Learning is holistic, reflexive, reflective, experiential, and relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place)

This principle reflects the Indigenous perspectives that everything is interconnected, that education is not separate from the rest of life, and relationships are vital.

  • Learning is holistic…

Effective learning environments pay attention to the whole learner, including the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual aspects of the person. The holistic nature of life and education are central and critical to the discussion about Indigenous views of education because they underpin Indigenous understandings of human development and learning.

The holistic nature of life and education reveals itself in multiple ways. The first of these is that there is not a natural separation between the concept of education and the rest of a person’s experience. Learning is not viewed as an action separate from any other part of life. In a contemporary context, a person’s experiences in school needs to be an authentic part of students’ life experiences rather than be designed or experienced as a preparation for a life to be lived later. This emphasizes an understanding of education as contextual and integrated into all aspects of daily life. Where possible, learning activities should be a part of real-life situations, but where that is not possible, they should reflect real-life situations so that the knowledge learned is directly transferable to the learner’s life. In this way the learning also helps to create and support community.

The holistic and integrative nature of life and education also manifests itself in the concept of four aspects of a whole and healthy being. Some Indigenous peoples use the concept of the Medicine Wheel or Circle to identify four aspects of being: mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional (Brown, 2004; Cajete, 1994; Calliou, 1995; Regnier, 1995; Weenie, 1998). It is important to note that these aspects do not exist in isolation from each other; they are viewed as equal and integrated parts of the whole, and each must be attended to simultaneously in the development of the whole person.

Of particular relevance to a discussion of Indigenous worldviews with respect to education is the understanding that each of these four aspects carries equal value and weight. The development and attention to the spiritual and emotional domains of a person is as important as the consideration given to the mental and physical. A complete integration of the four aspects of the person might be seen as running contrary to a post-industrial Euro-centric worldview which, some might argue, compartmentalizes these aspects of people’s existence, with only some being contained within the domain of formal education or schooling. Ermine (1995) writes that “[w]estern science has habitually fragmented and measured the external space in an attempt to understand it in all its complexity (p.103). He contends that this paradigm for understanding our existence hinders the ability to fully appreciate the holistic nature of life.

It is important to understand that “spiritual” in this context does not equate with religious doctrine. It is not a discussion about worship. It is embedded in the understanding how the world works, and is at the core of First Nations cultures. Doige (2003) indicates that “[o]ne’s spirituality is the inner resource that facilitates knowing oneself, one’s surroundings, and finding meaning for one’s self in connection and relation to those surroundings” (p. 146-7). Katz and St. Denise (1991) also indicate that in Indigenous ways of being in the world, both “the spirit and the heart are essential ways of knowing” (p. 31). The importance of nourishing the spirit is an integral part of learning.

The other aspect of the person that cannot be separated from the mental and physical aspects of the person is the emotional or “affective” capacity of a person. In fact, Brown (2004) posits that not only are the heart and mind connected, but that the heart is the root of the mind. Thus the development of the affective capacity is essential to the development of the cognitive capacity” (p.19). This attention to the emotional nature of life moves the concept of learning beyond mental capabilities and processes. To further support this idea, Brown (2004) asserts that because the heart and mind are connected, “educating the mind alone is absurd” (p.10). Adding to this concept is the fact that in some First Nations languages, the word for mind and heart is the same word.

  • Learning is … reflexive

Learning is reflexive. It builds upon itself, exponentially increasing as learners develop new knowledge and deeper understandings of how everything is ultimately connected.

  • Learning is … reflective

Learning does not happen without reflection. Reflective thinking is a key process in coming to understand new concepts and determining the relevancy of information and ideas. In many of the stories shared by elders, there is an intention to help the listener learn what he or she needs to learn without explicitly saying what the lesson is. Often this story is repeated several times in a life time and each time the listener is expected to decide for him or herself what needs to be learned from the story. The ability to meaningfully reflect is a necessity for such a process.

  • Learning is … experiential

Meaning is made from direct experience. Learning is achieved by doing and thinking, through engaging in a hands (and minds on) approach. It “provides a tactile and tangible connection between knowledge and life” (Battiste, 2002). The experiential aspect of making meaning from learning also reinforces the need for meaningful reflection to process the experience into knowledge and understanding.

  • Learning is … relational (focused on connectedness, on reciprocal relationships, and a sense of place).

A recurring theme that surfaces in an examination of First Peoples’ perspectives of education is the importance of relationship. The concept of “we are all related” is understood by most First Peoples in British Columbia. It is a phrase echoed in many documents and uttered by many Indigenous peoples in Canada. Imbedded in this concept is the belief that as human beings, we are all interconnected and what affects one person affects others as well. Treating all people as related (or as kin) requires and reinforces a way of being in the world that helps shape our actions, as we think about how our actions affect those around us. The concept of relationship also encompasses relationship to self, relationship to others (current and past) and relationship to land and place.

The concept of relationship also encompasses “community”, and it is through the context of knowing one’s community that people can understand themselves. It is also asserted that “…context is essential in education and determines the meaning and application (added emphasis) of teaching and learning” (Cajete, 1994, p.165). Context can be understood to relate not only to the people, community, and place that one is a part of, but also to the purpose of learning. What and how we learn is connected to our contexts (place, time, needs) and therefore has a significant impact on the choices that are made.

In all discussions of relationship in Indigenous contexts, there is both a sense of belonging to, and relating to, others. This is tied to the idea of collective identity and responsibility (Cajete, 1994; Dene Kede, 1993; Greenwood & de Ledeeuw, 2007; Kirkness, 1998). Learning is a highly social process that nurtures relationships within the family and the community. In this context, the meaningful incorporation of First Peoples’ world views, with their associated knowledge bases, values, beliefs and preferred pedagogical practices, into the education system, would benefit both Indigenous and non-Indigenous learners.

This principle also emphasizes the relationship to the land. In First Peoples’ cultural constructs, living and learning is inextricably tied to sense of place and connection to the land. The community and natural environment are regarded as the “classroom”.

Relation to Other Educational Theory

The importance of reciprocal relationships in learning is also echoed by Scardamalia and Bereiter (1994), who also suggest that knowledge building is supported by intentional social interaction where participants provide constructive response to each other’s work. In addition, the positive effect of collaborative learning is supported by Rogers and Ellis in their explanation of collaboration within the framework of distributed cognition (Rogers & Ellis, 1994), whereby knowledge is shared throughout networks of people.

The emphasis on the experiential nature of learning supports the constructivist approach to learning which emphasizes “knowledge and competence as products of the individual’s conceptual organization of the individual’s experience” (von Glasersfeld, 2008, p. 48). Learners actively engage in experiences that allow them to develop new understandings based on the interaction of their prior experience and perceptions and the new experience. They construct knowledge through their learning experiences. The emphasis on experiential learning is also supported by Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) in their emphasis on using authentic activity for learning.

A link to sense of place is also echoed in situated learning, another concept in constructivist pedagogy. Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) emphasize that in order for learning to take place, activity and enculturation are paramount. They argue that knowledge is “situated, being in part product of activity, context and culture in which it is developed and used” (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989, p. 32). Knowledge is a tool to be developed and used in the appropriate, authentic context to become meaningful and learned effectively. While they emphasize the link between the learning and the activity, one could argue that the space or place of the learning also influences what is learned. In a similar vein, constructivist theorists view learning as highly contextualized; knowledge does not exist independent of the culture and history of people and place (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996).

Implications for Classroom and School Include:

  • Developing strong healthy relationships between teacher and learner. The relationship between teacher and learner is often considered one of the primary indicators of student success for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students.
  • Integrating family (including extended family) and community members into the learning experiences in classrooms and schools.
  • Helping learners develop relationships with the surrounding community (both people and land).
  • Developing cross-curricular learning experiences for learners.
  • Including as much experiential, authentic learning opportunities as possible.
  • Ensuring learners see relevancy in what they are learning.
  • Providing choice and flexibility in activities so that different aspects of the whole self can be attended to.
  • Using humour to facilitate relationships and learning.
  • Helping learners develop the skills they need for effective self-reflection.
  • Respectfully incorporating the use of the circle for group discussion.
  • Creating collaborative and cooperative learning opportunities.
  • Providing apprenticeship options for learning.
  • Providing opportunities for learners to mentor, or be mentored by, other students.
  • Providing multiple access points for all learners in learning activities so that everyone can access opportunities for learning.
  • Providing multiple ways for learners to represent their learning.
  • Understanding that connecting learning to place also means providing opportunities for learners to develop their knowledge and understanding of the First Peoples who have inhabited this land for thousands of years.

Relevant Core Competencies

Positive Personal and Cultural Identity

  • The awareness, understanding, and appreciation of all the facets that contribute to a healthy sense of oneself. It includes awareness and understanding of one’s family background, heritage(s), language(s), beliefs, and perspective, and sense of place.

Social Awareness and Responsibility

  • The ability and predisposition to cooperate and collaborate with others, display community-mindedness and stewardship, empathize with and appreciate the perspective of others, and create and maintain healthy relationships within one’s family, community, society, and environment.


  • The set of abilities that students use to acquire, impart, and exchange information, experiences and ideas; to connect, engage, and collaborate with others; and to recount and reflect on their experiences and learning.

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