Memee Lavell with her daughter Autumn Sky
Memee Lavell with her daughter Autumn Sky

Aboriginal Education and Action Research

Memee Lavell

This article was adapted with permission from "An Aboriginal Educator's Perspective on Action Research as a Strategy for Facilitating Change in Aboriginal Education," by Memee Lavell, published in the Ontario Action Researcher, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2000. The full text of the article, including bibliography and references, can be found at


As an Aboriginal woman who has struggled for many years within the current education system, as both a student and a teacher, I have become increasingly aware of the difficulty that an overwhelming majority of Aboriginal people experience within the confines of mainstream educational institutions.

Studies of contemporary Aboriginal education point to an epidemic of low academic achievement and phenomenally high drop-out rates. In 1982, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development reported that the secondary school retention rate is 20 percent. When compared to a national average of 75 percent, these figures indicate the problematic state of Aboriginal education in Canada. This appalling situation calls for an immediate and sustained effort to change both the content and the process of education before more of our Aboriginal children are unnecessarily stricken by academic failure.

Current theories of, practices in, and attitudes towards the education of Aboriginal people have been far from successful. Perhaps action research, with its focus on the contextual nature of education and its reliance upon the lived experiences of the teachers of our children (both of which are often overlooked in more traditional forms of research) will prove to be a viable method to facilitate the necessary educational changes in our communities and classrooms. As in much of the literature, teacher research and action research are seen as synonymous and are used interchangeably in this analysis.

Action Research and Aboriginal Educators

Cochran-Smith and Lytle define action research as “systematic and intentional inquiry about teaching, learning, and schooling carried out by teachers in their own school and classroom settings.”

This contextual nature of teacher research is the key. Aboriginal people recognize that no one theory can ever deal with the intricacies of diverse Aboriginal communities, schools and classrooms across the continent. Because of tribal differences, varying levels of contact and assimilation, geographic diversity, and changing social and economic structures, research on the education of Aboriginal children must focus on the realities of the individual classrooms and communities in question, rather than seek to find or create generalized rules that will apply to all First Nations. Thus action research, with its focus on the concrete situations of the individual classroom, ought to be an ideal method for gaining meaningful insight into the complexities of revitalizing Aboriginal pedagogy.

According to Elliot, action research can be viewed as a solution to the perceived division between theory and practice in more traditional forms of educational research. Because much research bases its worth on the ability to generalize about all teacher practices, it “constitutes a denial of the individual practitioners’ everyday experience.” Thus much theory is easily disregarded by teachers as useless, or at least irrelevant, in the real classroom situation. Furthermore, teachers feel threatened by theory because it is produced by outsiders who “claim to be experts at generating valid knowledge about educational practices” for the masses and powerless to contribute to the body of knowledge that defines their practice.

Aboriginal people are in a similar position of powerlessness when it comes to determining what knowledge will be seen as valid in the classroom or, perhaps more importantly, whose knowledge is deemed valid in the classroom. Decisions about the content, process and organization of education for Aboriginal children have been made by outside experts based in universities or governments, far removed from the classrooms they affect. For centuries, Aboriginal children have been subjected to theories of education defined entirely by external experts including, in chronological order, religious zealots, government officials, and now educational researchers. As a result of these years of inappropriate education, Aboriginal children face the highest failure and dropout rates of any group on this continent.

Much like the teachers who have grown weary of merely implementing the educational theories of outside expert researchers, so too have the Aboriginal people become discontent with their role as subjects and consumers, rather than producers, of educational research. In an analysis of available literature on the subject, Swisher argues there is a need for Aboriginal people to become the producers of academic research in order to introduce a more accurate and more meaningful portrayal of both the historical and contemporary Aboriginal experience of education in North America.

To illustrate, Swisher points to three non-Aboriginal authors who have written over 30 articles and books on Indian education since 1985 and who are cited more often than the Aboriginal “experts from whom their experience and information was gathered.”

The legitimate contributions of a body of non-Aboriginal writers notwithstanding, Swisher contends that even when the literature is well researched, historically accurate and sensitively written (as opposed to the plethora of Eurocentric, biased, or downright prejudiced literature that has filled our libraries in the past), it is still missing the “passion from within” that can only come from an Aboriginal perspective.

A number of scholars believe that action research needs to take on a broader socially critical stance. For example, Tripp contends that teachers as action researchers must move beyond the problem-solving model of action research to questioning why something is a problem and asking what the larger societal forces are that create and maintain this problem. Only then wall their action research be socially critical and have the kind of impact Tripp believes is necessary

It is this form of socially critical action research that holds the greatest potential for Aboriginal educators and researchers, for we have long known that the problems our students face in education are not the result of inherent inferiority or cultural deprivation as some would have us believe, but symptoms (or perhaps objectives) of a system that functions to deny Aboriginal people any real power in society. Thus, any action research that hopes to make meaningful change in the education of our Aboriginal children must begin and end with social critique.

Authors such as Welch, Orzechowska and Smieja argue for the potential of action research to give a voice to those who have previously been ignored in the process of constructing knowledge in the field of education. Specifically, they point to the minority educators who have been silenced by the “preponderance of European perspectives.”

The body of intellectual thought produced by minorities has been largely ignored in education research and therefore has had “limited influence on prevailing paradigms and ideology within the scholarly community,” Welch says. It is marginalized under labels such as multicultural studies, while “Anglo scholarship actually dominates educational practice.” Thus the importance of minority groups’ cultural knowledge and their ways of knowing are implicitly and explicitly devalued. Ideally the inclusive dialogue and collaborative knowledge construction that are promoted by action research will allow the voices of the disempowered to be heard in a meaningful context.

Action iüosiarch Methods

Linear Sequential Process: The action research model is based on a linear sequential method of testing and processing information into knowledge.

While the action-observation-revised action continuum may be conceptualized as a spiralling process, it is still a clearly linear, sequentially organized progression towards a specific end. In contrast, many Aboriginal people think and learn in a holistic fashion, that is they perceive the world as a whole rather than as a compilation of parts.

Triaf-and-Error Methods: Many scholars agree that the action research method is based on a continual process of trialand- error evolving in a spiral fashion towards increasingly improved ends.

Trial-and -error is not appropriate behaviour among many Aboriginal cultures, including specifically the Ojibway people. In a culture where for centuries one’s continued survival has depended upon close observation and the subsequent correct application of proven techniques, there is no room for trial-and-error learning. When resources are precious, error is seen as wasteful, unproductive and unacceptable, if not outright fatal. Even though the hunting and gathering days are effectively over, Aboriginal people are still in an extremely vulnerable position in comparison to the rest of society.

Today our most precious resource is our children, and the only hope they have for survival as Aboriginal people is education. As Aboriginal people, therefore, we are reluctant to subject our children to a continual process of trial-and-error, preferring long periods of observation and thoughtful application of historical and cultural knowledge, which may in fact have more empirical application.

Journals: Some action researchers propose the use of journals to record one’s data, insights, reflections and ideas for further research. Harris describes how her journals have informed her work by harboring questions, inviting reflections and jolting her memory Strieb sees journals as a way “to learn about, inquire into, collect data about, and enhance” her teaching practice. As an action researcher, she states that journal writing is the genre most compatible with her “style of writing,” her “way of teaching” and most importantly, her “way of thinking.”

This statement unconsciously points to the very problem that Aboriginal people may encounter with journal writing (and, by extension, with action research itself). Journal writing is compatible with a non-aboriginal way of thinking that has evolved in literate cultures but is both incompatible with and contrary to the wrays of thinking that are predominant in cultures that have a strong oral tradition, history and culture.

Over the last 10,000 years, at least, Aboriginal people have practiced and perfected methods of transmitting knowledge that do not rely upon, or even involve, the written word. For example, though illiterate, my great-grandfather could recite verbatim the history of the Ojibway people in its entirety, including the relationships wdth the French, British and American empires and the Ojibway understanding of the attendant treaties. Thus, for most members of the Aboriginal community, not only is journal writing unfamiliar and impractical but, based on my extensive personal observation and experience, it is outright abhorrent. The Aboriginal avoidance of written communication of any kind extends beyond university essays, reports, journals, expense accounts, to personal letters, diaries, thank-you notes, and Christmas cards, in short, to anything that involves the written word.

This is not to say that Aboriginal people cannot write journals, nor does it imply that journals would have absolutely no benefit for the Aboriginal teacher. What we can conclude is that, for people who have maintained an oral history for thousands of years, any form of reflection and communication that relies on the written word does not allow most Aboriginal people to exercise the full potential of their intellect. Suggestions for alternative methods of data collection include the use of audio or video tape recordings, which can then be reviewed at later dates if this is necessary to the teacher’s research process. Personal reflections and insights could also be mechanically recorded and later transcribed; such a method would preserve the flow of thought for future reflections and analysis.

The point is not to suggest that Aboriginal people cannot learn through, or benefit from the action research model, but rather to highlight specific aspects of the process that may conflict with traditional Aboriginal learning styles and therefore must be taken into consideration when Aboriginals, and those teaching Aboriginals, embark on action research projects. Factors such as acculturation, assimilation, education, and adoption will influence the degree of individual variance from the cultural norm of any given minority group, including Aboriginal populations.

As Ogbu and Simons suggested, “some individuals will always believe or behave differently from the dominant pattern” within their ethnic minority group, but certain behaviours apply to enough members of the minority group to form a recognizable pattern. To suggest differently would be nothing less than racial prejudice, and is certainly not the intent of this work.

Research suggests that learning style is not genetically fixed; rather, it is constructed by the social and physical environment of the individual or cultural group and, as such, it can be altered. Whether it is preferable to adapt the action research model to meet the needs of the Aboriginal educator or to encourage Aboriginal teachers to adopt the action research model as is, and in doing so adapt their learning processes, is not something we can conclude at this stage. Flowever, the survival of the Aboriginal modes of thought despite centuries of large-scale efforts to eradicate or assimilate Aboriginal people leads me to believe that not only is it morally preferable, it is likely more profitable to adapt the action research model to the needs of the culturally distinct educator.


For too long, educational theory has begun with the imposition of Eurocentric norms and then focused on supporting people in adapting to these demands rather than beginning with what Graveline calls a completely “new paradigms of knowledge,” So long as we continue to focus on problems and remediation rather than on critically examining the ideological foundations that undergird the entire education system, we will never achieve any real meaningful change in our society.

Graveline further argues that the relation between white educators and Aboriginal peoples has long been one of oppression. As educators we must examine our role in maintaining this discourse, for if we are not actively opposing it, we are, in our complacency, supporting it. Theorizing the school as a political and cultural site, Graveline explains that teachers and students “produce, reinforce, recreate, resist, and transform” ideas about race, class, equality, justice and power.

While recognizing that simply using an Aboriginal teaching model in one classroom cannot overcome the realities of a racist, sexist and oppressive society, Graveline believes that the ideal new paradigms of knowledge need to be based on Aboriginal values, perspectives and philosophies, not only to “ensure our survival as Indigenous peoples but for our very existence as humans.”

Action research seems to have both the potential and the mandate to be subversive enough to make a significant contribution to the process of altering the balance of control of the educational knowledge that defines and informs the work of teachers and policy makers. Ideally, once embraced by Aboriginal scholars and adapted to suit our learning styles, action research can take on the socially critical stance that it seems to be lacking.

Perhaps what is necessary, then, is an Aboriginal holistic educational perspective that looks beyond the sequence and sum of the parts to find meaning in the whole picture, i.e,, the social structures that work to oppress the many for the benefit of a few. Aboriginal contributions have the potential to create a new variety of action research that may allow us to alter the course and nature of educational research in our own communities. Placing the power to construct knowledge about teaching into the hands of those who work in the field of teaching, especially in Aboriginal communities, is not just a revolutionary idea, it is a truly empowering one as well.

Memee Lavell B.Ed., M.Ed., has taught for the Wikmemlkonq Board of Education and is currently completing a Ph.D, on the needs, concerns and aspirations of Aboriginal secondary school students on Manitoulin island, She also sits on the board of the Ontario Native Women's Association.