What’s going right in Indigenous Education

Prof. Fiona Walton employs more than just empathy
Walton, 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient (Photo by Kerri Wheatley)

“People aren’t fond of saying Aboriginal Education is going well,” says the University of Prince Edward Island’s Fiona Walton, “but there are many many pockets where marvelous things are happening.”

Walton’s CV is too long to recount, but there’s one central theme. This 3M National Teaching Fellowship recipient is dedicated to building leaders in Indigenous Education by focusing on doing more of the things that are going right.

Walton has taught students from many backgrounds in the Bachelor of Education Specialization in Indigenous Education at the University of Prince Edward Island, which she helped develop after years teaching in the Arctic. More recently, she’s guided the curriculum of the groundbreaking Master of Education Leadership in Nunavut.

Walton’s approaches vary, but she says her pedagogy is rooted in 1960s London, U.K. where the school she entered at age 10—ahead of its time as it was—focused on experiential learning.

“That’s why I try to offer students—as much of the real experiences as possible,” she says.

When possible, it means taking future teachers to Indigenous communities. When not possible, it means encouraging them to pick up a phone and call the locals. In the Indigenous Specialization, students each examine a community’s education system through statistics, historical texts and, perhaps most importantly, interviews with local teachers about their problems and solutions.

Walton tries to instill empathy in Canadians who are learning about their Indigenous peers. “We’ve all had experiences in our lives where we were picked last for the baseball team,” she says. “It is very important to understand the marginalization of Aboriginal people in Canada,” she adds.

But she’s quick to say that education must go beyond empathy. “My whole approach to teaching is to engage the students in something that draws them in both emotionally and cognitively,” she says.

“I don’t believe in just drawing them in emotionally,” she adds. “That’s a cheap sell. We need to ground whatever we’re proposing or seeing in some kind rich theory or history.”

In the north, Walton might use a metaphorical approach. For example, in one class she had Inuit students use rocks to represent the things weighing them down, such as the history of residential schools. They then piled the chunks around a student in a chair before suggesting things that might lift the weights away—-like Inuit teachers who are skilled in Inuktitut and qualified to teach.

That’s where the Master of Education Leadership comes in. A metaphor Walton uses there is the ulu, a sharp knife that Inuit women use when scraping or cutting seal or caribou skins. Graduate work takes time, much like the Inuit women’s work with those tough skins. Sewing also requires maintaining a sharp edge on the knife, just as graduate work requires the sharp instrument of critical thinking.

Walton concedes that Indigenous Education in Canada has a long way to go, but progress is clear. The first 21 Master of Education Leadership students graduated in 2009. Today, alumni of that program co-teach classes for the next master’s graduates, all of them in their native Inuktitut.

The program will likely produce its 37th grad in 2013, but that doesn’t mean Walton’s work is done.

“One of my goals before I retire is to help get some Inuit educators through a PhD program,” she says from her home on the island after a recent trip to the north. “That would be a very big step.”