"Values" statements



First Nations Technical Institute
The assessment of learning: a matter of cultural consideration

Diane Hill


The First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI) located on the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory near Deseronto, Ontario is an aboriginally-owned and operated post-secondary institution FNTI's educational and training programs offer diplomas and certificates in human services, small business management, computer science, media studies, and aviation to name a few. The learners enrolled in FNTI's programs are primarily aboriginal people who represent various First Nations communities situated throughout the province of Ontario.

In Canada, there has yet to be a totally free-standing, accrediting aboriginal educational institution. Therefore, no aboriginal "college" can grant diplomas, degrees and/or certificates without the assistance of a governmentally recognized and approved educational partner. For FNTI, Loyalist College of Belleville, Ontario acts as this accrediting partner, and FNTI assumes responsibility for curriculum design and educational program delivery as these relate to "aboriginal" or First Nations people.

Shortly after FNTI's incorporation in 1985, the human services department of the Institute began using portfolio-assisted prior learning assessment as a method of recognizing and accrediting learning at the community college level. Today, several training programs within other educational departments of FNTI have added a portfolio development component to their system of delivery. Therefore, PLA plays an integral role within FNTI's educational philosophy.

In 1987, FNTI organized its first Canada-wide conference on prior learning assessment. Over the years, both staff and faculty have acquired not only knowledge and experience related to the use of prior learning assessment (PLA), but also an extensive library of material resources which helps to support the recognition of PLA as something more than just a technical tool. To demonstrate their commitment to PLA, FNTI's management created a separate department which has become home to the Canadian Association for Prior Learning Assessment (CAPLA).


At FNTI, the primary method of conducting a prior learning assessment is through portfolio development. In the beginning, learners developed portfolios according to what they believed was acceptable to the program in which they were enrolled. Therefore, many portfolios took the form of formal written autobiographical accounts, even though the opportunity for individuals to develop portfolios for varying purposes and in formats matching their unique learning styles was always present. Once completed, learners were then in a position to request an assessment of the prior learning contained within their documented portfolio experiences.

Over the years, prior learning assessment at FNTI has expanded into the following uses:

  • Academic Program and/or Course Exemptions: Learners enrolling into FNTI academic programs can complete a portfolio and argue for exemptions from specific courses contained within their program of study. In the past several learners qualified for exemption from their entire program of study in the case of the two year Native Social Service Worker Diploma Program.

  • Professional Accreditation: Learners interested in seeking professional accreditation in other fields of study outside of FNTI's program offerings often opted to complete a portfolio for the purposes of assessing prior learning related to the profession of their choice. Cases in point are those learners who sought professional designations as certified economic developers and practitioners of "facilitative leadership".

  • Job Requirements: From time to time, adult learners who are employed full-time and have families to raise elect to complete a portfolio as a way of providing their employers with the evidence needed to substantiate their claims to competency in their field. In cases, where salary raises and job security are dependent upon "Qualifications'', some learners are able to argue competency based on experience rather than on academic credentials. This argument is particularly useful when adult learners cannot leave their jobs and families to undergo the training required for attendance in conventional academic programs.

  • Personal Interests/Learning Goals: The majority of First Nations people complete portfolios as a means of helping them to identify and to discover the knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights contained within their particular journey through life. In these cases, portfolio development and the attendant assessment of one's life experiences has successfully been used as a tool which not only helps to raise the self-esteem of the learner, but also helps the learner to identify future learning goals. Many of these portfolios are handed down to both children and grandchildren as family records and heirlooms. In a large number of cases, portfolio development and prior learning assessment provide the impetus for the healing and unification of many First Nation family units.

  • Career Requirements: Many adult learners develop portfolios as expanded versions of their personal resumes. These learners, usually enrolled in employability skills programs, discover that prior learning assessment through portfolio development affords them with a personal marketing device which enhances their chances of securing employment in not just one, but several career opportunities.

  • Program Outcomes: There are a few learners who simply want to graduate with a diploma and/or certificate, and they undertake the task of conducting a prior learning assessment with a very narrow focus. They simply want to be able to document the specific knowledge and skills related to academic program outcomes. Their view is to provide evidence and supporting documentation for competency in their particular program of study, and do not wish to explore life experiences for knowledge and skills which are not obviously related.

While PLA has been a useful tool, our experience in using it with First Nations people has not been without its drawbacks.

Firstly, on a broad scale, we work with people who possess a unique cultural philosophy which contains values, beliefs, and principles which both explain and guide their social organization. On a smaller scale, First Nations people can be divided into several culturally distinct linguistic groups who not only speak different languages, but also practice very different traditions and ceremonial rituals from each other. Such beliefs and practices relevant to a specific culture of aboriginal people are undoubtedly drawn from their understanding of their social history and relationship to their geographic location.

Taken in this context, and if we use the words of Empire State College professor, Dr. Elana Michelson, we can see that once we relinquish the image of the rational mind constructing knowledge in detached and splendid isolation, what we have left is a mesh of social practices through which human activity is delineated and given meaning; activity which is sometimes shared and sometimes contested among social groups and people from other cultures. Dr. Michelson argues that knowledge is as much a social product as it is an invariable partial, and she supports the belief that different knowledge is created and made available from different social and historical locations.

Designers of educational programs for First Nations people trust be cognizant of the fact that western culture and its institutions have historically been guilty of condescension and continues to be insensitive to the nature and content of aboriginal knowledge. Because of this reality, FNTI has made a conscious effort to both encourage and to preserve traditional aboriginal knowledge and skills within its academic programs of study and in its use of PLA through the portfolio development process.

FNTI has been fortunate to have had the support of western academics like Dr. Michelson who has taken the time to explore the creation and meaning of aboriginal knowledge. Through her work, of others like her, western academia can now debate the question of how knowledge is created. We can also debate issues relating to who is responsible for naming the learning and for determining the validity of knowledge. These ideas become interesting points of discussion when we consider that "knowledge is local, interested, relational. It is created by active human groups in the process of sustaining the human world. It is always socially and historically situated, that is, always embedded within the matrix of social relationships and social activity...all knowledge is situated knowledge..." (Michelson, 1996. p. 191).

The ability to read an autobiographical account for the purpose of extracting pertinent and relevant knowledge, skills and attitudes begins to take on a new meaning when we think about the needs of the western academy to maintain its current definitions of knowledge and its right to evaluate and quantify it. At FNTI, we have had to work at accepting a definition of knowledge and skills which does not match our western mind set because we work with aboriginal adult learners whose knowledge and skill are very much situated within the context of the communities and territories in which they live. Aboriginal staff and faculty are not exempt from this internal struggle as many of us have been educated within western institutions and have had our aboriginal thoughts co-opted by the pervasiveness of western values, beliefs and definitions.

However, we are fortunate at FNTI to be able to have some control over the educational process as it relates to the First Nations people who enroll in our institute and its programs of study, but this is not the case for many other aboriginal institutions or aboriginally-geared programs of study situated inside of mainstream educational institutions. In Ontario, if PLA is simply going to be used as a mechanism for helping learners to access western post-secondary education, then we have greatly restricted its use. At FNTI, we have made a conscious attempt to not restrict it. Yet, we still have a long way yet to go in convincing mainstream institutions to consider PLA as a viable means of assessing knowledge and skills for either course or program exemptions. In fact, many mainstream professional accrediting and licensing bodies have yet to consider PLA as a viable alternative to forcing immigrants and other culturally distinct candidates to re-do their training.

For First Nations people, we have a double-edged sword with which to deal. We struggle with convincing mainstream institutions to consider PLA as a viable means of accrediting college level learning, and we struggle to convince them that considering the validity of knowledge and skills which do not necessarily match mainstream definitions is worthy of import. Over the past 12 years, we have consistently worked to reduce identified barriers to PLA and to expand its use because we believe that in a global context, there should be room for reconciliation.

In any case, as PLA practitioners, "we must be careful that we do not fall into the trap of using prior learning assessment to legitimize knowledge and skills that reassembles the academic norm and which ....extends the academy's traditional gate-keeping function of barring alternative cultures of knowledge, and calibrates the legitimacy of students' knowledge according to sameness and correspondences" (Michelson, 1996. p. 193).

At FNTI, we have on occasion acted as interpreters for our learners and helped them to formulate the appropriate jargon and terminology needed to describe acquired learning related to a specialized field. We are all too aware of the current "definitions of knowledge put forth by western institutions who assume both the power and authority to determine what kind of knowledge 'counts' (Michelson, 1996. p. 193)". Many other educational practitioners who must design and deliver educational curriculum for aboriginal people within the parameters established by their host institutions are not so lucky as FNTI. So long as our accrediting partner provides us with the freedom to design and to deliver, we have the best chance in ensuring the creative use and application of PLA for First Nations people. Therefore, whenever possible, we accept portfolios as they are developed and created without demanding that the knowledge be presented as being similar to that of others or recognizable in terms established by universalized academic norms. Nowadays, portfolios are also be created according to learning style, and many take on the form of quilts, artwork and oral presentations.

All in all, the portfolios created by First Nations people serve as true expressions of the richness and diversity of experience. Some are testaments to a world view which values all life forms as both sacred and equal within the creation; an idea which supports a concept of interdependence based on the frailties of the human being. These may be ideas and concepts which threaten the superiority of humankind over other forms of life, but, nevertheless, allows for the surfacing of certain realities and truths like the idea that the earth does not need us to survive. She's already done so for some 65 million years.

At FNTI, we believe that it is possible to value both the confluence and divergence in different perspectives of knowledge from alternative cultural experiences. If we can broaden our knowledge base, then perhaps we can provide the world with much more information by which we can correct OUT mistakes. The full acceptance of PLA as a viable educational tool which has many uses and applications requires the acceptance of alternative definitions of knowledge. Continuing dialogue and the willingness of the "authorities" to share power and control is vital to the building of relationships from which new systems emerge. Unfortunately, the human race has a long way to go when we consider whether people of one nation can come to trust the people of another. In this day and age, it is probably more feasible to focus on whether we can get one educational institution to trust another's method of assessing learning and bestowing academic credentials.


In closing, our future vision of PLA as it relates to First Nations people is perhaps summed up best with an example taken from the Iroquoian culture of aboriginal people. Iroquoian people believe that the decisions made today will affect seven generations into the future. Therefore, all decisions and the actions which result must be deliberated with the utmost care and intention. Learning is a life-long process, and we need to learn from one another if we are to survive into the future. So, let us continue with our deliberations on the use of PLA and on the kinds of knowledge assessed because what we decide today will definitely impact us in the future.

Diane Hill is a Mohawk from the Grand River Territory of the Six Nations Iroquois people. She has worked for the past 14 years as both an independent consultant, writer and healer. Diane is the current Coordinator of Human Services Programs for the First Nations Technical Institute. Her work focuses on the design, development, and delivery of community-based educational and training programs for First Nations people.


Michelson, E. (1996). Beyond Galileo's Telescope: Situated Knowledge and the Assessment of Experiential Learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 46(4), 185-196.

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