Navigating a new curriculum

Aug 21 2017

Sociology prof’s research addresses the successes—and challenges—of incorporating Indigenous content into provincial curricula


During her research for a paper published last year by the Canadian Review of Sociology, Dr. Emily Milne discovered that while education ministries across Canada had policies and plans in place to integrate Indigenous content into curricula, teachers are often not incorporating it into their lesson plans.

Digging into this topic further, the assistant professor of sociology published her latest paper in the International Indigenous Policy Journal this month. In it, she focuses specifically on Ontario’s curriculum framework and a broader provincial policy implemented in 2008. Emily decided it was time, after nearly a decade in action, to find out how Ontario’s initiatives are working.

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“I talked to Indigenous and non-Indigenous parents, educators and students,” she says. “And I found that positive things can happen when the policy is implemented and Indigenous content becomes part of the curriculum.”

When Indigenous knowledge and learnings are taught in the classroom, Indigenous students were able to share what they learned with their family members and generate discussions at home. The children also felt connected to, and included in, the classroom content. Non-Indigenous students also engaged with the content, with many parents noting the importance of developing an “expanded worldview.”

“ We want to make sure educators are supported, have the resources, feel comfortable and that they are incorporating Indigenous content into their classes in an authentic, genuine way.” EMILY MILNE 

But the findings were not all positive. Emily’s work also addresses several challenges—a major one being that many non-Indigenous teachers didn’t know about residential schools, and lacked understanding and awareness about Indigenous peoples and culture. Teachers also said they didn’t know about the policy or that they hadn’t seen it, and therefore didn’t know how to implement it.

“Some of the educators who knew about the policy said they felt uncomfortable or intimidated or didn’t know how to navigate it,” says Emily.

The result of that inaction is that many children and youth go through the entire k–12 system without gaining an understanding of Indigenous peoples and culture, residential schools and Canada’s history. And Emily’s own experience bears this out; she has had students in her university-level sociology classes who have never heard of residential schools.

Recommendations to do better

But, Emily says, there are opportunities to do better. She recommends that one of the first steps school boards should take is to provide professional development and on-the-ground support for educators.

“It’s great to have these policies and include Indigenous content in curricula. But there’s a question of how we put policy into practice. How does a policy framework make the transition into the practices of different school boards, and then into different schools, and finally into classrooms in those schools to shape students’ learning?” she says. “We want to make sure educators are supported, have the resources, feel comfortable and that they are incorporating Indigenous content into their classes in an authentic, genuine way.” 

While her research is Ontario-focused, the findings and recommendations could be applied to any school system in Canada. Emily is using her expertise as an education researcher to help as a member of the working group providing input into the redesign of Alberta’s curriculum.

“The working group is going to be asking ‘what does an educated Albertan look like and what’s important for them to know?’ It’s important that they know about Indigenous peoples in Canada and our history,” she says. “In Ontario, I’ve seen some successes, but also some challenges. Moving forward in Alberta, I’m interested in how Indigenous content is being implemented, and finding out what some of the challenges and successes are here.”

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