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Jeansonne | December 13, 2017

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How some Aboriginal students may be disenfranchised from engagement

How some Aboriginal students may be disenfranchised from engagement

When we practice knowing the history of our own voices, we can be present and engaged with the voices of others.   Such is the goal of sociolinguistics. The topic on twitter #cdnedchat was about engaging our students. I made a point that many of our Aboriginal students are disenfranchised by our concept of ‘engaged’.  I prefer Social Presence theory that accounts for a variety of cultural paradigms and the fact that many students are highly engaged in the moment but they are just not physically or verbally “loud”.  It is likely most of us do not really think about the sociology of our communication styles and how it interferes with a person’s way of knowing and naming the world. How does the history of our voice include to the history of other people’s voice?

Here is a an excerpt from my final literature review of Making Voices Visible: Discourse Analysis in Online Environments written for my Masters of Arts in Learning and Technology. I replaced the chart with an infographic. It may explain a bit of what I meant in the #cdnedchat:

“…. Jones (2007) summarized Ting-Toomey’s five patterns of digital communication styles:

“Low vs high context communication” refers to the extent to which people allow their intended meaning to remain unsaid, thereby relying on the cultural contexts in which the item is discussed. “Direct vs. direct verbal interaction” refers to the extent to which a person makes explicitly demands or requests. “Person-oriented vs. status-oriented” refers to the extent to which power distance is emphasized in the communication. “Self-enhancement vs self-effacement” refers to the extent to which people promote themselves or their accomplishments in communication. “A preference for expressing beliefs in talk vs. silence” refers to whether silence is interpreted as indication of sincere reflection or as one of discomfort or misunderstanding. “(p. 65).

Jones’ (2007) research offered insight into how interdependence of the language and culture dimensions of communication of contribute to a knowledge building community. Similarly, other researchers (Cardinal and Armstrong, 1993; McMullen & Rohrbach, 2003; Philips, 1983; Rutherford & Kerr, 2008; Smith, 1999) identified similar subtleties in the communication patterns of Aboriginal societies as compared to Western cultures. [The infographic]  includes generalizations to highlight possible breakdowns in pragmatic communication that are “pan-native.” Although they could be perceived as stereotypes, they are presented to illustrate dialogical elements that may inadvertently increase or decrease consensus seeking dialogue.









Cardinal, D., & Armstrong, J. (1993). The native creative process: A collaborative discourse between Douglas Cardinal and Jeannette Armstrong. Penticton, BC: Theytus.

Jones, J. (2007). Effective online dialogue: Toward a theory of internet-mediated communication. Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag.

McMullen, B., & Rohrbach, A. (2003). Distance education in remote aboriginal communities: Barriers, learning styles and best practices. Prince George, BC: College of New Caledonia Press.

Philips, S. U. (1983). The invisible culture: Communication in classroom and community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. New York, NY: Longman.

Rutherford, A. G., & Kerr, B. (2008, April). An inclusive approach to online learning environments: Models and resources. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 9(2). Retrieved from

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London, England: Zed Books.


  1. I love that you are engaging in this topic!

    I also appreciated that you acknowledged that the chart is a form of pan-Indianism. Indigenous people are diverse so it’s important not to over-generalize, and when generalizations within theoretical and epistemological writing by Indigenous authors are discussed the disclaimer is an important piece to include.

    A lot of the emotional reward systems used in schools value one communication pattern over another. A student who does not offer up answers or give lip service to prompts is seen as not capable or not caring. Both are highly damaging. The student who is seen as not capable is held to lower standard. The student who is seen as not caring is the recipient of a value judgement, and based on that value system no longer deserving of the same degree of attention as students who are perceived to care.

    When I was looking at the cultural safety model of health delivery I noticed that one of its tenants is recognizing that the service provider is part of the “culture of nursing” and they should be aware of that and understand that they cannot let their biases as part of the “culture of nurses” interfere with their delivery of service to patients who come from a different culture. It occurred to me that we have, in Canada, a “culture of teaching” that we are infused with when we go through teacher training and that is reinforced through school policies and our professional organizations. To what degree are we aware that this is a part of our cultural being, and are we aware of it enough that we can recognize and address cultural differences between the “culture of teaching” and the culture our students bring to the classroom so that we can ward off potential incidents where the culture of teaching does not penalize students based on their cultural backgrounds.

    Hmmm… another thing that struck me is that once and awhile a teacher will tell me that their Aboriginal students have no culture. Rarely is this the truth, it’s just that the teacher cannot see through their own culture to recognize the students’ culture, and the teachers preferred communication mode actually is incompatible with Aboriginal expressions of culture. If teachers are more aware of indigenous knowledge and various acquisition models of Indigenous Knowledge (particularly local IK, and preferable through experience), then they will be able to more quickly and accurately recognize opportunities to engage Aboriginal students. It begins,though, with the teacher realizing that they are cultural beings, and recognizing their own knowledge and expectations about teaching and learning as cultural as opposed to universal.

    • Hi Starleigh,
      Thank-you for the reflective posts. I agree, we tend to resonate with what is familiar. The brain wants to find categories for things and when it can’t find a category, it is a little confused. It takes time and reflection to create one otherwise it will dismiss it or wrongly categorize it. (ie.. “They have no culture”) My hope was to create a point of discussion or at least ignite an awareness that although we may use the English language to communicate there is so much more at play. Too often the answer to enhance Aboriginal inclusiveness has been with policy or a binder of accessible lessons that for many, remain lost in some prep room. In the case of new teachers, there was probably one or two days of “What is Aboriginal culture” but never anything that is in depth. In many ways, I can see how being more aware of Aboriginal ‘ways of being’ particularly deep reflection, can enhance any classroom. I look forward to reading following you on twitter.

  2. Colinda

    I love that you were inspired from an edchat to put together this infographic, and so quickly! Thank you. This is the sort of resource that gives every teacher who may not have experience or knowledge of working with FNMI peoples a quick reference to understanding different cultural ways of being in a class.

    I really like the sections on ways of knowing and understanding. So unique to aboriginal peoples. I think the modality section too fits specifically. The verbal communication necessitates a listener, feeding to the earlier section on the importance of interaction. Even in silence, there is an interaction, the act of being together. Sometimes there are rituals attached to different types of interactions, (for ex. exchange of tobacco when asking for something) There is as much in what is unsaid as what is said. It is simply impossible to feel the spirit of intention via email to the same degree.

    I do think that there are some non-aboriginal students whose learning styles more resemble their aboriginal counterparts.

    Am a bit unclear about the sections on gender and individuality. Perhaps you can elaborate for me?

    Chi miigwetch.

    • Colinda :),

      I would agree with your observation that some non-aboriginal students “ways of knowing” resemble their Aboriginal counterparts. It may be largely due to the growing use of Social Media. I would not use “learning styles” as that often reflects Gardner’s classification (verbal, social, kinestic, visual… and so on). Sometimes, it seems like the internet may be part of the transition to more Aboriginal ways of knowing. Posting something on line can live forever so the individual may consider a larger audience more deeply before posting to a thread or to social media. The increasing ‘nodes’ of interest like World of Warcraft, Pintrest ‘follow’ boards, and hashtags seem to be creating smaller sub communities where individuals can be engaged and socially sensitive to the interactions. In someways the sheer level of connectivity creates a community that resembles one more reflective of a society based on collectivism rather than individualism. I know there is a movement to say Connectivism is learning theory too but I believe it isn’t so much a a learning theory. Instead it is more a of conduit to the features of a sociolinguistic collectivism. ( It isn’t so much about connecting the nodes as much as a growing and sustained online community develops the feature of creating reflection for a learner who engineers response that is not typical of the original individualist culture.

      As for gender, discourse analysis often studies gender communication patterns. For example, women tend to use “I feel” more so than men who use “I think”. The use of “I feel” by women may undermine the rest of the message. There are other nuances like that create a perception that the message is not as credible based on gender communication patterns. I did not spend a lot of time researching gender issues as it was not the focus of my research.

      I am not sure what you would like to know more about. Perhaps you can share some questions that were dancing in your head that came up?

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