Part 1: Cotton Wool? Teacher Expectations of Indigenous and Racialized Learners

This post is Part 1 of a series of posts related to the investigation of teacher expectations and perceptions of Indigenous learners in Winnipeg. Much research has been conducted throughout the Commonwealth countries, most notably in Australia and New Zealand (Riley & Pidgeon, 2019; Hynds, Averill, Hindle, & Meyer, 2016), regarding teacher expectations, as well as studies conducted in Canada by Riley & Ungerleider (2008 & 2012) which have highlighted expectations from a Canadian perspective. Extensive research has been conducted in the United States as to white teacher expectations of Black learners (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016; Pringle, Lyons, & Booker, 2010; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007). 

Despite these studies, however, very little is known as to how educators and schools in Winnipeg perceive Indigenous learners, what expectations they generally have, and what the ramifications are of holding low expectations for racialized learners, save for a groundbreaking study in 2002 by the CCPA entitled Aboriginal Education in Inner City High Schools. (Silver, Mallett, Greene, & Simard, 2002).

This is particularly pertinent as Winnipeg has the largest urban population of Indigenous peoples in Canada, accounting for 12% of the general population (CBC, 2019), or almost 100 000 people strong. Historically speaking, Winnipeg also presents a critical lens of investigation given its relatively recent and abrupt transition from Indigenous lands to an industrial and capitalist-based western city centre that is predicated on racial and social divides. As Owen Toews  argues, “Winnipeg’s urban history has been intimately caught up in the history of colonialism.” (2018, p. 61).

This series is by no means a condemnation of teachers in Winnipeg or in general. Rather, it seeks to have all educators think about our practice and how we engage with Indigenous and racialized learners, their experience, external and internal forces, and how we design for equity so that all learners have the means for a decent life. As the author, I acknowledge my positionality: that is of a settler who carries with him a significant amount of privilege, hegemony, and attitudes that constantly need to be checked. This author habitually makes mistakes, both in the classroom and the boardroom, and perpetually falls into the trap of what Roberts (2012) suggests as a grave danger. Roberts argues that there is a danger in the desire of teachers to emancipate their learners. That “experience as praxis, done poorly, can be more damaging than maintaining more ‘traditional’ curriculum orientations.” (p. 82). According to Paulo Freire (as cited in Roberts, 2012), a “dialogical experience which is not based in seriousness, in competency, is much worse than a banking experience where the teacher merely transfers knowledge.” The danger is situated in the educator seeking to emancipate or save the learner.

There is equally a danger in watering down a learning experience or aggregated experiences when teachers have lower expectations for learners based on arbitrary or assumed characteristics, experiences, or factors. (Riley & Ungerleider, 2008, p. 380).  Do we have a tendency to stream learners into different maths currents, to create centres for certain learners, or to push learners to athletic or vocational programmes versus arts programming? Are we happy enough as teachers simply to focus on the well-being of the learner while ignoring the critical nature of cognitive engagement? Do we silence and ignore the voices of Indigenous learners simply because of assumptions about who they are?

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Columbia University Education professor Christopher Edmin (2020) argues that “the best teachers don’t just keep teaching. Instead, they use their pedagogy as protest: They disrupt teaching norms that harm vulnerable students.” That is they co-construct experiences and enter into dialogue with their learners with vigour and rigour. In his 2016 New York Times best seller, Edmin surfaces a dilemma not only in Winnipeg schools, but throughout the world where colonization, slavery, genocide and oppression have (and do) occur(ed): “As long as white middle-class teachers are recruited to schools occupied by urban youth of color, without any consideration of how they affirm and reestablish power dynamics that silence students, issues that plague urban education (like achievement gaps, suspensions rates, and high teacher turnover) will persist.” (p. 9).

Toews (2018) further argues that an apartheid system has been systematically and deliberately created since Canada’s seizure of Red River in 1869-70. Through political, economic, and militaristic means, white settlers created structures, institutions, and a culture that violently dispossessed Indigenous peoples from their land and way of life in Red River. Given the abhorrent injustice that rendered Indigenous peoples as targets of white elites and that then created a dynamic between settlers and Indigenous peoples, education has been weaponized to perpetuate this state of oppression and patriarchy.

This oppression has manifested itself in the genocidal Indian Residential School system and currently in the disproportionate low achievement and graduation results of Indigenous and Indigenous learners within the child welfare system. As a colleague of mine has argued, we will be judged by history for our complicitness in the apprehension of children. We will be the nuns in pictures who conspired to have children taken away from their families.

And the current data raises critical questions about the education of Indigenous children who live under the thumb of systemic poverty, racism, and dislocation from their families. According to a 2016 Manitoba auditor general’s report, only 55% of Manitoba’s Indigenous learners were graduating. (Hatherly, 2018). Nearly half of Indigenous learners are not graduating. This should be alarming and on the front page of the major papers on any given day. Equally appalling is the fact that only 33% of children in care, 90% of whom are Indigenous (Government of Manitoba, 2018).

And these statistics can often put the blame on the learner: pathologizing the experience of the learner and assuming that some learners simply cannot learn to the degree that other learners can.  And this surfaces the notion of the achievement gap. That there is a naturally and culturally derived gap in the abilities of certain learners. That somehow Indigenous learners are less capable. This is a huge danger and one that may be prevalent in many teaching contexts. Lisa Delpit, in her work Multiplication is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children, dispels this myth within the context of Black children. She argues powerfully that “African American children do not come into this world at a deficit. There is no ‘achievement gap’ at birth,” and that “When we educators look out at a classroom of black faces, we must understand that we are looking at children at least as brilliant as those from any well-to-do white community.” (p. 5). 

As an educator in Winnipeg, do I look at the Indigenous and racialized faces in my classroom and understand and acknowledge their brilliance?

By holding lower expectations of Indigenous learners, “schools and teachers may be inclined to perceive Aboriginal students as the problem: failing to identify attitudes, expectations and behaviours which may have contributed towards issues of absenteeism and underachievement.” (Riley & Pigeon, 2019, p. 127). According to Riley and Ungerleider (2012), “while teachers do think about how a student is being assessed, they way they think about their students reveals more about their expectations and biases than it does about student potential as represented by the grades expressed on the record cards.” (p. 310) It is also perhaps important to provide some context to the notion of low expectations and what Rose (2012) refers to as “racism by cotton wool.” Rose describes this phenomena in relation to his framing of  “Silent Apartheid”:

 In the classroom this can be exhibited by execution of codes of discipline, standards of work, grading and acceptable boundaries of school culture by ‘going soft’ on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Professionally the very same phenomenon is evident in the range and allocation of tasks all the way through to issues of performance management and professional feedback. The ramification of both dimensions of this is that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders we receive less than the highest quality service delivery or feedback and may be lured into accepting exiguous and mediocre standards. 

Teaching with cotton wool refers to the notion that we collude with low expectations; that we do not offer deep learning experience for racialized learners in the name of being culturally responsive. This might look like less challenging work, less formative feedback, or simply when we normalize absenteeism and qualify it as a cultural practice. The antidote, according to the Stronger Smarter (2014) position paper of Australia is what it deems High Expectations Relationships, as opposed to rhetoric. More on this later in the coming weeks.

Janet Forsyth (2020), in her latest work investigating Indigenous self-determination in sport, posits that the expectations for Indigenous learners has changed in the last 100 years. Through the crushing impact of Indian Residential Schools, expectations were enormous and successes in sport, namely male-dominated ones like hockey, were revered as European traits. But as Indigenous learners have slowly emerged into the white-dominated public school system with changes to the Indian Act in 1951, “the soft racism of low expectations is becoming familiar….” (p.14). (The notion of racism is certainly fraught, as a very good friend of mine taught me that racism is simply racism. I take her point to heart.)

And despite the uniqueness of Winnipeg’s colonial context, there are tremendous parallels with other experiences. From the research from Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, there is evidence that suggests that European educators tend to have lower expectations of Indigenous learners. (Riley & Pigeon, 2019; Hynds, Averill, Hindle, & Meyere, 2017; Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016). Given these results, do and have Winnipeg teachers have different expectations of Indigenous learners than non-Indigenous learners, and if so, what have been and what are the implications? 

And as there is a dearth of research in this area, the preliminary intent of this series is to take a look at one primary and critical source to help inform this initial conversation. The Manitoba Teacher, the journal of the Manitoba Teachers Society, will be used as a means to analyse the continuity and change of teacher perceptions and expectations of Indiegnos learners in Manitoba and more precisely in Winnipeg. As MTS does represent teachers throughout the province of Manitoba, it is impossible to ignore an overall provincial scope, but digging deeper Winnipeg offers an opportunity to analyse the historical changes in attitudes amidst the backdrop of industrialization, dispossession, urbanization, apartheid, and racism.

Manitoba Teacher from June 1991

To begin, it is important to pick up on my last series, which looked at a cursory history of public schools in Canada. To analyze teacher expectations in a vacuum would be bizarre and miseducative, so it is paramount to acknowledge how we have historically purposed education for Indigenous learners in Canada. As Forsyth (2020) suggests, schools were designed to “help Indigenous students rise above their race and assume positions in the labour force, as well as entice them to give up their Indian Status, thus whittling away the Indigenous population in Canada by instilling a deep appreciation for dominant mainstream cultural practices and values.” (p. 54). From the onset of Industrial and Indian Residential Schools to now a more acceptable “Silent Apartheid” (Rose, 2012) and covert racism, are will still intent as a society on marginalizing indigenous peoples? Perhaps history can help us untangle this question.

Again, the primary function of this series is not to cast judgement unnecessarily or in a haphazard manner on teachers.  As Edmin (2016) posits, “The work for white folks who teach in urban schools, then is to unpack their privilege and excavate the instructional, societal, and personal histories they bring with them when they come to the hood.” (p. 15). Bringing this sentiment back into Red River, Indigenous scholar Marie Battiste argues that “The challenge also continues for educators to be able to reflect critically on the current educational system in terms of whose knowledge is offered, who decides what is offered, what outcomes are rewarded, and who benefits….” (2013, p. 28).  This perhaps is our work in Winnipeg. So let’s begin.

In next week’s Blog Post 2, we will dive deep into the archives of the Manitoba Teacher, specifically looking at the 1970s and 1980s, to see how if there is any evidence to suggest that soft racism, or cotton wool, existed within a larger and broader discussion amongst educators in Manitoba and specifically Winnipeg.

In Week 3, we will see how Indigenous educators, learners, and scholars have challenged western perspectives of progressive and what it means to be an educated person. Through Verna Kirkness, Leanne Simpson, Sandy Grande, and Marie Bertistse, notions of decolonization and reclamation will be put to the forefront as a means to further challenge our expectations and our cotton wool.


Battiste, M. (2013). Decolonizing education: Nourishing the learning spirit. Purich.

Delpit, L. (2012). Multiplication is for white people : raising expectations for other people’s children. New Press.

Edmin, C. (2020). Teaching isn’t about managing behaviour: It’s about reaching students where they really are. The Atlantic, retrieved on July 26th, 2020

Forsyth, J. (2020). Reclaiming Tom Longboat: Indigenous self-determination in Canadian sport. University of Regina Press.

Gershenson, S., Holt, S., & Papageorge, N. (2016). Who believes in me? The effect of student–teacher demographic match on teacher expectations. Economics of Education Review, 52, 209–224.

Government of Manitoba. (2018). Transforming child welfare legislation in Manitoba: Opportunities to improve outcomes for children and youth. Retrieved on July 24th, 2020 from:

Hatherly, D. (2018, June 13). Auditor general says province misses the mark in Indigenous education | CBC News. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from

Hynds, A., Averill, R., Hindle, R., & Meyer, L. (2017). School expectations and student aspirations: The influence of schools and teachers on Indigenous secondary students. Ethnicities, 17(4), 546–573.

Manitoba Education (2016). Manitoba task force on educational outcomes of children in care: Report for the Minister of Education and Advanced Learning and the Minister of Family Services. Retrieved July 24, 2020 from

Pringle, B., Lyons, J., & Booker, K. (2010). Perceptions of teacher expectations by African American High School students. The Journal of Negro Education, 79(1), 33–40.

Riley, T., & Pidgeon, M. (2019). Australian teachers voice their perceptions of the influences of stereotypes, mindsets and school structure on teachers’ expectations of Indigenous students. Teaching Education, 30(2), 123–144.

Riley, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2012). Self-fulfilling prophecy: How teachers’ attributions, expectations, and stereotypes influence the learning opportunities afforded aboriginal students. Canadian Journal of Education, 35(2), 303–333.

Riley, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2008). Preservice teachers’ discriminatory judgments. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 54(4), 378–.

Roberts, J. (2012). Beyond learning by doing: Theoretical currents in experiential education. Routledge.

Rose, M. (2012). The Great silent apartheid.

Silver, J., Mallett, K., Greene, J., & Simard, F. (2002, December 11). Aboriginal education in Winnipeg inner city High Schools. Retrieved July 27, 2020, from

Stronger Smarter Institute. (2014). High expectations relationships: A foundation for quality learning environments in all Australian schools. Retrieved July 29th, 2020 from

Tenenbaum, H., & Ruck, M. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minority than for European American students? A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 253–273.

Toews, O. (2018). Stolen city: Racial capitalism and the making of Winnipeg. ARP.

Winnipeg’s Indigenous population less segregated but still in poor housing: Statistics Canada | CBC News. (2019, December 10). Retrieved July 27, 2020, from

Experiential Education: PechaKucha Madness!

My good friend Will Burton and I designed a new course for the University of Winnipeg called Topics in Experiential Education. We felt there was a need to offer a course to teachers that took a deep dive into the theory and principles of EE. This spring, we had almost 50 teachers engage in the course, so we had to divide it up into two sections.

Here are some of the final exhibitions from my section. I am so impressed by the passion, curiosity, and rigour demonstrated by these educators. Have a look!

Will and I will be offering the course this fall as part of the Seven Oaks School Divisions PBDE in Inquiry cohort. Let me know if you want to jam.

PBL: Deep Dive into Structured Inquiry

Between January and April, educators throughout Manitoba came together every Tuesday to think deeply about heavy concepts (like experience, engagement, learning, and teaching), to think and reflect on our intentional design, and to think deeply about our learners, their families and our communities.

As part of our work, we decided to engage in a project ourselves. That is doing work that has meaning for us and allows to make meaning. As such, we created an eBook which speaks to our professional inquiry. As we explored the literature and interrogated our practice, problems and questions surfaced related to project-based learning.

We are pleased to offer our questions, our reflections, and our designs: Project-based Learning: A Deep Dive into Structure Inquiry.

Embracing Community, Equity, and Experience in the Time of Covid — And Beyond

As we enter our eighth week of class suspension in Manitoba, educators, learners, and families are working extremely hard to fill the democratic, emotional, intellectual, cultural, and nutritional voids that education and schools tend to fill. 

We all know that the Covid19 has made wholey visible the inequities in our society — leaving those with less struggling further. We also are highly aware that if we are not careful as educators, we can often end up overwhelming learners and families, even with the best intentions. 

So how do we approach the project of educating learners in a way that attempts to sustain community, addresses the inequitable distribution of resources and justice, and offers all learners the deep and educative experiences they deserve?

In these strange and disconcerting times, many of us have turned to history and literature, or the humanities, as a means for sense and meaning making. I have observed and been delighted that many learners and educators have turned to the 1918 pandemic as an avenue to think historically about Covid. Thinking historically allows us an opportunity to analyze the human experience, reflect on this collective experience, and develop the imagination and empathy required to navigate present-day complexities. Looking to history also brings us reassurance, that yes, pandemics do end. 

It has also been fascinating to see peers and colleagues turn to Albert Camus’ The Plague as a means to help us navigate the uncertainty of these times. Camus speaks about the dangers of a benal life when one gives up asking the big and meaty philosophical questions. — when we don’t think deeply about the human experience or when we try to explain it through systematic responses. The pandemic is arguably a time when many of us are coming to terms with existential questions and agnst. So are our learners.

I believe that we owe our learners the opportunity to fully think about their experience during this time — supporting pursuits that have meaning and that enable them to make meaning. I have noticed the incredible work by educators in our province who have skillfully designed deep experiences for their learners — keeping in mind the experience of the child while developing the necessary provocations and invitations for inquiry and growth. And I wonder how we sustain this energy when we come back as communities?

Philosopher John Dewey argues that creating mis-educative experiences or simply offering disconnected activities for our learners stunts transformation and democracy, and produces what he refers to as bad habits. Dewey’s theorizing of how we learn is fully centered on community, that is the social, and an experience that “arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently  intense to carry a person over dead places in the future….” 

Throughout this time, I have observed a few phenomena that might help us come out of this pandemic event stronger; enabling us to support learners and families with consistency and vigour, while also providing our learners with the knowledge, skills, and ways of being necessary to contemplate the good life.

First, I have witnessed the shrieks of delight when learners are connected with their teachers and friends on phones and screens. I am astounded at the snapping back of the head when a child erupts in laughter and joy when in community. Our learners need us, and they need each other. There is no denying this and no replication. I am brought to tears when I see educators on the sidewalk waving to their kids at the window, watching with glee as this loving adult writes loving messages on the worn cement. 

During and following Covid, nurturing and growing democratic communities need to be at the core of our design. 

Second, I am struck by the anxious desire of educators in Manitoba who struggle with the desire to build foundational skills, steer clear of busy work, offer deep experiences for learners, and provide meaningful feedback to families. The litany of spinning plates is overwhelming when not all families and learners have the means to connect online or have the resources to what we might refer to as “engage.” 

I have witnessed educators who have invited learners to make sense of their experience in this time. Middle Years educators who connect with their learners through developing zines, Kindergarten teachers who invite their learners to talk about how their favourite stuffy makes them feel, and Senior Years educators who tackle a New York Times op ed in community as a means to make sense of ideas such as authoritarianism, xenophobia, and social isolation. In these examples, educators know the experience of the learners, design with this experience and mind, and provide the supports and invitations for learners to reflect on their experience and grow.

During and following Covid, deep and intentional design needs to be at the core of our work.

Last, I am astounded at how quickly and nimbly schools and communities have supported our families in most need. Through hampers, school supplies, laptops, wifi, and respite work, and so much more, our schools have reached out and supported our learners and families. There was no discussion. Folks just got to work that needed to get done.

During and following Covid, equity needs to be at the core of our design and work.

As we live through this experience, there is an opportunity to consolidate our collective energy in Manitoba when it comes to schools and education. Let’s continue to and strive further to build democratic communities that are fully focused on equity and the pursuit of deep questions about the human experience. To do so, is to provide all our learners with the space, knowledge, and skills required to support their growth and transformation. Keeping these at our core will, as Deborah Meier argues, “nurture the two indisepnsable traits of a democratic society: a high degree of tolerance for others, indeed genuine empathy for them, as well as a high degree of tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity, and puzzlement, indeed enjoyment of them.”  


School Suspension Projects


This photo is from Dave Law’s class — an advisor at the Seven Oaks Met School. Dave was a guest speaker during our third class, where he spoke about interdisciplinary projects.

The crew in my University of Winnipeg Faculty of education Project-Based Learning Applied class created projects for the school suspension period. As teachers, we were devastated that the sense of community we had created in our classrooms might be severed, so we took our theory on intentional design that is geared towards fostering curiosity, inquiry, and community and created these experiences to share with all teachers.

Book of Awesome — Ashleigh

Ecological Footprints — Kylie & Sherry

Educational Assistant Project Plan — Natalie

Passion Projects — Alberta & Laura

Creating Graphic Novels in an EAL Class — Samineh

Mental Well-being — Diana & Christine

You are what you Eat — Jenna

MIMW — Kate

Covid19 Journal — Vanessa

Quaruntunes — Aubrey

Community Improvement — Wes

Virus to Pandemic — Janine

Our World is Beautiful — Soofia

Genius Hour — Amber-Lee

Walking Together — Alyssa

The Wellness Project — Lisa

Heroes of the Earth — Balrajdeep