Teaching Through the Four Rs of Indigenous Education: Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity and Responsibility

 In Classroom Practice

You can feel it in the air coming well ahead of time, as longer evenings slowly encroach upon scorching afternoons and the smell of falling leaves overpowers the fresh flowery scent of summertime. Fall is on its way, and along with it comes a brand new school year.

In the weeks to come teachers everywhere will return to their schools and start creating warm and welcoming learning environments for all. There are halls and classrooms to be arranged, organized and decorated, new classes to prepare for and lessons to be planned. Needless to say, right now is a busy time in the world of education! Especially, some would say, in the age of Reconciliation.

Most Canadians grew up in an education system that did not teach about Indigenous Peoples. The history of colonization (including the residential school system), contemporary Indigenous issues, and Indigenous cultures, traditions, and worldviews are therefore unfamiliar to many Canadians – including teachers. This can make the prospect of teaching Indigenous content, and teaching in a way that supports Reconciliation, a daunting one.

…reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country, (The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015, p. 6).

According to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country,” (p. 6). The Commission goes on to call upon Canadians to take action and change behaviours to support and build this mutual respect.

The work of two renowned Indigenous scholars, Verna J. Kirkness and Ray Barnhardt, can help teachers who wish to take action and take steps to decolonize their teaching practice. In “The Four Rs – Respect, Relevance, Reciprocity, and Responsibility,” (2001), Kirkness & Barnhardt teach us that when educators and schools:

  • Respect First Nations cultural integrity
  • Provide education that is relevant to First Nations Perspectives and Experience
  • Foster reciprocal relationships
  • Demonstrate responsibility through participation

we can begin to Indigenize and decolonize schooling. While the framework was originally created for use in higher education settings, it can be adapted to any level to Indigenize education as we know it. In this blog post, we offer suggestions that any educator can use in any context. This blog post is by no means comprehensive, but rather a guide for those who would like to get started on this work, based on the Four Rs as listed above. Read on to get your feet wet, and feel free to consult this annotated bibliography to learn more!

Respecting First Nations Cultural Integrity

Respect is a concept that often feels more abstract than action-based. It can be difficult to think of specific actions that demonstrate respect, however, small steps can make a big difference. Some simple ways educators can build their understanding and knowledge to demonstrate respect might include:

  • Reading up on key concepts like colonialism and privilege
  • Recognizing negative emotions that arise when confronting these topics and investigate the discomfort
  • Reading books and articles by Indigenous authors and consuming art by Indigenous artists
  • Taking ownership of their own learning
  • Finding other teachers who are interested in decolonization to share and process experiences together

Making Education Relevant to First Nations Perspectives and Experience

Indigenous worldviews are based on deep connections with the land. Sacred places dominate the Canadian landscape and many Indigenous people adhere to protocols and ceremonies, traditions and norms that the education system does not include or acknowledge. In order to provide an education that is relevant to First Nations perspectives and experience, teachers might consider: 

  • Taking time to catch up on the Indigenous history of the region and share their learnings with their classes
  • Learning about sacred places and landmarks nearby
  • Using Indigenous place names
  • Reaching out to local Indigenous organizations for information, resources, and opportunities to work together
  • Inviting members of the Indigenous community into the classroom to share teachings and stories 

Developing Reciprocal Relationships

According to Indigenous traditions, education can look very different from the typical schooling we see today. In many Indigenous cultures, learning is a process of observing, making attempts, working through failures and eventually, mastering the skill at hand. Learning is also most often considered a life-long journey, and it is understood that every person has things to teach. 

This can be freeing for teachers, who often feel a great deal of pressure to be the expert all the time. When all relationships are understood as give-and-take, teachers can learn alongside – and even from – their students. Ways that educators can begin to foster reciprocal relationships include:

  • Allowing students to participate in decision making
  • Making an effort to teach holistically
  • Expressing care for students’ overall wellbeing
  • Not being afraid to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out together”

An example of student-led decision-making in the classroom can be found below. During the first week of school, I led my grade 10/11/12 class through the establishment of a code of conduct for everyone (including myself) that was based on the Dene Laws, instead of presenting students with class rules. The activity went deeper to recognize that each person is the sum of all the relationships in their lives, and the class created a detailed plan for their individual and collective success. The results were displayed prominently in the classroom and students were proud of the work they had done, often referencing the posters on the walls as the year progressed. 

Student Led Learning

Taking Responsibility Through Participation

Participating in the conversation around reconciliation, and in Indigenous events and activities when appropriate can represent a step towards reconciliation. Here are just a few ways educators can take responsibility through participation:

  • Support Indigenous students’ participation in traditional activities in concrete ways (creating make-up assignments, homework packages, etc.)
  • Attend community activities hosted by Indigenous organizations
  • Lead by example by talking about decolonizing and Indigenizing education with colleagues
  • Seek out Indigenous business people, motivational speakers, craftspeople, artists, etc. when seeking guest speakers
  • Plan field trips to Indigenous events, exhibits, landmarks, and the like


In order to Indigenize and decolonize education, education must draw upon Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing, teaching and learning. This blog post is intended to serve as an introduction, but the real experts are the Indigenous Elders, scholars, artists, and community members fighting for decolonization and Indigenization. Check out our annotated bibliography for some incredible resources, and best of luck for the year ahead!

*Note: This blog post is based on my graduating paper, “Decolonizing Practices for Settler Educators in Indigenous Contexts: Drawing upon the Four Rs of Indigenous education for meaningful curriculum change,” written for partial fulfillment of the Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Leadership at the University of British Columbia. It is an analysis of works by Indigenous and Indigenist scholars in education who have written about themes of culturally responsive pedagogy. 


"Cree" by William Burnstick (2019)