Inuit learning in the traditional western classroom: Does it work? Reader Response by Joseph Georgekish for EDU 5101

Inuit learning in the traditional western classroom: Does it work? Reader Response by Joseph Georgekish for EDU 5101

Inuit education has seen a recent paradigm shift. Since the 1970s the Inuit of Nunavut have taken a self-governance role in the development and delivery of education to their communities. Presently, educational policy in the Arctic is focused on integrating Inuit culture as an integral part of the school curriculum (McGregor, 2010). Despite these measures, the graduation rate for high school students in Nunavut is 25-30%. Moreover, much fewer of these graduates, as McGregor (2010) points out, will continue on to post secondary (p. 1). This is an alarming statistic. Logic would suggest that Inuit administration over their education should result in higher graduation rates.

Despite having spent many years among the Inuit, and calling Iqaluit home, McGregor (2010) states that she is not in a position to offer insight into Inuit perspectives (p. x). As an individual of Cree ancestry, I can perhaps contribute toward defining Indigenous culture and offer personal insights as a member of the Cree Nation.  I will argue that in addition to linking Inuit culture with curriculum, a learning style more akin to Inuit culture must also be integrated into pedagogical approaches. This entails putting less emphasis on a Western traditional model of education.

The educational system for the Inuit is similar to the education system in Cree territory. In fact, three Cree communities in Northern James Bay Quebec have an Inuit population. Since both cultures have taken control of their school administration, I believe this supports the ensuing comparison.

Historically, a holistic education for the Inuit and Cree was vital to their very survival in the arduous north. As McGregor (2010) writes “It was also essential that learners be prepared to practise, demonstrate, and experience what would become their means of survival: a sustainable relationship with the land, sea, sky, and other beings” (p. 37). For the Cree in my community, difficulties such as starvation continued well into the 20th century. Our families were isolated on their trap line. Individual camps were separated by vast distances. People had to know how to hunt and build adequate dwellings to survive a harsh unforgiving landscape. Winter was especially treacherous. Temperatures would often approach and exceed minus forty degrees Celsius. Black Spruce trees were half engulfed by a thick blanket of white snow.

My aunt recalls tales of near starvation when game such as caribou were scarce. Hopefully this outlines the vital importance of traditional learning in Indigenous cultures. Cree Elders are deeply attuned to their relationship with the land. I am often in awe, and humbled, by their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and capabilities. In Inuit culture, TEK is the ways in which the Inuit know and live with the environment (McGregor, 2010, p. 31). But learning such vast knowledge of the environment simply does not fall on one’s lap. There is an enduring system of learning in Cree tradition, which is based on observation and hands-on experience. This is a similar concept to Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ), where knowledge such as resourcefulness is passed on over generations and is crucial for survival (McGregor, 2010). Further, IQ “embraces all aspects of traditional Inuit culture, including values, world-view, language, social organization, knowledge, life skills, perceptions, and expectations (Nunavut School Development Council, 1998, as cited in McGregor, 2010, p. 34). I am also reminded of Chambers (2008) curriculum of place, where Indigenous people “grow into knowledge through engagement in hands-on activities learning side-by-side with masters of the crafts” (p. 120). Further, McGregor (2010) states that “Inuit were raised to learn by observation” (p.39). Inuit schools in the Arctic focused on preserving their culture as part of curriculum (McGregor, 2010). However, have they addressed integrating traditional learning styles to the way they learn math? Learning of a high calibre does indeed occur among Indigenous communities. A practical goal would be to transfer traditional Inuit learning styles to the classroom.

In her introduction, McGregor (2010) asks the following important question: Does a lingering colonial influence on Inuit education play a role in Inuit underachievement by discouraging Inuit youth? (p.1). When reflecting on my experience in a Cree school, it was similar to the lived experience described by Chambers (1994) of “sitting in rows, facing the front, isolated from each other” (p.33). This Western traditional pedagogical model framed my learning in the classroom at school. I recall one course in high school which usually consisted of a short lecture, followed by individual worksheets. I was forbidden to seek assistance from peers. We remained separated and silenced. This is in stark contrast of how traditional Cree learning took place on the land. Like Nunavut, our graduation rates were also low.

McGregor (2010) mentions that Inuit culture currently has a strong presence in Nunavut schools. For example, schools offer culture classes, or playing traditional games at gym class (p. 13). I also attended culture classes at my school. But despite all the effort to bring culture into the classroom, learning Cree culture in a setting more akin to a provincial public school setting has proved somewhat fruitless in my experience. Although I much appreciated culture classes, I suspect my fellow students and I had difficulty connecting cultural significance to a Western style classroom. I am reminded of IQ, where learning is experiential, and must be experienced in the ways of living for knowledge to be passed forth (Arnakak, 2008, as cited in McGregor, 2010).

So why then is the graduation rate in the Arctic so low? I would argue that the current school system in Nunavut does not adequately address the traditional learning styles of Inuit culture. The Inuit do recognize a dissimilarity between traditional learning and formal learning, which they refer to as isumaqsayug and ilisayuq. Isumaqsayug is learning through observation and imitation, and is focused on the learner’s relationship with the environment and people. This leads to ecocentric identity. Alternatively, ilisayuq is teaching removed from daily life, and focuses on intellectual mediation. This leads to egocentric development (Stairs, 1992, as cited in McGregor, 2010).

I suspect that the presence of culturally responsive curriculum in Inuit and Cree schools is largely focused on preserving the culture, and enabling students to feel a sense of identity in a Western institution. Perhaps the next step is to integrate traditional learning styles that focus on group learning and a hands-on approach into courses like math and science. Indeed, Robinson (2011) would argue that learning is best presented as a collaboration. Many Indigenous communities are not far removed from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle and have a highly efficient and established method of learning in relation to the places they lived. Having a strong presence of Inuit culture in Nunavut schools is undoubtedly beneficial. However, it is likely that if Inuit and other Indigenous students are to be more successful, the centuries old traditional way in which Indigenous people learn must also be integrated into Western style schools. As McGregor (2010) elucidates, pedagogical strategies that are culturally appropriate need to be addressed in the Inuit school system.


Chambers, C. (1994). Looking for home: Work in progress. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 15(2), 23-50.

Chambers, C. (2008). Where are we? Finding common ground in a curriculum of place. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 6(2), 113-128.

McGregor, H. E. (2010). Inuit education and schools in the eastern artic. Vancouver, BC: University of British Colombia Press

Robinson, K. (2011). Changing education paradigms. Retrieved from  ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms