“A seeking of truth through listening”: Garfield’s Narrative

By: Garfield Gini-Newman

Garfield Gini-Newman

Education Consultant

Garfield Gini-Newman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at OISE, University of Toronto. He explores how to teach through sustained critical inquiry while nurturing deep conceptual understanding and genuine competence. Garfield has worked with thousands of teachers across grades and subjects, helping them to frame learning around engaging and provocative activities and rich, authentic assessments. Currently, Garfield is engaged with schools across Canada, in South America, and in Europe. Over the past two decades request for Garfield’s services have taken him from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean and across North America. His interest in effective teaching and learning has led him to actively explore the challenges and opportunities presented by teaching and learning in the digital age. In addition to his work at the University of Toronto and delivering workshops, Garfield has also authored several articles, chapters in books and seven textbooks and has taught in the faculties of education at York University and the University of British Columbia. His most recent book co-authored with Roland Case, Creating Thinking Classrooms has received widespread praise from leading educators across Canada and internationally.

Contributor’s Note

As a white male growing up in rural Ontario, I had a connection to land—albeit a Western connection. My early years were spent on a small farm, and my formative years were in a small town of 700 people. I spent several of my early teen years working on a local farm. These land-based experiences shaped my personal relationship with the land, although as a harvester more than a caretaker. In my academic career I earned an Honours Degree and a Master’s Degree, both in history. My course-based Master’s allowed me to explore many different facets of history, including a critical look at the age of European colonization. Many of the readings in the course challenged the dominant narrative of European explorers as heroic discoverers and caused me to re-think that very narrative that had hitherto shaped my understanding of how the past had molded the present. Since finishing my academic degrees, ongoing work with Indigenous communities, engaging in the work of writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and coming to grips with the notions of postmodernism and postcolonialism, has continued to disrupt my understanding of our world as it has come to be and forced me to think deeply about the world as it can and should be.

An Awakening

Travel can be an eye-opening experience and a wonderfully rich source for learning. It can also be a very disquieting experience. On a recent trip to Italy, Jeff—raised a Catholic and educated in the Catholic school system—achieved a life long goal to visit the Vatican. Although he was impressed by the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica, he was also deeply troubled by much of the art work and many of the artifacts that make up the Vatican museum. As he stood in line to enter St. Peter’s Square, he wondered, “why are there Egyptian obelisks in St. Peter’s Square?” This question repeated itself as he wandered through the Vatican Museums seeing countless artifacts from cultures all over the world. “Where did many of the treasures in the Vatican museum come from?”

As it dawned on Jeff that much of the vast collection contained in the Vatican Museums are in fact stolen artifacts, his discomfort began to grow. As he toured through the collection of priceless paintings housed at the Vatican, Jeff began to wonder anew. “Why do so many of the paintings show scenes of war and violence?” He noticed that so many of the images, showing biblical stories or important events in the history of the Church, were violent depictions of conflict and forced conversion to Catholicism. Jeff wondered how could he reconcile his Catholic faith with knowing so much of the Church’s history supported practices that contributed to genocide, the destruction of cultures, and the theft of priceless objects? The colonial past and its repercussions on countless millions of people around the world seemed in direct contradiction with the teaching of Christ and the Church.

Suddenly, the grandeur that Rome represented and the vast collection of art and historical artifacts was mired in a past that exalted and enriched some at the expense of so many others. The Vatican experience was a moral awakening for Jeff. A realization that so much of what is taken for granted has come at a heavy price to others. How come this aspect of history was not taught in schools? Why has the Church not atoned for their actions? Most importantly, how can each of us practice acts of reconciliation in our daily lives?

Pedagogical Connections

My life and academic pursuit beginning in a small Ontario town has led me on a personal journey where new learning has more often than not caused me to pause, reflect and re-think my beliefs and how I understand the world. Learning for students needs to equip them with the tools to make sense of the world they are living in and to reconcile their lived experiences with the challenges they will face.

Cultivating Awareness

On my first visit to Versailles in my early twenties, I was astounded and impressed by the expansive gardens, including the multitude of fountains. What Louis XIV had managed to create seemed truly amazing to my young eyes. Over time, I came to learn about the huge human cost that resulted from the Sun King’s vanity. These beautiful gardens were not a product of the natural environment: they were built on swamp land infested with mosquitoes, which led to several thousand workers dying during their from malaria.

Over time, the opulence of Versailles came to represent the epitome of vanity and the arrogance of the Western mind. The Scientific Revolution had created the belief in the Western mind that humanity had both the right and the ability to apply human ingenuity to control and manipulate nature. This arrogance would ultimately lead to 20th century disasters like the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable Titanic and a century of devastating wars, after the “war to end all wars.”

My view of Versailles underwent a major transformation after I saw a simple yet profound visual that compared a 17th century Indigenous community to an early European settlement in what is now Virginia. The visual illustrated a dramatic contrast between Indigenous and European relationships with the land. Indigenous people saw their role as caretakers of the land who received nature’s gifts, while the Europeans saw their role as having dominion over the land, controlling, manipulating and taking what they wanted. The early European-settlements on Turtle Island were Versailles writ small. Just as Louis XIV drained swamps, re-directed a river and created perfectly manicured gardens to reflect his control over nature, so to did settlers attempt to clear land, fence in what they wanted to control and changed the landscape in an attempt to re-create the environment to suit their needs and wants. 

My journey to living respectfully and in harmony with the land continues to evolve but is by no means complete. As I write this, I have just finished planting 1400 tulip bulbs in gardens carved from our property—all the bulbs imported from Europe. We also struggle to try to maintain a well-manicured green lawn rather than allowing for natural green space. Over the years, I have sought to restore native species of trees on our property, changing some gardening practices to rely more on nature’s sources to enrich the soil and this year, our festive decorations outdoors will celebrate the gifts of Mother Earth by using trimmings from local cedars, Douglas firs, pine, sumac, and red twig dogwood.

Pedagogical Connections

Education is about training the mind, not filling the bucket. When we focus learning on critical inquiry, we open our minds to consider a range of perspectives and the possibility of our beliefs and perceptions being challenged. Learning as inquiry becomes a life-long pursuit.