Aboriginal Perspectives and the Curriculum - Discussion Papers

What notions of curriculum are most helpful in understanding the large curriculum shift occurring in Alberta?

Some high school social studies teachers were recently heard discussing the validation draft proposals of the proposed curriculum. As former and current textbook writers, much of their talk was focused on how the curriculum would translate into textbook form. When notions of process and inquiry intruded on this curriculum conversation, the most senior teacher cautioned everyone by stating: "Remember, we are concerned with curriculum not pedagogy."

What does it mean to be ―"concerned" with curriculum? Common sense educational talk classifies curriculum as a developmental and technical exercise undertaken to get the topics of study accurately organized and presented. An underlying assumption associated with this view is that presenting the ‗right‘ knowledge will reduce the ambiguity of teaching. In this sense, curriculum is designed and developed to be the last word; it is an expression of objective presentability. Educators identify the knowledge and students acquire it.

Now, we can probably all agree that educators need to have some fairly clear guidelines describing what they are expected to teach. Curriculum development continues to be an important and ongoing educational process. However, too often in the past school curricula has been formulated and taught based on the assumption that the selected topics of study are objective, neutral, values-free, and apolitical. This is impossible. All curricula are an expression of someone‘s view of the world and an articulation of what is important to know. Thus, subject matter for math and science (for example) could be otherwise, but is largely based on Eurocentric interpretations.

It is not necessary to apologize for this. Rather, what is necessary is an acknowledgement that Eurocentrism exists in curriculum and a willingness to engage students in explorations of other views of these same issues. Such an exploration or inquiry will be process-oriented. Here we can rely on Aboriginal wisdom traditions which emphasize that the process of learning is probably more important that what is learned. In this model, curriculum (what we teach) and pedagogy (how we teach and why we teach that way) are intimately linked.

Rather than prioritizing the acquisition of knowledge, curriculum + pedagogy formulates learning as a recursive process of inquiry. What is learned is inseparable from how one went about learning. Knowledge formerly classified as objective becomes personalized through this process.

Perhaps this conceptual shift is an issue of language. The dictionary distinguishes 'curriculum‘ as a noun, a thing, a prescribed program of study. However, the Latin root of curriculum is a verb—currere—which refers to running a course. While this original meaning was specifically attached to chariot racing in Ancient Rome, it could influence contemporary meanings of curriculum by suggesting reciprocating movement and cyclic process. In this model, learning is not perceived as a linear progression of knowledge acquisition by the student, but as a recursive movement towards deeper understanding and insight.

These curricular insights are inspired by Aboriginal ways of knowing that focus on the relationship to the Earth as the place where the continuous and/or repetitive process of creation occurs. It is on the Earth that cycles, phases, patterns—in other words, the constant motion or flux—can be observed. Aboriginal cultural traditions recognize seasonal patterns and renewal through ceremonies and observances. People learn by committing to the process of participating in these cultural practices. This is how Elders teach about the nature of the world and how humans are implicated in its workings.

An important message here is that the day-to-day workings of an education cannot be separated from larger questions concerning an ever-deepening understanding of the truth of things. In fact, even in kindergarten, educators should be ever mindful of them. Reconceptualizing curriculum in this way casts teachers in an altered role. The consideration of diverse perspectives in curriculum will mean that teachers will be primarily interpreters of culture, rather than merely holders and managers of information. The task of interpretation is complex, multifaceted, and demanding. It requires that teachers be capable of speaking across disciplines, cultures, and boundaries so as to assert the interrelatedness of all beings and foster understanding such that life together can be capable of sustaining human welfare in its most creative senses.

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Aboriginal Perspectives and the Curriculum (Social Studies) – Discussion Papers Developed by the Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium and ATEP Aboriginal Teacher Education Program, University of Alberta as a result of a grant to support implementation from Alberta Education