Documentary chronicles unique approach to experiential learning

While the majority of courses are moving online for the Fall 2020 term, one Education professor and his colleagues are taking students back to nature––and sharing the experience in a documentary, available online now.

The course is unique. Offered by the Department of Secondary Education for the second time in Fall 2020, EDES 603 Holistic Approaches is led by Elder Bob Cardinal and Secondary Education professor Dwayne Donald. This course brings students from different disciplines and backgrounds together to deliberate on the significance of wisdom understandings of holism––the idea that everything is connected––over the course of a complete 13-moon cycle. Instead of sitting in a classroom, students spent most of their course-time together at Elder Cardinal’s teaching lodge located at Maskekosihk Enoch Cree Nation. They take part in ceremony and spend time outside where they build relationships with the land and one another while learning in experiential and holistic, ways.

Another part of the course that stands out is a professor working alongside an Elder to develop the curriculum and experience.

“Elder Cardinal guided us according to an ancient wisdom ethic of non-interference,” explains Donald.

“That ethic is rooted in the understanding that each person is gifted with everything he or she needs to live a good life. Based on this understanding, the role of the responsible and ethical guide is to help bring out and develop the gifts inside each person. The pedagogical implications of this insight are that teaching should not be coercive, punitive, aggressive, or imposed. It should be gentle, kind, patient, and supportive. Each individual person should be given the time and opportunity to make meaning for themselves according to his or her own gifts.”

Rethinking education and pedagogy

Donald is known for his wisdom tradition approach to curriculum and pedagogy, where he uses storytelling and takes learners outside to demonstrate how they can connect with a vast variety of traditional Indigenous knowledge practices and rethink education. UAlberta alum Conor McNally made a documentary about Donald’s renowned River Valley Walks where he tells the story of the North Saskatchewan River’s history from the perspectives of the land itself as well as his ancestors, the Papaschase Cree. He is also a co-investigator on a significant SSHRC Partnership Grant led by UBC education professor Margaret Macintyre Latta, entitled Co-Curricular-Making: Honouring Indigenous Connections to Land, Culture, and the Relational Self.

For the inaugural EDES 603, Donald, Cardinal, and English and Film Studies professor Christine Stewart enlisted the help of Secondary Education graduate student Antonella Bell to make a documentary about the course experience. The film fulfils the grant requirements from the University of Alberta Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund, which asks recipients to share learned insights with the UAlberta community.

“Antonella did a fabulous job and we are very grateful to her for her commitment to the project,” says Donald.

“Christine, Elder Cardinal and I did provide guidance to Antonella regarding storyline, points of emphasis, and edits, but the bulk of the creative work comes from Antonella herself - especially the beautiful interweaving of images of the various forms of life that surround us.”

While the film is an accessible starting point for anyone interested in decolonizing their teaching practices and fulfilling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, Donald has some extra words of advice.

“Adopt a life practice that requires you to be outside and interact with the life that surrounds us. See what you can learn from that practice and then puzzle on what it has to do with teaching, learning, and ethics. I hope the film inspires all people to learn more and then puzzle on how they can make holism part of their own life and living.”