Appealing to imagination

January 08, 2004, vol. 29, no. 1
By Carol Thorbes

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“We're really in uncharted territory,” says Simon Fraser University researcher Mark Fettes, who is developing an education program to help B.C. aboriginals attain greater academic, social and economic success.

Fettes, an assistant professor of education and a member of the imaginative education research group (IERG) at SFU, is applying an innovative teaching approach to classrooms with large numbers of aboriginal students.

Conceived by IERG's founder, SFU education professor Kieran Egan, the theory predicts that students will learn best when teaching strategies and subject matter appeal to their imagination rather than their memory.

Egan has developed a framework that uses progressively advanced teaching strategies to support students' cognitive development through imaginative stimulation.

Studies show that just 42 per cent of 18-year-old B.C. aboriginals complete high school compared to 79 per cent of their non-aboriginal counterparts.

While Fettes welcomes the growth of First Nations-run schools to preserve aboriginal cultural values and traditions, he believes that more changes are needed.

“A culturally sensitive curriculum is often not as successful as expected,” says Fettes. “One reason may be that it still follows conventional teaching approaches.”

An expert on linguistic ecology, Fettes studies how language and culture influence the way people imagine, and how imagination is implicated in learning, relationship-building and community identification.

He attributes the lackluster results of conventional learning strategies in an aboriginal setting to their tacit assumption of students' identity within the politically and economically dominant culture.

“It is difficult and psychologically risky for someone to adopt a way of imagining the world in which they are invisible or marginalized,” explains Fettes. “Yet, this is what the mainstream curriculum typically requires of students. Through imaginative education, we hope to involve learners in re-imaging their communities' futures and their place in the world.”

Fettes is the lead investigator on this project, Building Culturally Inclusive Schools Through Imaginative Education.

Three other SFU professors, including Egan, will work with him, as well as with graduate students and First Nation and school district leaders in Chilliwack, Prince Rupert and the Queen Charlotte Islands.

“I don't know of anybody who has used these teaching strategies and concepts in classrooms where more than half the students are aboriginal,” says Fettes.

The project will lead to the creation of a model for teaching aboriginal students in other school districts.

Its groundbreaking nature has attracted nearly $1 million in funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's (SSHRC) community-university research alliances program.

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