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Seeing Hearing & Doing: An Educational Experience That's All Encompassing

January 18, 2017

Indigenous Environmental Studies at Trent

Dr. Dan Longboat sits outside Champlain College on a sunny autumn day

This story is featured in the Fall 2016 edition of Showcase: The Experiential Learning IssueView the complete publication.

"Teach human beings their sacred relationship to fish and you will have human beings and fish until the end of time.”

Adapting the “Feed a man a fish…” quote widely attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, Dr. Dan Longboat ’70, speaks to the heart of Trent’s Indigenous Environmental Studies/Science (IESS) program, which he leads.

“All of our IESS courses include a multiplicity of learning methods to engage students from different cultures, backgrounds and disciplines. Students learn by seeing, hearing and then doing,” says Professor Longboat, the program director. “That serves to make students’ learning both real and embodied, not just the regurgitation of information. We seek to promote knowledge acquisition through engaging the whole student, not just their minds.”

Adapting an age-old tradition

While the IESS program draws upon an array of learning methods, Prof. Longboat sings the praises of one approach in particular – experiential, or hands-on, learning.

“Experiential learning may be a newer concept within conventional academia but it has been a practice implemented by traditional Indigenous societies for millennia,” explains Prof. Longboat. “Not all students learn the same way, so there is a need to recognize, respect and address a multiplicity of learning styles to transmit and generate knowledge and, consequently, learning and sharing.”

Student works directly with the Ministry on course development

In extolling the virtues of experiential learning, Prof. Longboat is preaching to the converted where Emily King is concerned. Enrolled in her fourth-year of her IESS degree, Ms. King is developing a reading course in partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Strategic and Indigenous Policy Branch. That opportunity grew out of a summer position she held with the Ministry.

“I’ve learned a lot about the structure and function of government as well as how Indigenous perspectives are considered with regard to natural resource management,” says Ms. King. “I am extremely interested in policy and law, and how Indigenous perspectives, knowledge and peoples can influence current and future natural resource management tactics and practices. Experiential learning has been a great benefit to me because it has allowed me to investigate and learn about specific topics I am extremely interested in. This type of learning has also opened my perspective to other very interesting topics within the field that I may have not previously had the opportunity to explore.”

The sacredness and power of food

Prof. Longboat says Ms. King’s experience is the norm, not the exception.

“In nearly every one of our IESS classes – from lectures to workshops, to seminars and assignments – there is an experiential component introduced to their learning,” he says.

One recent example saw students fully engaged with the program’s flint corn garden project where they saw and felt traditionally grown white corn, beans and squash. Students were served a meal of these Three Sisters, learned from cultural teachings to engage with the process from garden to table, and learned of the origin, sacredness and power of the food, all while developing respect and appreciation for all that it takes to grow the foods we depend on.

New course promises land-based and survival skills

Now, with the help of an M.A. graduate in Sustainability Studies and local experts in the area of traditional Indigenous land-based skills, a new Indigenous Living Skills course is in the process of being developed.

“Not only will it provide students the opportunity to develop and demonstrate traditional land-based skills but it will also provide necessary survival skills should they, at any time, need them in their work, research or travels working on the land, or with communities, industry or government in rural or remote areas. This exciting new course will enable students to acquire a valuable skill set as it provides them with abilities as well as an understanding, and confidence to be self-sufficient, self-reliant and fully engaged with the natural environment,” adds Prof. Longboat.