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A New Take on Learning - Aboriginal Style

Edna Harder MattsonAfter more than 30 years in the nursing profession, Edna Harder Mattson has seen it all. Her career as a nurse has taken her to foreign countries, involved her in high-profile projects and allowed her to become part of isolated northern communities.

It was on one of these adventures, fulfilling a contract for a northern university, that she was struck by the irony of too few Aboriginal students despite an Aboriginal community surrounding the university.

When Mattson enquired as to why there weren’t more Aboriginal students, she was told that they weren’t often successful due to the anatomy and physiology and mathematical mastery required for drug calculations. It was that chance experience that altered Mattson’s career path, prompting her to establish her own nursing tutorial business to ensure that Aboriginal students are successful.

Today, as president of Canadian Nursing Tutorial Services, Mattson has helped more than 3,000 students by offering a unique approach that appeals to the Aboriginal learner. It’s an approach that is both holistic and big picture, recognizing the way in which Aboriginal students process information and knowledge.

“They don’t compartmentalize…they see things holistically,” she explains.

“Adult Aboriginal learners also need to see the relationship between knowledge and career so I use a lot of real-life stories to assist with learning.” “Typically, I use this approach to help them to prepare for exams or national licensing requirements,” she says.

And that approach has helped many Aboriginal students leapfrog over hurdles and barriers to graduate as nurses. Aboriginal nurses provide a great “fit” for community nursing, says Mattson, given their cultural lifestyle of living within a large family setting that includes seniors and babies.

“And the more Aboriginal nurses that graduate, the more we will see an increase in the standard of Aboriginal health care,” she adds.

Today, the Canadian health care system is increasingly focusing on the determinants of health. Nowhere are those determinants more glaringly obvious than in First Nations communities.

Ironically, educational institutions struggle with finding a suitable clinical practicum for nursing students while First Nations communities are not considered, despite providing an excellent learning opportunity with all ages and stages of life, says Mattson.

“If educational institutions have difficulty in providing learner-centered teaching strategies, then inclusion and success in the workplace will be increasingly problematic,” she says.

Intrigued by the perspective of the Aboriginal learner, Mattson developed four pre-learning modules to address the common areas where student difficulties were occurring. Now, after having the opportunity to work with so many students, she says these Aboriginal learner concepts can also be applied to “dominant” society as well. “We need to turn around faster as a society…if something is not working, then we need try out new solutions,” says Mattson.

“We also need to adapt educational institutions and workplaces for the Aboriginal learner.” “I would suggest that this is a very realistic approach to inclusiveness and offers a win-win approach for the learner, the educational institution and the employer.” Aboriginal learners and employers are very willing to teach what is required for inclusiveness; however the question that remains to be asked is “are we ready to learn?” she says.

This article first appeared in our Spring 2007 newsletter.

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