Non-Aboriginal Teachers’ Perspectives on Teaching Native Studies

Non-Aboriginal Teachers’ Perspectives on Teaching Native Studies

John M. Dewar, 1998

Thesis submitted to the College of Graduate Studies and Research in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Education, Department of Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan.


Since the mid-1980s, the Saskatchewan Department of Education has approved the instruction of Native Studies courses in provincial high schools . In hope of enhancing the instruction of these courses, this study focused on the perspectives of Non-Aboriginal teachers who were assigned to teach Native Studies. Through a questionnaire, personal interviews, and a focus group, nine Non-Aboriginal high-school teachers examined the following aspects of the courses: formal and informal training of instructors, goals of the courses, key content and pedagogical methodologies, major challenges, and recommendations for improving the delivery of the classes.

The literary context for the research was based upon three major areas : Non-Aboriginal teachers’ perspectives on teaching Aboriginal students, preparing teachers to teach Native Studies, and preparing teachers to instruct Native Studies to Aboriginal students . Due to the ‘single-group’ nature of Native Studies curricula, considerable literature examination was focused on multicultural education models.

The research data of the study revealed that the majority of interviewees have minimal formal education experience with Aboriginal content or epistemology. In addition, most of the study participants indicated little, if any, informal cultural contact with Aboriginal peoples. Study participants generally acknowledged the limitations of their scant academic and experiential interaction with Aboriginal cultures, and recommended means of various education stakeholders improving the situation.

The study also exposed a variety of teacher perspectives about the goals of the courses. While there was unanimity regarding the efficacy of the courses, most teachers believed the goals of Native Studies varied depending on the cultural composition of the class. In addition, a couple of teachers inferred that a major objective of Native Studies courses is the promotion of an anti-establishment’ political message. Some teachers also indicated a quandary regarding whether the course curricula required them to “teach Aboriginal culture, or teach about Aboriginal culture.”

In terms of course content and teaching methodologies, there were numerous opinions on `what was important’. All the interviewees viewed history as a significant ingredient to a `good’ Native Studies class, but some of the teachers expressed a reluctance to delve into such issues as Aboriginal spirituality, racism, and ‘white-privilege’. There was also hesitation amongst many of the respondents to incorporate traditional Aboriginal epistemologies into course methodologies because they wanted to personalize instruction, not base it upon cultural generalizations.

In addition to the aforementioned issues and corresponding challenges associated with the background training for the courses, the goals of the courses, and the content and methodology of the courses, the study participants highlighted other concerns with the teaching of Native Studies: irrelevant curricula, lack of materials, poor course funding, student absenteeism, student perception that the courses are for ‘non-academics’, lack of flexible timetabling for experiential learning, and lack of staff knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal cultures. All administrative levels of the education system were identified by the interviewees as influential in helping to mitigate the difficulties associated with the instruction of Native Studies.