B.C. education system fails Native children

February 10, 2005, vol. 32, no. 3
By Stuart Colcleugh

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SFU assistant education professor Ethel Gardner delivered a heartfelt message to more than 100 attendees during the president's faculty lecture Indigenizing Education for the 21st Century at the university's Halpern centre in December.

"It is not our (First Nations) children who are failing, it is the system that is failing our children," Gardner said, referring to statistics showing a dismal 46-per-cent high school completion rate in B.C. for aboriginal students, compared to 82 per cent for non-aboriginals.

"The question we need to ask is why aren't our kids participating in the system," says Gardner, one of three education faculty presenters at the event. "I believe it's because the system doesn't reflect who they are and we need to do a better job at that. They need to experience more First Nations language and culture in the classroom. And that means we need more aboriginal teachers, researchers and specialists of every sort."

In addressing the potential and problems of indigenous schooling, assistant professor of education Mark Fettes of SFU's imaginative education research group (IERG) spoke about a five-year project he is leading in partnership with three B.C. school districts to improve academic performance in classrooms containing mainly aboriginal students.

Employing theoretical concepts devised by IERG founder and director Kieran Egan, the project aims to help aboriginal children better internalize what they learn through teaching strategies and subject matter that appeal to their imagination rather than their memory.

"We have excellent, very bright, well-rounded, culturally aware aboriginal educators working with us in each of these districts," says Fettes. "They start off teaching a unit for a week or two that is designed on imaginative principles. And if they get success out of that then they are encouraged to try the approach in other areas."

Assistant education professor Lisa Sterling, recently appointed special advisor and director of aboriginal affairs with the VP-academic's office, observed that indigenous education is a topic that resonates with everyone. But she says, "Much is still being done to bring forward the presence of the voice of First Nations people in many educational and academic disciplines today."

To address indigenous education, "we must understand where we have been, and the challenges we have faced historically, in an effort to understand where we are now and move to where we want to be. At SFU we are building bridges in overcoming historical barriers to ensure the post-secondary experience is relevant and accessible to aboriginal students."

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