Cross-Cultural Science Teaching:

Rekindling Traditions for Aboriginal Students

Glen S. Aikenhead
College of Education
University of Saskatchewan
28 Campus Drive
Saskatoon, SK, S7N 0X1

To be published in the Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, July 2002.

Based on a paper presented at the annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, St. Louis, March 26-28, 2001.


The project Rekindling Traditions illustrates one modest way of addressing the under-representation of Aboriginal people in careers related to science, a situation that arises from a colonial type of science education. Unless teaching materials provide a meaningful context to Aboriginal students (defined by their local community), and unless Aboriginal science coexists with Western science in the science classroom, many Aboriginal students find the science curriculum inaccessible. In a post-colonial science education, such as the Rekindling Traditions project, Western science content is integrated into the local community's Aboriginal science. Aboriginal content is not a token addition, it is an asset in the science classroom. The study's R&D methodology is described. A team of six science teachers from across northern Saskatchewan collaborated with the author to develop teaching units, and to improve their culture brokering skills with students (grades 6 to 11) to help students cross the cultural border between their community's Aboriginal culture and the culture of Western science.

Canadian science educators find themselves in a fairly unique position. Knowingly or unknowingly, they stand between two diverse knowledge systems: Western and Aboriginal ways of describing and explaining nature. On the one hand, a Western scientific perspective on nature harmonizes with the worldview of science educators (Cobern, 2000), while on the other hand, Aboriginal perspectives likely do not harmonize with a science teacher's point of view (Aikenhead, 1997; Semali & Kincheloe, 1999). Conversely for many students, particularly many Aboriginal students, a Western scientific perspective on nature does not harmonize with their own worldview (Aikenhead, 1997). Consequently Western science seems like a foreign culture to these students (Brandt, 2001; Kawagley, 1995; Sutherland, 1998).

A type of cognitive imperialism pervades school science whenever students, particularly Aboriginal students, are assimilated (some would say "colonized") into thinking like a Western scientist in their science classes (Aikenhead, in press; Battiste, 1986). Although this article focusses on science education for Canadian Aboriginal students, the reader may find that some ideas and findings expressed here transfer to other contexts familiar to the reader, including science education for Euro-Canadian students, Maori students, Anglo-American students, or Zulu students.

Worldwide, the Aboriginal academy has argued that colonization under the guise of "science for all" undermines students' self-identities as Aboriginal people, identities which are fundamentally essential to the economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival of Aboriginal peoples (Battiste, 2000b; MacIvor, 1995; Mosha, 1999; Purdie et al., 2000). Canadian educators can either colonize students by attempting to enculturate them into Western science, or educators can begin to embrace a decolonizing approach to school science that gives Aboriginal students access to Western science and technology without diminishing their Aboriginal identities. We can adopt a decolonizing approach to science teaching by enculturating students into the students' community (Battiste, 1998), a community increasingly affected by Western science and technology . This shift in the enculturation of students, from Western science to the community, suggests a post-colonial approach to science teaching (Battiste, 2000b).

The purpose of this article is to describe a modest project that was inspired by the need to decolonize school science. The project, Rekindling Traditions: Cross-Cultural Science & Technology Units, developed culturally sensitive teaching strategies and materials for Aboriginal students in science classes. This project challenges science educators to understand a scholarly Aboriginal perspective on nature, and the project provides science educators with a political opportunity to make a significant difference to the school experiences of Aboriginal students.


The issue of bridging the two knowledge systems (Western science and Aboriginal science) for the benefit of Aboriginal students is not new (Maddock, 1981; Pomeroy, 1994). One proposed bridge is a field called "traditional ecological knowledge," TEK (Johnson, 1992). Snively and Corsiglia (2001) described TEK this way:

Especially during the last 25 years, biologists, ecologists, botanists, geologists ... have labored to develop approaches that are improving our ability to understand and mitigate the impact of human activity upon the environment. By extending their enquiry into the timeless traditional knowledge and wisdom of long-resident, oral peoples, these scientists have in effect moved the borders of scientific inquiry and formalized a branch of biological and ecological science. (pp. 7-8)

TEK is usually associated with resource management of lands populated by Aboriginal peoples. However, Snively (1990, 1995) showed how TEK can also become part of school science, to the advantage of Aboriginal students in those classrooms. Some scholars (Battiste & Henderson, 2000) have identified TEK even more closely with Aboriginal science, thereby changing the definition of TEK somewhat:

The traditional ecological knowledge of Indigenous peoples is scientific, in the sense that it is empirical, experimental, and systematic. It differs in two important respects from Western science, however: traditional ecological knowledge is highly localized and it is social. Its focus is the web of relationships between humans, animals, plants, natural forces, spirits, and land forms in a particular locality, as opposed to the discovery of universal 'laws.' (p. 44)

In any field of inquiry, knowledge is power by virtue of the way it is put into action (Foucault, 1980; Rodriguez, 1999). McGregor (2000) defined TEK in terms of the way it has been practised in Canada, and her critique of it revealed power relationships inherent in TEK. Interest in TEK often originates outside an Aboriginal community (see the Snively and Corsiglia quote above) and consequently non-Aboriginal scientists end up setting the agenda which "perpetuates the same pattern of 'discovery' and investigation that has characterized colonial history in North America. TEK is therefore symptomatic of the relationship that Aboriginal people have with their colonizers" (McGregor, 2000, p. 439). Because Western academics created the concept of TEK in the first place, TEK tends to be pervasively imbued with a Western perspective.

This hegemonic power of Western thinking (cognitive imperialism) was revealed by Nadasdy (1999) when he studied several cases in which Aboriginal people who were knowledgeable in TEK participated with government Western scientists in resource management and environmental impact assessment studies. Nadasdy studied the act of integrating both knowledge systems. He focussed on the power relations underlying the process of integration. His analysis showed, in support of McGregor's concerns, how TEK was used by government scientists to avoid a two-way integration of the two knowledge systems, and to reinforce a Western cultural bias that controlled the decision making over local land and animal issues (i.e. colonization continued). A more authentic integration of TEK with Western science would share decision-making power, in addition to sharing the knowledge, per se. The lack of power sharing and the subsequent marginalization of Aboriginal participants became evident in each case Nadasdy studied (e.g. two boys charged with shooting a muskox out of season; how reductionism of Western science systemically controls bureaucratic structures; and how managing a population of Dall sheep can revolve around a respect, or lack of respect, for animals and their social relationships).

Because of such systemic and hegemonic power relationships, McGregor (2000) concluded that we should not integrate or bridge Western and Aboriginal sciences as TEK attempts to do, but instead we should actively support a post-colonial model she called "co-existence" which "promotes functioning of both systems side by side... . The model of co-existence encourages equality, mutual respect, support, and cooperation" (p. 454). This view is embraced by Battiste (2000a), MacIvor (1995), Sainte-Marie (2000), and Urion (1999). "Creating a balance between two worldviews is the great challenge facing modern educators" (Battiste, 2000a, p. 202). This is a major intellectual and political challenge for Canadian science educators today.

Aboriginal students bring their worldviews learned at home into contact with a Western science worldview presented at school. Many students experience this as a cross-cultural event (Cajete, 1999; Maddock, 1981; Sutherland, 1998). To balance the two cultures, school science should be cross-cultural in nature (Aikenhead, 1997). In Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand the balance is often called "two-way learning" (Ritchie & Butler, 1990), and "bi-cultural instruction" in the US (Cajete, 1999; Kawagley, 1995, 2000).

Central to a cross-cultural approach to science teaching is the tenet that Aboriginal children are advantaged by their own cultural identity and language, not disadvantaged in some deficit sense. Aboriginal students have the potential of seeing the world from at least two very different points of view, more so than many of their Euro-Canadian counterparts do.

Based on the expectation that future science teaching will need to become post-colonial and cross-cultural in nature (i.e. helping students move from their everyday culture into the culture of Western science -- cultural border crossing; Aikenhead, 1997; Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999), and based on the need to understand teachers' views on this topic before cross-cultural science teaching could be implemented, Aikenhead and Huntley (1999) conducted a research study into science teachers' conceptions of: (1) the connection between the culture of science and the culture of Aboriginal students, (2) the possible assimilation of these students in their science classes, and (3) the degree to which teachers saw themselves as culture brokers (Archibald, 1999; Stairs, 1995) who could smooth students' cultural border crossings into school science. The teacher participants (both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) taught Aboriginal students across northern Saskatchewan in grades 7 to 12. The research identified barriers to student participation in science: while the science teachers tended to blame various inadequacies (a lack of this and a lack of that), Aboriginal educators clearly pointed to the vast differences between Aboriginal culture and the culture of science -- differences that made science a foreign forbidding world to most students. Several recommendations emerged from that study, two of which are relevant here:

1. Knowledge of nature learned in school science should combine both Aboriginal and Western knowledge systems.

2. A group of teachers who are already fulfilling some of the principal roles of a culture broker should be identified, and they should form a working network with other educators who could facilitate their collaborative efforts. Together, they should develop: (a) an array of culturally responsive instruction and assessment practices; (b) a culturally sensitive science curriculum; and (c) specific lessons, units, or modules for other teachers to use.

The study also found a great diversity in cultures from community to community across the north. This means that teaching materials developed in one community are not necessarily transferable to another community. Teaching materials must fit into the meaningful cultural context of the local community, otherwise many students will find the science curriculum inaccessible (Cajete, 1999; Stairs 1994).

Northern Saskatchewan schools needed cross-cultural science units that convey the local community's Aboriginal view of nature, and that convey Western science as another way of understanding nature -- a way that expresses a Western scientific worldview and a Western set of values about nature (MacIvor, 1995). No such units existed.

What does this type of cross-cultural science teaching look like in a classroom? This key question became the research question for the present investigation. In the sections that follow, the study is described and its results are presented. The article concludes with a brief discussion on the decolonization of school science.

The Study

To ameliorate the deficiency in cross-cultural science teaching materials and strategies noted above, a research and development (R&D) study was initiated. It was a two-year collaborative effort between the author and six teachers (grades 6-11) conducted in communities across northern Saskatchewan.

An R&D methodology is usually associated with the natural sciences where scientific inquiry informs, and is informed by, engineering design in a context bounded by everyday exigencies (Ziman, 1984). In other words, R&D is a combination of science and technology.

In the social science domain of education, an R&D study differs from the typical educational research normally reported in the research literature. In an educational R&D study, data are not collected to inform a theoretical model, or to be interpreted to convey a participant's lived experience, or to assess a program in any summative way. In an R&D study, research is undertaken and data are collected to be fed directly into improving the product of the study or into initiating practice related to the product. This goal resembles formative assessment. R&D studies were employed, for example, to improve a product in science education in the 1970's and 1980's by a Dutch physics project that produced science-technology-society (STS) modules (Eijkelhof & Lijnse, 1988). Aikenhead (1983, 1994 respectively) described how he used R&D methods to produce the high school curriculum materials Science: A Way of Knowing (Aikenhead & Fleming, 1975) and a STS textbook Logical Reasoning in Science & Technology (Aikenhead, 1991). A different genre of R&D studies dedicated to improving science classroom practice, action research (Keeves, 1998), is illustrated by Pedretti and Hodson's (1995) research with teachers who were introducing STS science into their classrooms, by Bencze and Hodson's (1998) research with teachers implementing inquiry-oriented science instruction, by Nyhof-Young's (2000) gender research into group work in science classrooms, or by McVittie's (in revision, 2002) action research into teaching a chemistry unit in grades 6/7 guided by two constructivist positions.

In a recent critique of research in science education, Jenkins (2001) underscored the need for research into innovative classroom practices, research not normally undertaken by university science educators. R&D is an emerging methodology that can yield useful curriculum materials and instruction practices for classroom use. This methodology was used to produce Rekindling Traditions. Salient details follow.


A number of teachers were nominated by the directors of two school divisions in northern Saskatchewan as possible participants in the study. Each teacher was contacted by telephone by the author. Seven volunteer teachers were selected to participate in the study. One withdrew midway through the first year. The teachers taught science or technology courses in five isolated communities, spread over a distance of about 500 km. The collaborative R&D team of six teachers (two of whom were Aboriginal) had a personal interest in developing their cross-cultural science teaching further. Their teaching experience ranged from two to 25 years, and they currently taught classes comprised mostly of Aboriginal students. The teachers were highly involved in school activities and related projects. They were particularly busy people.

On the advice of the Northern Lights School Division (a major school jurisdiction in northern Saskatchewan), the author approached Elder Henry Sanderson of the La Ronge Indian Band to ask him to be the project's guide. At a personal meeting in La Ronge with the author, Elder Sanderson accepted a gift of jams and teas, thereby agreeing to enter into a relationship with the author and become the project's Elder. At the first collaborative meeting with the teachers in La Ronge in January 1999, Elder Sanderson gave the team the vision to care for Mother Earth. He continued to provide guidance throughout the project at key decision points. Other Elders kindly provided knowledge and wisdom from time to time in the various communities.

There were a number of consultants and advisors who assisted the R&D team, for instance, translators who helped write key words and phrases in Cree, Dëne, and Michif; computer experts who provided technical support; an Aboriginal artist; and many competent people in the teachers' communities who identified authentic Aboriginal science to include in school science and helped students and teachers learn it.

Research Objectives

Guided by Aboriginal and international educators (Cajete, 1986; Casebolt, 1972; Ermine, 1995; Hampton, 1995; Jegede, 1995; Kawagley, 1995; MacIvor, 1995; McKinley, 1996; Nelson-Barber et al., 1996; Ogawa, 1995), by research findings (Aikenhead, 1997; Aikenhead & Huntley, 1999; Allen & Crawley, 1998; Baker, 1996; Deyhle & Swisher, 1997; Fleer, 1997; Harris, 1978; Snively, 1990, 1995), and by the practical knowledge of teachers, the following objectives were formulated for the R&D investigation:

1. To develop a prototype process for producing culturally sensitive instructional strategies and curriculum materials that support student learning within any particular community.

2. To produce teaching strategies and materials that exemplify culturally sensitive science teaching for Aboriginal students (grades 6 to 11), and to make them available electronically through CD-ROM and website sources.

3. To inspire others to continue the practice of cross-cultural science teaching.

As a consequence, the project Rekindling Traditions: Cross-Cultural Science & Technology Units emerged. The results of our R&D study are reported in the next three sections of this article, organized around its three objectives.

Results: To Develop a Prototype Process

Our first objective was to develop a prototype process for producing culturally sensitive instructional strategies and curriculum materials. Our experiences in this development are documented in two publications, Teacher Guide to Rekindling Traditions and Stories from the Field (Aikenhead, 2000a). These documents, along with the individual units themselves, convey a prototype process for others to follow. The following summary describes key aspects to this prototype process, a process designed, piloted, and implemented during the R&D study.

Throughout the first six months of the project, teachers received up to eight days of release time for research, writing, and working with the local experts in their unit's topic. This release time was essential to the success of the project. In addition, the R&D team conducted six two-day planning meetings away from the schools, usually attended by an Elder. Minutes of these meetings were posted on the project's web site.

The focus of each meeting changed as time went on. We began by becoming familiar with past work in cross-cultural science education (see the Teacher Guide for details). Then we went on to identify themes for our units. Next we found and piloted appropriate resources, activities, and teaching methods to suit the units. Time was taken during the later meetings to edit the units, to polish the lesson plans, and to plan professional development workshops for other teachers. Some units developed faster than others. Those that related to specific seasons (e.g. Snowshoes, Trapping, and Wild Rice) could not be piloted until the season was right.

Significant progress in developing individual units was always achieved when the teachers interacted face to face away from their school setting. The R&D team needed uninterrupted time to share ideas, to reflect on the units, and to consider how to involve community people in the school science curriculum. The synergy from people interacting around a table with a common purpose proved to be very powerful. The face-to-face meetings led directly to initiatives being taken by each teacher.

Our face-to-face meetings could not have been replaced by e-mail list-servers, chat rooms, telephones, or faxes. These modes of communication do not allow for the synergetic interaction needed by such a project. In the culture of most schools, there are hourly demands on teachers to interact with students to obtain academic, social, personal, institutional, and parental results. These demands wrap teachers up in a whirl of responsibilities that usually leave teachers with neither the time nor the energy to interact with the internet, telephones, or faxes.

Although these pilot schools in northern Saskatchewan were connected to the internet, the schools were not socially structured to facilitate communication through the internet. In order to ensure internet communication, schools will need to change the time demands placed on teachers, and schools will need to acquire reliable and compatible technology (a very rare commodity in the profit-dominated world of computers and software). The project could not have progressed without these face-to-face meetings. Future projects should follow this traditional pathway rather than the "information highway."

Another major facet to the study's successful progress can be attributed to the time spent on the project by the facilitator/coordinator (the author) interacting with the teachers in their communities. I was released from all teaching responsibilities at my university during the fall of 1999 (when the communities were implementing the units), and part time in the spring of 2000 (when the units were edited and electronically designed for desk-top publishing on the CD-ROM). Progress would not have been smooth without a facilitator/coordinator to organize meetings, to follow up on teachers' suggestions, to visit teachers in their schools, to be a writer when needed, to be a researcher when needed, to be a courier when needed, to negotiate computer software problems as they arose, and to keep everyone focussed on the project's goals as defined by our Elders.

Key community people were essential to the process of developing lessons sensitive to the students' unique community. At first it was a challenge for each teacher to involve people from the community. The challenges were very different from community to community. These challenges, and our advice on how to succeed, are found in Stories from the Field (Aikenhead, 2000a). Knowing the politics of the community was always the first step towards success.

Results: To Produce Some Teaching Strategies and Materials

In Alaska, Native American students' standardized science test scores uniformly improved over four years to meet with national averages, in classrooms where there was a strong cultural fit among the instruction, the curriculum, and the context in which students learned the science (Barnhardt, Kawagley & Hill, 2000). Our Rekindling Traditions project aimed to accomplish this cultural fit. The project's teaching strategies are described first, followed by an overview of the curriculum materials.

Teaching Strategies

The first strategy that made a world of difference was teaching out of doors. Students reacted very positively when immersed in nature away from the school building, even when it occurred for only one or two lessons in a unit. It was as if these students were sensing their natural place in the world. This inference coincides with one of Hampton's (1995) twelve standards of education for First Nations students, a sense of place: "Indian education recognizes the importance of an Indian sense of place, land, and territory" (p. 40). Kawagley and Barnhardt (1999) also describe the importance of place to the Alaskan Yupiaq First Nations and how science educators can be sensitive to that sense of place when planning instruction. The power of Aboriginal science rests with its validity for a particular place. A teacher connects with this place by expanding the walls of the school into the community (MacIvor, 1995; Snively & Corsiglia, 2001).

Another culturally sensitive instructional strategy discovered by the R&D team was the involvement of students in gaining local Aboriginal knowledge related to the unit. Students learned that their community was rich in knowledge, as rich as the internet and print materials they worked with at school. To gain access to local knowledge, students were taught the proper protocol for approaching people who possessed the knowledge. For this purpose, students were taught how to conduct interviews. Most of the Rekindling Traditions units contain a lesson dedicated to gaining local knowledge appropriately. Interview questions were composed by the class and then used by groups of students as they interviewed people in the community. The local knowledge gained by students was shared and synthesized in class. In other words, Elders and other knowledgeable people in the community taught local content to students, who in turn recorded the knowledge in a way appropriate to the wishes of the person who gave them the knowledge in the first place (some stories are not to be repeated, and some may only be repeated orally). When feasible, students recorded events with recyclable cameras, following procedures suggested by Meadows, Settlage and Allen (1999). Some of these photos were placed in the units, augmenting the students' pride in their work, and connecting the culture of the community with the culture of school science.

After helping students synthesize the local Aboriginal knowledge, teachers verified the validity of this knowledge by talking with people in their community. This procedure established a personal contact between the teachers and people in the community. Some teachers invited Elders or other local experts into the classroom. Students and teachers usually learned the Aboriginal science content together. In some cases, the Elders or experts helped the teacher conduct a field trip with the students, for instance, a trip to a wild rice stand, to a trap line, or to where certain plants with healing powers grew.

These instructional methods showed students how to gain access to their community's knowledge and wisdom. But more importantly, these methods taught students to value and respect their own Aboriginal heritage. This tends to develop stronger cultural identity and self-esteem in Aboriginal students (Battiste, 2000a; Cajete, 1999; McKinley et al., 1992; Ritchie & Butler, 1990).

The various activities described above illustrate one central theme to Rekindling Traditions: respect for local knowledge is foundational, it is not a token add-on.

Aboriginal knowledge found in each of the Rekindling Traditions units creates a context for instruction that most Aboriginal students relate to. It is also a context into which Western science instruction can logically fit. In other words, Western science content is taught in the context of the local community's Aboriginal science, a context that creates an Aboriginal framework for the unit. A Rekindling Traditions unit uses Western science to learn more about students' Aboriginal worlds, rather than using an Aboriginal world to learn Western science. The approach of Rekindling Traditions celebrates the co-existence of both sciences, a condition essential to culturally sensitive instructional strategies and to a post-colonial science education.

When students were introduced to Western science content in a unit (described in more detail below), it was done with respect for the authentic knowledge that had been shared by the community. Consequently, students could learn Western science without feeling the need to discredit the Aboriginal science they had learned. Assimilation was consciously avoided. Teachers noted that students became more interested in their science course and did not approach it as content to be memorized. In one case, two students exclaimed, "This isn't science; it's too much fun."

Although we consciously avoided teaching science in an assimilative way, students were nevertheless expected to see the world through the eyes of a Western scientist, just as we would expect students to understand another person's point of view on an issue. Understanding Western science did not necessary mean, however, believing in its content and technique. Similarly when we dealt with spirituality in Aboriginal science, students were expected to understand it, not necessarily believe it. This distinction was most important to parents who lived a fundamentalist Christian faith. Our approach to teaching has been called "anthropological instruction" (Aikenhead, 1997) because it puts students in a position of an anthropologist, learning the content of another culture.

The integration of Aboriginal science and Western science, according to McGregor's (2000) co-existence model, was another culturally sensitive instructional strategy that proved successful. It had a noticeable motivational effect on many students in our study. According to their teachers, students tended to become more involved in science classes, even staying after school to complete projects when needed. Voluntarily staying after school was normally almost unheard of in the pilot schools of northern Saskatchewan.

A common pattern of integration found in the Rekindling Traditions units was the Aboriginal framework established at the beginning of each unit. This introductory Aboriginal content took the form of practical action relevant to a community, for example, going on a snowshoe hike, finding indigenous plants that heal, listening to an Elder, interviewing people in the community, or assisting in a local wild rice harvest.

Values are particularly salient in Aboriginal cultures (Cajete, 1999). Central to cross-cultural strategies of teaching science is making students aware of the different cultural ways one can describe and explain nature. Not only is the science content different in each culture, but the values attached to that content differ. Both scientific and Aboriginal values are made explicit in Rekindling Traditions lessons. The introduction to any unit clarifies key values that Elders expect students to learn (e.g. harmony with nature). This practice of making values explicit is then extended to the clarification of values that underlie Western science when scientific content is studied in a unit (e.g. power and domination over nature). This happens to be a requirement of the Saskatchewan science curriculum (Saskatchewan Education, 1991, p. 28), defined by one of its seven dimensions of scientific literacy -- "values that underlie science." Each lesson plan in a Rekindling Traditions unit specifies either a scientific value or an Aboriginal value to be conveyed by the lesson. Key scientific values sometimes became the topic of a classroom discussion. During these discussions, scientific values were expressed and then critiqued. As the value structure of Western science becomes more apparent to Aboriginal students (e.g. the mathematical idealization of the physical world), students were freer to appropriate Western knowledge without embracing Western ways of valuing nature. This process of appropriation has been called "autonomous acculturation" (Aikenhead, 1997). It is an alternative to trying to assimilate or enculturate students into Western science, or to getting students to memorize the content covered.

After the unit is firmly grounded in an Aboriginal framework (accomplished in one to three lessons), the next move is to introduce students to relevant Western science content from the Saskatchewan science curriculum. An introduction to Western science content is an explicit border crossing event into a different culture. This cultural border crossing is acknowledged by consciously switching:

1. values (e.g. from harmony with nature, to power and domination over nature)

2. language (e.g. from mahihkan to Canis lupis),

3. conceptualizations (e.g. from "Who is that animal?" to "How is it classified?"),

4. assumptions about nature (e.g. from the observer being personally related to what is observed, to the observer being objectively removed), and

5. ways of knowing (e.g. from holism to reductionism).

An effective culture-brokering teacher (Archibald, 1999; Stairs, 1995) clearly identifies the border to be crossed, guides students back and forth across that border, and helps students negotiate cultural conflicts that might arise (Aikenhead, 1997; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999). Each unit differs slightly in terms of where this border crossing first occurs.

Western science can powerfully clarify one small aspect of Aboriginal science. For instance in the units Snowshoes, Trapping, and Wild Rice, the technologies associated with these topics were originally studied from historical, technological, and cultural perspectives of the local community. Then the class took a closer, Western scientific look at the pressure exerted by snowshoes on snow, the play between potential and kinetic energy in animal traps, and the habitat of wild rice and the pH of the water in that habitat. By understanding the Western scientific stories about pressure, energy, habitat, and pH, students learned to predict more accurately the effects of variations in the technology associated with snowshoeing, trapping, or producing wild rice. While the Western science concepts may not improve students' know-how for snowshoeing, trapping, or growing wild rice, the concepts clarify one small aspect of the overall topic. Western science did not replace Aboriginal science, it enriched an aspect of it.

As various topics in Western science and technology are studied within our units, additional Aboriginal content is introduced from time to time. This is easy to do because the unit already has a framework for that content.

The teaching strategies found in the units nurture the enculturation of Aboriginal students into their community's culture (Aikenhead, 1997, 2000b; Casebolt, 1972), an enculturation that engenders a strong self-identity (Battiste, 2000a; Commonwealth of Australia, 2000; MacIvor, 1995; Mosha, 1999; Purdie et al., 2000). This approach differs dramatically from attempts to enculturate students into Western science, the goal of the so-called reform movements in, for example, the US (NRC, 1996), the UK (Millar & Osborne, 1998), and Ontario (McNay, 2000). The reform goals seem like assimilation or colonization to many residing in an Aboriginal community.

As students bring their community's Aboriginal knowledge, language, and values into the classroom, new relationships between a teacher and a student tend to replace the conventional colonizing hierarchy, characterized by teachers transmitting what they know to students (Battiste, 1998). This new relationship tends to enhance the cultural sensitivity of any instructional strategy used in a classroom. By teaching a Rekindling Traditions unit, teachers learn from students who have recently learned valid Aboriginal science from people in their community. By learning from students and community people, teachers demonstrate how an educated adult learns new knowledge. Teachers, of course, share their own expert knowledge with students. Teachers are facilitators, cultural tour guides, and learners; in short, culture brokers (Aikenhead, 1997; Archibald, 1999; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999; Stairs, 1995).

Teaching Materials

The teaching materials developed in the R&D study include six teaching units, a teacher guide, and a document describing the team's experiences involving the local community in determining what should count as valid school science content.

The main teaching materials for Rekindling Traditions are the six units (Aikenhead, 2000a) listed in Table 1 with their English title, their authentic title, and their teacher developer. Our units were written by teachers to give fellow teachers the necessary background information, resource materials (including links to the internet), and other practical assistance lesson by lesson. Each lesson has the same organization: time required, goals, objectives, values to be conveyed (Aboriginal or Western scientific), instructional strategies used, lesson's procedural outline, integration with other subjects, resources, and practical teacher notes. The computer files for these units are very large, between 5,000 and 12,000 megabytes, because each unit has many coloured photographs and several units have substantial teacher resources placed in the appendices. The units are available in two formats: (1) Microsoft Word, software compatible with all schools across northern Saskatchewan, and (2) PDF, a format which reduces the size of the computer files considerably but does not allow a teacher to edit the files. Only the units' PDF files are on the project's web site ( Both the PDF and Microsoft Word files are on the CD-ROM (Aikenhead, 2000a).


Table 1 fits here.


Our units are most valuable when teachers can easily copy and modify them to suit the needs of the local community. For this reason, our copyright was written to allow this to happen as long as no one makes a profit.

Another teaching material developed was the Teacher Guide to Rekindling Traditions (Aikenhead, 2000a). It serves as a professional support for cross-cultural science teaching and as a general guide to the six units. The Teacher Guide presents background information and ideas that guided our own work. The ideas came from several sources: Aboriginal educators from around the world, Aboriginal educators and Elders in Saskatchewan, and from our own experiences and perspectives. The Teacher Guide discusses the integration of Aboriginal science and Western science in much greater depth than described in this article. It draws upon the six units in detail to illustrate this integration. The Teacher Guide's table of contents (Table 2) clearly indicates the topic for each section. For instance, the section "Treating Aboriginal Knowledge with Respect" lists nine principles that guided us during the R&D study.


Table 2 fits here.


As described earlier, in Stories from the Field (Aikenhead, 2000a) we convey our experiences and advice related to contacting community people to learn their knowledge, involving them with the school, and gaining support from the community at large. This document takes some of the mystery away from becoming involved with Elders and other people in the context of Canadian Aboriginal communities. It should make Canadian teachers feel more comfortable crossing the cultural border between their personal cultural identities and the culture of Elders and others in the community. This border crossing is an essential teaching strategy in Rekindling Traditions.

Results: To Inspire Others

Our third objective, to inspire others to implement cross-cultural science teaching, has involved the dissemination of our project at teacher professional meetings. It is premature at this time to describe consequences to the Rekindling Traditions project. The project is such a departure from the status quo in science teaching that it will require several years to be implemented by teachers who are capable of becoming culture brokers. However, some preliminary information may be of interest to the reader. Pre-service science teachers at the University of Saskatchewan have begun to benefit from Rekindling Traditions in their science methods courses because the project concretely illustrates how a teacher can integrate Aboriginal science with Western science. At in-service teacher workshops the reaction has been positive. We consistently hear, "This is what I've been looking for. There isn't any material like it."

A different type of outcome has given us more confidence in the cross-cultural teaching strategy called "border crossing." As described earlier, the strategy responds to difficulties students encounter when they try to learn Western science but are confronted by a foreign culture (Aikenhead & Jegede, 1999; Costa, 1995). For many students, there is a cultural border to cross between their everyday world and the world of Western science. Evidence from cultural anthropologists Phelan, Davidson and Cao (1991) and Leavitt (1995) has shown that a reasonably smooth border crossing is essential before students can access Western science in a meaningful way. Border crossing is a central strategy for cross-cultural science instruction (Aikenhead, 1997). This strategy was adopted by the American Indian science educator Gregory Cajete (1999) in his book Igniting the Sparkle: An Indigenous Science Education Model. While this endorsement from a revered Aboriginal leader is most encouraging, experience and future research will tell how effective this strategy is for various teachers and teaching situations. Its applicability in urban multicultural classrooms remains to be tested. Research into students' border crossing into school science should be fruitful for understanding how students learn in ways highly meaningful to themselves (i.e. ways that enhance their self-identities), and such research should be useful in designing teaching materials in future R&D studies.


Worldwide there is a growing interest in decolonizing school science and addressing the under-representation of Aboriginal peoples in careers related to science and technology (Aikenhead, 1997; Battiste, 2000b; Battiste & Henderson, 2000). Success in school science depends, of course, on a student's interest in succeeding, and is highly correlated with Aboriginal students' cultural self-identities (Purdie et al., 2000).

One response to this state of affairs is to design models of curriculum development (Cajete, 1999; McKinley, 1998). Another response is to develop instructional strategies and teaching packages that integrate Aboriginal science with Western science (Alaska Native Knowledge Network, 2001; Allen & Crawley, 1998; Linkson, 1998; Michie et al., 1998; Read, 1998; Sainte-Marie, 2000). The Rekindling Traditions project goes one step further: science teachers collaborate with local experts to modify a teaching unit (electronically stored), or create a new unit, to meet the unique needs of an individual community. It is anticipated that a teacher will print out a Rekindling Traditions unit from our CD-ROM or web site (Aikenhead, 2000a), take it to some people in their community who know the topic well, and then ask, "How could we modify this unit so it fits our community?" These local people become a major resource for modifying the unit (or developing a new one). They can also interact with students in the school or on a field trip, thus strengthening a student's cultural self-identity and helping students cross the cultural border between Aboriginal science and Western science. This is an important feature of the Rekindling Traditions units. It is one response to Battiste's (2000a, p. 202) invitation: "Creating a balance between two worldviews is the great challenge facing modern educators."

Our project showed that culturally responsive teaching strategies and materials, integral to post-colonial school science, worked well for Aboriginal students in the pilot schools. Teachers modelled successful border crossing between the teachers' life-worlds and the culture of the community. Innovation in other science classrooms, however, represents an intellectual and political challenge for Canadian science educators. Culturally responsive teaching requires us to renegotiate the culture of school science (Aikenhead, 2000b). The negotiation towards a co-existence of two major cultures, Aboriginal and Western, seriously questions the Western hegemonic status quo residing in many schools, communities, university science departments, and society in general (Battiste, 1998; Fensham, 1998; Hodson, 2001). Encouragingly, Friedel (1999) discovered that by involving the Aboriginal community in an Edmonton public school, the culture of the school changed appreciably, though the administrator and teachers had to change as well. Without a change in the culture of school science, Aboriginal students will not likely respond to curriculum innovations in the way a science teacher might hope students will.

A community's Aboriginal knowledge enjoys a respected place in the Rekindling Traditions units. Some students in the R&D study discovered that they already knew this Aboriginal knowledge because it had been taught to them at home, but they had not valued it as legitimate knowledge for school science. Other students in our study learned this Aboriginal knowledge for the first time in their science class. Either way, Aboriginal knowledge was given "voice" in the classroom in the sense described by O'Loughlin (1992) and Brandt (2001) as involving both the speaker and the listener in mutual respect. Each of our units validated the ways of knowing that students brought to school by grounding the curriculum in those ways of knowing -- the students' voices and lives.

By giving Aboriginal knowledge a respected voice in science classrooms, teachers learn from students and from people in the community, and students' Aboriginal identities tend to be nurtured (Kawagley & Barnhardt, 1999; McKinley et al. 1992). When the Commonwealth of Australia (2000) conducted extensive research into what works for Aboriginal students in their schools, they too concluded:

The very content and status of the knowledge that is taken for granted in Western-style education may challenge and disrupt some of the foundations of Indigenous cultures. This is no small matter. Having an undivided sense of 'how you are supposed to be' is the most basic foundation for development and maturation, the platform for confident operation in the world. (p. 143)

In Canada, the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples also underscored the importance of Aboriginal culture for Aboriginal students.

Cultural approaches start from the belief that if youth are solidly grounded in their Aboriginal identity and cultural knowledge, they will have strong personal resources to develop intellectually, physically, emotionally and spiritually. The ability to implement culture-based curriculum goes hand in hand with the authority to control what happens in the school system. (p. 478)

In some modest measure the Rekindling Tradition project provides innovators with one way to actively support the decolonization of school science and thus nurture economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival for Aboriginal peoples in Canada.


I am indebted to the six teachers, Gloria Belcourt, Morris Brizinski, David Gold, Keith Lemaigre, Shaun Nagy, and Earl Stobbe, whose creativity and commitment to teaching were stellar. The Rekindling Traditions project was made possible through the support and funding from the Cameco Access Program for Engineering and Science (CAPES), the Stirling McDowell Foundation (Saskatchewan Teacher's Federation), Northern Lights School Division, Île-à-la-Crosse School Division, Saskatchewan Education (Northern Division), and the Colleges of Education and Engineering, University of Saskatchewan.


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Table 1. The Six Units in Rekindling Traditions
Title Authentic Title Teacher Developer
Nature's Hidden Gifts Iyiniw Maskikiy (Cree) Morris Brizinski
Snowshoes Asâmak (Michif or Cree) David Gold
Survival in Our Land Kipimâcihowininaw ôta Kitashînahk (Cree) Earl Stobbe
The Night Sky Tth´ën (Dëne) Shaun Nagy
Trapping ts´usi Thëlai (Dëne) Keith Lemaigre
Wild Rice Mânomin (Algonkin or Cree) Gloria Belcourt

Table 2. Table of Contents for Teacher Guide to Rekindling Traditions






Western Science Versus Aboriginal Knowledge of Nature

A Cross-Cultural Approach to Teaching and Learning

Cultural Border Crossings

Coming to Knowing

Culture Brokering

Different Relationships Between Western and Aboriginal Sciences

Resolving Cultural Conflicts Between Aboriginal and Western Sciences

Collateral Learning

Translation is Not Enough

Treating Aboriginal Knowledge with Respect

Standards of Education for Aboriginal Students



Wild Rice

Nature's Hidden Gifts

Survival in Our Land



The Night Sky



Principles of Assessment

Written Tests

Assessment Rubrics