practices where effective. It was the hope of the community that this culturally specific curriculum would not only demonstrate to youth the value and wisdom of their traditions but that it would also provide an understanding of science in an environment more conducive for learning.

Inuit are the majority population in Nunavut, and for the Inuit people the goal for their children is to develop into patient and respectful individuals who are competent, resilient, and strive toward becoming a “good person.” Aware of Nunavut community aspirations for an education that focuses on holistic education founded on Inuit Qaujimajatuganquit (IQ) philosophy, the U of M research team is working to transform a system that primarily focuses on subject matter knowledge and book learning. “Holistic learning occurs in environments where silarurniq (becoming wise) is fostered and within which the understandings and strengths of inummarik (a capable person) can develop,” explains McMillan.

The SSHRC Insight grant is making it possible for the research team to assist the members of two Nunavut communities in achieving community aspirations for their children’s education. According to McMillan, “We desire to come to know what community members themselves believe is necessary for learning to occur. We plan to use their expertise and apply it to the professional development of teachers and their transformative change toward becoming culturally responsive educators. We hope to see that the changes in teaching behaviours, beliefs, strategies, and actions result in students who honour their IQ values, and are confident and proud of who they are. We also hope to develop students who are able to successfully negotiate the world in which they find themselves while negotiating and planning for a future, even if that may be quite different from the world of their parents and grandparents.”

The research will be conducted over a three-year period. In the first year, the research team will focus on the development of criteria associated with culturally responsive teaching in each community. They will also begin the ongoing professional development of teachers that will hopefully lead to transformative change within their practice that will more closely resemble the learning that happens within the community. McMillan explains, “The research shows us that the formal learning of Inuit schools is radically different from the informal learning of Inuit home culture. This fracture has been attributed to Aboriginal children and youth feeling disconnected from formal schooling, their boredom in classrooms, and their decision to abandon school often after their elementary education.”

In years two and three, the research team will evaluate the teachers’ transformative change toward culturally responsive teaching practices, the implementation of place-based, bi-cultural science curricula (traditional Inuit and Western knowledge), and the impact of both on specific student outcomes. Following this evaluation, McMillan, Lewthwaite, Renaud, and Deer will work to identify the processes that may have contributed to the behavioral changes and the shifts in belief that in-service and pre-service Inuit and non-Inuit teachers may experience as they move towards culturally responsive ways of teaching.

McMillan feels positively that the research team’s work with the community will result in systemic change in Nunavut schools. She optimistically concludes, “We hope that the results of this study will result in higher rates of graduation from elementary and secondary schools and the enhanced capacity of these graduates to continue their education at the post-secondary level and/or contribute to the sustainable development of their communities and territory.”

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