Brock researchers explore Indigenous roots of experiential education

NOTE: Brock University announced the creation of its Indigenous Research Grant in 2021. This is one in a series of articles profiling recipients’ research under this yearly internal award. Read more on the series on The Brock News.

For Mitch Baird, experiential learning doesn’t involve opening a textbook or laying the foundation for a career.

“There’s a different formal education that Indigenous youth get from their Elders, family members, clan members and others in the community,” says the website contractor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.

Baird, whose family is from Six Nations and are Cayuga Wolf clan, has partnered with Professor of Kinesiology Maureen Connolly and master’s student and Director, Enrolment Supports Sandy Howe on the Indigenous Research Grant “Decolonizing experiential learning on the Brock University campus: A case study.”

The research seeks to address three goals:

  • Increase Brock University administrators’ understanding, and acknowledgement of, the Indigenous roots of experiential learning.
  • Connect with key decision-makers at the University to influence the direction of policies and practices associated with experiential learning.
  • Learn from Indigenous faculty and staff at Brock about the perceived barriers and opportunities to decolonize experiential learning.

Baird worked with Connolly and Howe to inform the research on Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the area of experiential education.

Central to decolonization in this area is examining how and why experiential learning takes place in Indigenous communities and contrasting this approach with what is offered in the mainstream post-secondary education system today, he says.

Baird uses the example of hunting and fishing. Through their words and actions, Elders teach children and youth how to read certain signs in the environment to know when and how to hunt and fish.

The food is then shared with all community members without expecting monetary payment, he says.

“It’s learning by doing with the intent of helping people and making sure everyone in your community is provided for,” he says, adding that Indigenous experiential education is meant to create “better people.”

In contrast, “colleges and universities measure their success based on how many of their students get jobs in the sector that they were educated in” with the end goal of earning an income rather than evaluate how experiential learning has transformed students’ lives, he says.

Maureen Connoly peeking out a front door adorned with pink and green florals. Connolly is wearing a green hoodie with an image of a cartoon turtle and the acronym “SNAP.”

Maureen Connolly, Brock University Professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education, and Director of the Brock-Niagara Centre of Excellence in Inclusive and Adaptive Physical Activity.

Connolly agrees, noting that the system as a whole is set up to make placements a box students tick off during their schooling.

Students at times are more focused on acquiring the necessary hours than committing to a learning experience, she says.

The genesis of the team’s research project dates back to when Howe, who was Associate Director of Brock’s Experiential Education office at the time, presented a series of definitions to Brock’s Senate, which were all approved.

But during the course of the presentation, an Indigenous faculty member pointed out the Indigenous roots of experiential learning and asked about the inclusiveness of the consultation process leading up to the experiential education definitions.

“I got defensive and said, ‘Well, we did an open call for feedback — in addition to consulting with more than 200 campus community members — and we invited everyone,’” she recalls. “But I knew in my gut that wasn’t the response I should have given. That moment has really stuck with me.”

Howe and Connolly, her Masters of Arts in Applied Health Sciences supervisor, decided to dedicate her master’s research to understanding the Indigenous roots of experiential education with the goal of evaluating Brock’s current policies and practices through an Indigenous lens.

Howe is scheduled to defend her master’s thesis in October.

“It’s my passion to see that the decolonization of experiential education not sit on the shelf, but for Brock to take it up and do really good work on transforming our approach in full collaboration with Indigenous Peoples on campus and in our local community,” says Howe.

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