Valuing Indigenous forms of knowledge in Science Education

Science education in elementary and secondary schools has provided students with opportunities to question and explore the complex world in which we live. In the context of Science education, “our world” is an overarching concept with several categories for students to investigate such as environmental science, astronomy, physics, and astrophysics.  While scholarly research in each of these domains continues to advance, I wonder – how do educators and students seek to explore the indigenous knowledge behind many of these ideas?

Joanna Kidman, Chiung-Fen Yen, and Eleanor Abrams (2013) conducted a cross-national study with Indigenous students in New Zealand and Taiwan.  In this study, they found that policy makers and curriculum planners adhered to a system, modelled on Western modern science. This system, prevalent in several curriculum documents, including those in Ontario, similarly privileges a dominant, Eurocentric narrative.  As a result of this hidden curriculum, the authors of the aforementioned cross-national study assert that, “Indigenous students experience the pedagogical codes of science as a racialized and regulating construct that constrains their ability to move into higher curriculum levels.” (Kidman, Fen Yen, & Abrams, 2013) The classrooms involved in the study consisted of students, both indigenous and non-indigenous. The study, conducted amongst fifth and sixth graders in Thailand and New Zealand, revealed that Indigenous students could not identify with scientists of their background.  Rather, these students shared the names of scientists who were of European or American descent, such as Copernicus, Archimedes, Edison, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and the Wright brothers. Although this study was conducted to investigate Indigenous knowledge in the Science classroom, what was revealed also extends to how other marginalized groups (girls, students of racial and ethnic backgrounds) may be affected by a predominantly racialized program.

The inclusion of Indigenous leaders in Science is only part of the solution. The suggested strategy is to introduce Indigenous ways of knowing into the Science classroom to allow students to more critically explore their relationship with the Earth and environment. The authors of the cross-national study commented on how the schools in New Zealand and Thailand aimed to promote cultural diversity, yet fell short of disrupting unequal power relations between state control and Indigenous aspirations. Therefore, the question becomes – Rather than simply including an Indigenous narrative as part of a lesson on environmental science, how can the entire curriculum itself be disrupted so Indigenous forms of knowledge are regarded as being equally important as the existing, dominant ideologies?  

Nancy Fisher (2012), a proponent of teaching with both knowledges and ideologies, states,  “Introducing Indigenous ways of knowing into Environmental Science Education will help prepare students for a complex world in which urgent environmental challenges require a multiple-knowledges approach.” (Fisher, 2012). Critical thinking is fostered when various viewpoints are taken into consideration and used to move existing knowledges into insightful solutions. In this context, for example, the viewpoints of the Indigenous people may be helpful in providing students with a more reflective and selfless approach to evolving discussions on environmental issues. Fisher further suggests that linking Indigenous ways of knowing will also “…bring valuable understandings from Indigenous traditions to bear on critical issues around the human/nature interface and sustainability.” (Fisher, 2012) The idea of better understanding issues of sustainability connects closely to an understanding of land and the colonization of Indigenous land.  Integration of this dialogue in the Science classroom may not only lend to certain disciplines but will also challenge the Western scientific assumptions that have become part of the conventional classroom. Again, not only will the exploration of Indigenous voices in Science promote deeper thinking, but it may also allow students to explore other ideas and voices that have been overshadowed by more dominant assumptions in Science.

In Saskatchewan, the Science curriculum was revised so as to include Indigenous content and perspectives in every content and grade level. Moving this idea from theory to practice involves an examination of both Western and Indigenous perspectives.  For example, pre-service teachers at the University of Saskatchewan engaged in erecting a mikwhap (Plains cree for tipi). As part this provocation, students engaged in a conversation around the Trembling Aspen, the tree from which the tipi poles are made. The dual perspectives in this investigation were shared as follows, “The nêhiyaw perspective views the tree as mîtos, a relative and source of medicine, emergency food, and tools; Western Science perceives the aspen as Populus tremuloides, a resource for plywood, particleboard, pallets, and chopsticks.” (Jeff Baker, 2016).  These views are introduced to complement rather than contradict the dominant views in Western Science.  

When students become more aware of their kinship to the various blessings of the Earth such as animals, plants, and our solar system; a deeper appreciation and respect of these components may come to fruition. If educators allow the dominant ideologies to persist in Science education in isolation, then the very problems that plague our world, will continue to exist. According to Megan McGinty and Megan Bang (2016), “Climate science has emerged from nation states, the same nation-states whose ways of life have created the problems causing climate change.” (McGinty & Bang, 2016) In reflecting on my own teaching practices, it is eye-opening to think that settler colonialism has not only displaced Indigenous people but has also erased forms of knowledge, that if given equal regard, could become the solution to many environmental problems.  Instead, a single-sided acknowledgment of Eurocentric perspectives in Science only worsens the problem, as climate change continues to affect Indigenous ways of living.

Dan Longboat, director of the first Indigenous Environmental Studies program in North America, at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, describes the importance of this dual perspective in Science by using a Haudenosaunee metaphor of two vessels traveling together down the same River of Life, both having responsibility to care for the river (Rich 2011). This metaphor finds its origins the Two Row Wampum Treaty, from which a Treaty belt was created to symbolically show two purple rows as two vessels travelling down the river together. The symbolism behind this Treaty belt appropriately describes the need to include the narratives of Indigenous people, their histories, and forms of knowledge in the Science classroom.  In doing so, educators and students will honour this relevant perspective and in the process, may find fulfillment in discovering that working together can lead to more peaceful solutions for all.



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