~Inuit Youth and Dropout~
Presented by Deborah Maguire
February 6, 2001
Masters of Education in Teaching and Learning University of Calgary
Description of the Portfolio Presentation
The evening of Tuesday, February 6, 2001 was a cold arctic one with temperatures dipping down to negative forty degrees Celsius. Nervous and excited, I welcomed close to twenty of guests at the doors of Netsilik School. Included in the list of participants were: Native and non-Native elementary and secondary teachers, the school principal, the District Education Authority (DEA)chairperson and former (DEA) members, long time residents of Taloyoak, the Nunavut Arctic College instructor, former students and graduates, young people with dropout experience, Student Needs Assistants, and Health Care representatives. I had been looking forward to sharing my work with a larger group for a long time. My portfolio discusses all the various stakeholders who are impacted by Inuit dropout, so I feel that it is important that these people gain some awareness of the Inuit dropout phenomenon. I hope that the material I presented will encourage people to think deeply about the dropout situation as it is in Taloyoak.
The portfolio was presented using a PowerPoint presentation format. I was lucky enough to borrow a projector from the Nunavut Arctic College and the visual impact that the large screen format made on the audience was very positive. Everyone in the large classroom was able to see and hear the presentation. Individual handouts were prepared for more detailed content not appropriate for the slide format. See the PowerPoint slides
The presentation started at 7:00 PM with a welcome and introduction to the topic of Inuit Dropout. I began by explaining the purpose of this presentation with respect to the requirements for completion of the M.Ed. degree. I was pleased to feel the support from the group when I described the work that I had been involved in since the fall of 1997. From the onset of the presentation, I felt it was important to acknowledge the immense gap between my culture and the culture of the Inuit people whom I am trying to understand. I wanted to let the audience know that I am aware that my perspective is that of a nonnative and that my thoughts and experiences will always be clouded by my nonnative upbringing and understanding. Despite this obvious drawback to my investigation into the dropout phenomena, I emphasized my hope that that I can bring to light some of the more prominent issues at stake for Inuit youth. I felt that the audience welcomed this acknowledgment; I think that they may have had some misgivings about my presentation due to this difference in culture. Once this barrier was discussed openly, the audience was able to accept the information and to think critically about the issue. I hoped that the Inuit people would welcome the work and be helpful in the educational development of Inuit youth in todays world.
I thought long and hard about what pieces I wanted to include in the presentation. There is such a wealth of information and ideas in the portfolio that it was difficult to choose elements that would be insightful yet not overwhelming. I chose to discuss a bit about each major section of the portfolio. Perhaps, if there is interest a particular area, I will be invited to present the topic more in depth at a later date.
I started with a brief brainstorming activity to initiate thought on the reason why Inuit students drop out of school. Hopefully most of the factors that the group came up with would be discussed in the presentation. Before I provided a list of researched factors contributing to dropout, I presented my own reflection on the factor question (see Slide 6). Considering past educational experiences for Inuit, was it possible to dropout of learning in the traditional life of the Inuit? I believe that dropout was not an option in the traditional past. A young person was instructed in the ways to survive and live in a harsh and challenging world. It was a Learn or Die situation. Youth had to learn in order to survive. Not only did their learning affect their own survival, their success had an impact on the success of the entire community. I believe that the education system has to find ways to put the edge back on education where there is more immediacy to learning.
Later, once I received feedback, I learned that there might have been some Inuit who did not live up to educational expectations even in the traditional days. According to a long term resident with an interest in Inuit history, "there were dropouts within the Inuit culture. These are represented by groups or individuals less motivated than the real movers and shakers in the hunter and trapper fraternity. Although tolerated and supported these people tended to be marginalised within their group as a whole." My reflection on this additional information helps me understand why dropouts are still accepted, rather than shunned, in todays world. I believe my "Putting the Edge back on Education" is still valid because of the current prevalence of dropout. If there were the same high rates of dropout in the past as there is now, the Inuit people could not have survived the harsh environment and difficult lifestyle. More thought is needed on this theory but I felt it was an appropriate one to include in the presentation as it shows my growth and thoughts on the topic.
I explored the various factors and I presented the connections of the clustered factors. The overlapping nature of the visual representation of the factors was well received by the audience. Their brainstorming activity made the categorisations more relevant to their personal understanding of Inuit dropout. I explained how I had moved from picturing a hodgepodge of factors (illustrated with the ellipse filled with a mixture of factors) to visualising the factors more as clusters and categories which overlap. The overlapping circles in the diagram represent the interaction of the factors. The next step in making positive changes is to consider the factors to dropout with respect a plan of action. Usually a community decides to work on a few key areas to build awareness and momentum on an issue. Prioritizing the factors is an important step in community development. I hope that this form of presentation will initiate more thought on the factors contributing to dropout so that a community action plan can be developed by those within the community. The factors and the categories were provided to the audience on a handout.
At this point in the presentation, the foundation was set and the audience was ready look at ways to improve the situation. I started by looking at what schools can do to reduce Inuit dropout. I chose two topics from the school leader section: 1) improving school climate and culture; 2) improving communication. I feel that these two areas are not limited to the role of the school leader. Improvement in these areas is important for all stakeholders and thus interest in the topic by all in the audience would not falter.
Firstly, I defined the terms school climate and culture. I sensed that there might be confusion in the concept of culture due to the connotation of Inuit and nonnative cultures. Once the group understood the term as defined by Deal & Peterson (1998), they were more readily able to see the benefits of improving school climate and culture and the impact of this improvement on the rate of Inuit dropout. Most in the group understood the idea that social convention may mean that students will continue having to get up alone and come to school unfed or poorly fed and that those children attending school are doing so because they want to be there (Tompkins, 1998). Thus, it is an important role of a leader to create a school environment that fosters learning and support where children will want to come.
I spent some time explaining the concept of downshifting (Caine & Caine, 1997) and described the link between downshifting and dropout. Later feedback and comments revealed that the experience of downshifting is relevant and has been experienced by those in the group. One participant in particular spoke of his experiences going out of the community for high school; he was often threatened by racism and social prejudice because he was seen as different. He agreed that these feelings of downshifting inhibited his ability to learn and he went on to say that he often wanted to escape the situation. He was glad to learn that downshifting is natural and normal when the human brain is faced with fear. His comments confirmed my own suspicions about how negative school climate can impact learning and contribute to the desire to escape or drop out. In addition, he believes that he was able to continue his schooling because of his family support; this comment confirms my comments on the importance of family support on motivational levels.
Comments like these relate well to the idea of creating a caring school built on relationships - schools as communities (Sergiovanni, 1994). I discussed the need to think of schools more as families of learning where everyone is involved in a learning experience, sometimes as a teacher and sometimes as a student. I spoke a bit about the need to restructure to build such relationships. Tompkins (1998) promotes the change from grade grouping to family grouping classes where the teacher teaches the same group of students over a period of time. Later, one nonnative teacher told me that she also agrees with this idea of staying with the class over time; she called this progress looping. She says, "It may be harder on the teacher for preparation [because they have to learn more levels of curriculum] but it is better for the child." She agrees that teachers are able to individualise instruction when they know their students well and have long term relationships with them.
However, family grouping will have its difficulties according to another non-teaching member of the group. In later feedback, he wrote: "With regard to grade grouping, while most authorities do not appear to subscribe to this it would appear that the alternative would put a lot of strain on the teaching staff. Besides having to put up with the usual different levels of motivation and intelligence the cultural background would tend lead to a bit of chaos in the classroom." Nevertheless, teachers who are well versed in teaching techniques, methodologies and classroom management for such a class arrangement should be able to work out the chaos for the benefit of learning and relationships.
The second topic I explored with the audience was the importance for school leaders to improve communication: with students, with teachers, with the home, with all individuals. Effective active listening skills and clarity of expression are especially important when dealing with serious issues like dropout. I used writing by Tompkins (1998) to illustrate the need for effective communication to clarify misconceptions; in the example by Tompkins (1998) the community misinterpreted the high rate of teacher turnover in their community (slide 20). The research by Gudykunst (1998) on collectivistic and individualistic cultures was a great way to bridge the differences between Inuit and nonnative culture. I explored the need for people to be mindful of their communication tendencies by citing differences in eye contact, low/high context messages, values, and chronemics (Gudykunst, 1998). I presented the audience with a question to consider: What are the implications of communication difference with respect to mainstream educational practices for Inuit children? (See communication handout)
Later comments validated my decision to include this work on communication in the participation. One new teacher to the community spoke of how being informed of the cultural differences in communicate could improve relationships and understanding between Inuit and nonnative people: "I feel your information would benefit teachers new to the area, as there is little information available on Inuit students. I especially liked your points on Cross-Cultural Differences. Eye contact, silence - the use of were two things I had trouble with or I should say understanding when I first started teaching this year. Your presentation brought a little more understanding to me, of why, we as educators need to be aware of cross-cultural differences and how they affect those involved in the education system." Another member of the group wrote about the need for teachers to consider their teaching practice according to their impact on culture: "I wonder if some of the staff who were present thought of their own practice in terms of cultural dissimilarities." It is my hope that the presentation did spark this kind of personal reflection on teaching practice. I believe there is a need for more discussion on this topic.
I also spoke of the need to be mindful of the communication gaps between cultures. Slide 22 reiterated the importance of keeping in mind is that your tendencies affect your communication with people who have different tendencies. Instead of getting continuously frustrated with students who do poorly in school, teachers need to become more aware of the cultural and gender aspects of the students they teach. Being able to adjust our communication patterns is one way that we can ensure effective communication with others who differ from ourselves (Tannen, 1990). I hope all stakeholders take the time to analyze our own personal tendencies to be better able to help students make wise choices in their educational paths.
It was time in the presentation to move into the section about how teachers can work to reduce dropout. This section looks closely at the need for teacher to use a variety of instructional approaches to increase understanding, motivation and productivity. I discussed brain-based teaching strategies, multiple intelligences, learning styles, and active learning methods. Again, the point of this section was to encourage teachers to reflect deeply on their personal teaching practices to consider how these practices may impact dropout. There is a need for teachers to understand culture and the unique learning styles of Inuit students with respect to how they impact teaching practice. Due to the various levels in Inuit classes, teachers need to figure out the best way to meet individual student needs. Individualisation is the key. Caine & Caine (1997) imply that the conflict of teaching approaches and mental models from traditional and the nonnative teachers may be responsible for increased downshifting of Native students. I believe that there is inconsistency between learning styles and teaching methods that may influence the dropout rate so teachers of Inuit students should examine how their current teaching strategies and classroom structures are affecting dropout rates.
In the Growth of Understanding section of my web-based portfolio, I reflect on my own teaching practices and how they impact Inuit dropout. One member of the teaching staff was encouraged to reflect as well: "Your Growth of Understanding section really made me reflect on my own teaching practice here in the Arctic, as well as my own set of values and beliefs vis a vis the Inuit culture and the students I serve." I hope that others in the group consider their own practice. It may be difficult for teachers to discuss their teaching practices in such terms in a public forum. They may feel at risk for criticism. Nevertheless, I hope that they begin to self-evaluate their teaching practice with regards to its impact on dropout. Even if some members of the audience did not provide feedback on this issue during the presentation, they are encouraged to be reflective in the future.
The next section of the presentation focused on how curriculum can impact Inuit dropout. I talked about the need to create a purpose for public education in the north as well as the need to consider the reason for schools and the role that schools and the curriculum have in educating Inuit students. I revealed my work on the need to improve the implementation Career and Program Plans in order to help students see a goal for their education.
I also discussed the most recent discussion of an Inuit curriculum which used Inuit traditional knowledge as a base. Inuit Qauyimayutuqangit (IQ) is being implemented in all Nunavut government programs. All curriculum must be grounded in Inuit culture, language, heritage and traditions. For education, IQ recommends a differentiation of staffing to include elders, community leaders and parents; a flexible school year calendar with consideration given to seasonal and community school plans; and, ongoing staff development in IQ. Currently, the Department of Education is rewriting all curriculum from kindergarten to grade 12 to better reflect Inuit culture. At this point we dont know how IQ will affect the rate of dropout.
Interesting feedback comments resulted from this topic. Some are afraid that IQ will mean watering down subjects in order to make room for cultural knowledge:
A lot of the presentation deals with culture which no one seriously doubts as an important issue. It appears though that the needs of Canadian society at large could be ignored in an educational sense unless proper guidelines are established. In other words culture should be used as a tool to further a good education and not an excuse for watering down important subjects.
Although it is popular these days to slam the residential school system it appears that this experience has not been all doom and gloom. A disproportionate amount of native leaders have been produced by this system and not all comments from involved parties have been negative. This success if one can call it that has been probably due to single cultural entities being taught together so perhaps lessons can be learned from their experiences. For sure avenues should be explored in promoting the involvement of Inuit students in southern educational facilities.
I concede that I also worry that efforts to increase cultural knowledge will work to reduce time spent on the more traditional topics like math, science, language arts. I hope that new programs do not limit the options for students to attend educational programs outside of the north. Alternates can be generated to ensure that needs of all students can be met but it will take insight and knowledge of the topic to be sure that it can work out for the benefit of the student.
After a short break of cake, cookies and coffee, the presentation resumed with an exploration of the communitys role in the work to reduce Inuit dropout. Using the Social Compass by Connor (1987), I explained how the issue of dropout can be systematically analysed. The framework provides a way to look at the perspectives of all stakeholders. In small communities, like Taloyoak, everyone is affected by student dropout and school failure. Inuit dropout is such a complex issue which extends beyond the wall of the school and into the community. Listing the questions which stem from the Social Compass (Connor, 1987) gave the audience a chance to see the dropout issue from a different point of view.
One idea that I found very interesting when researching the perspective of the community was from the work of Rupert Ross (1992). His argument for the Ethic of Noninterference really clicked for me and I wanted to see whether others in the group would find the concept relevant to the discussion of dropout. Slide #39 explores the discussion of the Ethic of Noninterference Of course, this ethic is culturally based and links well with the ideas presented earlier in the communication section with collectivism and individualism (Gudykunst, 1998). What was important to me was that the audience realised that the Ethic of Noninterference is an element that is often overlooked as non-Natives find it easier to believe that Native parents simply do not care for their children or are unfit parents. Both Inuit and non-Natives need to understand the Ethic of Noninterference so that they can understand the underlying norms and expectations of Inuit society. Inuit parents may realise that such ethics may need to be altered in todays world. Non-Natives need to understand that what may seem as uncaring parental practices actually stem from traditional rules that are ingrained in the mentality of Native peoples.
There are implications of the Ethic of Noninterference for schools. The school system is modeled after nonnative standards where cajolery, praise, punishment, withholding of privileges or rewards are acceptable teaching methods. Compared to southern, nonnative standards, Inuit students have a great deal of power over their school choices; the Ethic of Noninterference explains why most parents have difficulties forcing their children to attend school once the child has decided they no longer want to attend. Although they may want to see their child do well in school, it would be wrong in the Inuit culture to interfere with the childs right to behave as they please. Understanding the Ethic of Noninterference can be related to Inuit dropout and should be explored deeply.
Later in the evening, members of the audience revealed that they could see how the Ethic on Noninterference is relevant in the child rearing practices of the Inuit. I directed these interested parties to a reading of the book by Rupert Ross and I hope that this book helps them to understand their confusion about cultural ethics. The groups interest in this topic confirmed my decision to include this piece of information in the presentation.
A discussion about the role of community development was the last topic I presented before I provided recommendations for positive change. The goal of community development is to make life easier for each other by working together with a shared vision and collective action. Lowering the dropout rate, thereby raising the educational attainment of the members of the community will create a better community. The community needs to pull together to generate alternate ideas which, when generated by those in the community, may provide a wider opportunity for educational success than what is currently in place. According to Ross (1992) it is a mistake to assume that "Indians were probably just primitive versions of us, a people who needed only to catch up to escape the poverty and despair which afflicts far too many of their communities" (p. xxii). Unlike some other programs which simply push the Euro-Canadian view of education, Native communities need to find alternatives to the current educational process in order to reduce the number of students who give up on learning. It is my hope that the community gets involved in the decisions that are being made about education.
Community involvement and parental support are very important to the success of students. One recent graduate who was a member of the audience shared that without his parents support for his education, he would have never been able to complete is education. I explained that the whole community must be involved in generating a holistic program that values:
1) global educational programs (current educational diplomas like those recognised by Canadian universities and colleges outside of Nunavut);
2) Inuit culture and language programs (like Inuit immersion and land-based programs); and,
3) Life skills programs to help Inuit deal with modern day life and the integration of Native and nonnative attitudes (Ross, 1997).
Developing such a program will not be easy but I hope that my work and presentation will help the community to get started thinking about stakes involved in education. My presentation works as a way to build community awareness on the dropout issue.
Finally, I shared the twenty-two recommendations that are grouped into six main areas of development: Leaders and Teachers; Career and Program Plans; Restructuring of Schools; Community Development; Generate Alternate Programs; and Curriculum. These recommendations were provided to group on handouts for closer inspection. I believe that the most important recommendation is it promote more study of the dropout phenomena amongst Canadian Inuit. Others in the group agreed with this recommendation:
Unfortunately, I did not do a research thesis on the factors contributing to dropout but I believe that such a study would have been very valuable when exploring Inuit dropout in Taloyoak. There is enough interest and need for such a study in this community. However, I do not think that we, as a community and as a school, should wait until statistics are reported before we take action to improve the situation as best as we can. There is a lot that can be done and we should take initiative now to get the ball rolling.
Before moving into the computer room to explore the web-based portfolio, I concluded the presentation by sharing my overall reflection on my M.Ed. program. I believe that my thoughts on dropout have progressed on a sort of spectrum. When I first started this course, I was just getting past the venting stage of problem solving. I was complaining about dropout and I really did not know where to start looking for solutions. I was in the dark about many things and questions arose: Who are the Inuit? Why are there so many who choose to dropout of school? Can anything be done?
. . .very large, circular room sitting in complete darkness. That room had hundreds of doors. Opening one door let some light in, but not enough to penetrate more than a few feet without being swallowed up. Opening a second door shed light on its pathway but spilled some over to the first as well. Each time I returned to that room and opened another door, I was better able to see what lay inside. And so the process continued. As I learned new things, more light fell on things Id only partially, or even mistakenly, glimpsed before. (p.xxvi)
Each Masters of Education course that I took was like opening a door and shedding light on the Inuit dropout issue. Slowly, I was able to see the phenomena of Inuit dropout from many sides and from many perspectives. Instead of just grumbling about the problem and condemning the Inuit people for their lack of support for education, I learned to look deep inside the problem to find ways that might give Inuit the chance to succeed. There is not just one solution to the dropout problem in the north. The new government of Nunavut needs to consider their vision of education and be sure that their schools will be representative of the cultural, spiritual, intellectual, physical and mental needs of their people.
At this point, the formal presentation of the portfolio ended and the group moved into the computer room where ten computers were set up with the web-based portfolio. The portfolio is still available on these computers so people can access the information on their own time. The comments about and suggestions for the web-based portfolio are very positive:
I really enjoyed presenting my portfolio to my peers. It felt like a celebration of work and I felt proud of my accomplishments. I look forward to positive changes in the dropout situation which may come out of the presentation and the increased level of awareness on the topic. I am thankful for the opportunity to share the work with others in a positive, non-threatening, supportive way.