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UBC Okanagan students learn through Indigenous storytelling

UBCO Assistant Professor Bill Cohen is transforming education through Indigenous perspectives.
Dr. Bill Cohen is transforming education through Indigenous perspectives. (UBCO website)

A professor at Kelowna’s UBC Okanagan campus is helping his students unlearn biases and understand the inter-connectedness of the world through the power of storytelling with a new curriculum.

Bill Cohen, PhD., Assistant Professor in the Okanagan School of Education and Indigenous Scholar from the Okanagan Nation is weaving multiple knowledge streams together to create a framework for a unique university level course.

Instead of focusing exclusively on testing, Cohen empowers students to share knowledge through other means, like with puppet plays of Syilx captikʷɬ.

Cohen describes captikʷɬ as the Syilx Okanagan traditional story system, literally translated to; ‘The burning ember passed on generationally (sic) to ignite new understanding continuously.’

“The puppet show is one way for the students to be the story. They create their own characters—and they can be as minimalistic or elaborate as they’d like—but it’s a collective and creative process.”

As a child, Cohen experienced systemic biases and racism in the education system and consequently struggled with a lack of engagement in his studies.

Later, at university Cohen volunteered as a literacy tutor with Indigenous Elders, and quickly realized that he was learning more from them than he expected.

“They knew our languages and traditional knowledge, but didn’t read or write English well. I quickly realized I was learning a lot more from them than they were from me, and that multiple knowledge streams are the way to go. With encouragement from Elders and family members, I decided to get some credentials.”

That experienced inspired Cohen to take on the role of ‘connector’ in education and many of his teaching practice have been informed by capti̓kʷɬ, grounded in his Syilx homeland.

Now, after nearly 40 years of teaching, Cohen brings together Elders and traditional knowledge with students, teachers and other professors to develop new curriculum.

“With capti̓kʷɬ pedagogy with students and educators, collectively we can transform schools to be more appreciative and sustaining with place-based relationships and cultural and ecological diversity.”

In recognition of his dedication and passion for inspiring the next generation of educators, Dr. Cohen was recognized by UBC Okanagan with the 2024 Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence and Innovation in April.