These are exciting times in the world of Aboriginal education. As calls escalate for profound changes to the current Aboriginal education model for on reserve students, the question is whether the federal government and Aboriginal people will seize the opportunity to raise the bar high and lead the rest of Canada in adopting 21st Century models of learning for band school students.
The most recent calls for change are found in the following three reports. First, in June 2011 the Auditor General of Canada Sheila Fraser issued her findings on the progress made in Aboriginal education since her 2006 report. Fraser states: “We found that, based on 2001 and 2006 census data, the education gap has not been reduced and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has only begun to implement a strategy for closing it.”
In December 2011 the Report of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Aboriginal People was released. Entitled Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope the report called on the federal government to: 1) develop a First Nations Education Act; 2) improve the current funding model; 3) work in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations to create a Canada-First Nations Action Plan for education reform; and 4) create a Task Force to oversee the work to be undertaken.
The National Panel on First Nation Elementary and Secondary Education for Students on Reserve, jointly created by the Harper government and the Assembly of First Nations, issued its report in February 2012. Nurturing the Learning Spirit of First Nation Students echoed the Senate Committee’s call for new legislation (National Aboriginal Education Act). It also called on the federal government to close the per-student funding gap between on reserve Aboriginal students and public education students, estimated by the Panel to be about 20%.
As support for change escalates, the federal government and Aboriginal people have an opportunity to create a state of the art education plan for on reserve students. This is the knowledge and digital age, and the growing numbers of Aboriginal students in Canada deserve to have access to modern learning and teaching practices, tools, and resources if they are to be positioned for success. Global research supports that 21st Century models of learning better engage students and lead to overall improvements in student achievement, including in literacy, numeracy and science.
In order to set the stage, the education plan needs to include a firm commitment by the federal government to invest in providing high quality connectivity to all Aboriginal communities in Canada. Second, the new legislation and education plan need to be founded on the principles of 21st Century models of learning. These principles include the teaching of 21st Century competencies and ensuring teachers adopt modern instructional practices, including the integration of technology with pedagogy. The education plan also needs to commit to creating ICT rich learning environments in band schools and providing both students and teachers with computers and other digital resources. The combination of providing connectivity to the Aboriginal communities and connecting students and teachers to the internet and other digital resources will transform the learning opportunities for Aboriginal students, especially those living in remote areas of Canada.
A 21st Century inspired education plan could position Aboriginal students at the head of the national education curve. The overall vision needs to be about positioning Aboriginal students to be successful in the knowledge and digital reality of the 21st Century while celebrating and integrating Aboriginal culture, language and traditional values into the education plan.
A recent announcement by the Harper government may be signalling a move in the right direction. $300 million is to be invested in improving connectivity to 68 Aboriginal communities in Saskatchewan. A February 10th announcement states: “The primary beneficiaries of this initiative are the over 15,000 students in 89 on-reserve schools…Innovation in schools, including reliable access to the Internet, is an important tool to help First Nation students reach their full academic potential and acquire the knowledge and skills required to compete in today’s labour market”….
These are indeed exciting times, and it is critical that the opportunity for meaningful reform and new investments in Aboriginal education be supported by all Canadians.