Hogue, 2018

Hogue, M. M. (2016). Aboriginal Ways of Knowing and Learning, 21st Century Learners, and STEM Success. In Education, 22(1), 161–172. Retrieved from https://ineducation.ca/ineducation/article/view/263


Aboriginal people are alarmingly under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)-related careers. This under-representation is a direct result of the lack of academic success in science and mathematics, an issue that begins early in elementary and middle school and often escalates in secondary school with the majority consequently doing poorly, not completing these courses and often dropping out. This makes them ineligible to pursue STEM-related paths at the post-secondary level. The greatest challenges to success in these courses are the lack of relevancy for Aboriginal learners and, as importantly, how they are taught; impediments that are also paramount to the increasing lack of success for many non-Aboriginal students in STEM-related courses. This paper explores how Aboriginal ways of knowing and learning and those of the 21st century learners of today very closely parallel each other and illustrates how the creative multidisciplinary approach of a liberal education might be the way to enable early academic engagement, success and retention of Aboriginal learners in the sciences and mathematics.

Key Ideas

Aboriginal knowledge is not written down, contained in textbooks, or stored on shelves for reference or posterity. All things are considered living and spiritual, related and interrelated, and critical to life and living (Cajete, 2000). (para. 1)

What if, as educators, we put away the crutch—the textbook—the traditional Western methodologies of teaching, think outside the cliché box, and begin in a different way, in a hands-on practical, learning-by-doing approach first, to build a foundation of context and bring in the theory later?(para. 2)

The example used is that of riding a bicycle. There is little that can be done to learn to ride a bike without any context about what a bike does, or without ever seeing one ridden before. We do the same when we try to teach students to learn about STEM topics without them first encountering the ideas in situ, where there are messy problems and everything is inter-related.

Social and economic issues aside, the lack of Aboriginal ways of knowing and learning (AWKL), of relevant bridging context, and of mentorship, I believe, are the key roadblocks to Aboriginal success in PS education (PSE) and particularly in STEM education. (para. 4)

We hear much about indigenizing the curriculum; ... I agree to a certain degree, but I believe indigenizing the curriculum has to be done by and with Aboriginal people to get it right this time, and this is going to take time.

I argue that AWKL and the 21st century learners of today very closely parallel each other. ... both are hands-on, practical learners who learn best by doing. They want to learn in environments that have context to their lives, that engage them, that allow them freedom to explore, to have their thoughts and voices heard and acknowledged.

This is an interesting parallel. Much like the author warns against thinking that there is a pan-indigenous culture across the 600 different aboriginal groups in Canada, we should be hesitant to think that there is a pan-youth culture that we can call 21st century learners. That being said, the idea that students (today and yesterday, this is not new) learn best by doing, and they more readily learn when presented with material to which they can attach personal meaning, they want freedom and a voice, is just good teaching.

So where do AWKL and the 21st century learner meet? I believe liberal education could be a weaving thread. AWKL are about coming to understand the whole in an interrelated and integrated cyclical way. Liberal education means exploring one’s area of interest using a myriad of lenses to provide students with a breadth of knowledge upon which to draw, such that they are enabled to make connections in an interrelated fashion and integrate the knowledge learned into a coherent whole. (para. 12)

Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall4 and Dr. Cheryl Bartlett,5 professor emeritus Cape Breton University, coined the phrase “Two-Eyed Seeing” ... Two-Eyed Seeing refers to the traditional Mi’kmaq understanding about the gift of multiple perspectives—a gift treasured by many Indigenous peoples. (para. 13)

For our current time, Elder Albert explains that Two-Eyed Seeing refers to the learning to see from one eye with the strengths of, or the best in, Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, and from the other eye with the strengths of, or best in, Western ways of knowing, but most importantly, learning to use both eyes together for the benefit of all. Two-Eyed Seeing implies responsibilities toward reciprocity, mutual accountability, and co-learning and is foundational to the First Nations’ lifelong learning philosophy. (para. 14)

The expected surge in jobs in the STEM field in the next decade as the baby boomers retire and world changes with globalization has been foundational to the push for science and mathematics success through the integrated, hands-on approach of STEM, which is designed to develop the variety of skills essential to success in such a changing climate: critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, and communication and collaboration (Bybee, 2013; Weaver Burgess, Childress, & Slakey, 2015) to name just a few—skills that are the very foundation of AWKL. The difference and the part missing in STEM for Aboriginal learners is the cultural lens through which they view their world and approach learning. As a historically oral culture, this cultural lens includes learning through narrative, story, music, ceremony, mentorship, traditional practice, and learning from the land—ways that have historically been given significantly lesser merit as “the arts” in the Western system than science and mathematics, yet are critical for a holistic understanding of nearly any topic (Trilling & Fadel, 2009). Culture and the arts, in my opinion, are crucial missing pieces and the bridge to Aboriginal engagement and success in the current education system. In my research it is this piece that is the natural linker for explaining and sense-making, that actually bridges cultures and enables understanding. (para. 20)

In fact, in the next five to 10 years we are going to see a very significant increase in Aboriginal students in the education system at all levels (Statistics Canada, 2012). As educators and curriculum developers we need to prepare for this. It is a critical time of building bridges and creating paths to enable equitable Aboriginal academic success at all levels, and as Justice Murray Sinclair and National Chief Perry Bellegarde say, “This is a national issue and we need to be in this together” (Address, U of S, November 20, 2015). (para. 21)

Indigenizing the curriculum is going to take time if we are to get it right this time, but having a willingness to engage and participate, to think creatively and outside one’s comfort zone of academic expertise, is a step in engaging in the conversation and changing our teaching practice in ways that attend to AWKL. It is this type of openness to change that will open doors of access and, as importantly, create bridges for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples to learn from each other. (para. 22)

What strikes me about this article is the idea expressed in the last few paragraphs that there is much that non-aboriginal educators, like me, can learn from AWKL, and that this reaching out towards the middle, towards like-minded aboriginal educators, is what builds bridges for aboriginal youth in K12 and higher ed. Perhaps the best way to reduce barriers for aboriginal youth is to first learn from them how they learn, and apply those lessons to teaching writ large, whether f2f or online, or some mix of the two.