Michael Michie, Jane Anlezark, Didamain Uibo

Northern Territory Department of Education
Darwin NT 0801

In the spirit of Reconciliation, we would like to acknowledge that this paper was originally presented on Larrakia land.

The concept of bush tucker-the use of natural resources by Indigenous Australians for food-has become a significant consideration (dare one use the pun, 'flavour of the month') in the search for identity of an Australian cuisine. It has also become a focus for many schools (particularly here in the Northern Territory), as they identify many of the native plants that are present in school grounds or neighbouring environments, and how they are used. This may give students tokenistic inside knowledge about Indigenous Australians, yet it can provide a first step in understanding how Indigenous people view the world.

The links which can be made to bush tucker (and here we also include bush medicine and resources) indicate very sophisticated understandings of the environment by Indigenous people. However, there are also differences in perception of people's place in the environment: Indigenous people consider themselves part of the environment whereas Westerners see themselves as discrete from it, reflected in the holistic, subjective worldviews of Indigenous people as compared to fragmented, objective ones of Western science. Our understanding of the nature of Western science and Indigenous science has been to express them as two separate worldviews. Peat (1994) lists characteristics of each worldview and Christie (1991) compares the two ontologies further in the context of the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in Eastern Arnhemland. Figure 1 is a visual representation of the main elements of an Aboriginal worldview or cosmology, as presented by Aboriginal teaching staff at Milingimbi, another Yolngu group (Kepert, 1991).


Figure 1. Main elements in an Aboriginal world view: the language used is from Milingimbi (Northwest Arnhemland) (from Kepert, 1991)

When considering the acquisition of Western science by Indigenous people, one way of classifying it is into

This model is often offered by Westerners working with Indigenous Australians but poorly reflects the real situation. There are many instances of Indigenous people adapting Western technology to their own purposes (e.g. glass used for blades and arrow points) and rejecting others (e.g. continuing to use ironwood rather than steel in shovelnose spears). These are conscious decisions made on the basis of systematic and scientific trialing. Many other technologies are accepted because they enhance the people's lifestyle, just as they have done in Western and other cultures. However, the hegemonic assimilationist view would be that there is little value in Indigenous knowledge (often simply because it hasn't been acquired by 'scientific' processes), that Western science is culture-free and universal, and that Indigenous people should be assimilated into the Western view of science. We contend that this is not the case and that to value Indigenous knowledge students need to be exposed to it through their science education program.

Comparison of the knowledge on many topics between Indigenous and Western people would indicate that there was

Figure 2 demonstrates how knowledge about crocodiles can be subdivided using this strategy. Further analysis of the Western knowledge would put into a number of categories: classification; seasons; habitats; uses; processing; behaviour; and reproduction. Of these, classification and seasons do not appear in the overlapping knowledge area (we believe that seasonal knowledge would appear here and its absence is an oversight). However, the point we want to make is that there are several other categories of Indigenous knowledge: ownership of knowledge and the law; land ownership; ceremonial; links to ancestral beings; relationships between people and crocodiles.

Figure 2. The chart indicates the knowledge about crocodiles which is considered important to Indigenous people from the Top End of the NT, to Western scientists and where these two fields overlap. (Prepared by lecturers and students from Batchelor College, NT, 1997) 

(Figure 2 is not included for cultural reasons. The basic illustration is of two intersecting circles, one showing Indigenous knowledge and the other showing western knowledge about crocodiles. Where the two circles intersect or overlap represents knowledge common to both groups.)

The following are examples of the ways in which Indigenous knowledge is inclusive of the relationships between the world and the people.


Figure 3. Distribution of kangaroo meat by Aboriginal people living in the Western Desert (after Douglas, 1977) 

There are some areas of Western science where Indigenous knowledge is already valued. In the area of ecology (and this is particularly so here in the Northern Territory) Indigenous knowledge has been integrated with Western knowledge by scientists at the CSIRO Tropical Ecology Research Centre and the Cooperative Research Centre for the Sustainable Development of Tropical Savannas, but this may be because ecology itself takes a more holistic view of the world. Globally, authors such as David Suzuki have advocated the holistic views of indigenous knowledge, particularly relating to the environment (Knudtson & Suzuki, 1992; Suzuki, 1997). Other authors, such as David Peat, have tried to establish parallels between quantum mechanics and indigenous science (Peat, 1994).


However, the value of Indigenous science as a way of teaching about the culture of other peoples has been basically unrecognised. As indicated above there have been only fragmented approaches, such as teaching about bush tucker, bush medicines and knowledge of the seasons, without looking at deeper understandings about the people-without establishing a link to their culture. Our experience in the ways schools (and Western people in general) treat bush tucker is that they consider it under four main headings (if they get past the first or second)

The questions which need to be answered are

What benefit is there for students who are learning Western science in investigating this source of knowledge?

There are many different approaches to teaching and learning science but there is a common thread to science education: no one person can know all about science. No matter what the approach, the reality of the situation is that any science course presents a 'snapshot' of science. The philosophical underpinning of one approach to science is called Science for all (Fensham, Corrigan & Malcolm, 1989). This philosophy has informed the development of the national statement and profile in science (Australian Education Council, 1994 a, b), and subsequently in the Northern Territory, the Board Approved Course of Study and NT outcomes profile for science (NT BOS, 1997a, b).

Science for all focuses on the cultural and human context of science, as well as promoting participation in science by all students, including Indigenous students. However, inclusivity is not simply including minorities in learning the hegemonic context, an assimilationist perspective, but rather a celebration of the differences between groups which leads to understanding the diversity. A major outcome is the understanding that there are other ways of looking at the world.

What is the place of curriculum and policy in making this happen?

In A statement on science for Australian schools (Australian Education Council, 1994 a), one can read:

Scientific knowledge... has been enriched by the pooling of understanding from different cultures - western, eastern and indigenous cultures including those of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders - and has become a truly international activity (p. 3).

We consider that this statement still marginalises Indigenous science through an assimilationist perspective of Western science which allows for its enrichment and maintaining its international profile relative to Indigenous science.

The aim of the NT Science curriculum is to promote consideration of the differing worldviews, not just to enrich Western science but to facilitate a two-way exchange of knowledge and of cultural understanding. One of the aims of the NT Board Approved Course of Study for Science (NT BOS, 1997a) is specifically to

consider that the worldviews of Western and various Indigenous peoples may be different and that their alternative perspectives inform others about using and classifying materials, and understanding phenomena and relationships in the natural and technological world (p. 3).

Thus the Board Approved Course of Study encourages opportunities for teaching Indigenous knowledge to Western students. In the NT this group of students includes many from a wide variety of cultural traditions. The need for the curriculum to be applicable to both Indigenous and Western students is consistent with the aims of the Science curriculum and is discussed below under Cultural considerations.

The Australian Indigenous Studies Curriculum Policy of the NT Board of Studies requires that all students enrolled in NT schools should have the opportunity to undertake Australian Indigenous studies in some form, across the curriculum (NT BOS, 1997c, d). The policy states that, "These studies should be offered in recognition of the histories of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait people and their interaction with other groups in the Australian community and the role education plays in the reconciliation process between individuals and groups" (NT BOS, 1997c, p. 4).

There are specific knowledge and understanding outcomes which are applicable to science, including

What are the implications of including Indigenous understandings?

Cultural considerations

 There are several issues which have to be considered when engaging in Indigenous science, particularly when it involves Indigenous people. We suggest there are protocols which should be observed when dealing with Indigenous people and their knowledge. A major concern is the ownership of knowledge and who may access it. Often knowledge may belong to a particular group (men's knowledge, women's knowledge, sacred knowledge), and it cannot be presumed that the knowledge is uniformly available but only a restricted group of people may be able to speak about it (and the others may claim ignorance). Respect for the people who own the knowledge is more likely to lead to it being shared. Although there is a widespread belief that Western science knowledge is universally available, in reality there are structures in western society which limit most people's access to it (e.g. in academic journals and at conferences, through career choices), as there are in most Indigenous societies.

When accessing Indigenous knowledge we would suggest that

Cultural diversity, worldview and border crossing
The theme of assimilation was taken up by Pomeroy (1994) in her assessment of the agendas of science education for cultural diversity (Figure 4).These agendas move science teaching from a static multicultural view to a more dynamic cross-cultural perspective with a need to access alternative views. Aikenhead (1997) saw agendas 1-7 as leading "to the assimilation of students into Western science, whereas agendas 8 and 9 challenge us to conceive of alternatives to assimilation" (p. 224). The earlier comment regarding the aim of the NT science curriculum, to consider that the worldviews of Western and various Indigenous peoples may differ and that these alternative perspectives inform each other, can be referred back to Pomeroy's agendas at levels 8 and 9. The NT science curriculum is a 'top-down' document, and the practices which are suggested and the challenge for students to engage in different ways of knowing can only occur if there is appropriate support for teachers.

Figure 4. Agendas for science education for cultural diversity (from Pomeroy, 1994)

Agenda 1 Support systems for under-represented groups
Agenda 2 Localised context of the science curriculum
Agenda 3 Appropriate teaching strategies for diverse learners
Agenda 4 Inclusion of the contributions of those generally omitted
Agenda 5 Study of the real stories of Western scientific discovery
Agenda 6 Science for language minority students (including non-standard English speakers)
Agenda 7 Study of the science in "folk knowledge" or "native technologies"
Agenda 8 Bridge the world view of students and that of Western science
Agenda 9 Explore the beliefs, methods, criteria for validity and systems of rationality upon which other cultures' knowledge of the natural world is built

Much of what has been written has looked at the implications for Indigenous students of having to cross borders and the demands of curriculum in the past which only relate to the dominant Western science perspective. Modern curriculum theory in science education is based on the constructivist model, with students constructing knowledge from their own background; for Indigenous students, this can be from another worldview. However, curriculum by itself does not change teachers' practice; what is also needed are curriculum support materials developed to 

The same applies to Western students. They also need to be challenged through the curriculum to engage in ways of knowing which differ from that of their own, dominant, worldview. The development of curriculum support materials for them should follow the same guidelines as suggested above. Aikenhead (1996, 1997) and Aikenhead and Jegede (in prep.) look at how learners are able to moving between different worldviews, both within and between cultures. Again, the emphasis in this work is with Indigenous students and how they cope with Western science, but it is equally applicable to Western students looking at Indigenous knowledge. Aikenhead and Jegede discuss this in terms of border crossing and give a spectrum of types of collateral learning which are possible-parallel (no interaction between worldviews), dependent (varying types and degrees of interaction) and secured (conflicting schemata interact).

Curriculum support materials
Curriculum support materials to support the teaching of Indigenous understandings are starting to appear (e.g. ACT Department of Education, 1990; DECS, 1996; DECCD, 1997; Malcolm, 1995). There have been many attempts to engage students in an indigenous perspective of science, although not always celebrating the role of Indigenous peoples.

Malcolm (1995) uses story as the basis of a unit called "There's an emu in the sky". In it, three children of different cultural traditions try to understand the motions of the Sun and Moon and the mysteries of the night sky. They seek the wisdom of their elders and traditional legends in their communities, to see scientific explanations in the context of making meaning and generating understanding.

The Kormilda Science Project has been described elsewhere at this conference (Read, 1998). The focus of the materials is to give explanations of a variety of Australian landscape features from Indigenous and Western science perspectives. The locations vary in their origins (in a Western sense they include sedimentary and volcanic and plutonic igneous origins), and the writer is incorporating the Indigenous explanations for their formation as well as trying to avoid valuing one perception over the other.

In developing resources, we believe that


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This paper was originally presented at the 47th Annual Conference of the Australian Science Teachers Association (CONASTA 47), Darwin NT, July 1998. It has been published in Proceedings of the Australian Science Teachers Conference, pp. 101-110, 1998.

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