Teaching science to Indigenous students: Teacher as culture broker or is it something else?

Michael Michie
University of Waikato, Aotearoa New Zealand

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching held in Vancouver, Canada, on 1-3 April 2004.

In the spirit of Reconciliation, I wish to acknowledge indigenous peoples of the world, in particular the Larrakia people from Darwin, Australia, where I live, and the Coast Salish from the area around Vancouver, as traditional owners of their lands.

At the beginning of 2002 I was offered the position as the teaching principal at an Aboriginal community on the islands north of Darwin. I accepted this position, thinking that it would give me an opportunity to not only live in an Aboriginal community, as well as to see informally whether there was a role mediating between the Aboriginal community and the white population (i.e. a culture broker), who took on the role and what qualities they had. Particularly, I was interested to see to what extent I could take that role.

My experiences over such a short period of time (six months) are difficult to interpret; like many cross-cultural experiences there was a period of elation at being in this novel situation, followed by a negative period (“culture shock”). Finally, coming through the make-or-break period with a decision to leave has implications of failure which I am only starting to resolve. My perception of myself as a culture broker is strongly influenced by these negative images.

One incident gave me some insight into the ways people could work as culture brokers, without having to label them (or they themselves) with the title. Realising that I wasn’t participating within the community, I went to the local social club with the intention of trying to break through the barriers which I felt I had surrounded myself with. A large group of Aboriginal men usually gathered around the dartboard and pool table where I had previously declined offers to play these games on the grounds of being unskilled. I was encouraged to join in with the group but on this occasion stayed more or less on the periphery and watched.

On the next occasion a week later, I followed the same routine and was asked if I wanted to play darts. I agreed to play, put up my money and proceeded to justify why I hadn’t played before. On this occasion there was a man present who had spoken to me regarding employment at the school some time previously, and he started to introduce me to some of the other men and talking about the range of things happening in the community.

I was aware through my experience and reading that as a teacher I was also to be a culture broker of sorts. In reflection, there were various ways in which I was expecting myself to be a culture broker

·        on a personal level as a member of the community

·        between myself and my students, also at a personal level

·        through my pedagogy, by planning, teaching and assessing in ways which were inclusive and culturally appropriate

·        between the curriculum and my students, as it was mostly a curriculum based on western concepts.

At school, my class (years 5-7) had become fairly much enculturated into the western style of education. Although on an island, the community had fairly good access to Darwin by plane (up to four flights daily) and television, so there is a strong western influence. Some of my attempts at including local culture and knowledge were met with rebuffs, including “you can’t teach me how to be Aboriginal” (I didn’t think I was) and “it’s too hot to be outside”.

I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable in both my job and living in the community, so I left after a semester in the school. I had been on a contract for the semester and chose not to renew it. I found the loneliness of living by myself and a feeling of isolation from the community (partially of my creation) were major factors, although I was experiencing difficulties in my classroom.

I’ve spent several years working in science curriculum and I’m aware of the need to develop curriculum documents and materials inclusive of Indigenous students (e.g. Michie, 1998). In investigating this, it led to me looking at the research, to Aikenhead’s 1996 paper and the idea of “teacher as culture broker”. However I’ve also heard the term “culture broker” used by other people working with Indigenous people. I have became further interested in culture studies of science and science education and resolved to look further at the role of teacher as culture broker, particularly in science education.

Educators (including teachers) are among the groups of cultural workers who may find themselves in cultural borderlands (a term used by Celia Haig-Brown, 1992) of one type or another, between themselves and their students, their students and other student subcultures, or on a larger scale between their own culture and a different culture (e.g. in indigenous education). How can they teach so that their students may achieve within a curriculum framed by the dominant culture? Aikenhead (1996) believed that for situations involving managed border crossings (and to some degree, hazardous border crossing), teachers needed to take on the role of a culture broker.

He also looked at implications of teaching for various categories of students (both indigenous and non-indigenous) in terms of border crossings, and the role of the teacher as a culture broker (using a tourism analogy) which is developed further in some of his subsequent papers (Aikenhead, 1997, 2000; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999). A summary table (Figure 1) appeared in Aikenhead and Otsuji (2000, p.293).

Figure 1. The influence of teacher as culture broker on various student categories (from Aikenhead & Otsuji, 2000)

Border crossing

Student categories

Role of teacher

New border crossing


Potential scientists

Coaching apprentices



‘I want to know’ students

Apprenticeship – tour guide culture broker



Other smart kids

Travel agent culture broker



‘I don’t know’ students

Tour guide culture broker




Tour guide culture broker

Hazardous or managed

What is a culture broker?

The origin of the term “culture broker” comes from the field of anthropology in the mid-1900s, when several anthropologists wrote about native people whose role in their society was as a cultural intermediary or cultural broker, usually with western society. Most definitions of “broker” highlight it as a middleman (sic) and often emphasise the commercial aspect such as in stockbroker. In terms of cultural broker, the use of the term broker is most in accord with “middleman, intermediary, or agent generally; an interpreter, messenger, commissioner” (Oxford English Dictionary), but the idea of reward is not necessarily financial (e.g. Szasz, 2001). (The Oxford English Dictionary does not give a specific definition for cultural broker.)

So the term “culture broker” or “cultural broker” is not particularly defined in the literature but rather through common usage as a person who facilitates the border crossing of another person or group of people from one culture to another culture. In one of the few definitions, Jezewski (in Jezewski & Sotnik, 2001) defined culture broking as “the act of bridging, linking or mediating between groups or persons of differing cultural backgrounds for the purpose of reducing conflict or producing change”. Usually the culture broker is from one or other of the cultures but could be from a third group. Often they are capable of acting in both directions. The role covers more than being a language interpreter, although this is an important attribute in cross-cultural situations where language is part of the role. Some people would suggest that culture brokers are “interpreting” the culture.

In the literature, the role of a culture broker has been discussed in a number of areas (as summarised in Michie, 2003):

The role of a culture broker as a facilitator of cross-cultural border crossings has gained some credence in education in recent times but it is not established as praxis in indigenous education. One difficulty is that in its original definition in the anthropology literature it is described as a mediating or facilitating role between two people, often with a commercial bias. In teaching the emphasis has been on the teacher becoming the culture broker between themselves and their students at a personal level, but also as facilitating between cultures.

Michie (2003) suggested that there are two conflicting views of teacher as culture broker coming through the literature.

  1. The first is that the role is better filled by someone from the Other and that teachers are better off searching for the best person to fill the role. Almost all of the biographies in Szasz (2001) and most of the anthropological studies are of culture brokers from the Other.
  2. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a teacher needs to develop a set of skills to become more proficient in their cross-cultural classroom, with the implication that upon attaining them they would have achieved the role of culture broker.

Figure 2. The culture broker in education (excluding science education)

Wyatt (1978-79)

Canadian First Nations (BC)

Cultural broker: “one who can communicate effectively in both a school and a community context and can translate knowledge and skills from one to the other.”

Gentemann & Whitehead (1983)

African American students

“The broker must be able to straddle both cultures, to take mainstream values and communicate them to the ethnic cultures, and communicate the ethnic culture to the mainstream.”

Diaz & Flores (1990); Flores et al. (1991)

American minority students

“The teacher acts as a cultural mediator, organizing the learning in order to mediate levels of knowledge between the teacher and the students and among students themselves”

Gay (1993)

African-American students

“A cultural broker is one who thoroughly understands different cultural systems, is able to interpret cultural systems from one frame of reference to another, can mediate cultural incompatibilities, and knows how to build bridges or establish linkages across cultures that facilitate the instructional process.”

Diamond & Moore (1995); Gay (2000)

American minority students

cultural organisers who facilitate strategic ways of accomplishing tasks so that the learning process involves varied ways of knowing, experiencing, thinking and behaving;

cultural mediators who create opportunities for critical dialogue and behaving;

orchestrators of social contexts who provide several learning configurations including interpersonal and intrapersonal opportunities for seeking, accessing, and evaluating knowledge.

Stairs (1995)[1]

Native schools in Canada

“genuine two-way brokerage between Native culture and formal schooling validates Native ways of learning, responds to urgent mainstream needs, and is our collective path to success in Native education”

Bassey (1996)

Multicultural education

cultural brokers maintain that a democratic view of education demands a relationship between teachers and students in which dialogue is an important means of learning”

Páez & McCarty (1997)


Give advice to teachers as to the requirements in selecting cultural brokers, rather than necessarily developing these skills themselves.

Cooper, Denner & Lopez (1999)

Mexican-American students

Teachers, parents, siblings and other program staff can help young Latino students succeed in US schools and live according to their parents’ values.

Gorman (1999)

Canadian Native students

Teachers must become cultural brokers to minimise the incidence of inequitable learning opportunities.

Harris (1999)

Multicultural education

“Cultural brokers have the responsibility for developing a connection between the culture of students, the culture of parents, and the culture of the school.”

Haynes (2000)


“As ESL/bilingual professionals we need to teach strategies which help our colleagues understand the role that culture plays in the behavior and reactions of second language learners and their parents.”

The role of culture broker or teacher as culture broker hasn’t particularly been critiqued in the literature. In two studies in contemporary anthropology, Peace (1998) and Palmer (2000) looked at the role of cultural brokers in modern society. Focusing on globalisation of Australian culture and international sporting events respectively, they identified cultural brokers as a power elite whose association with the media makes them “part of an occupational group specializing in the production and dissemination of symbolic goods and commodities” (Palmer, 2000, p.366). Peace described them as “middlemen of renown and masters in the politics of cultural dissembling” (Peace, 1998, p.278). In her conclusion she suggested that the power exerted by this new class of cultural intermediaries should be the focus of further examination: “Cultural brokers should become a prime target for those who wish to contribute to the ethnography of postmodernity” (p.283).

Michael Christie (pers. comm., 2001) was concerned that brokerage commodified knowledge simply as content, turning it into something which could be bought or sold. Through his experience with traditional Indigenous Australians, “I have come to see knowledge as performative – something you do rather than something you have – so it simply isn’t available to a brokered economy”.

McKinley (2001) indicated that the power relationships implicit in the idea of “effective teacher as a culture broker”, needed to be considered. Her first criticism is of the assumption that western science teachers only need to learn how to deal with pedagogical aspects of cross-cultural differences, rather than dealing with the teachers’ views of their students’ abilities as learners or the validity of their knowledge. The second criticism is that if white teachers can learn to become culture brokers, then seemingly there may be no role for indigenous people in the educational enterprise.


McConaghy (2000) critiqued culturalism from a postcolonialist perspective, identifying culture as the defining ideology in indigenous education, and she described four traditions or approaches[2], all of which rely on the cultural binary (i.e. White/Other). Cultural relativism is sensitive to difference and inclusive of cross-cultural expertise, and implicitly involves the cultural mediator and culturally relevant or responsive pedagogy. McConaghy wanted to consider an alternative to culturalism which does not rely on the cultural binary. As a result I also found myself wondering whether there could be a theoretical basis for indigenous education which isn’t based in culturalism or the cultural binary. I examined one theory, enactivism.

My first encounter with enactivism, particularly its association with ecological theory, deep ecology and learners-in-their-environment (Jane, 2003), reminded me of some of the characteristics of traditional indigenous knowledge such as holistic, connective, participatory. As I have read further about it, terms such as experiential learning (Fenwick, 2000), constructivism (Begg, 2000), ethnomathematics (Begg, 2001a) and worldview (Gunn, 2003), arose from the literature, so I resolved to look further to see what it offered as an alternative perspective for indigenous education.

The origins of enactivism can be traced to two sources, a biological source involving it in systems theory and cognitive theory (e.g. Bateson, 1972; Capra, 1996, 2002; Maturana & Varela, 1987; Varela, Thompson & Rosch, 1991), and to philosophical discussions of phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). These lead to the understanding that the mind cannot be separated from the body, rather than the Cartesian binary of separation of mind and body and the limitations of a mechanically based model of the human mind. Learning can be seen as a change occurring to disturbances amplified through feedback loops within and among systems (Fenwick, 2000).

Begg (2000) suggested that, “In enactivism, instead of seeing learning as “coming to know”, one envisages the learner and the learned, the knower and the known, the self and the other, as co-evolving and being co-implicated. In this situation context is neither the setting for a learning activity, nor the place where the student is, the student is literally part of the context.” Begg suggested that with constructivism knowledge is viewed as a human construction that is evaluated in terms of whether it fits with the experience of the knower. He contrasted enactivism with constructivism by emphasising knowing rather than knowledge, a reminder of Michael Christie’s comments above.

Hemara (2000, p.38) gave an example of enactivism in practice in learning the meaning of a Maori waiata (traditional song or poem):

In an ‘enactivist’ approach the learner would come to know the waiata’s various levels as she matured. …. The waiata is dynamic, the learner is its main subject. Her life will add meaning to the lyrics and serve as a living commentary.

Fenwick (2000) saw the role of the teacher in an enactivist setting as three-fold, as a communicator, a story maker and an interpreter, similar to the role of a teacher in a traditional indigenous society:

She makes the proviso that educators must be aware of “their own entanglement and interests in the emerging systems of thought and action” (p. 261).

Fenwick (2000, p.264) also noted that enactivism had yet to be critiqued in the educational literature and she identified three areas in which it could be challenged:

  1. From a constructivist viewpoint, “the lack of full recognition accorded to individual meaning-making and identity-constructing processes”
  2. Ethical issues of justice and right action
  3. From a critical cultural perspective, perspectives such as enactivism do not address inevitable power relationships circulating in human cultural systems. The influences on a systems perspective of categories such as gender, race, sexuality, class and religion may be indiscernible. Because in enactivism the interests of individuals are surrendered to the greater community, then they may become vulnerable to a few who manipulate the system’s discourses to sustain their own power.

Some research into enactivism in education has been on curriculum and pedagogy, particularly in the area of mathematics education (Begg, 2000, 2001; Davis, 1995, 1997; Davis & Sumara, 1997; Davis, Sumara & Kieran, 1997; Reid, 1996; Sumara & Davis, 1997). There has been limited reference to it in science education (e.g. Hoban & Erickson, 1998; Jane, 2003; Kass & MacDonald, 1999) and of these, only Kass and MacDonald was applicable to the science classroom.

Concluding remarks

The comment by Fenwick (2000) regarding the critical cultural perspective is indicative of any attempt to take an acultural perspective on learning – eventually the power relations and other cultural influences will have to be addressed. This situation is probably an integral part of the “nature and nurture” debate. As well, contemporary aspects about the power relations of culture brokers and teachers as culture brokers need to be explored further.

Secondly, in terms of teaching praxis, Fenwick’s three-fold role for the teacher, as a communicator, a story maker and an interpreter, promotes a wider range of teaching skills. The reference to the teacher as an interpreter becomes intriguing in a discussion of teachers as culture brokers.

Finally, enactivism may have parallels with traditional ways of teaching and learning but most indigenous students in developed countries have started to move away from traditional life styles and many of them are far removed from them. What an enactivist-based science pedagogy would look like is a matter of conjecture, as research in the area is limited. As it would be considered acultural it must also be applicable to a large population of non-indigenous students.


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[1] Aikenhead (1996) acknowledged Stairs (1995) as a source for the idea of teacher as culture broker in science education.

[2] Pastoral welfarism, assimilationism, cultural welfarism and radicalism.