Michael Michie, Educational consultant, Darwin

Paper presented at the 32nd conference of the Australasian Science Education Research Association, held in Sydney NSW in July 2001.

In the spirit of Reconciliation, I would like to acknowledge the Larrakia Nation as the traditional owners of the lands around Darwin and the Eora people as the traditional owners of the lands around Sydney.



The incentive for me to write this paper came as a response to a presentation at the 2000 ASERA conference in Perth by Beverley Jane (Jane & Blades, 2000), in which she acknowledged some difficulties she had had in presenting a tertiary course at Deakin University. I do not see it as a rebuttal of the arguments she put forward at that conference but rather it is a reflection of my own experiences, readings, writings and thoughts in the intervening twelve months. There have been several events in the past twelve months which have influenced my thinking, including

  • my decision to undertake further research into culture brokerage as a doctoral student and the reflections involved with making that decision
  • a term teaching at Kormilda College in Darwin, a school which provides a western education to Indigenous students, where I worked as a pastoral care teacher to a group of 24 Indigenous students while teaching western science and mathematics to predominately western students
  • a term teaching western science, mathematics and computing to Indigenous adults at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education
  • further readings in cross-, multi- and intercultural science education, particularly a special edition of Science Education early this year, Richard Trudgen's Why warriors lie down and die (Trudgen, 2000), and the release of the movie, Yolgnu Boy.

Over the past five years or so I have engaged in writing primarily about how to engage in teaching Indigenous science (Michie, 1998, 1999, 2000; Michie, Anlezark and Uibo, 1998; Michie & Linkson, 1999, 2000), supposing that somewhere in there I had given a rational for teaching Indigenous science (the why of this paper).

It is my intention to address the value of Indigenous science in a number of ways, namely

  • indigenous science as part of the way we can understand the world
  • what indigenous science tells us about western science and science education
  • a way of achieving Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and a vehicle for social justice.

Throughout this discussion I want to focus on Science for all as a guiding principle for achieving scientific literacy through science education. I want to break from the science/science education nexus which sees the products of science education as proto-scientists but rather as people living in a scientific literate, multicultural society.


Indigenous science as part of the way we can understand the world

Two years ago I had the opportunity to see some Aboriginal men make a boomerang in the traditional way. There were three old men in the group, I don't know how old they were but it was obvious that they had been making boomerangs and other traditional implements for some time. They had already selected an appropriate mulga bush before we (a group of tourists) got there, so I can't tell you how that happened. They then chopped the branch off the bush and proceeded to cut out the boomerang, using a western axe.

My guess was that these old men had made plenty of boomerangs over their life spans, so what I observed came to me as a surprise. Throughout the process they continually talked with each other about what they were doing (or maybe, not doing), and they used another boomerang as a template for the new one. Once the basic shape was achieved they lit a fire and used it to bend the wood into the appropriate shape, constantly discussing it and handing it between each other. Finally it was completed.

To me, each of these men was old enough to be an expert yet throughout the whole process they continuously consulted with each other. It was a completely different approach to that I had expected, a reminder of the term "worlds apart".

The perception of indigenous peoples of how they obtained their scientific knowledge is quite different to the western understanding, if there is one. Oscar Kawagley is a Yupiaq Inuit who, as an indigenous person and western-trainer science educator and researcher, straddles the border between indigenous and western science. In A Yupiaq worldview, Kawagley (1995) outlines a traditional story that tells how the first Yupiaq people learned the science that allowed them to survive.

When the earth's crust was thin, there came into consciousness two sparks of life, a girl and a boy. As they surveyed and explored the remnants of a very large village, they often were puzzled: What happened to cause the people to vanish? Why were she and her male friend alive? How did they survive? A conundrum only to be answered by the supernatural!

The old village was located on a river that emptied into the ocean not too far distant. The village faced south, the river flowed west. The floodplain on which it sat was bordered by mountains to the north. The village had been very large, judging by the number of houses in various states of decay. Their home was in good repair, the cache full of much food and furs.

Each of these young people had to learn their roles by patiently studying, experimenting with, and discussing how their clothing was made and the use of tools and hunting implements. Visions and dreams would come to them as to what to do and how to do it. In pondering the makeup of the mukluk or the parka for many days, she would tire of it and leave it alone, then one day the idea would come to her?use the bone needle and make the thread for it out of sinew. He learned to launch the qayaq and use the paddles for propulsion. Their minds were young and receptive to the ideas for working with the things at hand and in their world. Watching the grass bend in the breeze, he pulled on a tree limb and watched it spring back. Curiously, he put a stick on it, repeated the motion and watched it being propelled, and suddenly thought, what about that curved stick with sinew attached, and the sticks with feathers in one end and a pointed rock on the other end? Thus there came into being the bow and arrow, followed closely by the bow and drill for starting fires. So they grew and expanded their world always as participants. (Kawagley, 1995, pp24-25)

Sagan (1995), in The demon-haunted universe (1), seems to advocate inclusion and describes the possibility of indigenous peoples doing experiments to find out whether particular plants could be used or avoided, to acquire knowledge for their pharmacopeia.

Quinine comes from an infusion of the bark of a particular tree from the Amazon rain forest. How did pre-modern people ever discover that a tea made from this tree, of all the plants of the forest, would relieve the symptoms of malaria? They must have tried every tree and every plant - roots, stem, bark, leaves - tried chewing on them, mashing them, making an infusion. This constitutes a massive set of scientific experiments continuing over generations, experiments that moreover could not be duplicated today for reasons of medical ethics. Think of how many bark infusions from other trees must have been useless, or made the patient retch or even die. In such a case, the healer chalks these potential remedies off the list, and moves on to the next. The data of ethnopharmacology may not be systematically or consciously acquired. By trial and error, though, and carefully remembering what worked, eventually they got there - using the rich molecular riches in the plant kingdom to accumulate a pharmacopeia that works. (Sagan, 1995, pp 239-240)

Kawagley, Norris-Tull and Norris-Tull (1998) also quote this paragraph from Sagan, however I believe that it is unlikely that Indigenous peoples undertook experiments as described there. What is more likely was that there were other clues which they as consummate observers would have detected and which are not part of the scientific story that Sagan has accessed.

Several authors have suggested that Indigenous people solve problems using trial and error, which also seems to be the basis of Sagan's experimental methodology. I would suggest that they would have used informed trial and error, just as have many scientists. We have all heard of Archimedes' 'Eureka!' and of Kekule's dream as examples of informed or inspired ways in which they solved problems. All scientists undertake their experiments in the light of the information they have to hand; to suggest that Indigenous scientists did anything less is an insult to their intelligence. Indigenous people also develop their knowledge within the context of their environments and are able to demonstrate the ability to change as the environment changed around them or as they move from one environment into another. In recent times they have demonstrated an ability to adapt western technologies to suit their own purposes.

To many Indigenous people living close to their traditional lifestyles, the reality of their science and its explanations is tied up with their cultural responsibilities. As custodians of the land, they see themselves are having to maintain it by following the law, by singing the songs and dancing the dances. If this is not followed, then calamities can and usually do follow. One group of Central Australian people understood that the loss of the mala (a type of wallaby) from their traditional lands was because they no longer followed the appropriate land management practices. To the Larrakia in Darwin, unauthorised visits by white people to a significant sacred site, Dariba Nanggalinya, was responsible for bringing Cyclone Tracy to Darwin.

Indigenous science reminds me that there are different ways of looking at the world and that knowledge is valued in different ways. Indigenous science gives me another perspective on the world. It also gives me, as an individual, a way of understanding Indigenous cultures and the ways they understand things beyond just a tokenistic "spaghetti and polka" ("bush tucker and corroboree") version of culture (Michie and others, 1998). The aim of the science curriculum should be to promote consideration of the differing worldviews, not solely to enrich Western science but to facilitate a two-way exchange of knowledge and of cultural understanding.


What indigenous science tells me about western science and science education

Some years ago, Tom Evison from the Batchelor Institute told me about a workshop he held with a group of Indigenous Australian adult students. He discussed with them the nature of western science and there were two interesting results.

  • In visualising the way traditional and western knowledge overlap, the students constructed a Venn diagram with three fields - western knowledge, traditional knowledge and the intersection of knowledge common to both. Much of what was included as traditional knowledge concerned the relationships of the Indigenous people to the knowledge, such as land ownership; ceremonies, links to ancestral beings and relationships between people and crocodiles.
  • In discussing the role of evidence, the participants believed that because they undertook all the practices required by traditional law - through song, dance and management practices - this was evidence for the reality of their knowledge. (The corollary of this, that if the practices are not maintained then damage may occur, has already been mentioned above.)

It is difficult to encompass the whole meaning of Indigenous people into English; each time we try to reconstruct Indigenous science into another language we rewrite its meaning. This and the deconstruction of Indigenous knowledge strip a rich tapestry from it, leaving a poor facsimile behind. Part of this is to strip away the spiritual side which to Indigenous people is part of the reality of their knowledge.

Cobern and Lovering (2001) have defined what they call the "standard account" of science and it excludes indigenous science primarily because it does not have an experimental basis nor can be used to predict future behaviour. On the other hand, other authors (Stanley & Brickhouse, 2001; Snively & Corsiglia, 2001) have called for the inclusion of indigenous science, primarily because of a shared knowledge base which is often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK).

One aspect of understanding indigenous science is that it can offer knowledge about the Australian environment that has been collected over thousands of years. Indigenous knowledge has been shown to be of value, particularly in the area of environmental management. For instance, traditional burning practices are used in the management of areas such as Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Parks. Elsewher aspects of the Indigenous pharmacopiea have been identified and may be of value to western medicine,

I think it is important to consider the nexus between science and science education, and the nature of science. The emphasis of science education in the past has been on science content but new initiatives in curriculum, particularly focusing on scientific literacy, are attempting to move away from this focus. If science education can become concerned at looking at the nature of science then it could look at a range of ideas beyond those defined as "science"; this can include indigenous science and the history of science. Even if a view such as Cobern and Lovering's was accepted, it would be interesting to examine in detail pseudoscience and even creation science to see why they are rejected as science. My point, put more succinctly, is that the criteria which may bind science should not necessarily bind science education.

Another consideration is the role of science education in communicating science. According to C.P. Snow's definition, science and education should be considered in opposite camps; does this situate science education as a bridge between the "two cultures"? And if this is so, where on the bridge does science education research sit? I believe there are implications here that support my vision of science education linking with indigenous culture. This could mean that Aikenhead's vision of cultural brokers (Aikenhead, 1997) could acquire another dimension, one which supports a science-technology-society approach.


A way of achieving Reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and a vehicle for social justice.

Some people would ask, "What does science have to do with Reconciliation?" Firstly it is the western way of thinking which has divided knowledge into various disciplines, a relatively recent phenomenon. To match the Indigenous "holistic" approach to knowledge, Western knowledge has the disadvantage of having to reconstruct itself from its various disciplines. Secondly, understanding indigenous cultures needs to celebrate the positives about Indigenous cultures rather than focusing on the pejorative aspects, and this needs to include science as part of culture.

The recent National Association for Research in Science Education conference (NARST) had a session which focused on Reconciliation. According to Jones (2001),

We propose that the notion of Reconciliation could provide valuable insight as to what might be needed to overcome cultural dissonance in successful attempts to reform science education. We suggest that any hope that science education is ever going to be accessible and useful to most/all people depends on a process of reconciling certain inconsistencies that exist between people with different belief systems. Until definitions of science become more harmonious with personal values, scientific knowledge will continue to be unappealing to many citizens. As a model for the type of change that might be effective, we look to current active social movements committed to the need for racial reconciliation going on in Hawai'i and Australia. (Original emphasis)

The basis for this direction in science education comes from the philosophy of Science for all that underpins the science curricula in many western countries. Some people interpret this as meaning that all students need to become scientifically literate (such a philosophy underpins the report by Goodrum, Hackling & Rennie, 2001). I see it rather as an opportunity to ensure access by all students to science education as a social justice issue (Michie, 1999, 2000; Michie, Anlezark and Uibo, 1998; Michie & Linkson, 1999, 2000), working to see that indigenous perspectives and intercultural understandings became part of the curricular reform in the Northern Territory. This has included preparation of an inclusive curriculum (Michie, 1998), development of compatible resource materials (Linkson, 1998; Michie & Linkson, 1999) and provision of materials for teacher professional development (Michie & Linkson, 2000).

When I was working on the science curriculum in the Northern Territory (Michie, 1998), I saw the need for the curriculum to be applicable to both Indigenous and Western students as being consistent with the aims of the science curriculum. One of the aims of the NT Board Approved Course of Study for Science was 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 (NT Board of Study, 1999, p. 3).

I felt that the equivalent statement from A statement on science for Australian schools carried with it an assimilationist view of Western science, which allowed for its enrichment and maintenance of its international profile relative to Indigenous science:

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 (Australian Education Council, 1994, p. 3).

Indigenous people are becoming more aware of the exploitation of their knowledge by some sections of the scientific community. Commercial exploitation of indigenous pharmacopeia has resulted in profits for companies, with little or nothing for the indigenous peoples. This has been justified by the companies in suggesting that they spend great sums of money to identify the active ingredient and how it works, denying the "intellectual patent" that the indigenous people may morally hold and being magnanimous about how these resources are needed for "all mankind".


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