Creating culturally meaningful learning environments: Teacher actions to engage Aboriginal students in learning

Linda May Goulet
Faculty of Education, The University of Regina (Canada)
June, 2005


This study explored effective teaching practices that engaged Aboriginal students in classroom learning from the perspective of the teacher. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal teachers were interviewed regarding their successes with Aboriginal students and observations were conducted in three classrooms. Grounded theory guided the data collection and analysis of teachers' actions. The antecedent conditions became evident when teachers identified the cultural considerations and the conditions resulting from colonization and racism that affected their actions with Aboriginal students. The constant comparative method of grounded theory developed categories of teacher actions. Descriptive evidence from the interviews and observations were organized to delineate the attributes and subcategories of each category. The concept of connectedness in relationship building emerged as foundational to the engagement of Aboriginal students in learning. Teachers developed respectful, culturally affirming relationships with students and connected students to the class, the curriculum, and others in the school and community to create culturally meaningful learning environments. Democratic leadership set responsible limits while opening space for self and cultural expression, serving to decolonize educational practice as students shared ownership of their learning environment and direction of the class. The analysis of data from this research was compared to the literature in Aboriginal education. This comparison revealed that the actions of the teachers were congruent with the Aboriginal world view and values articulated by Aboriginal Elders and scholars. Teacher actions based on Aboriginal values and world view served to decolonize education. Teaching practice was holistic because teachers addressed the socioemotional, the spiritual, the physical, and the intellectual domains, and related to students as individual cultural beings situated within a particular sociocultural milieu. This research reinforces the view that Aboriginal education needs to move beyond an approach of cultural differences to a pedagogy that is holistic, considering culture, race, class, and colonization. The need for further research regarding different contexts and topics in Aboriginal education is identified. Implications for teacher education programs are discussed, particularly the need to address ethnocultural and sociocultural issues in the preparation of teachers of Aboriginal students.