First Peoples’ Principles of Learning: Well-being

There’s no way that I can fully comprehend what “well-being” means to Canada’s First Peoples as I am not indigenous and I have had barely any exposure to the cultures of the original inhabitants of this land, I’m ashamed to say.  I also suspect that the original term for which “well-being” is the nearest English equivalent includes a far more expansive worldview than can be captured in translation.

I wonder if the Greek concept of eudaimonia, sometimes translated to mean “the highest human good” or sometimes to mean happiness is compatible with what indigenous peoples mean by well-being?  Or is the Japanese concept of ikigai, translated as being “a reason to live” a better fit?

Perhaps the work of Martin Seligman with his concept of PERMA (positive emotion; engagement, relationships, meaning, achievement) comes closest to capturing the main ideas behind this principle of learning? I wonder.

Even though I might not completely understand what First Peoples mean by well-being, I certainly have an acute sense of what it is not.  There is no well-being in a classroom with no laughter, a classroom in which students feel lonely in a crowd. There is no well-being when there is extreme anxiety and overwhelming stress experienced by students who find no meaning or purpose in what they’re doing other than that it’s part of the plot of the story of school.

The story that says that if you go all the way through school, from kindergarten to Grade 12, and then go to university, and then graduate, you’ll get a good job and then you’ll be happy. The ridiculousness of this story is perfectly illustrated in Alan Watts’ Music and Life analogy in which he exposes the false promise of education’s holy grail.

This myth about what school is for continues to be perpetuated even though we know that there is absolutely no guarantee that having a job that is well-paid leads to happiness as evidenced by rates of depression and suicide amongst highly-qualified professionals. To put it another way, there is no guarantee that if our children do everything right to get a good job, that the job will do much for their well-being beyond allowing for the provision of material wealth, which our modern western European culture positions as the pinnacle of happiness.

In our society, high purchasing power is equated with high levels of happiness, a necessary myth when our economy depends on increasing consumption of all kinds of stuff from cars to clothing. We are taught to fear a lack of growth in “consumer confidence” as though the worst thing that can happen is for us to stop shopping.

But what is the logical outcome of an unlimited extraction of the earth’s resources in order to manufacture the stuff that we are expected to keep purchasing so that we’ll be happy?

On 2 August this year, we used up the amount of resources that it takes the planet a year to replenish. We used up in 7 months what it will take 12 months to replace. That’s the denouement at the end of the Story of Stuff.

Can we really afford to perpetuate the myth that cancerous consumption leads to happiness?

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If ever there was a time to replace the current stories of school and of stuff with stories that the First Peoples developed over thousands of years while they sustained a regenerative relationship with their lands, that time would be now.

Well-being for our children and for our planet should be the ultimate goal of learning. We can’t afford for it not to be.

But what would that look like in the classrooms that our children will be in next month?

In her blog explaining the background of First Peoples’ Principles of Learning, Jo Chrono explains that it’s important that the learning principles operate in a “robust and healthy learning environment”.  Now that’s something I do know about! Creating an environment that is engaging along with building a sense of community in my classroom have been my guiding pedagogical principles ever since I began teaching almost 30 years ago.

It’s not always been easy. Focusing on children’s well-being means being willing to get into trouble for allowing students to break school rules that disregard their physiological needs. It also means apologizing to students when there are things you know are not good for their well-being but about which you can do nothing.

But the task is not impossible. It’s not difficult to encourage laughter while learning. It just takes a little bit more planning to ensure that students are not forced to work when they’re fatigued. And it’s not too difficult to always keep in mind that the child sitting in front of you is more than just an empty vessel that needs to be filled with facts. That child is one node in a network of connections that include her family, her community, her ancestors, and, perhaps most importantly, the land around her.  

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson says, the most amazing fact is that we are connected to the earth chemically, to each other biologically, and to the the universe atomically.

But then First Peoples have always known that.  They’ve always known that our individual well-being is directly connected to the well-being of everything around us.

As the impacts of climate change increasingly affect the world around us, let’s help our children to see that in everything they learn at school.

First Peoples Principles of Learning: Curriculum for the Age of Climate Change?

Have you heard of First Peoples Principles of Learning, a list of approaches to learning common amongst Indigenous Peoples for the multiple millennia before colonization brought the scourge of Residential Schools? The publication of the principles is a result of a collaboration between the BC Ministry of Education and groups of “Indigenous Elder[s], scholars, and knowledge keepers” and meant to provide an overview of Indigenous pedagogy, a philosophy of learning grounded in relationships and responsibilities. The principles are:

Learning ultimately supports the well-being of the self, the family, the community, the land, the spirits, and the ancestors.

Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).

Learning involves recognizing the consequences of one‘s actions.

Learning involves generational roles and responsibilities.

Learning recognizes the role of indigenous knowledge.

Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.

Learning involves patience and time.

Learning requires exploration of one‘s identity.

Learning involves recognizing that some knowledge is sacred and only shared with permission and/or in certain situations.

What if the Class of 2030 was completely immersed in experiences that upheld First Peoples Principles of Learning? Would they be better prepared to face the challenges brought by climate change when they graduate?

The next series of posts will explore these questions.

But before  continuing with my thoughts about what First Peoples Principles of Learning could look like in classrooms, I need to write about an incident that happened almost twenty years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career in Canada. It’s a memory that makes me feel quite ashamed when I recall it. 

I remember that I was in the middle of one of those crazynutsbusy days that are the norm for teachers when I was told that a parent was wanting to speak to me. I remember wondering why she hadn’t come to the classroom as I walked to where she was. This part of the memory is so vivid I can see it as though it was happening right now.

I am standing at the top of a short flight of stairs at the entrance of our portable building. At the bottom of the stairs is a woman whom I’m told is the mother of one of my students. We greet each other while I’m wondering about why she’d come.

As soon as she begins to speak she starts crying and I don’t understand what she’s saying. It takes me a few minutes to hear her tell me that she’s so happy that her son, my student, was going to pass Grade 11. That he was the first person in the family to do so. And that she was so grateful that my classroom was the kind of space that helped him to succeed.  I don’t know what I said in response but it must have been something quite inadequate like “You’re welcome” or “I’m so glad that he’s enjoyed being with us”.

Here’s why this memory fills me with shame. I didn’t know her son was Indigenous. I didn’t know at the time that graduation rates for Indigenous students were abysmally low. And, most important of all, I really didn’t know what I had done to deserve her thanks.  I didn’t think I deserved it at all since I had not consciously set out to make her son’s learning experiences any different to the learning experiences of all my students.  It took me many years to figure out what possibly could have made the difference to her son. 

Because of my own experiences of alienation while being educated in South Africa during the apartheid era, as a teacher I am biased toward collaboration and cooperation. One of the first tasks that my students have to fulfill at the start of each semester is to learn each other’s names because they spend a lot of time working together. Building community is the focus of the first part of my planning schedule before it becomes the background to much of what we do in my classroom for the rest of the school year. I do it not only for my own sense of comfort but also because I believe that if we can’t learn to be together in public school classrooms, we’re not going to be able to be together in the world beyond the classroom where we need to “live together as brothers [and sisters] or perish together as fools” as Martin Luther King Jr. said.

It was just serendipity that what I needed to be able to teach in my classroom was what her son had needed to succeed.  It’s also what we’re all going to need as we face the impacts of climate change, together.

Connection.

Cooperation.

Collaboration.

Community.

Dear Fellow Passenger on Planet Earth

Dear Fellow Passenger on Planet Earth,

We have to talk. It’s about a topic you really don’t want to think about. When it comes up you flip into fear and then slip into denial while you silently hope that someone is going to save the day.

But there’s no one here but us. We’re all we’ve got on this tiny blue planet spinning in a dark void.

I know the data is overwhelming. It’s difficult to wrap your head around the facts, the statistics, the predictions. I get that. So don’t think about all that.

Think about the children. The ones who just got here. The ones who arrived on a warming planet of rising seas, devastating droughts, monster wildfires.

At some point they’re going to know that we knew what we were doing. That we knew we were putting too much carbon into the air. We knew that we were using up in 7 months what it took the planet 12 months to replenish.

They’ll also know that we knew what we needed to do to mitigate the impacts of the changes. We knew that we needed to stop burning fossil fuels, that we needed to stop shopping for pleasure so that we could stop wasting precious resources. We knew that an economy based on unlimited growth was unsustainable on a planet of limited capacity.

What will we tell them when they ask us why we didn’t act?

What story will we tell?

pale blue dot

See, that’s what I want to talk about. The story that’ll be told to the generations to come about this time when we were too afraid to think about how our children will cope in a world of 45 degree summers and dried-up rivers. A world of drowned cities and growing deserts.

It’s true that stories like that already exist. Stories that are apocalyptic. Dystopian. Frightening. The kinds of stories that would give children nightmares.

But what if we could tell a different story?

What if we could tell our great-grandchildren about that time when we stopped being frozen in fear, the time when we realized that if we didn’t change our present, there would be no future?

Is that time now?

It seems to be a good time right now because we’re into Back to School season, a time that’s always felt like a second New Year, a time for beginnings and future dreams.  What collective dream do we have for the children, those returning to school, those just starting their schooling journey, and those who just recently arrived on our planet home?

If we’re ready, there’s no shortage of topics and themes for new dreams, new stories.  In the decades to come we could tell stories of the time we all leaped into a new relationship with our environment or the time a thousand towns transitioned. There’s already unfolding stories within the new economy and plenty of fascinating plots in the pursuit of a zero waste lifestyle.

Now, while we’re living in the future’s prologue, can we think about creating a new plot?

What say you?
Sincerely,

Passenger # 5 354 309 834

 

Let’s nurture creativity in the Class of 2030

They’ll enter classrooms in a few weeks as scientists, artists, makers, doers, inquisitive about the world around them, excited to explore its nooks and crannies. But how will they leave after 13 years of being told a thousand times not to stray, to stay within the lines that separate curriculum from curiosity? How much of their childhood creativity will still be alive when they graduate in 2030? Near the end of this second decade of the 21st century, there is ample evidence that earth’s life supporting systems are slipping into crisis. We are in urgent need of all the creative solutions we can get to help us to transition away from the destructive path we’re on.

The last thing schools should be doing is constraining creativity.

Ken Robinson’s Do Schools Kill Creativity? talk should not be seen as just an interesting thought exercise. With humanity facing the devastating consequences of climate change, his words should sound like a five-alarm fire.  

Our students are going to need new ways of coping with the realities of the world they’ll inherit: increasingly hotter summers, more frequent droughts, abnormal floods, regular wildfires, scarce resources and a teetering global economy that will likely mean that they’ll be “hard at work in a jobless future”.  

I confess to being impatient with those who believe that children are “too young” to learn about the realities of life. All across the world, there are millions of children who are taking care of younger siblings, because they’ve lost parents to war or disease. There are an estimated 100 000 unaccompanied child refugees trying to survive in Europe after crossing continents in their flight from war zones. Every year thousands of unaccompanied children flee Central and South America to travel to the United States. An estimated 300 000 children  are being used as soldiers around the world.  For millions of children, facing difficult realities can’t wait until they graduate.

So, when should we let the Class of 2030 know about the challenges they’ll face?  

What should they learn beyond reading, writing and arithmetic?

Bubbles
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Because education systems the world over have been in constant state of “reform” for decades, there’s a bazillion possible responses to that question but, despite all attempts at change, schools the world over still look quite similar to the way schools looked in 1917.  And, as much as I like to dream of having trillions of dollars to turn all public schools into the kind of creative schools that Ken Robinson has written about, I have reluctantly realized that just wishing and hoping is an indulgent waste of time.

The Class of 2030 begins their schooling journey in a few weeks.

We have to think about what can be done with what we have right now, right where we are.  We have to engage the kind of creative thinking that people everywhere are capable of whenever they’re faced with a disaster or a crisis.

Something like the kind of thinking that William Kwamkambe engaged when he solved his family’s need for electricity by gathering scraps from a dump heap and reading about how to build a windmill from an old textbook.

Or perhaps the out-of-the-box kind of thinking of Kelvin Doe who scavenged through trash to find parts to build generators and batteries for his own radio station.

There is no shortage of examples of young people finding creative solutions to intractable problems all across the world, making do with what they have and what they know to make a difference in the world around them.

Imagine what could be possible if their capacity for solving problems was nurtured and encouraged in schools everywhere for their entire thirteen-year journey.

Imagine a world with more Jaylas, Boyans  Haileys,  Victorias,  Ashtons,  Ridhimas and Marleys.

Imagine.

The Last Summer we saw the Sun

The last summer we saw the sun

we didn’t camp

since it would have been no fun

without the fire

contained,

companionable,

while marshmallows

carefully were

scorched.

burned orange sun

 

The last summer we saw the sun

we watched trees become

candles,

torches,

flinging flames

onto roofs,

racing unrelentingly

across fields and forests.

 

The last time we saw the sun

bright in a blue sky,

casting shade,

growing shadows,

was before this time

of the burnt-orange disc

that sheds faint light

through a smoky dome.

 

The last summer we saw the sun

we recognized 

that Beijing’s skies

had become our own.

Musings under Smoky Skies

It was good to see sunlight and shadows today after too many days under a smoky dome. Days when I developed a soon-to-be-the-new-normal routine: check air quality readings before my first sip of morning tea.  A reading of 7 on the 10 point scale meant being inside all day; a reading of 2, some time outside, but not too much. Asthmatic lungs don’t breathe well in air filled with too much particulate.  

I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been where readings reached 49.  On a 10 point scale.

But I suppose people who live in Beijing would know what that’s like since they’ve been living under a dome of smoke for quite a while now.  There are even stores there that only sell products to help people, including infants, breathe.

Beijing’s smoky skies ‘inspired’ a Chinese mother to create a documentary, Under The Dome, after she became convinced that the tumour her child developed in utero was caused by the smoky air. 150 million people saw it before it was banned in China.

My few days of living under a smoky dome here in ‘supernatural, beautiful British Columbia’ has led me to wondering about the kind of world the Class of 2030 will inherit. They’ll be starting school in a few weeks, beginning a thirteen-year journey of preparation for a world that will hopefully soon be in full transition to a new economy, one that does not cost the earth.  

But how do we prepare them for that transition?

Should they learn about firescience so that they can protect their homes and families when wildfires are common? Perhaps they could learn what Indigenous people have known about wildfires for millennia, what they know about ensuring that fire doesn’t devour entire communities?

Should we tell them to think of about becoming a wind turbine mechanic, the fastest growing career in North America today? We should certainly tell them that jobs in 2030 will look nothing like jobs today because by then, if we are to survive, we’ll have to be well on our way to containing our cancerous consumption of our planet’s resources.

One of the signs that the transition has already started is the rapid growth in forest schools in Europe and North America. More and more parents want their children to have a different relationship with the earth, one based on reverence and respect. They know that children will protect what they have learned to love.

If I could plan the curriculum for the Class of 2030 it would certainly contain a course on ecological literacy because our children will need to learn to read the skies the way they read a book.

What do you think the Class of 2030 should learn?

Dear Reader…

Dear Reader,

Firstly, thank you for being here. I have appreciated all the responses to my writing since I started this blog in April 2014 at a time when the relationship between public school teachers and the provincial government in British Columbia was quite fractured.

Between then and May 2017, my writing focus was mainly on concerns about public education in our province although I occasionally explored ideas about the education project itself.

Now that we have a new government, one that does not see public education as a burden on the public purse, I intend to focus a bit more on the “life” part of the “essays on education and on life” in the sub-title for this blog. I’m doing so because I am not only a teacher.

I am also a daughter of a mother who has dementia.

I am someone who lives in co-housing, continually learning what it means to live in community.

I am also quite concerned about climate change and the kind of future we are creating for our children.

And in all these spaces in my life, there are ideas to explore. I’d like to do that more.

But, I will also continue to use writing to untangle the questions that come with being a teacher of teens from whom I learn so much.

I hope you continue to read what I write because without your presence all this will be an empty echo.

Sincerely,
Lizanne