Brian Lewthwaite is a teacher’s teacher.
The professor of education from the University of Manitoba is working on a project in Dawson City aimed at making teaching more culturally responsive to First Nation students.
But it’s probably not what most people would think.
“Most people would say that all First Nations people want is more language and more cultural content, but those things are rarely mentioned,” said Lewthwaite.
Instead, what researchers heard from the community was much more focused on the overall classroom environment and teacher-student relationships.
Researchers boiled down the more than 50 interviews they conducted with members of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and their teachers into eight separate categories. Language and culture came last.
“It’s shortsighted when people say ‘cultural inclusion,’ because they think it’s just culture and language, but we’re making it clear, it’s much broader than that,” said Lewthwaite. “At its core, it’s about beliefs and action.”
And everyone seems to agree that action is needed.
The Yukon has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country.
According to the Department of Education’s latest annual report, 74 per cent of non-First Nation students earn their high school diploma, but with only 56 per cent of First Nation students.
Just the expectation that teachers have of their students informs a lot of their development, said Lewthwaite.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “The key thing is that kids’ views of themselves is so impressionable at such a young age. And that’s what happens – teachers impress upon kids positively or negatively.”
It happens much earlier than people think.
“Kids already by Grade 3 or 4 say, ‘I’m not good at reading,’ or whatever, so they develop this self-concept as a learner.”
That’s why this research project is mostly focused on one Grade 4 class. It’s set to follow them for the next three years to track their development.
Researchers have developed some modified lessons that integrate the B.C. curriculum with their own teaching methods to make it more relevant to Yukon First Nation students.
Most of this will be put into practice over 2013, but there are some early, promising results, said Lewthwaite.
“There’s enough empirical evidence to support that teachers teaching to the strengths or the learning orientations of indigenous students has consequence,” he said.
Simple things like changing communication patterns have a huge impact.
“I do a really good job of over-talking, whereas First Nations people primarily under-talk,” said Lewthwaite.
Leaving kids more time to process information internally sounds simple, but it’s not easy for many teachers.
“If I’m in a classroom modeling it for teachers, I find the quiet classroom just about painful for me,” said Lewthwaite.
Researchers created a 40-page booklet for teachers based on the interviews they gathered.
“We get the teachers to read it and they identify where they have to change,” said Lewthwaite.
For many it’s an eye-opening experience, he said.
“Dawson’s quite unique,” said Lewthwaite. “Most of the teachers have been there for a while, but most of the teachers have a mindset that’s open to change, and when they read the community’s stories, most of them are actually quite stunned.”
It leads to some dramatic changes, he said.
“We work in countless schools but I think that there’s something actually quite special here,” said Lewthwaite. “In some ways it’s been effortless because you have a First Nation committed to engaging with the school and they’re not antagonistic about it.”
It was the political changes that came out of the self-governing agreements that gave First Nations a voice and spurred on efforts to create a more culturally inclusive education system, but it’s something that benefits all Yukon students, said Lewthwaite.
The preliminary research shows “significant learning gains” for students of all ethnicities.
“I think the First Nations are voicing their view of what the characteristics of good teaching are, but many people would look at that and say that’s what good teachers do anyway.”
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