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Turning Classrooms into Communities: Building Better Education Systems through Belonging

January 23, 2023

SCSC recently hosted its 2022 Global Symposium, Imagination and Action: Building Systems of Belonging, in Toronto, Canada. Bringing together more than 150 stakeholders from across the world, the Symposium provided a space for academics, organizations and activists to explore how to reshape our systems with belonging as a core tenet.  

Education was one of the systems explored, including during a panel discussion, Education Systems and Belonging, which featured speakers Ron Cook, Elder of Misipawistik Cree Nation, Tanya Aberman, Executive Director of S4 Collective, Ben Haack, Athlete, Mentor and Board Member with Special Olympics International, and Dr. Michael Hawes, Executive Director of Fulbright Canada. Dr. Frankie Young, an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and a member of Honouring Nations Canada (an initiative of Fulbright Canada) Circle of Advisors moderated the discussion. 

Joining in the celebration of the International Day of Education we would like to share four key takeaways from the panel: 

  1. Inclusive education systems require valuing a diversity of knowledge holders. 

A critical element of building education systems that are inclusive is valuing and welcoming diversity of both students and knowledge holders. Michael Hawes of Fulbright Canada says that in his experience diversity and accessibility add value to every classroom, and collaborative and community-oriented environments are the best setting for student success. Challenging us to consider who we prioritize as knowledge holders, Michael asks, “Who is a researcher?” So many people have valuable knowledge to share, yet they are not recognized for their contributions and potential, nor viewed as suitable ‘knowledge producers’ that fit the conventional mould of academia. Michael suggests that one way to counteract this is to normalize non-academic referencing in research to strengthen the diversity of knowledge included in literature. 

Ben Haack, from Special Olympics International, pushes this point further by advocating for teachers that have lived experience or are part of the community with whom they are working. For example, disability education is best taught by those within the disability sector, or those that have meaningfully integrated and understand the disability community. Ben also highlights the value of teaching the true meaning of community – diverse people coming together to connect and give their time to something that is bigger than themselves, to the collective good. He strongly affirms that teaching these values, especially to youth, is not “a nice thing to do, but a fundamental thing to do.”  

  1. Educating educators is an essential component of inclusive classrooms.  

Several of the panelists referenced the need to train the trainers. Educators must take on the role of the student to build understanding of what inclusive communities and classrooms could look like. To instill the critical values of community and connectedness in students, teachers must first have a deep understanding of these concepts. Social connectedness should be embedded into education policies and infrastructures so that students can bear witness to, and be champions of, these values throughout their learning journey. In this way, education systems become systems of belonging. Classrooms become communities.  

Ron Cook, from Misipawistik Cree Nation, notes how educators can hold preconceived and stereotyped understandings of Indigenous peoples. He advocates “educate the educators” in order to break these biases. Educators must gain greater awareness of Indigenous worldviews, which will support Indigenous students in bringing their “full selves” to education settings. Not only does this add diversity of perspectives to education, but can also lead to greater respect and appreciation for Indigenous knowledges and ways of life. 

  1. Decolonized education systems value and include Indigenous knowledges.   

Greater respect for Indigenous knowledges and ways of life is also a crucial ingredient in building inclusive education systems, especially in Canada. Teaching people in a decolonial way is “going back to get what we left,” Ron poignantly notes. He provides some examples of how to build spaces where Indigenous students can truly feel belonging. Sharing how learning his language has given him an inroad to elders and the traditional knowledge of his community, Ron highlights the importance of supporting education in Indigenous languages. Language unlocks teachings, building access to traditional knowledge that can be passed on to new generations. Connecting students to land and elders are also highly effective practices for building belonging-based education for Indigenous youth. 

In exploring the connection between migrant justice and Indigenous solidarity, Tanya Aberman, from S4 Collective, delivers a powerful message to Indigenous students and students with precarious status, such as displaced migrants: the very act of being present in educational institutions is a rejection of colonial systems, of the power systems that say they should not, or are not, allowed to be there. Pursuing education therefore becomes an act of resistance and rejection, of both the systems and stigmas.  

  1. Reshaping education systems begins with accountability and healing. 

As the session closed, a participant voiced an important question to the panel, “How can we heal those who have been harmed by our education system?” Even if we build a perfect education system tomorrow, many people will still refuse to access it because of the past harm they have experienced. Dr. Frankie Young, from the University of Ottawa, agrees that healing pain and trauma within our education systems is the first step towards belonging. That begins with institutions taking accountability for the harm caused and offering concrete and transparent steps towards healing and building belonging, designed with those most impacted.  

Education Systems and Belonging 
SCSC is grateful to all those that shared their wealth of knowledge at the 2022 Global Symposium. The experiences discussed by the speakers illustrate how belonging could underpin education to foster a system built on inclusivity.  

In imagining how we can rebuild education systems with belonging as a core value, we begin to envision systems within which all individuals can thrive, where past harms are acknowledged and remedied by decolonizing syllabi, where educators are either part of, implicated in, or deeply understanding of the communities and issues they are teaching and where knowledge itself is democratized.  

Watch the Education Systems and Belonging panel discussion on SCSC’s YouTube channel.