In brief: Research news Fall 2023

The Faculty of Education has a proud tradition not only of producing great educators, psychologists and information studies professionals, but great research.

31 October 2023

The Faculty of Education has a proud tradition not only of producing great educators, psychologists and information studies professionals, but great research. Here are some recent stories you may have missed about U of A education researchers and the important work they do to improve teaching, learning, policy and professional practice in Alberta, in Canada and around the world.

Researcher aims to improve educational experiences for students with autism

Through the Autism, Neurodiversity & Academic Achievement (AIDAN) Lab in the Faculty of Education, educational psychology professor Heather Brown and her colleagues work to improve conditions in the education system for those with autism, looking for ways to accommodate neurodivergence rather than forcing them to adapt. Brown’s mission is to help youth and adults with autism “thrive both at school and in the greater community.”

The lab’s approach is rooted in a community-based participatory model, in which community participants have direct input into the research and decision-making.

However, her work moves beyond the traditional research model. “We call it emancipatory participatory research because we work with autistic members of the community who have historically been given less opportunity and experienced more systemic disadvantages.

“Since they are invited to participate as co-researchers and members of the research team, having their contributions valued and their recommendations enacted allows the adults to see their own gifts more clearly and feel more confident in their abilities.”

Community members reported gaining “a sense of fulfilment from contributing to something important to both academia and society as a whole,” Brown adds.

She is currently working with a group of post-secondary students with autism, seeking their impressions of what needs to change in their training and what questions she should ask participants to target specific barriers, she says.

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Video: Learning on Sacred Land

Every summer, the U of A Faculty of Education’s Summer Institute offers two land-based learning courses to introduce in-service teachers to foundational First Nations, Métis and Inuit ways of knowing, being and doing. The courses form part of the faculty’s graduate certificate in educational studies.

This year the institute was held at kihcihkaw askî-Sacred Land, a new Indigenous sacred space in Edmonton that provides a natural setting for ceremonies, sweat lodges, traditional arts and intergenerational learning.

According to Trudy Cardinal, an associate professor in the Faculty of Education who offers a course called “Bringing Life to Literacy Learning,” this summer’s two-week institute allowed students to “come together to live and feel in their whole bodies what it is that they might be reading about.”

Cardinal says the land-based experiential learning encourages students to imagine how they might bring foundational Indigenous concepts like connection to the land and being in relationship with the environment into their own classrooms.

Watch the video

Giving K-12 students a head start on learning about Japanese Canadian history and culture

Alberta students aren’t required to learn about the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War until Grade 11 social studies. And apart from that, there is very little in the curriculum that exposes them to a community that forms part of the Western Canadian cultural fabric.

As a result, what they do learn about Japanese Canadians arrives relatively late in their K–12 education, often without sufficient context, and can be easily forgotten, says Olenka Bilash, a professor in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Education.

But she and her colleagues have a plan to change that. They have compiled a Directory of Japanese Canadian Resources that teachers of almost any subject and grade can use to provide students with the knowledge and context they need to more fully understand the internment — as well as the depth of contributions Japanese Canadians have made to Canada.

In 1942 the Canadian government used the War Measures Act to detain about 21,000 Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia. Many were interned in prison camps for the duration of the Second World War after their homes and businesses were confiscated. While it is a crucially important chapter of Canadian history everyone should be aware of, says Bilash, there is far more about the Japanese Canadian experience to explore.

“If a teacher in every grade did just one thing mentioned in our directory, and those kids got one touchstone every year for 12 years, there would be a through-line about Japanese Canadian culture and contributions, not just about the internment,” she notes.

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Undergraduate Research Award enriches learning for professor and student alike

One of the best things about an undergraduate research assistantship is that the learning goes both ways, according to a professor and student who collaborated under the auspices of the 2023 Winter Undergraduate Research Award.

The award, which provides funds for an Education faculty member to employ a BEd student as a research assistant, brought together Dr. Bonnie Stelmach (Studies in Educational Leadership) and fourth-year elementary education student Jihoon Jang (now an alumnus) on a pilot study of how elementary students’ curricular learning and life skills development at a rural school is enhanced by an agricultural literacy framework.

Visiting with the students and teachers, conducting interviews and observing community learning in action gave Jang something to think about when he took charge of his own classroom in Vancouver this fall.

“It was literally the entire community that got involved in teaching the children about agriculture. That particular group of students,  I was really impressed by their attitude and vocabulary and work ethic — they really learn to be responsible to live in that community,” he says.

“That made me want to provide a better learning environment for the kids I will be responsible for. I started to think more about the importance of the learning environment and how I should design my classroom.”

Stelmach says the pilot helped establish a relationship with the students and staff at New Humble that’s important in qualitative research. Having a research assistant with a grounding in elementary education and experience growing up in an urban context also provided benefits.

“It was such a great learning experience for me because Jihoon brought a perspective I couldn’t. I’m a rural person, I went to rural schools, I taught in rural schools. Jihoon was able to see things I would have taken for granted.”

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SSHRC grant supports research on transforming teacher education with Indigenous wisdom traditions

University of Alberta education professor Dwayne Donald is among the recipients recently announced as part of a substantial research initiative unveiled by the Government of Canada.

On August 29, the federal government announced an investment of more than $960 million in grants, uniting key granting agencies — including CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC, and CFI — for diverse research programs focused on science and innovation. The programs are aimed at driving positive change and progress for Canada as well as breaking down barriers for an inclusive research community that is reflective of Canada’s diversity.

Donald, who is a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair and SSHRC Insight Grant recipient, conducts research focused on reimagining teacher education by taking seriously Indigenous wisdom traditions, an important practice missing in Canada's schools.

Influenced by the nêhiyaw principle of wâhkôhtowin – which refers to the kinship connections between human beings and all forms of life – Donald’s research examines ways to transform teacher education in Canada. He advocates for creating teaching and learning contexts that prioritize balancing current educational practices with Indigenous wisdom understandings of knowledge and knowing.

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