Aboriginal School Science for Economic Development,

Environmental Responsibility, and Cultural Survival



Glen S. Aikenhead

Curriculum Studies, University of Saskatchewan

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, S7N 0X1, Canada




The purpose of this article is to strengthen Aboriginal science education aimed at teaching Western science and enhancing students’ cultural identity. This entails treating Western science as "a repository to be raided for what it can contribute to the achievement of practical ends" (Layton et al., 1993, p. 135). "Practical ends" is broadly interpreted to mean: working at a job, preparing for a career, making a decision about a science-related societal or personal issue, or making sense of one’s community or nation increasingly influenced by Western science and technology. Three practical ends of significance to Aboriginal peoples are highlighted in this article: economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival.



A recently developed cultural perspective on science education recognizes Western science as a subculture of Euro-American culture (Aikenhead, 1996, 1997). Because the culture of Western science can conflict with the cultures of Aboriginal students (Fleer, 1997), learning Western science requires Aboriginal students to cross cultural borders from their everyday subcultures of peers, family, and tribe, to the subculture of school science. My emphasis on border crossings implies a type of cross-cultural science curriculum for Aboriginal students, a curriculum designed for practical ends as defined by the Aboriginal community.



Cultures and Subcultures

A cultural perspective on science education views teaching as cultural transmission and views learning as culture acquisition, where culture means "the norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions of a group" (Phelan et al., 1991). Canonical scientific knowledge will be subsumed under "beliefs" in Phelan et al.’s definition.


Within all cultures, subgroups exist that are commonly identified by nation, tribe, language, location, religion, gender, occupation, etc. Large numbers and many combinations of subgroups exist due to the associations that naturally form among people in society. In the context of science education, Furnham (1992) identified several powerful subgroups that influence students’ understanding about science: the family, peers, the school, and the mass media. Each identifiable subgroup is composed of people who generally embrace a defining set of norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions. In short, each subgroup shares a culture, which I designate as "subculture" to convey an identity with a subgroup.


The Subculture of Science


Science itself is a subculture of Western culture. Scientists share a well defined system of norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions -- the culture of Western science. This culture has been characterized by the following attributes: mechanistic, materialistic, reductionist, empirical, rational, decontextualized, mathematically idealized, communal, ideological, masculine, competitive, and exploitive (Kelly et al., 1993).


Because science tends to be a Western cultural icon of prestige, power, and progress, its subculture permeates the culture of those who engage it (MacIvor, 1995). This acculturation can threaten indigenous cultures. In the case of Aboriginal peoples, the threat is real. To understand their position we need to appreciate some cultural aspects to their view of nature, a topic to which we now turn.


Aboriginal Knowledge of Nature


Aboriginal knowledge about the natural world contrasts with Western scientific knowledge in a number of ways. Aboriginal and scientific knowledge differ in their social goals: survival of a people versus the luxury of gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge and for power over nature and other people. They differ in intellectual goals: to co-exist with mystery in nature by celebrating mystery versus to eradicate mystery by explaining it away. They differ in their association with human action: intimately and subjectively interrelated versus formally and objectively decontextualized. They differ in other ways as well: holistic Aboriginal perspectives with their gentle, accommodating, intuitive, and spiritual wisdom, versus reductionist Western science with its aggressive, manipulative, mechanistic, and analytical explanations (Peat, 1994). They even differ in their basic concepts of time: circular for Aboriginals, rectilinear for scientists.


On the one hand, the culture of science is guided by the fact that the physical universe is knowable through rational empirical means, albeit Western rationality and culture-laden observations; while on the other hand, Aboriginal knowledge of nature celebrates the fact that the physical universe is mysterious but can be survived if one uses rational empirical means, albeit Aboriginal rationality and culture-laden observations. Aboriginal knowledge is not static, but evolves dynamically with new observations, new insights, and new spiritual messages.


The norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions of Aboriginal peoples contrast dramatically with the subculture of science. Aboriginal knowledge of nature tends to be thematic, survival-oriented, holistic, empirical, rational, contextualized, specific, communal, ideological, spiritual, non-elitist, cooperative, coexistent, and peaceful. Endemic to Aboriginal culture is environmental responsibility, a quality that led Christie (1991) to define sustainable Western science in terms of Aboriginal cultures.


My brief characterization of Aboriginal knowledge of nature hints at the intellectual challenges faced by Aboriginal students who attempt to cross the cultural borders between their everyday world and the world of science. These intellectual challenges are exacerbated by a critical dilemma posed by the subculture of school science.


The Subculture of School Science


Closely aligned with Western science is school science, whose main goal has been cultural transmission of both the subculture of science and the dominant culture of a country. Transmitting a scientific culture can either be supportive or disruptive to students. If the subculture of science generally harmonizes with a student’s everyday culture, science instruction will tend to support the student’s view of the world, and the result is enculturation.


But if the subculture of science is generally at odds with a student’s everyday world, as it is with most Aboriginal students, then science instruction can disrupt the student’s view of the world by forcing that student to abandon or marginalize his/her indigenous way of knowing and reconstruct in its place a new (scientific) way of knowing. The result is assimilation (Jegede, 1995) which has highly negative connotations as evidenced by such epitaphs as "cultural imperialism." Assimilation has caused oppression throughout the world and has disempowered whole groups of people.


Although the cultural function of school science has traditionally been to enculturate or assimilate students into the subculture of science, many students persistently and ingeniously resist assimilation by playing a type of school game that allows them to pass their science course without learning the content assumed by the teacher and community. The game can have explicit rules which Larson (1995) discovered as "Fatima’s rules," named after an articulate student in a high school chemistry class. Fatima’s rules tell us how to answer questions without understanding the subject matter meaningfully.

Understandably most Aboriginal educators, such as MacIvor (1995), reject an assimilationist science curriculum but they face a dilemma: how does one nurture students’ achievement toward formal educational credentials and economic and political independence, while at the same time develop the students’ cultural identity as an Aboriginal person? One answer is an integration of Aboriginal knowledge into science education for the survival and well being of Aboriginal peoples, what McTaggert (1991) called "both-ways" education.


To achieve this goal, Aboriginal students should develop the facility to cross cultural borders from the everyday subcultures of their peers, family, and tribe, into the subcultures of school science, and science itself. These border crossings turn out to be essential to the success of Aboriginal students (Ritchie & Kane, 1990).


Border Crossings


A scenario illustrates some of the difficulties that Aboriginal students can encounter when they move between cultures or subcultures.


  • University science student Coddy Mercredi disobeyed his faculty advisor by avoiding geology courses throughout his university career. Coddy did not want to spoil his aesthetic/spritual understanding of nature by polluting his mind with mechanistic explanations of the earth’s landscapes. He understood science all too well and chose not to cross one of its borders. His advisor thought he was lazy and not worthy of a science scholarship. Coddy Mercredi feared that he would be assimilated by geology, and therefore, border crossing for him was hazardous.

    Research in many countries has identified problems experienced by Aboriginal students who have a "traditional" background and who attempt to learn a subject matter grounded in Western culture. Crossing over from one way of thinking to another can be exceedingly hard.


    Border crossings need not always be hazardous, however. In our everyday lives we exhibit changes in behaviour as we move from one social setting to another; for instance, from our professional colleagues at work to our families at home. Only a few researchers have studied individual differences in terms of moving in and out of Western science. Medvitz (1985) documented cases of Nigerian scientists who moved effortlessly between the subcultures of a scientific laboratory and their tribal village, even when they recognized the contradictions between the two. "We are thinking differently" (p. 14). Visa versa, the experience of border crossing by a Western physicist into an Aboriginal worldview was also described in terms of thinking differently (Peat, 1994). The capacity and motivation to participate in diverse subcultures are well known human phenomena.


    However, such capacities and motivations are not shared equally among all humans, as anthropologists Phelan et al. (1991) discovered when they investigated students’ movement between the worlds of their families, peer groups, schools, and classrooms:

  • Many adolescents are left to navigate transitions without direct assistance from persons in any of their contexts, most notably the school. Further, young people’s success in managing these transitions varies widely (p. 224).
  • The significance of these results has direct implications for Aboriginal students:

  • Yet students’ competence in moving between settings has tremendous implications for the quality of their lives and their chances of using the education system as a stepping stone to further education, productive work experiences, and a meaningful adult life. (p. 224)
  • Phelan et al.’s data suggested that differences between students’ worlds lead to four types of transitions: congruent worlds support smooth transitions, different worlds require transitions to be managed, diverse worlds lead to hazardous transitions, and highly discordant worlds cause students to resist transitions which therefore become virtually impossible.


    Costa (1995) provides a link between Phelan et al.’s anthropological study of schools and the specific issues faced by science educators. Costa found patterns in the ease with which students move into the subculture of science. She described these patterns in terms of student characteristics, and then clustered them into categories (four are summarized here in a context of cultural border crossing): (1) Potential Scientists cross borders into school science so smoothly and naturally that the borders appear invisible; (2) Other Smart Kids manage their border crossing so well that few express any sense of science being a foreign subculture; (3) ‘I Don’t Know’ Students confront hazardous border crossings but learn to cope and survive; and (4) Outsiders tend to be alienated from school itself and so border crossing into school science is virtually impossible. In my own research, I have identified another group of students who confront hazardous border crossings -- ‘I Want to Know’ Students. For them, doing well in science is a real challenge. But because they have just an intense curiosity about the natural world, they enjoy studying science.


    Costa’s research provides a framework within which important issues in Aboriginal education can be identified and discussed. The ease of border crossing could likely determine a student’s capability to raid Western science for practical ends and achieve goals defined by an Aboriginal community.


    Appropriate Knowledge for Aboriginal Students


    What knowledge in science education will help achieve such practical ends as economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival? Barriers to a nation's economic development have been uncritically attributed to the nation’s lack of science education (Medvitz, 1985). In spite of political rhetoric to the contrary, economic development in industrialized countries depends on factors other than a scientifically literate population; factors all beyond the influence of public science education; for example: emerging technologies, industrial restructuring, poor management decisions, and government policies that affect military development, monetary exchange rates, wages, licensing agreements, etc. (Rotberg, 1994). A sound general education that nurtures flexibility, adaptability and prepares students for future on-the-job retraining holds greatest promise for economic development (Keep and Mayhew, 1988). Similarly, environmentally responsible action is almost uncorrelated with achievement in environmental education (Simonelli, 1994). In other words, formal education normally found in school science does not usually translate into economic development or environmental responsibility. Aboriginal educators did well to reject our conventional science education curriculum.


    Even more troublesome, science education does not normally enhance an adult’s understanding of his/her everyday world of science-related problems, social issues, or practical decisions (Layton et al., 1993). Engineers and lay persons cannot simply apply scientific knowledge to a particular problem because there are so many non-scientific factors at play that in many cases the most effective resolution is to ignore the science. But even when the science is effectively applicable, the best that one can do is to deconstruct science from its mathematically ideal form and reconstruct it in the unique social context of use. One hazard, then, in negotiating the cultural borders between the subculture of science and the everyday world is the need to restructure or transform scientific knowledge. (One advantage of Aboriginal knowledge of nature is that it comes already contextualized, and hence there is no need to restructure it before putting it to use.)

    What knowledge, then, is related to the goals of economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival? MacIvor (1995) argues in favour of practical instruction that integrates science, technology, and indigenous (commonsense) knowledge. Knowledge for practical action is constructed eclectically from several knowledge systems relevant to a situation. It may be helpful for curriculum developers to recognize three types of knowledge systems useful to practical action: commonsense knowledge, technological/engineering knowledge, and scientific knowledge. Although the three systems share common facets, they have notable differences:


    commonsense knowledge -- socially situated, context dependent, human centred;


    technology knowledge -- problem situated, context dependent, efficiency centred;


    scientific knowledge -- puzzle situated, context independent, rationalistically centred.

    If science education is going to contribute to Aboriginal economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival, students will need to learn many ways of knowing: Aboriginal common sense, Aboriginal and Western technology, and Aboriginal and Western knowledge of nature.




    A cross-cultural perspective for the science curriculum suggests that learning results from the interaction among: (1) the personal orientations of a student; (2) the subcultures of a student’s family, tribe, peers, school, media, etc.; and (3) the subcultures of science and school science as conveyed by a science teacher.




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