Dancing Between Traditions: A Critical Examination of Learning Systems Through the Metaphor of Athabaskan Fiddle Music

By: Ryan West

In many ways, our education systems are failing to meet the needs of our Indigenous learners. There is a growing urgency to meet students where they are at, but not just academically. Programming needs to begin acknowledging and creating space for the diverse set of individuals, cultures, and learning systems present in schools today. This narrative study suggests that the story of Athabaskan fiddle music and the learning experiences of local fiddler players can help the greater educational community understand the benefits of bringing formal education outside the realms of standardization and compartmentalized learning by creating space and honouring Indigenous learning systems within our classrooms.

24 thoughts on “Dancing Between Traditions: A Critical Examination of Learning Systems Through the Metaphor of Athabaskan Fiddle Music

  1. Hi Ryan, thanks for sharing your creative and informative 3 minute thesis – I loved the sound of crunching snow as you walked. I am assuming it was ridiculously cold when you shot the video (from an Islander’s perspective)? I am fascinated by the parallels you are making between Athabascan fiddlers and the formal education system and look forward to reading your thesis.

    1. Thanks for the comments Wendy, I am really intrigued with where my research has been taking me and look forward to sharing the journey.
      If I recall it was balmy -34 the day I made the video… before the phone froze a few times mid recording. All in good fun, embrace the place!

  2. Excellent. I love the idea of learning an instrument in different ways and comparing this learning to the learning in a classroom.

  3. Hi Ryan, I love that your work emphasizes learning as the creation of something new, through love, passion and individualized experience, rather than replicating an established structure. Your work will contribute to notions of how and why we need to draw on Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing to improve learning for all learners. My question is: What is your connection to Athabascan fiddle music, or how did you come to start thinking about the parallels that you outline in your research work?

    1. Hey Rachel, thanks for the thoughtful comments.
      Great question… kind of a long story there. The short of it is that I’m a musician and when I first moved to the Yukon, I started picking up a bit of fiddle and became really interested in the fiddle traditions around the North. In all honesty, going into this MEd program I was anticipating writing something more along the lines of trades education and experiential learning, fiddle has always just been something of personal interest. The community in which I live has a strong fiddle culture and I help facilitate fiddle lessons at the school and play guitar with some of the fiddlers at community dances. The more I play, hear stories from fiddlers, and learn, the more I begin to believe that individuality and creative interpretation is what will lead us toward invention and innovation. When I think of the ongoing conversation about educational transformation, I think many of the paths forward we are looking for can be found in the story and historical context of Athabaskan fiddle music.
      I really could go on and on… three minutes, and such small space for dialogue is challenging! I suppose that’s the point though!

  4. So many amazing ideas here. I can see parallels in how we design educational experiences for students with disabilities as well. The one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t meet needs. Thanks for sharing and STAY WARM!

    1. Thanks Jennifer,
      My apologies, I applied to the wrong comment there… Yes, there’s a lot to try and pack into three minutes. It was a difficult process for sure! I really appreciated your sharing your perspective, it really is just all about inclusivity. Thanks for the comments and warm wishes!

  5. Thanks for the comments Wendy, I am really intrigued with where my research has been taking me and look forward to sharing the journey.
    If I recall it was balmy -34 the day I made the video… before the phone froze a few times mid recording. All in good fun, embrace the place!

  6. Hi Ryan

    The example you used provided me with a vivid example of the benefits of shaking off education’s traditional standardized approaches.

    On a side note, I would have loved a link to a video of Athabaskan fiddle players at the end of your video. I realize that’s a little bit of a tangent from your main theme but it created such an image in my mind that my next stop is YouTube. 🙂
    Take care

    1. Thanks Kristi,
      There’s quite a bit of footage online, hope you were able to find something! Bill Stevens is notable player with some online videos and there are quite a number of recordings from the Alaska Fiddle Festival. Hope you enjoy!

  7. Hi Ryan,
    I love the connections you are making between the music, learning, and our school system. I agree we must embrace change and other ways of knowing! I love the dramatic effect of emphasis your presentation has when you stop walking. I also would love to know how you first encountered this music or what drew you to begin making these connections. Story is at the centre of all our learning and relationships and I’m intrigued to learn more about your’s! Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks Jennifer. I agree, it all really just comes down to stories!
      In one of the earlier comments, I alluded to how I came to be introduced to the music. I’d be happy to elaborate on what made me start making these connections to learning at the conference via Zoom. Glad you enjoyed the video and are interested in some of my thoughts!

  8. Hi Ryan. I was very intrigued by your video. I definitely agree with you that the education system is failing to meet the needs of our Indigenous learners. I like how you came to know your community and realized a common interest that would engage the community and the learners. Building relationships and place based learning is very important! I look forward to reading your thesis.

    1. I agree, so much hinges on relationship. As I was reading your comment, I began thinking about how important it is for us, as educators, to fully engage ourselves in our teaching (and learning) if we hope to authentically engage our learners. For me, place is the where relationships and engagement all begin.
      Thanks for the great comment Mary!

  9. Hey Ryan,
    I see real connections into unboxing the way that mathematics is taught and seeing what we learn and how we express it as an art instead of compliance. I did not realize how powerful the sound of the dry snow underfoot would be to me! It is all these little things that help evoke emotion and make connections to what we are learning. Thank you!

  10. Thanks Jeff! I like what you’re saying about “unboxing” mathematics. Expressing numbers as art reminds me of chess. Though I’m not a math teacher, I often find myself teaching “math” and feel pretty boxed-in by my own limited understanding of how numbers work together. I witness moderate levels of ‘math anxiety’ in my middle school and high school aged learners, perhaps unboxing the way we approach teaching would be a healthy remedy? Personally, I’ve found success in bringing math outside the classroom and into the woodworking shop. However, I know there’s many more perspectives and ways to approach learning/teaching math… something I’d like to learn more about! Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, cheers.

  11. HI Ryan,
    Thank you for your 3 minute video. Your passion shows! So does the crisp cool weather :-).
    I love your thoughts and hope through your study we too learn new perspectives to share with students and learn more about ourselves as well as our surroundings. I’d love to hear the music you described so eloquently. It sounds like this type of fiddle ‘practice’ creates critical thinkers! That which we need now more than ever.

  12. Hi Ryan,
    Thank you for your very thought provoking 3 minutes. I too love the sound of the crunching snow in the background and the joy your were expressing from being there in -36. Dancing between traditions through the metaphor of Athabaskan Fiddle Music resonates with me as a non-traditional learner (Hairstylist to Instructor to PhD) and my own experiences of navigating a standardized education system. In addition, I am married to a guy that plays several instruments by ear, and happens to be a carpentry instructor too. Trades education is rigidly standardized, as you know, and I question how can such rigidity coexist alongside the desire for creativity and craftsmanship.
    I look forward to your defence.

  13. Hi Ryan,
    You have made some powerful and inspiring statements. I see immense value in your desire to challenge our current system, specifically by acknowledging new and novel ways for people to understand the significance of culture and identity. I believe your words resonate throughout a variety of communities and I am excited to witness the good work you are doing.
    As you walk alone, in a seemingly unforgiving landscape, I feel hope and collegiality knowing that we are not alone in taking the next steps forward.

  14. This is an amazing thesis idea! This conference is amazing to see all of the ideas out there. I would have never thought of examining something like this, but with your ideas I find myself already thinking about the connections to school and what about our system needs to change.

  15. Hi Ryan,
    Your video was impactful. Like many others, I found that the sound of the snow underfoot created a unique auditory component to your story… I am not sure that it was intentional, but it was certainly in keeping with your approach ;). I also enjoyed listening to you during the break out session. I have found the day to be quite emotional and your open heart was very appreciated. All the best on your journey and thank you for what you are contributing to the field.
    I will endeavor to walk softly and with an open heart, like you!

  16. Hi Ryan,
    Cool! And I’m not just talking about the weather. 🙂 Music can act as a motivational catalyst, so why not infuse it into our educational setting. I definitely see this in my own practice with either students wanting to listen to music while they work, or writing their own lyrics which can be incorporated into a poetry lesson, for example.
    I do see the connection between the topic of your thesis and what Monique spoke about this morning. She gave an analogy of learning how to count in another language. It can be done in a classroom, or out picking and counting flowers for a loved one. Which one is more meaningful? I suppose that depends on the student… But is sure is nice to be able to provide students with options.
    Thanks again for sharing your learning, Ryan!

  17. Hi Ryan,
    This video is very evocative! I’m definitely going to find some Athabaskan fiddlers on youtube now… You got me thinking of my own music education (mostly orchestral) and how that model maps onto my understanding of teaching and learning more generally. My teaching is probably influenced by the envy I felt for the “playing by ear” musicians around me. I think all musicians experience a sense of connection (to each other, to an audience, to something more ethereal), and that sense of play, creativity and communication is so important in the rest of our lives too. Thank you for this food for thought!

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