Cynthia Chambers: A Curriculum Scholar Following A Path with Heart By Ge Gao for EDU 6102 Seminar in Curriculum Studies Research

Cynthia Chambers: A Curriculum Scholar Following A Path with Heart By Ge Gao for EDU 6102 Seminar in Curriculum Studies Research

Cynthia Chambers: A Curriculum Scholar Following A Path with Heart

Cynthia Chambers, a famous Canadian scholar in curriculum studies, works at the Faculty of Education in the University of Lethbridge and teaches courses in literacy and language education, curriculum and indigenous education. Within the field of curriculum studies, her academic work mainly focuses on the indigenous literacy, life writing as a form of inquiry, and the importance of learning from place. These academic and research interests arise from her teaching and learning experience.

When reading her works, her rich life experiences impress upon me. Born in Vancouver, her grandmother repeatedly reminded her that she was the “fifth-generation Canadian-born Irish” (Chambers, 2006, p.4). She attended twenty-one schools from the kindergarten to grade twelve in three provinces, two territories and the state of Washington. She has deep relationship with the north, for she has lived in Yukon, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and many other northern communities. With the close relation and kinship to the north and the aboriginal people, she gains the interests in the indigenous literacy and the importance of place in our curriculum. Also, the rich experiences provide her with abundant topics for life writing.

Learning from the Place

As she has traveled so many places, she focuses on the importance of place in our curriculum. Chambers (2003) states that the individual and collective memory and history are located in particular places, which lead to concrete experiences and identities. She continues to illustrate that Canadians, because of the enormous landmass, the topographical diversity, are especially preoccupied with place and landscape. In addition, historically, Canada’s economy was mainly based on the resources, such as the fur, lumber, fishing and so on. Consequently individual and collective survival became the main theme which required people attuned to the land and the weather. In Chambers’ article As Canadian as possible under the circumstances: A view of contemporary curriculum discourses in Canada, she (2003) reviews the curriculum theories in Canada and mentions that curricular scholarship ignores the place of Canada at peril. She suggests us, as future curriculum writers, should be specific about the locations in which we are writing.

With the focus on learning from the place, Chambers (2008) raises four dimensions of a curriculum of place. A curriculum of place calls for a different sense of time. Also, a curriculum of place is enskillment. The inhabitants of particular places often learn the skills that are necessary to live in these places, and as they learn and practice those skills “they become who they are” (Chambers, 2008, p. 117). In addition, a curriculum of place calls for an education of attention. The disengagement with place has already led to the ecological degradation. Finally, a curriculum of place is a wayfinding which requires us to recognize the place and other beings in those places.

Chambers’ article reminds me that as educators, we should infuse the curriculum of place into our teaching practice. Now we are facing the unprecedented environmental crisis, and the separation of students with the land threatens to cause more severe ecological problems. To reconnect humans with the land, a curriculum of place is needed to train the students with the skills that are needed to dwell in particular places. Those skills cannot be achieved simply through class instruction, so they need direct engagement with the land. As teachers, we should provide students with opportunities and contexts to practice these skills. Through the direct experiences with the land, the students can learn what is appropriate to do in the place, which is critical for a more sustainable future.

Life writing

Most of Chambers’ works focus on life writing, such as autobiography or memoirs as a form of inquiry. Her life experiences provide her with abundant topics for writing. Besides that, Antoinette Oberg, her doctoral supervisor in Curriculum Studies, also has great influence on her life writing. The published papers and conference presentations from Antoinette Oberg were more often than not, according to Chambers (2004a), constructed as dialogues. This method sometimes is risky. Chambers (2004a) illustrates the difficulties and frustrations she met when she and Oberg conducted a spontaneous dialogue about teaching in front of an audience, because they “breaching the norms of academic discourse” (p.252). Despite these difficulties, Oberg continued to use autobiography to elucidate her practice and frame her inquiry in the first person and active voice. By engaging in the unconventional academic inquiry, Oberg encouraged Chambers in conducting life writing.

Chambers often uses her own life as a site for inquiry, and she suggests the pre-service and veteran teachers to conduct this kind of autobiographical inquiry in curriculum studies. Conducting life writing, it is needed to find and follow a path with heart which means to “be straight and truthful in your speech and action” and “to be passionate and generous in your words and deeds” (Chambers, 2004b, p.6). There are three places, according to Chambers (2004b), where we can find a path with heart: the first is in the middle of the night, because in between sleep and wakefulness, we can hear our heart speaking when the world lies still; the second is in our writing notebooks, when we find something that matters to write down, the notebook invites us to listen to ourselves; the last is in our own or others’ mistakes, when we recognize those mistakes, they reside in our memory. Keeping in mind the tree places, Chambers continues to illustrate the three steps in finding a path with heart: attending to logos; crafting stories; and finding the balance between pathos, logos and ethos. Reading her article, I begin to reflect on my own writing practice. Have I found and followed a path with heart? My learning experiences in the high school and in the undergraduate program as a second language learner make me feel obliged to follow the traditions of inquiry, because I have been told frequently that I should frame my writing and inquiry in passive voice and third person objective voice. However, following the conventions, I find nowhere to express my emotions on my own writings and can hardly be passionate in my topics, perhaps because not following a path with my heart makes me painful. “Find and follow the path with heart requires courage and heart” (Chambers, 2004b, p.6). It requires us to listen to our own heart and write down what matters to us. In addition, when guiding the students to conduct their own inquiry, we cannot force them to obey the conventions and traditions in writing, rather, we should help them find where their heart and interests lie. When the students or the new researchers have no funds or resources to locate the informative data, or when they haven’t found a topic or question that interests them, we should encourage them to follow the path with heart and tell them that it is their living experience that matters in their inquiry.

Indigenous Literacy

Another important contribution Chambers has made in the field of curriculum studies is that she focuses on the indigenous knowledge and literacy. Chambers (2006) uses the passport as the artifact to illustrate that our curriculum should provide a different notion of home with which the citizenship and the rights of the indigenous people could be protected. With the close geographical relations and kinship to the north, she finds that the aboriginal people who by virtue of their Indian status were denied the rights and privileges of Canadian citizenship. There has been a short period of time, as Chambers (2006) mentions, that the Canadian government required the Indian people to have tickets to leave the reserve or cross the borders, a kind of “passport” on their own land. Also, the economic profits of the north have been exploited. There are a lot of oil and natural gas fields that have been built in northern areas, and also the pipelines that ship these resources to the south, leaving the aboriginal people a lot of environmental and ecological disasters on their land. What is ironic, as Chambers (2006) describes, although the Northwest Territories has the fastest growing economy in Canada, the government of the NWT is broke, and the indigenous people there have low living standards, because the profits with the tax revenues went south. It seems that our curriculum has adopted a biased and one-sided notion of home, with which the rights of the aboriginal people have been denied, and their voice have been silenced. As future curriculum theorists, Chambers’ article leaves us a task: to give a holistic and different definition of home with the voice of indigenous people in our curriculum, a notion that on behalf of all Canadian including the indigenous people and their land, as well as the more-than-human world.

With the interests in indigenous knowledge, Chambers engages in many projects to study the indigenous literacy and language, for example, she worked as the Principal Investigator in the Ulukhaktok Literacies Project in collaboration with the NWT Literacy Council and the University of Lethbridge. With the project, Chambers (2010) learns about a different kind of smart which the world needs now. According to Chambers (2010), the aboriginal people are smart in that they can find their destination by the stars and snow; they can read the sun and moon to predict the weather; they pay attention to dreams and they respect animals. They also believe that being smart is a gift, and by giving a baby a name of someone who was smart, the baby will inherit the wisdom of that namesake. Furthermore, Chambers (2010) illustrates that the indigenous people borrow the smarts from the animals by giving the baby amulets, such as weasel or loon’s throat, hoping that the traits of the animal could benefit the baby. Those smarts and wisdom of the indigenous people are needed by the “tired, old earth” (Chambers, 2010, p.32). However, the indigenous knowledge often occupies small places in the Canadian curriculum and the smarts of the aboriginal people is diminishing with the development of technology and the ecological degradation. Keeping in mind the importance of the indigenous knowledge, it is our responsibilities, the future teachers, curriculum writers and theorists, to include the smart stories and traditions of the aboriginal people in Canadian curriculum in order to keep them from disappearing. The students will benefit from learning a different wisdom, and with the wisdom they will understand the close relationship between human and the land, and how to live harmoniously with the more-than-human world.


Cynthia Chambers contribute to the field of curriculum studies in many ways. With her rich life experiences, she mainly focuses on learning from place, life writing and indigenous literacy. Her works enable the readers to reflect on their own learning and teaching practice as well as challenge the current Canadian curriculum. As a mother and a grandmother, Chambers continues to follow her own path with heart and always be faithful and truthful in her writing, and still engages in guiding more potential teachers, educators, curriculum writers and theorists for the future.


Chambers, C. (2003). “As Canadian as Possible Under the Circumstances”: A View of Contemporary Curriculum Discourses in Canada, pp. 221-252. In William F. Pinar (Ed.). The Internationalization Handbook of Curriculum Research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associated.

Chambers, C. (2004a). Antoinette Oberg: A Real Teacher … and an Organic but Not So Public Intellectual. Journal of Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies, 1(3), pp. 1-17.

Chambers, C. (2004b). Research That Matters: Finding A Path with Heart. Journal of Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies, 1(3), pp. 1-17.

Chambers, C. (2006). “Where do I belong?” Canadian Curriculum as Passport Home, Journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, 2, pp. 1-18.

Chambers, C. (2008). Where Are We? Finding Common Ground in a Curriculum of Place. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 6(2), pp. 113-128.

Chambers, C. (2010). “I was Grown up Before I Was Born”: Wisdom in Kangiryarmuit Life Stories. Transnational Curriculum Inquiry, 7(2), pp. 5-38.