Providing teacher support materials for curriculum developments incorporating intercultural understandings in teaching science


Michael Michie

Educational consultant, Darwin


Mark Linkson

Principal, Warraber Island State School, Torres Strait

Paper presented at the 31st Annual Conference of the Australasian Science Education Research Association, Fremantle WA, 29 June - 1 July 2000.


The decision to upgrade the Aboriginal Science Teachers' Handbook was seen as an important step complementing the development of a new curriculum and of curriculum resource materials for Northern Territory schools. The process was much more than a change of name for the handbook, in particular responding to Indigenous perspectives of consultation, ownership of knowledge and protocols. Western research into cultural aspects of science informed the writers regarding intercultural understandings in science.

Intercultural understandings in teaching science: A handbook for teachers was seen as serving a number of purposes, which are reflected in its organisation into six sections

  • science teaching in NT schools: Indigenous perspectives
  • intercultural science teaching in NT schools
  • understanding Indigenous knowledge
  • protocols for working with Indigenous people
  • ICCAS primary science teachers' guide
  • Indigenous knowledge resources in schools.

In the spirit of Reconciliation, we wish to acknowledge the involvement of Indigenous peoples from throughout the Northern Territory in providing knowledge and advice in the preparation of Intercultural understandings in teaching science: A handbook for teachers, and in the preparation of this paper.

The importance of literacy and numeracy in a society in which 30% of the students are of Indigenous origins has become highly politicised (Collins, 1999), yet the practicalities of teaching these skills through other learning areas continues to be ignored. The preparation of the handbook, Intercultural understandings in teaching science: A handbook for teachers (hereafter referred to as Intercultural understandings; NTDE, 2000) was seen as one way of facilitating literacy and numeracy through the curriculum, particularly through science. It also established a contextualised way of teaching science in Indigenous schools, as well as presenting a rationale for non-Indigenous students to learn about Indigenous science.

The reform of the science curriculum in the Northern Territory, particularly the changes to engage Indigenous students, and its implementation through curriculum and materials development have been the focus of our previous papers (Michie, 1998; Linkson, 1999; Michie & Linkson, 1999). In this paper we focus on teacher professional development through the production of Intercultural understandings (NTDE, 2000).

The Journey

Intercultural understandings was designed to replace the Aboriginal Science Teacher's Handbook (ASTH; NTDE, 1982) which focused on the core curriculum for science then in use in the NT. In ASTH, the early stages of the program enabled teachers to focus on "content derived from local Aboriginal knowledge", although "later stages would see a shift in emphasis away from content to the development of the processes of hypothesising, analysing and synthesising using familiar European content" (p. 1). To do this, the Milingimbi case study was written, providing teachers with an examplar from one community . ASTH also contained sections on Aboriginal learning, organisation of knowledge, and the role of the Aboriginal teacher, as well as notes on the core science understandings and skills.

ASTH was probably ahead of its time: although the science curriculum of the time was basically Eurocentric/Western, the point was made by the authors (one of whom was an Indigenous person) that "science could also be made meaningful by reference to the familiar world of the students and by linking it to other Aboriginal knowledge". They also warned that when teaching European concepts attention needed to be paid "to the way in which students view the world around them" (p. 1). ASTH also modelled the seasonal calendar as a curriculum organiser (Figure 1).

Subsequent development of materials for Indigenous students tried to take into account the points of view expressed by the ASTH authors. The development of "two way" or "both ways" learning (e.g. Harris, 1990) was based on the belief that Indigenous students could learn in both domains (i.e. Indigenous and western) and hold both as valid worldviews. A course was developed for this purpose (NTDE, 1990) but apparently only appeared as a trial edition. It primarily expressed a western worldview while trying to contextualise it within an Indigenous setting.

Figure 1. The Milingimbi seasonal calendar as an organiser for a science program (from Davis, Harris & Traynor, 1980). Not reproduced at this time

Although an attempt was made to include Indigenous knowledge and values, it was always a given that western science outcomes were the endpoint of the exercise. Along with other educators in the NT we have shifted our thinking in the intervening years to believe that both western and Indigenous knowledge outcomes are significant and valuable intrinsically, without sidelining Indigenous knowledge as a means to an end. For example, in 1997 the NT Board of Studies certified approved an Arrente curriculum whose learning outcomes arise from both western and Indigenous knowledge systems. For Indigenous students especially, learning outcomes from both knowledge systems can and should be sought.

More recent development of materials for Indigenous learners has seen the focus shift to English as a Second Language (ESL) principles. Commonwealth funding through the Aboriginal Education Project (AEP) to the NT initially focused on literacy materials, and with these in place, on other curriculum areas. Science curriculum resources were developed in both primary (1994-99) and secondary (1994-present), although we have focused only on the primary materials (Linkson, 1999; Michie & Linkson, 1999). The decision to update ASTH to Intercultural understandings was taken late as part of these proceedings.

Parallel developments

Curriculum development

Major curriculum reform was under way in Australia as a result of the Hobart Declaration in 1989. Science was identified as one of eight learning areas and as a consequence a statement on science (Australian Education Council, 1994a) and a science profile (Australian Education Council, 1994b) were produced. The philosophical basis of the new science curriculum was "science for all". These were used as the basis for new curriculum in science in the NT - the Board Approved Course of Study (NTBOS, 1999a) and an outcomes profile (NTBOS, 1999b). The AEP-funded curriculum materials - Implementing the Common Curriculum in Aboriginal Schools project or ICCAS - were being developed in parallel with the new curriculum (Linkson, 1999; Michie & Linkson, 1999).

Research in cultural aspects of science

Cultural studies in science education have been undertaken by a number of researchers (e.g. Aikenhead, 1996, 1997; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1998; Waldrip & Taylor, 1999), as well as studies on worldview in science (Cobern, 1996). This created an atmosphere where research could be used to reinforce many of the experiences of teachers who had attempted to teach science to Indigenous students. A visit by Glen Aikenhead to Darwin in 1998 widened the horizons to include other people who were developing materials for Indigenous students overseas, creating a network including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Alaska.

The Process

The decision to write Intercultural understandings was taken by the Science Subject Area Committee and the Indigenous Education Standing Committee (IESC), subcommittees of the Northern Territory Board of Studies. At the time, all curriculum documents had to be approved by the IESC; besides that, consultation with the IESC (which was made up of a majority of Indigenous people) was an important strategy in developing Intercultural understandings.

The title of Intercultural understandings caused some angst, particularly the ambiguities of the old title, and it was not sufficient to replace the word Aboriginal with Indigenous. Perceived ambiguities in the title of the ASTH were noted in the initial meeting with the IESC and focused discussions on the purpose of Intercultural understandings and its potential audience. At the time of writing ASTH the audience was perceived to be Indigenous teachers; by late 1997 the ambiguity between 'Aboriginal science' and 'Aboriginal science teachers' had become more apparent.

The main ambiguity arose as interest in aspects of Indigenous science (primarily bush tucker) had become more common and was being addressed in many non-Indigenous classrooms. Also, the relevance of teaching science with an Indigenous perspective received impetus with the release of the Australian Indigenous Studies Curriculum Policy (NTBOS, 1997). Thus the audience for Intercultural understandings was no longer seen as exclusively Indigenous teachers and their Indigenous students but all teachers and all students regardless of their ethnicity. A further influence, although not as strong as the Indigenous policy, was the need to incorporate Studies of Asia (NTBOS, 1998b). At first, a symbolic rather than verbal response was to link the three components - teacher - science - students - in a type of flow chart (Figure 2). The term 'intercultural' conforms with a view of the universality of knowledge rather than the compartmentalisation of knowledge inferred with 'cross-cultural', in this case in terms of its cultural origin.

Later consultations with the IESC focused on issues such as the ownership of knowledge and two items in early drafts of Intercultural understandings created a deal of tension. In western society, knowledge is seen as a commodity which is owned by everyone, although there are protocols for acknowledging sources of information. There are few exceptions which are covered by patents, copyright and the supposed need for confidentiality. In Indigenous societies, particular people are guardians of knowledge which they may chose to share (the legal implications of Indigenous knowledge ownership is being explored more fully elsewhere, e.g. Maunsell, 1997; Janke, 1999).

  • The first item was an article on the organisation of knowledge which had appeared originally in ASTH. This contained some detailed information regarding the Yolgnu perception of knowledge, particularly in its application to classification and the seasonal calendar. It was considered that as the material had already been published (and one of the authors was an Indigenous person), it could be included in Intercultural understandings.
  • The second item was a chart which examined traditional and western knowledge about crocodiles. Drawn up as a Venn diagram, the chart was the product of a workshop held at Batchelor College. Discussion focused on the issue of the original intended audience of the knowledge, which was considered to be restricted to the workshop participants. To publish it further would need to have the permission of all the participants at the workshop. It was agreed not to include the chart (although by this time it had been already published elsewhere without permission) in Intercultural understandings. Some information from the chart was reformatted into a table which appears in the handbook.

The ongoing use of Indigenous knowledge is now acknowledged in Intercultural understandings, with the sanction that further publication of the material is prohibited without permission.

Consultation was seen as an important part in writing Intercultural understandings. Apart for consultation with the IESC, drafts were made available at meetings with Indigenous educators, science teachers, members of the Science Subject Area Committee and a number of researchers and teachers from other learning areas.

The Contents

Intercultural understandings was seen as serving a number of purposes, which are reflected in its organisation into six sections

  • science teaching in NT schools: Indigenous perspectives
  • intercultural science teaching in NT schools
  • understanding Indigenous knowledge
  • protocols for working with Indigenous people
  • ICCAS primary science teachers' guide
  • Indigenous knowledge resources in schools.

Figure 2. A symbolic interpretation of the teacher - science - student relationships covered in Intercultural understandings. Not reproduced

Teaching science in NT schools: Intercultural perspectives

The first issue relating to teaching science in NT schools was to understand the nature of the NT curriculum, which has been dealt with previously (Michie, 1998; Michie & Linkson, 1999).

  • The NT curriculum actively promotes teaching science to all students, whether they are Western or Indigenous. Suggested activities at the various levels include those which could more likely be done in a community school or with Indigenous students, but there is no reason why they should not be attempted in other settings.
  • One of the aims of the course is to "consider that the world views 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, NTBOS, 1999a).
  • The curriculum can be inclusive of Western and Indigenous knowledge and tries to avoid conflict by "realisation that both world views are equally valid and are based within each culture", and that teachers "need to make explicit statements about which perspective is being presented" (p. 9, NTBOS, 1999a).
  • Notwithstanding this, the scientific teaching/learning model is used as a basis for experiential learning for all students.

Issues of literacy and to a lesser extent numeracy are addressed in this section of Intercultural understandings. Throughout the ICCAS primary materials there is emphasis on teachers incorporating English as a second language (ESL) strategies where appropriate in the learning sequence, and this is repeated in Intercultural understandings.

A brief mention was made of the Studies of Asia in NT Schools policy, which is an area with high potential for development. However, the main focus for Intercultural understandings was seen to relate to the Indigenous perspective.

Understanding Indigenous knowledge

This section looks at a number of perspectives on the differences in understanding between Indigenous and Western peoples, particularly the ways Indigenous peoples organise their knowledge and how that can be incorporated into a school program. This came from a variety of sources, including Davis, Harris and Traynor (1980), ASTH (NTDE, 1982), Fleer (1999) and the work at Batchelor College mentioned previously. A model of a community based science program with the seasons as an organiser from Davis et al (1980) is included.

The Milingimbi case study was deliberately not included, although some of the material above was originally developed there. Milingimbi is one coastal community and the knowledge from there is not necessarily appropriate to other communities, obviously less so to Indigenous communities in Central Australia. (Milingimbi was at one time a missionary community and people from a number of clans came there; it is unclear now whether the knowledge in the case study reflects the traditional knowledge of the traditional landowners or a melange of a variety of groups.) Many communities have, however, have devised their own seasonal calendars (and mostly as cyclical rather than linear models), so the model from Milingimbi was considered suitable for programming elsewhere.

Protocols for working with Indigenous people

It was considered that protocols for working with Indigenous peoples would be highly values by teachers who are just establishing themselves in a community school. It could be anticipated that these protocols are dealt with in a more general way as part of a teacher's induction. However it was decided to include them in this document as well, as they covered a number of the situations in which teachers of science would find themselves, namely

  • Indigenous teachers teaching in community schools
  • non-Indigenous teachers teaching in community schools
  • non-Indigenous teachers teaching Indigenous perspectives in science in urban schools
  • non-Indigenous teachers teaching Indigenous students in urban schools.

ICCAS primary science teachers' guide

This looked at the practical aspects of the ICCAS units, including the construction of the units, assessment and evaluation and resource materials.

Indigenous knowledge resources in schools

This listed some of the materials which were currently available focusing on Indigenous knowledge, including Internet sites, as well as some resources for the Studies of Asia through science.

Teacher professional development

It is our belief that three elements are vital for achieving change in teaching of science to be inclusive of Indigenous knowledge and learners in the NT. As noted above, Intercultural understandings was seen as the third element, with changes in curriculum and provision of curriculum resource materials being the other two elements. It provides teachers with background information and understandings of Indigenous culture and world views which are considered vital for people working in community schools. In a previous paper entitled "Beyond bush tucker", Michie, Anlezark and Uibo (1998) looked at ways Indigenous knowledge could be used in schools, to promote a deeper appreciation of Indigenous cultures.

Holistic versus a reductionist approach

Indigenous people examine elements of their surroundings in terms of how they relate to each other.

For example, the notion of the seasons only makes sense when considered with the movement of the animals, growth of plants, movement of water. There is a relation between each element. An Indigenous view moves beyond simply examining the wind, clouds and temperature.

Ecologically based approach

People are a part of the environment. Their actions directly impact on the flora and fauna. People are in and not external to their environment. There is a connectedness with nature and each other rather than the view that nature can be controlled.

The gathering of food or hunting of animals is based on present needs of its people, within the context of ensuring scarce resources will be available in the future. For example, a water hole is important and must be cared for and not depleted.

Inclusive versus the specialisation of knowledge

Everyone understands and uses science and technology (but with certain members of the community claiming knowledge of it) as opposed to specialist knowledge held by a limited few.

An understanding of where to find water is traditionally held by all members of traditionally oriented communities. Similarly, the process of hunting for kangaroos (tracking; signing to indicate direction) is known to all, although aspects of this task may be performed by only some.

Knowledge is spiritually framed

Art, dance music and dreamtime stories link knowledge with the land and its people.

For example, an understanding of day and night may be closely linked with the dreamtime. Stories link people and nature together, and provide a vehicle for passing on cultural knowledge from adults to children.

Contextualised versus decontextualised science

Knowledge is developed and used in context. Scientific enquiry takes place in the everyday situation and not in an environment external to the context in which it will be applied (laboratory).

For example, knowledge of fire lighting is developed as a result of materials available, e.g. rubbing sticks into dried rabbit manure; and using flint stone and gunpowder.

Figure 3. The elements of Indigenous science (after Fleer, 1999).

Intercultural understandings concentrates on aspects of the poorly understood and elucidated construction of Indigenous knowledge. Fleer (1999) summarised the difference between Indigenous and western knowledge systems, which was used in Intercultural understandings (Figure 3), and is supported by other Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers (e.g. Kawagley, 1997; Cajete, 1999).

Nationally, and in most states and territories of Australia, there has been implementation of policies promoting Australia Indigenous studies and resources to supplement the policies. In some cases the materials are basically activities which could be undertaken in association with a particular topic and promote a tokenistic approach to Indigenous studies ("If I do this activity I can tick the Indigenous studies box"). A resource book, From ochres to eel traps, was published some years back (ACTDE, 1990) and revised in 1999 but still has little that will enhance teachers' understandings of Indigenous cultures. Although well illustrated and with links to the national science profiles for Indigenous knowledge activities, it is still somewhat "tick the box". However, we recommend that teachers read the note to readers on the front inside cover:

Aboriginal dreaming stories have been used throughout this book to highlight Aboriginal world views and it is the view of the authors that the stories must be understood in their full cultural context. The stories have important social and cultural meaning beyond the narrative itself. Adults tell children stories to reinforce codes of behaviour relating to life in the real world and an individuals relationship to the spiritual world. This needs to be understood when using Dreaming stories to illustrate how Aboriginal people think about the world. (SEAACT, 1999)

Professional development of teachers working in Indigenous communities has been a difficult area, particularly as government funds for education dry up. Although the NT Department of Education provides induction courses at the beginning of each year and makes cross-cultural courses available, many of the issues relating to living and teaching in Indigenous communities do not arise until teachers have had some experience of the situation. We believe Intercultural understandings goes some way in addressing the problems Western teachers may encounter in teaching in community schools, not necessarily just in the field of science.


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Last updated: 1 August 2000

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