The Sunday Magazine

How an Inuit-Montessori preschool hopes to reinvent education in the North

The program at Pirurvik, an early childhood education centre in Pond Inlet, Nunavut, for which the name means "a place to grow," was developed three years ago by combining traditional Inuit knowledge with the Montessori method. Its founders recently won the Arctic Inspiration Prize, known as "the Nobel of the North." Kieran Oudshoorn's documentary is called A Little Nest.

Pirurvik education centre in Pond Inlet won $1M Arctic Inspiration Prize

Children explore different activities at the Pirurvik preschool in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. The program won the $1-million Arctic Inspiration Prize this year for its innovative use of the Montessori teaching method, combined with Inuit traditional knowledge. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

by Kieran Oudshoorn, CBC Iqaluit

When Karen Nutarak checked her email on Dec. 18, 2018, the last thing she was thinking about was winning $1 million.

A mother of four with a full-time job, Nutarak had a lot on her mind. Just three years earlier, she and her close friend Tessa Lochhead had opened a preschool in the remote Arctic hamlet of Pond Inlet, Nunavut, called Pirurvik, which means "a place to grow" in Inuktitut.

Nutarak and Lochhead had developed a unique early childhood education program for Pirurvik, which was making waves across the territory by blending Montessori teaching principles and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit or Inuit traditional knowledge, known simply as IQ.

Nutarak opened the email to discover that their work at Piruvik had won them the $1-million Arctic Inspiration Prize, which rewards northern projects committed to addressing the "causes rather than the symptoms" of issues facing the North.

"I was crying. I was like, 'What? Wow! Are you serious? Is this a joke?'" said Nutarak, recalling the phone call with the selection committee after getting the email.

Tessa Lochhead and Karen Nutarak are the founders and directors of Pirurvik preschool in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Nutarak has lived in Pond Inlet all her life. Lochhead moved to the community from Ottawa a decade ago. Both women work in education. Lochhead worked as a teacher at the high school and then at the elementary school, while Nutarak was an instructor of adult learning at the local Nunavut Arctic College campus.

Incorporating traditional knowledge

Through their work, they saw the shortcomings of Nunavut's education system. Poverty is widespread in the territory — nearly half the population is on welfare, and only two out of every five children complete high school. Pond Inlet, with a population of just over 1,600, was no exception.

For Nutarak, the root of the problem lay in the fact that schools were based on a non-Indigenous model and did not properly incorporate IQ.

"It's very intimidating being a student in the classroom," said Nutarak.

Just two generations ago, Inuit — unlike many other Indigenous people in Canada —  were still living on the land in tents and igloos and sod homes. Learning didn't happen in classrooms; it was part of everyday life, with lessons embedded in hunting and sewing and chores around camp.

Children explore different activities at the Pirurvik preschool in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Observation and hands-on learning are critical parts of traditional Inuit knowledge, and they were also a big part of Lochhead's educational background — although for a different reason.

"My little sister has cerebral palsy," said Lochhead. "When she was going into the school system my mom said, 'We can't be sending her into the regular school stream.' So they started looking at alternative methods."

What they found was the Montessori method.

Harnessing natural curiosity

Developed by Italian educator Maria Montessori at the beginning of the 20th century, the Montessori method aims to harness a child's natural curiosity in an environment where they can discover and learn at their own pace. Self-direction, observation and hands-on learning are key principles, just like with IQ.

"Slowly, we realized what Maria Montessori had created. It was similar to Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit," said Nutarak.

That's when the two women decided to start a preschool.

There's just such a strong history of colonization. We don't need more of that.- Tessa Lochhead, Pirurvik preschool  co-founder 

But it was easier said than done. It took years of hard work. They had to get licensed. To find money, they cobbled together funding from the Makigiaqta Inuit Training Corporation and Nunavut's Department of Education. They also had to negotiate with the local District Education Authority (DEA) to get a classroom in the Ulaajuk elementary school.

"At first the DEA was hesitant, which is very understandable," said Lochhead. "We know there's just such a strong history of colonization. We don't need more of that."

Children on the playground outside of the Ulaajuk elementary in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

Despite the challenges, Nutarak and Lochhead were successful in making Pirurvik a reality. In January 2016, they opened their doors to 18 students.

Almost immediately, the preschool was a hit with parents and the community at large. But it wasn't until their first class graduated and entered into kindergarten that they saw the real impacts.

"The feedback from the kindergarten staff was unbelievable." said Lochhead.

"They said, 'Oh my gosh, you've created this whole new cohort. I'm pairing children who had come in, who'd been graduates of the preschool program, with children who had not.… I make them buddies because one is a leader and helping the child who had never been to preschool.'"

A instructor works with kids in the Pirurvik preschool in Pond Inlet, Nunavut. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

The success of the program kicked off a positive feedback loop that just kept growing.

"There's all this exciting talk around town about this program. And finally, you know, I think it was sort of a joke where someone said, 'Well this should just be all over Nunavut,'" said Lochhead.

"And I remember thinking, 'Wow, wouldn't that be cool. But yeah, right. You know, we're just surviving on a day-to-day basis.'"

That's when Nutarak had her next big idea.

Expanding the program

"I heard about [the] Arctic Inspiration Prize," said Nutarak. "I said, 'Tessa, we should try for that $1 million.'"

So the two women got to work again, filling out forms and crafting a plan. They proposed expanding their preschool program to seven more Nunavut communities.

The Arctic Inspiration Prize jury was impressed, and Pirurvik won the grand prize.

The awards ceremony was in February, and two months later they led the first of a series of workshops in Pond Inlet, training daycare workers from Iqaluit.

The idea behind Pirurvik is bringing together two philosophies of child-rearing that, at first glance, are worlds apart — like Tessa and Karen, two friends with a big dream that just keeps on growing.

Lochhead and Nutarak are still building on their dreams of transforming education in Nunavut. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)

"I would love to open a building in this community," said Nutarak. "I really want a parenting program offered through Pirurvik so that we can gain back the parenting skills we have lost."

Lochhead agrees, saying it would be "the ultimate dream come true" to have a centre in Pond Inlet.

"I think Pond Inlet deserves it. It's the heart of early childhood education in Nunavut."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.