Education officials must visit Inuit parents: McGill researcher
“There’s no free lunch about how to engage parents”
Talking directly to parents is the only way to bridge the big gap between schools and the Inuit communities they’re based in, a McGill University psychologist, Don Taylor, said in an interview with Nunatsiaq News this week.
For that reason, Taylor, after doing more than 30 years of research on northern education, is glad to see parent engagement top the list of recommendations made in Inuit education strategy released June 16 in Ottawa.
That plan spells out a vision on how to improve student success across the country’s four Inuit regions, with the first recommendation calling for a campaign to mobilize parents, who are widely recognized as playing an important role in supporting student attendance and performance.
Taylor says his experience shows talking directly to parents is the only way to cross the divide that separates parents and schools.
The social psychologist has already launched a pilot project, which has now spread to other communities in Nunatsiavut and Nunavut, to engage parents in the Nunavik community of Kangiqsujuaq.
After failing to reach parents through local FM radio shows and community meetings, Taylor decided to go directly to parents in Kangisujuaq.
He drafted a survey of 120 questions, which were distributed to parents.
He made sure some of these questions were what he calls “motherhood” questions.
Those are general questions about the well-being of children, with fairly obvious answers, such as “Is education important?” or “Would children perform better on a good night’s sleep?”
The Kangiqsujuaq survey received an 86 per cent response rate, while parents responded overwhelmingly “yes” to those “motherhood” questions.
“Who’s not going to say that education is important?” Taylor said. “So you take that result and knock on the parent’s door again and show them that everyone thinks education is important.”
That illustrates the divide between what parents want and the reality of what’s happening, Taylor says — which is that students regularly miss classes.
“So then we ask ‘What can you do to help?’” he said. “Now we’ve got an ongoing dialogue that is non-threatening, but finally getting to the heart of the matter.”
Home visits are the only way to reach many parents – but getting there requires work, he said.
“We’ve had 100 years of failed attempts to engage parents,” he said. “This is not an easy process.”
Taylor acknowledges that many Inuit parents have had negative schooling experiences of their own – but that doesn’t mean they don’t value their own children’s education.
And that’s where the engagement has to start.
“There’s no free lunch about how to engage parents,” Taylor said. “But when it’s something they care about, they’re there.”
Taylor’s extensive research on education in Nunavik was presented to the committee members who worked on the Inuit education strategy.
His long-term studies of school children in Nunavik show that students learn best and benefit from higher self-esteem when taught in their mother tongue.
That supports another Inuit education strategy recommendation, which calls for an increase in bilingual educators and Inuktitut-language instruction so more Inuit youth will graduate fluent in their Inuit language along with either English or French.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon said that means an education system grounded in the Inuit language, culture and world view, while gradually expanding Inuit-language instruction past Grade 3, where English or French currently becomes the primary language of instruction in most schools in Nunavik or Nunavut.
Taylor applauds that, although he says this it won’t be easy, even in regions where Inuktitut is the strongest.
In other Inuit regions, the goal may never be realized, Taylor said
“Even with the best scenario, a fully bilingual program all through secondary school is going to be a challenge,” Taylor said. “But I don’t really think that matters, it’s the process that’s important.
“Making Inuktitut the primary language of instruction in kindergarten was a big move at one point.”