School grades suffer in clash of cultures

Study finds lower grades for children caught between white curriculum and indigenous traditions

Jimmy Sandy Memorial School

Jimmy Sandy Memorial School. Contributed photo. Copyright remains with the original photographer.

NEW research has found that indigenous children have lower grades when they are caught between their own culture and that of a white curriculum.

The survey of students from a remote school in the province of Quebec found youngsters were getting “lost” because of the “cultural mismatch”.

Researchers from McGill University and other institutions1 concluded that children needed to identify with either culture, or match their individual traits to the “teachers’ expectations of a good student”, such as levels of assertiveness and other characteristics.

Academics have been involved in the Central Québec School Board2 since the 1990s when the principal at Jimmy Sandy Memorial School3 asked for help in raising student attainment levels.

In the most recent study, published online in July4, a total of 115 students, including 59 girls, were interviewed at the school in the community of Kawawachikamach. The average age was just under 14 years old, and the students were in grades six to 11. All of the youngsters were Naskapi5 – historically nomadic Innu – and all the teachers, but one, were white.

Researchers wanted to look at the relationship between the “majority culture” – in this case white and largely English-speaking in the French province – and the minority culture of the students.

Previous work has defined the majority education as striving for autonomous and independent thinking, and assertiveness, said the study.

By contrast, aboriginal communities emphasise the individual in relation to others and the community, and this has a “protective” element.

Students who identified with either of these education approaches found success, said the research. But when neither was particularly dominant, marks suffered.

Students were asked questions about their identity such as:

  • How comfortable do you feel speaking Aboriginal (language) at home/in school/at work/with friends/in general?
  • How much do you enjoy Aboriginal music/dances/TV programs?
  • How comfortable do you feel speaking English at home (in school, with friends, in general)?
  • How much do you enjoy white music/dances/TV programs?

As well as the survey for students, teachers were asked about the level of assertiveness amongst the youngsters and student grades were considered6.

Despite having virtually all white teachers, the students identified significantly more with their indigenous culture, with girls more orientated to white culture than boys.

The paper, in the Developmental Psychology journal, which will be in print edition in 2013, concluded: “Aboriginal students come to school with their own cultural framework for getting an education and their own understandings of what it means to be a ‘good’ person, but academic environments provide the cues that the students’ framework fits or, as is too often the case for Aboriginal students, does not fit.

“As Aboriginal communities work to augment the educational experiences of their students and to promote long-term growth and achievement, creating schools that promote and foster academic attainment may involve legitimating a variety of viable ways of being.”

Dr Jacob Burack, co-author of the report and part of McGill University’s Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology7, said in an telephone interview from Montreal that he had always been interested in the “protective role” of cultural identity. His earlier work at the school found children were both perceived as less aggressive and viewed themselves as less aggressive when they had a strong connection to their indigenous culture8.

“If you’re strong in one [culture] or the other, you’re doing okay,” said Dr Burack. “But the kids who aren’t are the kids who get lost here. The kids who are kind of not strong in either [culture], they’re the kids who we sort of talk of as cultural mismatch.”

Despite a strong culture from family and the community, Dr Burack said the students still exist within a modern world with majority cultural influences and a set curriculum from the province.

Young people leave Kawawachikamach for college or university, said Dr Burack, but more are returning after their education.

Curtis Tootoosis, principal of the school since September 2002 and a co-author of the study, said the study gives staff and the community an insight to the students and why they succeed or don’t succeed.

He said: “It helps us with our long-term planning and with what services we need to offer to students.

“Especially in grade seven and higher, it’s all non-native teachers here except one. The community was the last nomadic group in Canada so the grandparents had no formal education at all – this is only the second generation to go to school.”

Mr Tootoosis said about 80-85 per cent of students dropped out around grade nine in 2010. But because of the small population, one or two people can change that rate greatly year to year. The graduation rate in 2004-2005 was 70 per cent, he said.

Many students are repeating at least one year during their secondary education. A new initiative at grade three, particularly for English skills, is hoped to reduce the chances of failure at secondary level, said Mr Tootoosis. Grade three is now a two-year programme to try to broaden vocabulary. Although the introduction of satellite television and internet access is improving skills before children get to grade three, internet access can cost “$100/month”, putting it well outside family budgets in the community9.

All teachers attended a conference in Montreal in October as part of a “professional learning community” approach, added Mr Tootoosis.

“I see successes but it doesn’t always follow through to graduation,” he said. Older students have been invited back to school at the secondary IV level (ages 19-21) to help them complete the V level or get prerequisites for vocational studies. This approach was to avoid the stigma attached to “adult education”, which did not have much success at the school.

A remote and historic community, in a new location

The tiny community of Kawawachikamach is only accessible by rail10 or plane, and mobile phone coverage was established in February 201211. The Naskapi – meaning “people beyond the horizon”12 – were subjected to three major moves in the 20th century, lastly more than 600km to a short distance from Schefferville, Quebec, on the Labrador border. They built their current home in the early 1980s. There are today around 600 speakers of the Naskapi language13.

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Ruby Sandy works for the Naskapi Development Corporation and her three daughters all attended Jimmy Sandy Memorial School, named after her brother who died in a house fire at the age of 13 along with their parents 14.

Her daughters eventually went on to attain university degrees, two in nursing and one in teaching. Although two worked locally for a time, all three currently live in other parts of the province or Canada.

Ms Sandy, who has a grandchild at the school, said that graduation rates improve every year and more students are going on to college and university degrees.

“The school is critical to the community,” she said by telephone from Kawawachikamach. “We are really focused on the language and the culture. It’s ongoing at certain levels of the school.

“I went to a non-native school but my culture was taught to me very little because I was not in the community. It’s important to preserve it as much as possible.”

But Ms Sandy said that it was also vital for the young people to go on to non-indigenous settings “because of the importance of things to come” and to learn a trade or profession in those institutions.

She added: “People are going on further with their education. A couple are going on to do law and a lot of early childhood education coordinators. That’s good for the community.”

Silas Nabinicaboo, a councillor on the Naskapi Nation of Kawawachikamach band council and a member of the education committee15, said the outside research into the school helps.

He said there are two worlds – indigenous and non-indigenous – that have to be brought together somehow. But he also wants more Naskapi culture in the curriculum.

“I would like to see more traditional stuff being taught,” he said. “In woodworking classes they should make traditional things like snow shoes – what their parents and their grandparents made in the past.

“[Our] language is being taught but more needs to be done – more classes a week. They used to take students out for a week on the land [for hunting and fishing], and taught how to survive on the land. I would like to see that being done.”

The cultural mismatch is not the only reason for lower grades in school, said Dr Burack, but the identification with culture is a crucial part.

He said: “These media reports of inevitable doom [on indigenous education] are not true. There are kids who do well and first nations or aboriginal kids have the potential to do well.

“Identification with their own native culture is a protective factor and identity in general is important. There’s no one way of being Canadian or First Nations. And there’s some kids who identify with the white culture, and that’s cool too. So I think culture and identity is very important in how the kids develop.

“We have to understand differences in culture and differences in lifestyle. Even the way the our schools are structured are very very different. Even the typical activities of certain communities where sitting in a single place for six hours a day is very foreign.

[Tweet ““We have to understand differences in culture and differences in lifestyle.””]“They [the school and band council] felt that there could be definite improvement in high school completion, both in grade and in completion. And that was the reason we were brought in. The principal at the time felt there was a real need for higher grades and high school completion and search for identifying factors.

“They’d like the students to go away for university, but not that many do. And the few who do, don’t necessarily come back.

“Most of the communities we deal with, they want their kids to live in the western world, they want their kids to succeed in school. And then, some of the communities we work in now also, there’s been tremendous success in getting those kids back. Teachers with masters degrees coming back to teach their own kids, to become doctors, to become lawyers, so they don’t have to outsource a lot of this other work to other folk.”

He said this was not a case of white teachers trying to assimilate indigenous students, nor anything like the forced removals and re-education during the residential schools decades of the 20th century.

“Virtually all the teachers out there are very well meaning and want to make a difference and want to help,” he said. “But there’s a curriculum the school has to follow if the kids are going to graduate. And it’s like all of us, we interact in a certain way and the teachers are taught teaching styles and techniques based on mainstream education styles, and they were probably raised that way.

“We all live within the rules within which we were taught, educated and raised, and I think virtually all well meaning.

“It’s just a matter of teachers being parachuted in, doing their best, but within the confines of the mandated curriculum and their own background and experiences.”

He added: “This is an ongoing issue, I think everywhere in the western world with all the migration and people from all over coming in. But in Quebec in particular there is this issue about all the different cultures and how the school boards maintain a respect for communities but at the same time have a designated curriculum. These are issues that Quebec is particularly struggling with.”

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.



No relevant issues on principles 1, 3, 4, 5, 6. 7, 8, 9, 10 or 11.
2. Accuracy: We have maintained the use of terminology such as “Aboriginal” as used in the research paper. However, Tomorrow’s style is to use the term “indigenous” when broadly referring to first or original peoples in North America. We also cap down “aboriginal” unless part of a formal title (organisation, etc).

  1. “Cultural mismatch and the education of aboriginal youths: The interplay of cultural identities and teacher ratings” – co-authored from McGill University, University of Arizona, Central Québec School Board, Syracuse University, North Dakota State University, and Jimmy Sandy Memorial School.
  2. Central Québec School Board website.
  4. Fryberg et al., in press
  6. The full questions sheets for students are BIQ and MYST, and for teachers are TCRS
  7. Dr Jacob Burack profile page.
  8. See past papers Flanagan et al., 2011 and Burack et al., 2012
  9. The community website outlines residential internet cost as up to $64.95 per month, or $249.95  for a commercial or institutional package.
  10. Via nearby Schefferville.
  11. Video about extending phone coverage.
  12. Further details on the Naskapi language.
  13. Research on the Naskapi language.
  14. Details on the fire and the community’s recovery.
  15. Band council website and Silas Nabinicaboo profile page.

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