NALL Working Paper #28-2001
TOWARD A REDEFINITION OF FORMAL AND INFORMAL LEARNING:
EDUCATION AND THE ABORIGINAL PEOPLE
©Dr. George E. Burns
Midnorthern Native Focus Centre
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the
University of Toronto
Presented at the joint session of
New Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) Conference
The Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education (CASAE),
University of Ottawa, May 1998.
This project pertaining to Elders is being carried out as part of the New
Approaches to Lifelong Learning (NALL) Project. The NALL project is funded
through the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)
Strategic Research Networks in Education and Training Grant. The author
wishes to acknowledge the support of the SSHRC.
|the research network for
New Approaches to Lifelong Learning
||Le Réseau de recherche sur les nouvelles approches de l'éducation
The work of Elders is associated with informal learning. Yet, Elders
are keepers of tradition, guardians of culture, the wise people, the teachers (RCAP,
1996). This article describes the context of the work of Elders and
underlines the importance of Elder involvement in formal education.
Les Aînés jouent un rôle clé surtout dans I'apprentissage non structuré.
Cependant, on les qualifie également de sages, d'enseignants et de gardiens de
traditions culturelles (RCAP, 1996). II s'agit d'un article qui donne un
aperçu de I'apport remarquable des Aînés à la société autochtone et qui
souligne le rôle important qu'ils jouent dans 1'éducation formelle.
Formal education is recognized in most countries as an
important mechanism of socialization, cultural identity, social control, labour
force production, social mobility, political legitimation and stimulation of
social change (Thomas, 1983; Fagerlind and Saha, 1989). In the white
western paradigm of education, formal education is an institutional matter.
State sanctioned agencies such as the school, college, university and so on are
viewed both as the normative exemplar of education, and the only bona fide value
structures within which meaningful teaching, learning and education is perceived
to occur. There is a prevailing, often uncontested belief within this
tradition, that mainstream schools are universally functional and singular
institutions which exist to fulfil the needs of individuals and social
collectivities. This pervasive paradigm of education regards schools as
the essential institutionalized cultural settings in which formal learning can
take place and as the only socially valid settings in which learners can get
The process of institutionalization in schooling
within this Eurocentric paradigm of education mirrors the beliefs, values,
traditions, practices and normative expectations of those comprising the culture
of domination. Learning which occurs outside of mainstream organizations,
agencies or communities as a result is judged by the culture of domination;
hence, invalid for certification, professional recognition or indexes of
recognized (legitimated) knowledge; to be informal; a mode of education
associated with informal teaching, informal knowledge, informal learning,
informal education, and the unschooled.
Knowledge is, hence, commodified, and in the case of
degrees, professional offerings, certification and other academic recognitions,
which often literally may be exchanged for currency in the form of jobs or
licences, includes/excludes who may engage in formal practice. In this
paradigmatic model, the ideological emphasis is always on the individual level
of attainment; yet, paradoxically, it is in the social institutionalization and
regulations, and other forming of time, space and quality of valued knowledge
that this western model has a rigid equation and lockstep relation between valid
knowledge and formal education with its intended trappings of certification,
streaming, segmentation by particular scholarly fields, and so on. One
becomes an "expert" within -- and generally only within -- the
compartmentalized parameters drawn by this model. Knowledge in this way is
ordinated, sorted into hierarchies of sacred and profane; sanctioned and
unsanctioned; knowledge versus understandings.
Lost in the valorization of this
compartimentalization of knowledge are the histories, biases, beliefs and
collectively shared knowledge that organizationally link the individual and
group as social extensions of one another. A particular history linked to
a unique zeitgeist (world view), and way of processing the world. Western
practice of the construction of formal knowledge, of course, was (and is) always
riddled with such realities: implied bifercations such as Judeo-Christian --
other as an organization of cosmologies and theology; the primacy of logo --
deductive reasoning and so on. Max Weber (1947) and other social
scientists often implicitly acknowledge this in dichotomies such as
subject-object; verstehen (understanding) versus scientific fact. But,
these histories and particularities were relegated as interesting, but beyond
the scientific pale. Unlike facts, such understandings were viewed as an
embarrassment as to how knowledge was constructed. Yet, it is the sharing,
processing, and valoration of such processes that First Nations and Indigenous
knowledge encapsulates itself. Elders are valued, at least in part,
because they are the carriers and emblems of this communally generated and
mediated knowledge. In the western paradigm, such relations and processes
of knowledge transmission is "informal". Yet, these same
processes are at the heart and soul of what is "formal" to Indigenous
Thinking and normative practices in white western
institutions, by contrast, structure dichotomization between formal and informal
learning. This is not happenstance; to the contrary, they have social
intent. Combined, they comprise a dynamic complexity which results in
boundary maintenance of unequal relations of power in education and domination,
control, marginalization and exploitation of minority groups in society.
Schools are sites for reproducing societal inequalities. The
dichotomization of formal and informal education can be perceived as a dichotomy
of social relations pertaining specifically to the Aboriginal peoples.
Eurocentricity has devalued and negated the saliency of non-western forms of
knowledge and their relevance to education in North America (Dei, 1996, p. 107).
Stated differently and more succinctly, the dichotomy in formal and informal
education is also a dichotomy in social power relations. Both exist as
dichotomies of Aboriginal and white western world views; dichotomies which are
the result of the hegemonic forces of Eurocentricity.
The history of formal education and formal learning
under the influence of formal institutions and agencies in Canada, including
those of the Government of Canada, provincial governments, the Churches, and
provincial school boards, as such learning pertains specifically to the
Aboriginal peoples, is a tragically oppressive frequently genocidal history.
Formal education, from the banning of the potlash to the imposition of English
(or French) at residential schools, is instrumental in the reproduction of
inequalities in society. The results of formal education and formal
schooling have had devastating effects on the Native peoples. In the wider
Canadian society, Aboriginal peoples are the most marginal economic and social
group. Education policies and practices in Canada, pertaining specifically
to Native children, youth and adults have been and continue to be paternalistic,
racist and systemically discriminatory in character (Burns, 1998).
Residential schooling, mainstream schooling and master tuition agreement
schooling have been used as instruments for achieving cultural genocide of the
Native peoples. They have served as oppressive instruments by
acculturation, assimilation, integration and an overall intentional eroding of
both social cohesion and self reliance amongst the Aboriginal people (Bums,
Over the past two hundred years, Canadian society
has systematically stripped the Native people of their land, their culture,
their language, their education, their spiritual beliefs, and their way of life
(Chisholm, 1994). The nation state has been unrelenting in its attempts to
break the Native spirit. It has used laws, the Indian Act, Indian and
Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), and schools to eradicate the Aboriginal peoples
as a distinct and unique peoples (Comeau and Santin, 1995). Virtually, all
government organizations have served as instruments in efforts to marginalize
the needs, interest, and rights of Native peoples and the formal education
system has been among the worst agents of this grim construction (York, 1992).
Aboriginal peoples, in colonized countries have
internationally recognized rights to their languages, their cultural practices,
their heritage, and their self-determination over their lives, their
institutions, and their territory. Mindful of this reality, the federal
government of Canada appears to be working towards a reconciliation with the
The Government of Canada provides a partial
perspective to the historical legacies of institutionally imposed formal
education practices in the following way.
Sadly, our history with respect to the treatment of Aboriginal people is
not something in which we can take pride. Attitudes of racial and
cultural superiority led to a suppression of Aboriginal culture and values.
As a country, we are burdened by past actions that resulted in weakening the
identity of Aboriginal peoples, suppressing their languages and cultures, and
outlawing spiritual practices. We must recognize the impact of these
actions on the once self-sustaining nations that were disaggregated,
disrupted, limited or even destroyed by the dispossession of traditional
territory, by the relocation of Aboriginal peoples, and by some provisions of
the Indian Act. We must acknowledge that the result of these actions was
the erosion of the political, economic and social systems of Aboriginal people
and nations ... One aspect of our relationship with Aboriginal people over
this period that requires particular attention is the Residential School
system. This system separated many children from their families and
communities and prevented them from speaking their own languages and from
learning about their heritage and culture. In the worst cases, it left
legacies of personal pain and distress that continue to reverberate in
Aboriginal communities to this day. (Statement of Reconciliation:
Learning from the Past, 1998)
The Aboriginal peoples of North America had their own systems
of formal education prior to the arrival of Europeans -- systems which were by
all accounts highly successful. After confederation, the British North
American Act (1867) gave the federal government jurisdiction over "Indians
and lands reserved for Indians", including the formal education of Indian
children. Jurisdictional interference on matters pertaining to the
schooling of Aboriginal children, youth and adults continues to occur to this
day. Aboriginal control of Aboriginal education and devolutionary
practices are not necessarily leading to social acceptance of the formal and
informal learning and teaching activities and practices which take place in
First Nations and/or in Aboriginal communities, organizations and agencies.
The Aboriginal people have long been the object of
attempts by state and church authorities to use education to control and
assimilate them, not only during the residential school era, but also more
subtly today (Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996). Such
issues are central to this dimension of our larger project entitled
"Informal Learning Culture Through the Life Course: Initiatives in Native
Organizations and Communities" (Burns, Beaudin and Olson, 1997-2001).
Corson (1998), for example, points out that
Aboriginal peoples of Canada of all ages, who have Aboriginal language
expertise, tend to have learned their language informally through primary group
relations and/or informal relations within their community settings. And
yet, such bilingual proficiency is rarely recognized in formal institutions in
general, and in terms of Aboriginal peoples having the knowledge, expertise or
credentials required to teach an Aboriginal language in formal education
settings. Elaborated further, there is an overall non recognition of
community-based Native education which takes place in First Nation communities
as well as in Aboriginal organizations, agencies, and other settings in
Among the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, for example,
the Tyendinaga Elders are walking history books (Brant, 1995). Elders
possess formal knowledge and expertise. Through orality, the Elders
provide lessons on how to go about living the right life. Elders impart
knowledge, values and traditions. They play important roles in correcting
misconceptions about the Aboriginal peoples including their beliefs, values,
customs, traditions, culture and history. White western ignorance and
ethnocentricity have led to the institutionalization of a false logic of
prejudice, stereotyping, racism and systemic discrimination directed toward the
Aboriginal people. That false logic has been pervasive throughout the
formal structures of formal learning in mainstream education institutions.
The Elders are the most knowledgeable people in
Aboriginal societies. Yet, what they have come to learn has been learned
through informal practices in the course of becoming adults. There is no
Aboriginal formal education system for developing the knowledge and wisdom held
by Elders. There is also no formal education system in Aboriginal society
or in non-Aboriginal society for transmitting the knowledge and wisdom of
Elders. How do Elders learn what they know? What do they know?
Who do they teach? What do they teach? How do they teach
(processes)? What are the impacts of Elders? Where do they teach?
What implications does the work of Elders have for developing both new linkages
and effective linkages between Aboriginal communities and institutionally
sponsored, school-based formal learning? And, how can the work of Elders
be deliberately encouraged by education organizations? These are some of
the issues being examined in the Bums' dimension of the project; a component of
the project which attempts to document the informal teaching practices of
Elders, the processes by which they occur, their effects, and their potential
implications for formal education.
Why can't the work of Elders be incorporated into
the practices of the formal educational system in a way that it contributes
valuably to the acquisition of credit in formal courses and/or units of study?
There is the need of a self-determination praxis of liberation of Aboriginal
peoples in formal education which serves the self-government needs and interests
of the Aboriginal peoples as a distinct and unique peoples and which also
addresses their concerns for social justice, equity, and power sharing in the
larger Canadian society; a society of multiple interests. There is also
the need of schooling which helps Aboriginal children, youth and adults learn
the skills they need to participate fully in the economy and to develop as
citizens of Aboriginal nations -- with the knowledge of their languages and
traditions necessary for cultural continuity (RCAP, 1996).
Elders are first and foremost teachers and role
models. They teach others about culture, tradition and about the vision of
life that is contained in First Nation philosophies and handed down in
ceremonies and traditional teaching (Stiegelbauer, 1996). With an overall
recognition that the white western paradigm of formal education oppresses and
represses the Aboriginal culture, creating an incompatible cultural hegemony
through formal schooling which allows Aboriginal children, youth and adults no
future short of assimilation and cultural extinction -- formal system of
education can work toward greater degrees of Native inclusiveness. Corson
(1997) points out solutions are not to be found in approaches which are based on
the belief that Aboriginal people can be helped through intercultural
communication. Such notions are ethnocentrically naive. They also
tacitly embody an ultimate arrogance; if they (Native) really want to know, they
should be like us. There is no reciprocal notion that, if we Westerners
want to know, we should be like them, except -- perhaps -- as a study of an
archaic anthropological curiosity; a kind of morphological detailing of some
extinct petroglyph. A stone for study which curiously can walk, talk and
gather. The scope of radical differences between Aboriginal sign systems
and European sign systems including their beliefs, values and normative
practices is so great that it would take an entire lifetime to grasp them (Wertheim,
Native thinking processes, bodies of knowledge and
structures of knowledge transmission are uniquely different from those
underpinning white western institutions. Relatedly, Aboriginal world views
and western world view are in paradigmatic clash. This is an overall clash
which has implications as to what gets to be viewed as formal, non-formal, and
informal teaching, learning and education in western society as well as to who
gets to teach what.
Aboriginal parents and educators want Aboriginal
children to learn everything that formal education has to offer, as well as
their own culture and way of doing things. Given the devastating effects
on Aboriginal children of monocultural education within formal education the
role of Elders in informal learning and formal education is an area worthy of
study in its own right. There is a need of authentic Aboriginal
inclusiveness in formal education. Authentic Aboriginal inclusiveness is
needed in formal education. Aboriginal inclusiveness has major
implications for formal education along the entire education continuum and
throughout the life course.
Non-formal education, informal learning and formal
education (see Wain, 1987) are socially organized and socially situated
practices. The white western paradigm of formal education mitigates
against the involvement of Elders in formal education. Obstacles to
Elders' participation in formal education must be identified and overcome.
Elders are keepers of tradition, guardians of culture, the wise people, the
teachers (RCAP, 1996, Vol. 3, p. 525). Aboriginal education, as
assimilation, has always failed everywhere, failed miserably and failed
destructively; Aboriginal education for self-determination, controlled by
Aboriginal people, succeeds (Hampton, 1996). Thus, the importance of this
project. The project takes as its point of reference the existence of the
Aboriginal peoples as a people who are distinct and unique, Aboriginal right to
self-determination, and the inherent right of self-government; and the
meaningful involvement of Elders in formal schooling as a new form of
emancipatory praxis whose aim is emancipation, self-determination and
self-government within the larger Canadian context.
Learning is always socially situated, socially
constructed, socially produced and socially validated within social settings
which exist as contextual settings. As a result, this dimension of the
project also takes as its point of reference socially produced formal, informal
and non-formal knowledge, expertise and practices of Elders in four distinct,
but inter-related Native settings: a second level of centralized service
organization, a tribal council, a First Nation education centre, a Native
friendship centre, and a First Nation community.
The project involves considerable conceptual work:
conceptualizing formal, nonformal and informal knowledge, teaching and learning
(see Wain, 1987) within the context of not only western world view, but also
Aboriginal world views; descriptions of the analytic categories and elements
around which formal, non-formal and informal knowledge, teaching and learning
occurs within Aboriginal contextual settings; descriptions of the analytic
categories of Aboriginal world views and Aboriginal epistemologies which
contribute to the development of authentic Aboriginal knowledge and to authentic
Aboriginal teaching and learning practices.
Within the context of these issues, it is also of
vital importance to discover and describe the elements around which Native
knowledge is developed and utilized; the historical context of Native knowledge
production and use; the social context of Native knowledge production and use
today; and both factors and themes pertaining to formal, informal and non-formal
knowledge production and use by Elders in both Native and non-Native education
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