Designing Syllabi That Consider Differing Ontologies/Worldviews for Nurturing Children’s Intellectual Development
This paper explores the authors’ self study into their experiences of developing courses attentive to Indigenous and relational understandings of assessment. Now offered in three different teacher education programs at two institutions, central in the courses has been Dr. Mary Young's teachings of Pimosayta (Learning to Walk Together in a Good Way) (Young, 2005). In the development of this chapter we drew on the work of Pinnegar and Hamilton (2009) and LaBoskey’s (2004) criteria for a self-study of practice. This helped us shape the paper in terms of self study to examine our practices in designing the courses. The findings explore questions such as: : What do we think teachers need to know?; What are Indigenous ways of building knowledge?; and, What are some key principles teachers need (or we think they need) to know as they come alongside Indigenous children/youth? These findings drew our attention to the identity vulnerability of children, youth, adult learners, teachers, and teacher educators in relation with the colonial narratives of assessment that dominate in schools and in teacher education.
Shaun first developed the course, Assessment as Pimosayta: Attending to experience in relational ways. This course was designed as a graduate offering and has now been offered three times as an online course. Trudy and Janice created the course, Assessment as Pimosayta: Honouring children: Indigenous and relational approaches. This course has been offered once as a blended in-person graduate and undergraduate course and twice as an undergraduate course; one was fully online and another that began online and transitioned to hybrid. Trudy is Cree Métis and Shaun and Janice are of mixed European descent. Stefinee, the critical friend in this self-study, is also of European descent. The courses were developed to create space for pre and in-service teachers and teacher educators to consider the complexity (and harm) of assessment that is typically based on colonial practices of assessment, as well as to (continue to) grow ways of thinking about and practising assessment that attends to and honours Indigenous and relational ways of learning, being, and doing. Assessment is considered alongside attentiveness to the lives of children and youth in diverse contexts (Bissell & Korteweg, 2016; Bouvier & Karlenzig, 2006; Clandinin et al, 2006; Claypool & Preston, 2011; Hodkinson, 2005; Huber et al., 2005; Kitson & Bowes, 2010). The main text for Shaun’s course is "Trickster Chases the Tale of Education" (Moore, 2017), which opens space for teachers to design alternative ways of assessing within their own professional contexts and for Shaun, as a teacher educator, to do the same. In Trudy and Janice’s course, assessment is explored and practised as a process needing to centre children’s intellectual development as they journey toward wisdom, as taught to Trudy and Janice by diverse Indigenous Elders and Knowledge and Language Keepers who either participated in the course in person or shared their knowledge via scholarship or community created videos.
The purpose of this paper, and the study that preceded it, is to uncover how we (teacher educators) take up Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing as we design courses that reposition teachers to do the same in their own contexts. The ways we take up Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing opens potential for re-imagining assessment both within the context of the course and in schools. By examining the syllabi of the two courses we inquire into: What do we think teachers need to know? What are Indigenous ways of building knowledge? What are some key principles teachers need (or we think they need) to know as they come alongside Indigenous children/youth? These questions sit on the threshold of our teaching, and we desire to have better senses of what we are doing. By inquiring into these questions, we have deepened our understanding. We understand that part of teaching, in any context, is being willing to live in a liminal space (Heilbrun, 1999), which has been key during every offering of our courses and in our self-study. As we show, key too has also been our deepening understanding of vulnerability.
This self-study of practice focuses on our designing course syllabi that offer space for teachers to explore Indigenous knowledge and ways it shapes practices of assessment. Therefore, the main examination was of the respective syllabi, assignments, and our experiences teaching the courses, including our review of anonymous student feedback (i.e. provided by anonymous student course evaluation surveys). We also recorded conversations among all of us. As Stefinee was alongside us as a critical friend, therefore becoming a co-author of our inquiry, she is also a co-author of this paper. As our inquiry unfolded we used memos to capture our thoughts about the courses, the conversations, and our understandings of Indigenous knowledges. The teacher educators (Shaun, Trudy, and Janice) have been revisiting and (re)developing the courses over many offerings; each time, this collaborative inquiry process has deepened our understandings through dialogue with one other.
The adjustments to our practice that resulted represent the living educational theory we create each time we teach the course and dialogue about it. This recursive process of development is part of our method, along with Stefinee’s ongoing questions and conversations with us. This process (Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009), and LaBoskey’s (2004) criteria for a self-study of practice, guide us in that our inquiry is self-initiated and improvement aimed, and guided by qualitative research (largely narrative inquiry). It is interactive in that we engaged in dialogue in uncovering findings and worked as critical friends critiquing our thinking and assumptions. As noted, we drew on a variety of field texts and engaged in multiple cycles of interpretation. This process allowed us to develop exemplar validation in support of our findings.
In these courses, it has been difficult to step away from common assessment practices in post-secondary places, but as made visible in the upcoming sections, different forms of assessment were used. Postings and conversations by the adult learners and the articles we read suggested alternative ways of assessment in grade schools and ways this process could be utilised in grade school classrooms. Developing each syllabi attentive to diverse Indigenous and relational ways of knowing made us consider the importance of ontologies with which we were not as familiar. In order for the courses to be successful, we recognized our need to make visible to the students our learning and thinking with these ontologies both in the course designs and our practices in the courses. Revisiting the syllabi with the questions noted in the introduction highlighted our need to develop deeper understandings of what we were intending to do. Assessment has a reified place in school and post-secondary systems. Our answers to these questions framed our inquiry and our findings. Our hope is that by coming alongside Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers in a course focused on assessment as understood from Indigenous worldviews, which centers ways of knowing the whole person, we will be supporting all of us to shift how assessment is understood and practised in grade school and post-secondary places.
What Do We Think Teachers Need to Know?
In our courses, a common conversation has been the need to shape assessment in terms of diverse learners. Shaun, Trudy, and Janice live in western Canadian provinces where the highest populations of Indigenous people live. They are conscious that the teachers they come alongside will come alongside Indigenous children and youth. Typically, their teacher education classes are composed of teachers whose ancestors came to these lands as settlers. They know that teachers are constrained by the dominant colonial assessment practices and understandings of curriculum as government-mandated subject matter outcomes. In reviewing their syllabi we noted that as Shaun shaped his first offering of his course he did so around readings and assignments that were largely acceptable in the colonial narratives that shape the institutional norms of his university. As Trudy and Janice have begun their first and successive course offerings with the participation and teachings of Elders, Knowledge and Language Keepers, and members of diverse Indigenous communities, these relationships and knowledge create important ongoing touchstones as their course unfolds. In conversation with Trudy and Janice, Shaun noted that should he teach the course again he would change the assignments to reflect more of what the content was suggesting,
The final assignment by one of the teachers who is of Nehiyaw ancestry was based on the inland delta situated in our treaty territory. This assignment has stayed in my head. I need to reread her paper and think about that work more carefully. I consider the tensions I felt as a settler man. I think about how her paper made me think “perhaps I should be doing assessment in another way” and the tensions I felt. Wouldn’t it have been nice if I could have met her on the delta and walked with her through it as she talked about her assessment process. There should be more genuine assessment in relation to the course, much more Indigenous perspective. (Shaun’s memo from conversation)
As we thought with and engaged in dialogue around this memo, Shaun noted that he does not know how he would have done this. Perhaps he actually would have driven to the location and walked with her, perhaps he would have made a space for an oral presentation (augmented by pictures, even a video) although he wonders are these just further ways of colonial assessment? The best way would have been to ask the student how she would have liked to present her thoughts about assessment. We also discussed how these ways of engaging in/living out assessment require something more of us as teacher educators, including our also bringing forward the wholeness of ourselves, as well as additional energy and time than is typically associated with colonial forms of assessment. We wondered where the spaces are on our institutional landscapes to share these stories and practices of trying to live wholistic assessment, particularly given the colonial ways that we, as faculty members, are yearly assessed by faculty evaluation committees that are also grounded in colonial narratives of what counts as teaching, research, and service.
What Are Indigenous Ways of Building Knowledge?
We are conscious that many of our assessment practices are shaped by colonial perspectives. We were all elementary teachers before we became professors in teacher education. During our experiences as teachers, our assessment practices evolved. We brought these understandings and practices with us to the university. Since becoming teacher educators our assessment practices have continued to evolve; so too have our concerns and tensions. When we analysed Trudy and Janice’s most recent syllabi we saw that spaces had been made for alternative ways of knowing through assessment. For example, when Janice shared a visual representation of experiences with assessment across her life, Carmen (pseudonym), a pre-service teacher, had responded:
I wonder what has happened in your life, because your visual shows that when you were in grade 10 you were told you should leave school, and now, you’re a professor teaching this course. (Janice’s notes from class, January 12, 2022).
Janice’s sharing and inviting the teachers to think with her stories, which continued each week, is one way she and Trudy try to support each teacher’s term-long inquiry, which is a key process that unfolds during their course. As described in their course documents, this unfolding process was designed:
To continue to grow…[teacher’s] capacities to centre children and their diverse and unique ways of knowing, being, doing, feeling, and relating through term-long inquiry into…[their] personal experience…[alongside their growing knowledge and thinking with] Indigenous and relational understandings of children, families, education, experience, story, and knowledge. (Description of term-long inquiry, winter term 2022)
In the winter term of 2019, when Trudy and Janice first offered their course, the COVID-19 pandemic was unknown – together with the 56 undergraduate and graduate teachers in the course, they spent time each week in small groups where everyone supported one another’s term-long inquiry by sharing and thinking with one another’s stories. By their second and third offerings of the course, COVID-19 required an online learning environment. It was in the second online class of the winter 2022 course that Carmen’s wonder supported Janice to begin her term-long inquiry:
As Carmen’s wonder spans many experiences in my life across time, places, situations, and relationships, the story I have chosen to tell is of an experience somewhere in this midst: David (pseudonym) - first year of teaching (1988-1989: grade 3: small town school in northwest Alberta) (Janice’s term-long inquiry, January 12, 2022)
Trudy and Janice subsequently created a memo of their thinking following a collective dialogue with this data:
This dialogue was important for the ways it turned us back to the significant place of story as a key pedagogy in our course. As the term-long inquiry process unfolded in this most recent course, we had drawn the teacher’s attention to Jo-ann Archibald’s video where she shares stories of her learning alongside Elders about story as pedagogy:
“I think we’ve been in a revitalization moment in our history where we’re looking towards ensuring that our storytelling becomes vibrant as it once was. I do see that happening; we have more opportunities for stories to be told and I think that’s really important for educators to become involved in that process so that they can use storytelling in their classroom and have children start to tell stories…children do anyway, people do tell stories, but I think we haven’t really paid attention to those stories and put them into our form of pedagogy, especially in schools. I think that if we take that principle that…we live storied lives…we had them in our everyday living, we should have them in our everyday living in the schools. …I think the other important concern is not only to tell the stories but to learn to make meaning with and through the stories.” (Archibald, n.d., counter 4.12-7.57) (Trudy and Janice’s memo from conversation)
What we collectively turned our attention toward as Trudy and Janice shared this subsequent memo was that as this term-long inquiry began and some of the teachers expressed that they felt they lacked abilities to tell and to ‘make meaning with and through stories’, Trudy and Janice realized the significance of ensuring there were spaces in the course where each teacher could experience colleagues’ or Trudy and Janice’s thinking with their own and one another’s stories.
What Are Some Key Principles Teachers Need (or We Think They Need) to Know as They Come Alongside Indigenous Children/Youth?
A key principle that has continued to encourage us to examine our assessment practices and our teaching is the Wampum belt. Indigenous people’s knowledge of the Wampum belt shapes our understanding of the treaties that were signed (and then ignored) on these lands that through colonization became known as North America. The wampum belt’s design shows two beaded lines on a beaded background. The lines represent two ways of knowing, Indigenous and colonial (or Eurocentric). No one line on the belt is privileged over the other, they exist in harmony alongside each other. These understandings, however, have yet to become translated into practice. In practice, the line representing colonial thinking has taken dominance:
The Gus-Wen-Tah, or “Two-Row Wampum,” was first negotiated between Dutch settlers and the nations of the Haudenosaunee confederacy. It served as a model for subsequent treaties with the British, including the one executed at Niagara in 1764, following the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The purple rows of the wampum symbolize the two distinct people, each traveling in their own vessels and not attempting to steer or impede the other. The three white rows symbolize the shared river and peace, respect and friendship.
The Two-Row Wampum represents an understanding of the first and subsequent treaties on the part of Indigenous people that is starkly different from their modern interpretation by non-indigenous Canada. It does not represent a surrender of sovereignty to the Crown, the extinguishment of land title or an agreement to abide by the laws of another nation. It envisions two separate and independent people on a shared journey, each respecting the sovereignty and independence of the other and a shared commitment to peace, friendship and non-interference. (Mercer, 2019, p. 21)
Our syllabi tend to be constrained by a colonised gaze, as earlier mentioned, and we are trying to interrupt the standard colonial narrative of assessment by opening it up to make spaces, shaped by the knowledge of Indigenous peoples alongside the experiences of teachers and ourselves. In doing this, we are cognizant of shared spaces and by establishing a place (course) for respect and friendship, a place of honouring Indigenous ways of knowing. In this way we are trying to create a liminal space, an in-between space, so teachers can unlearn colonial assessment and consider assessment that supports and prepares the next generation, as practiced by Indigenous peoples since time immemorial. In reviewing our syllabi we are aware that our courses offer a transitional space. While the wampum belt may act as a metaphor we take it to be a literal concrete symbol of peaceful coexistence and honour….in this way the wampum belt guides us as teacher educators aware that universities and grade schools are shaped by colonial structures.
As we thought with this knowledge alongside our inquiry question of “What are some of the key principles teachers need (or we think they need) to know as they come alongside Indigenous children/youth?” alongside our data, we were drawn back to Trudy and Janice’s most recent term-long inquiry process. In a memo created by them, they had earlier noted how as Janice continued to share her term-long inquiry with the teachers, following her earlier sharing of her memories of David, a young boy of Indigenous ancestry whom she had come alongside during her first year of teaching she had noted:
How I felt/feel as I told this story:
- tension / dis-ease
- growth, including mistakes
- other forms of assessment in schools
- regret (Janice’s term-long inquiry, January 19, 2022)
As we returned to Trudy and Janice’s course documents, we saw their structuring of the term-long inquiry as an inter-relational narrative inquiry that invited the teachers to begin and continue their inquiry process by (re)connecting with the land where they were situated. As the teachers thought with their stories alongside their (re)connecting with land, they had created a visual representation of assessment experiences across their lives as well as attended to what they felt as they told stories of some of their experiences; this was followed by their either writing or orally recording one story that served as an initial anchor for their term-long inquiry. Week by week, Trudy and Janice guided the teachers through a process of attending to the temporal, sociality, place, and inter-relational dimensions of their written or orally recorded story. Three land visits, to slow down and to attend to what the land was showing them, and to then think with this knowledge alongside their term-long inquiry alongside the Elder and Knowledge and Language Keeper teachings or videos or readings in the course to that point, gradually supported the teachers’ movements toward two ways of showing their growth. One of these ways encouraged them to focus on what this inquiry process had shown them about the concepts and ways of knowing, being, doing, seeing, feeling, and relating that grounds their assessment philosophy. Another way came through their creation of a visual synthesis that they imagined sharing with a child, youth, parent/family, community member, or colleague, showing the key aspects they planned to attend to as they come alongside children to engage with them in assessment that centres and shows each child’s wholeness and growth.
As part of our self-study, we reviewed and reflected individually and collectively on the course outlines and assignment descriptions, and processes that shape Trudy and Janice’s course, in which this term-long inquiry is one layer. This layer has been present although continuously revised across their three offerings of the course. In their second and third offerings, in part due to COVID-19 and the online learning environment, Trudy and Janice invited the teachers to each create and share with them a Google doc where they weekly added to their term-long inquiry. Thinking with each teacher’s stories in this way, which happened via comment boxes in the margins of their Google doc, is different from sitting together in a small group and engaging in thinking in person with one another’s stories. At the close of the winter 2022 course, Trudy and Janice noted that in their next offering of the "Assessment as Pimosayta" course, they would invite the teachers to consider sharing their term-long inquiry Google docs with one another and not only with Trudy and Janice. While Trudy and Janice’s coming alongside the teachers on their individual Google docs continued to open space for co-creating inquiry through thinking with stories, as well as deepening everyone’s knowledge of thinking with stories as pedagogy, this practice also brought each teacher’s across-the-term growth more clearly into view. As we now think about how this growth became more visible, we wonder if teachers too might see one another’s growth if they too were to think alongside each other on each other’s Google docs. How might the teachers experience this seeing of one another’s growth? Might the teacher’s experiences in this process of thinking with one another’s stories over time as a way of seeing growth contribute to the ways they come alongside children and youth to engage with them?
As we lingered with the self-study we show above in our three inquiry questions, we grew in understanding more about the centrality of vulnerability shaped by the harm to identity that happens through colonial forms of assessment in schools and in post-secondary places. Shaun highlighted a sense of this through the following memo:
You know, if I am honest, I initially designed this course thinking about all children. I knew that I could open a door and it might stay open if I thought about assessment from Indigenous’ people’s perspectives as a starting point. Was assessment harming Indigenous children? Yes. Was it harming most children? Yes. Assessment comes from such a settler/Eurocentric way of thinking and an Indigenous worldview does not take up assessment in the same way. That’s it for me…assessment has such potential for harm, and I wanted teachers to think about this in their practice. In my classes I even made that point. (Shaun’s memo from conversation)
Shaun initially designed his course to help teachers think about their assessment practices and how these might affect all children. In the province where he teaches there is a large Indigenous population, and he had a sense that many if not all the children/youth were being negatively shaped by assessment practices. He wondered how we, as teachers and teacher educators, can open a space for different assessment practices that honour children/youth’s diverse identities. Earlier he and others had shown how they came to see children’s identities as their stories to live by:
We came to know Aaron's stories to live by, one way of understanding identity as shaped by "narrative understandings of knowledge and context" (Connelly & Clandinin, 1999, p. 4) as Marni walked alongside him both on and off the school landscape. Young (2005) helps us to consider how the concept stories to live by can be helpful in understanding the experiences of Aboriginal children. (Murray-Orr et al., 2007, p. 276)
Further on they wrote,
Let us not allow others to decide our identity for us," states Restoule (2000, p. 112). As we positioned ourselves alongside the children in our research, we worked toward becoming vulnerable observers (Behar, 1996), toward a relational inquiry with each child. Sideways looking opened up an ethical space that allowed us to attend closely to the children's stories to live by and to lay our own unfolding stories alongside theirs. As we attended in this way, we recognized tensions for each of the children in relation with their school experiences. (p. 279)
This understanding of learners–young children, youth, and adults–as people in an ongoing process of composing their identities, their stories to live by, highlights that as we come alongside as teachers and teacher educators it is never our place to give a child, a youth, or an adult learner an identity. As teachers and teacher educators, it is important that we understand how colonial forms of assessment require us to do this. As the Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing that grounds our courses have supported the teachers and us to come to think with, we have a relational ethical responsibility to attend to the wholeness and ongoingness of the identities of the children, youth, and adult learners whom we come alongside.
As our self-study grew our attentiveness to the identity vulnerability of children, youth, and adult learners we also grew more awake to our need, as teachers and teacher educators, to live humbly, vulnerably, and carefully as we come alongside children, youth, and adult learners. Presently, in the systems that shape grade schools and post-secondary places, Indigenous ways of knowing, being, doing, and relating are overpowered by colonial ways of assessing. We have many wonders about whether or not our courses honour the Two-Row Wampum Treaty. Might our living more humbly, vulnerably, and carefully alongside the teachers whom we come alongside in the courses, many of whom are of Indigenous ancestry, continue to grow ways of engaging in assessment that lift and center Indigenous people’s knowledge of children, youth, and adult learners and our long-term relational ethical responsibilities to the wholeness and ongoingness of their identities? How might such continuing growth in our courses also grow conversations and processes in and beyond our two post-secondary places in which teacher educators’ long-term relational ethical responsibilities to the wholeness and ongoingness of the identities of the teachers we come alongside open up? We imagine our next self-studies will take up questions such as these.
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 We note here that some of the teachers who have participated in these courses are of Indigenous ancestry and already hold knowledge of Indigenous perspectives of assessment.