Lessons from the Medicine Wheel: Learning is a Cycle

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This 3-part series introduces the Indigenous teaching of the medicine wheel. Reflecting on Indigenous voices from across Canada, it proposes three unique ways that teachers and parents can use the medicine wheel to guide the young people in their life towards greater Heart-Mind well-being.

The medicine wheel is an important metaphor [1]in many Indigenous[2] cultures. It is often represented as a circle divided into four equal quadrants[3], like quarters of a pie. Each quadrant is a different colour and represents different aspects of the whole. All parts are interrelated, as they interact with and depend upon one another. 

This series[4] describes three unique ways that the lessons of the medicine wheel can be used to support Heart-Mind well-being. Just as all parts of the medicine wheel support each other, these lessons reinforce one another, and can be used together or separately to strengthen Heart-Mind well-being at home or in the classroom. 

Lesson 1 - Learning is a cycle

In our eagerness for the youth we care about to learn new skills, memorize facts, and achieve learning competencies, we can often forget that learning is a process, not a destination. The medicine wheel can bring us back in touch with the process of learning by linking it to the gifts of the four directions - different qualities found in each quadrant of the circle - as in the medicine wheel designed by Cree Elder Michael Thrasher pictured below. Read on to learn how to guide the young people in your life in the learning process from east to north around the medicine wheel, while strengthening key elements of Heart-Mind well-being along the way! 

According to the medicine wheel, learning takes place by moving through stages of awareness, understanding, knowledge and wisdom from east to north in a clockwise direction.

1. East: The first stage of the learning process is vision, or awareness. We enter this stage of the learning process through our senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and scent.  In order to take in all the necessary information through our senses - and be fully aware - we need to tap into our capacity for being alert & engaged. We are in this stage when we encounter a new problem to solve, skill to learn, or concept to understand.

  • Activate Learning:  Strengthen youth's ability to be alert & engaged by guiding them through a raisin meditation. This activity, backed by science[5], has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, which can get in the way of being fully aware and present.

2. South: The second stage of the learning process is time, which is linked to understanding. It encourages us to allow time to just be with our situation - be it solving a problem or learning something new - without trying to have it all figured out, or reacting to it in a harmful way. This stage encourages us to be secure & calm and to cope with the discomfort of uncertainty without being overwhelmed by worries, sadness, or anxiety. When we give learning time in this way, understanding has room to grow. 

3. West: The third stage moves us into our analytical minds, inviting us to use reason and knowledge - as well as out-of-the-box thinking and creativity - to "figure it out." In order for our youth to be able to use their best critical thinking skills in this stage, we must help them stay alert & engaged and remain on-track with their learning goals. 

  • Activate Learning: Encourage the youth you care about to get moving! By this stage of the learning process, it can be hard for young people to stay focused. Research shows that just 10 minutes of mild aerobic exercise - like riding a bike, dancing slowly, or taking a walk around the block - can strenthen the part of our brains that help us stay on track with our goals. 

4. North: The fourth stage represents movement and action. It encourages us to just "do it" - to try out a new skill or test out a solution to a problem - based on the awareness, understanding, and knowledge that we gained as we moved around the medicine wheel. From taking action - and learning what works and what doesn't - wisdom and true knowing are achived. In this stage, we want to encourage youth to solve problems peacefully, using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way. 

And the learning doesn't end here! Just like the medicine wheel, learning is a cycle, and often involves much trial and error. As the youth in our lives try - and fail - and try again, we must remember to be compassionate & kind towards them and ourselves by viewing their trials and triumphs as a natural part of the learning process, rather than an extension of their or our own shortcomings. Modelling this, and coming back to the medicine wheel as a reminder, lays the foundation for the young people we care about to be enthusiastic and capable life-long learners. 

The term "Indigenous" describes a variety of Aboriginal groups. It is used frequently in global and international contexts. Aboriginal peoples are the first inhabitants of Canada, including First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. 

This description of the medicine wheel metaphor is adapted from Anishaabe scholar Nicole Bell's introduction to the medicine wheel as a framework for Indigenous education.

Around the circumference of the circle, the quadrants are marked by four equidistant points. These points symbolize the four directions - east, south, west, north - which traditionally represent different forms of power or medicine. As a whole, the wheel resembles a "compass for human understanding," and ultimately serves to remind us of the interconnectedness of all things and the cyclical nature of life. In this way, the medicine wheel contains important teachings and can be used as a guide on any journey. 

This description is based on writings of Anishaabe scholar Nicole Bell, MEd., PhD., of the bear clan from Kitigan Zibi First Nation, in the article "Teaching by the Medicine Wheel."

As you engage with this series, keep in mind that it is always best to learn about Indigenous teachings directly from members of the Indigenous community. It is with appreciation and respect that the author, who is non-Indigenous, relays her own interpretation of medicine wheel teachings for the purpose this resource. Whenever possible, the author has directly referenced the Indigenous voices upon which this resource is based, and encourages the reader to seek out these and other Indigenous voices. 

A 2008 review found that Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction - which includes the raisin meditation - is effective at reducing stress and anxiety, such as that associated with daily life or chronic illness. 

A 2014 study found that practicing yoga can enhance individuals' capacity to withstand the way fear and helplessness feel in the body, increase awareness of one's emotions, and increase one's tolerance for a range of emotional states. 

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.