Executive Summary


November 25, 1997

Glen Aikenhead Bente Huntley

Curriculum Studies SUNTEP Prince Albert

28 Campus Drive 48 - 12th Street East

Saskatoon, SK, S7N OX1 Prince Albert, SK, S6V 1B2

Canada Canada

Funded by Saskatchewan Education




The goal of conventional science teaching has been to transmit to students the knowledge, skills, and values of the scientific community. This content conveys a Western worldview due to the fact that science is a subculture of Western culture (Pickering, 1992). Thus, students with a much different worldview face a cross-cultural experience whenever they study Western science (Aikenhead, 1996). How can these students master and critique a Western scientific way of knowing without losing something valuable from their own cultural way of knowing?

To First Nations science educator Madeleine MacIvor (1995), the answer is clear: "The need for the development of scientific and technical skills among our people is pressing. ... Reasserting authority in areas of economic development and health care requires community expertise in science and technology" (p. 74). "Conventional science must be presented as a way, not the way, of contemplating the universe" (p. 88). In other words, there is a need for First Nations and Métis students to learn Western science, but without necessarily being assimilated into Western culture.

To accomplish Madeleine MacIvor’s goal, teachers need to develop in students the facility to cross cultural borders from their everyday world of family and tribe, into the subculture of school science (Aikenhead, 1997). Many students do not cross this border smoothly because of cultural conflicts. They need a teacher who is a "culture broker" (Stairs, 1995). A culture-broker science teacher will help students move back and forth between an Aboriginal culture and the culture of Western science (conventional school science), and will help students deal with cultural conflicts that might arise .

If science teachers are not aware of the cultural aspects of Western science, and are not aware of the differences between scientific and Aboriginal cultures, then they will not make good culture brokers for Aboriginal students, and the science curriculum will be less accessible to these students. As a result, fewer Aboriginal students will succeed in science.

We would like to help teachers become better culture brokers, but first we needed to find out what teachers understood already. Our research project investigated science teachers’ current awareness of the cultural aspects of Western science, and the connection between an Aboriginal student’s home culture and the culture of science taught in their classroom. This connection, or "nexus", between a community’s culture and the culture of Western science is captured by the phrase "science and culture nexus" (SCN).

We developed some instruments that systematically gathered quantitative, qualitative data, and interview data from science teachers across northern Saskatchewan (from Yorkton to La Loche) who instructed First Nations or Métis students in grades 7 to 12. The views of Aboriginal science teachers were of special interest. Twenty-five teachers responded to a 69 item quantitative questionnaire, seven teachers responded to a 10 item qualitative questionnaire, and based on a preliminary analysis of these responses, a semi-structured interview was conducted with ten teachers. A total of 42 teachers participated.

We adopted a cultural view towards science education &endash; teaching is cultural transmission while learning is culture acquisition (Spindler, 1987; Wolcott, 1991). Because science tends to be a Western cultural icon of prestige, power, and progress, its subculture tends to permeate the culture of those who engage it, with cultural assimilation being one possible consequence (Battiste, 1986; Ermine, 1995). However, many students avoid cultural assimilation by playing "games" that allow students to pass their science course without really understanding the content. The rules of the game are known as "Fatima’s rules" (Larson, 1995); as one teacher said, "students go with the information and memorize as much as they can without actually doing any new learning".

Alternatives to assimilation and Fatima’s rules must be investigated. What actually happens when students move from their everyday culture into the culture of school science? The move is called "cultural border crossing" (Aikenhead, 1996, 1997). For the vast majority of students whose home worldview differs from the worldview of school science, cultural border crossing is not smooth. (Differences between First Nations cultures and Western science are itemized in the full Research Report, 131 pages in length; and in Aikenhead, 1997)

How easily do students move from their home culture into the culture of school science (ease of border crossing)? Anthropological research (Phelan et al., 1991) has identified four categories of ease, each related to differences between a student’s culture and the culture school science: (1) congruent cultures support smooth transitions, (2) different cultures require transitions to be managed, (3) diverse cultures lead to hazardous transitions, and (4) highly discordant cultures cause students to resist transitions which therefore become virtually impossible. The ease with which Aboriginal students cross cultural borders into school science could likely determine a student’s capability to learn Western science for practical purposes, and thus achieve goals defined by First Nations and Métis educators, such as Madeleine MacIvor.

The cognitive experience of border crossing is captured by the idea called "collateral learning" &endash; learning in the context of potentially conflicting knowledge (for example, Aboriginal or a student’s personal knowledge versus Western science). Collateral learning was proposed by Olugbemiro Jegede (1995) who used a rainbow as an illustration. In the culture of Western science, students learn that the refraction of light rays by droplets of water causes rainbows; while in some African cultures, a rainbow signifies a python crossing a river or the death of an important chief. Thus for African students, learning about rainbows in science means constructing a potentially conflicting idea in their long-term memory. How do people resolve this conflict? The full Research Report discusses four types of collateral learning observed in students.

In summary, most students cross a cultural border when they enter a science classroom, some students less smoothly than others. A science teacher’s role as culture broker will facilitate smoother border crossings into school science for Aboriginal students. Fatima’s rules and collateral learning help explain how students react if their own worldviews differ from the worldview of Western science. These ideas guided our analysis of the study’s empirical findings and helped us better understand teachers’ beliefs about science and culture and their nexus.




Based on feedback from participants, our quantitative questionnaire has been revised. A shortened version of a Saskatchewan SCN instrument is now available for future use. It might help to identify groups of teachers who share similar views on the connection between their students’ culture and the science taught at school.

The interview data produced our most credible results. The diverse and sometimes incompatible views expressed by the teachers gave considerable clarity to a wide range of ideas found in the quantitative and qualitative data. The interview data were organized around nine general questions: What is culture? What is science? What is the status and use of Aboriginal knowledge in science and science classrooms? Does the possession of Aboriginal knowledge inhibit students from learning science? If Aboriginal students do master science, do they loose something valuable from their own culture? Is there a connection between Western science and Euro-American culture? To what extent is science a foreign culture to Aboriginal students? Why do Aboriginal students tend to avoid higher level science courses and science related careers? and In the context of teaching science to Aboriginal students, what is a science teachers primary responsibility?

The beliefs of the teachers seemed, on the surface, to be completely at odds with the views of the First Nations educators (whose ideas are summarized in the Research Report; and in Aikenhead, 1997). Most teachers were articulate and persuasive in denying (or marginalizing) any cultural conflict between First Nations and scientific ways of knowing, until they were confronted with the fact that so few Aboriginal students entered science related fields, even among those who did go on to post-secondary education. The teachers’ explanations for this fact spoke realistically to a variety of student inadequacies, for example, inadequacies in their self-confidence, language and math skills, academic orientation, and strength of family culture and support. But not one teacher broke through this wall of excuses, to see a more fundamental issue of cultural conflict for many Aboriginal students in school science. At the present time, therefore, our participants would probably not strongly embrace the need to become culture brokers to help Aboriginal students negotiate cultural borders between their family life culture and school science culture. Instead, teachers’ efforts are currently directed towards adding a measure of Aboriginal content to conventional science instruction, towards participating in school-wide programs that teach Aboriginal knowledge, or towards engaging students in science activities that make connections to students’ everyday worlds. However encouraging these approaches are, they tend to force students to navigate transitions between home and school science on their own.

What is the nature of First Nations and Métis students’ educational experience in the K-12 public system? In addition to unconsciously abandoning students to negotiate cultural borders into science classrooms mostly on their own (specific efforts by a few teachers not withstanding), the results of our research suggest that while most teachers acknowledged the validity of Aboriginal knowledge, few stated that they were able to support Aboriginal students sufficiently by incorporating that content into their science classes. All teachers interviewed felt badly at the lack of resources that could help them support Aboriginal students adequately. This lack of resources was cited by most of the participants as the main reason that only a token amount of Aboriginal knowledge was introduced into their science programs.

The teachers in our study were unanimous in rejecting the idea that their science classrooms purposefully assimilated Aboriginal students into a Western worldview, though the teachers may have unintentionally worked towards assimilating some students into a Western way of thinking by not intentionally guarding against their assimilation.

In summary, teachers who want Aboriginal students to succeed in science must not be undermined by (1) a lack of instructional resources, (2) an absence of cross-cultural approaches to instruction, and (3) a pervasive school culture that inadvertently promotes Fatima’s rules. Students whose families support a First Nations and Métis culture will prosper from a science curriculum framed by an Aboriginal worldview, while students who are disconnected from their cultural roots may not find such a curriculum to be relevant. It seems that many Saskatchewan classrooms have both types of students. This latter group challenges science educators to engage in community efforts to re-establish traditional values and knowledge so students will feel more connected to nature and to their First Nations and Métis cultures. Traditional values and knowledge may likely be controversial, however, in communities where opposition to First Nations spirituality is strong.




Our results show that when the teachers themselves experienced conflict between science and First Nations knowledge, they had diverse ways of dealing with it. Their diverse ways are described by different types of collateral learning. We should anticipate a match or mismatch between students and teachers in terms of the type of collateral learning they are comfortable with. If teachers are aware of their own preferred type of collateral learning, and are aware of the alternative types preferred by some of their students, then teachers can improve their instruction. This awareness improves the culture-broker role of science teachers.

Why do Aboriginal students avoid science in high school and university? About a half of our participants initially said they had no idea. They could not confidently make sense of the problem, let alone resolve it. Teachers need to develop a resolution so they can effectively encourage students to continue in science and mathematics. One promising resolution is to provide students with culturally responsive curricula, instruction, and assessment that make students feel more comfortable border crossing between their own culture and the culture of school science.

The interview data were replete with constraints that compromised successful science instruction. These constraints will not be diminished by adopting a cultural perspective on student learning (border crossing into the culture of school science with varying degrees of ease), but such a perspective could give us creatively new ways to circumvent some of those constraints.




Instances of culturally sensitive curriculum, instruction, and assessment were evident intermittently and on a small scale in our research data. Thus, the recommendations below speak to expanding the frequency of those examples so they become the conventional practice, rather than the celebrated exception. (More details are found in the full Research Report.)

  • 1. Schools should validate and teach First Nations knowledge to a significant degree.

    2. Knowledge of nature learned in school science should combine both Aboriginal and Western science knowledge. Our participants spoke of making connections between school science and the students’ everyday lives. Students’ Aboriginal culture/language/knowledge must be seen by students as an asset to learning Western science, not as a liability. A First Nations worldview should frame a science curriculum, within which appropriate Western science knowledge, skills, and values are studied in a cross-cultural way.

    3. A group of teachers who are already fulfilling some of the roles of a culture broker should be identified and then organized into a network with other educators. This network would collaboratively carry out research and development (R&D) individually in classrooms and together as a group. Their mandate is defined in the Research Report.

    4. Saskatchewan Education, in conjunction with other agencies and organizations, should fund the network of educators, and should plan to expand the network once the initial R&D is completed.

    5. Children in elementary schools (grades 1-6) should experience enough hands-on materials to develop routines of proper behavior around materials in classrooms. They should also learn that their hands-on experiences with materials and with nature are genuine instances of being a scientist themselves.


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    Aikenhead, G.S. (1997).Toward a First Nations cross-cultural science and technology curriculum. Science Education, 81, 217-238.

    Battiste, M. (1986). Micmac literacy and cognitive assimilation. In J. Barman, Y. Herbert, & D. McCaskell (Eds.), Indian education in Canada, Vol. 1: The legacy (pp. 23-44). Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press.

    Ermine, W.J. (1995). Aboriginal epistemology. In M. Battiste & J. Barman (Eds.), First Nations education in Canada: The circle unfolds (pp. 101-112). Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.

    Jegede, O.J. (1995). Collateral learning and the eco-cultural paradigm in science and mathematics education in Africa. Studies in Science Education, 25, 97-137.

    Larson, J.O. (1995, April). Fatima's rules and other elements of an unintended chemistry curriculum. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, San Francisco.

    MacIvor, M. (1995). Redefining science education for Aboriginal students. In M. Battiste & J. Barman (Eds.), First Nations education in Canada: The circle unfolds. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press, pp. 73-98.

    Phelan, P., Davidson, A., & Cao, H. (1991). Students' multiple worlds: Negotiating the boundaries of family, peer, and school cultures. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 22, 224-250.

  • Pickering, A. (Ed.) (1992). Science as practice and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Spindler, G. (1987). Education and cultural process: Anthropological approaches (2nd Ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

    Stairs, A. (1995). Learning processes and teaching roles in Native education: Cultural base and cultural brokerage. In M. Battiste & J. Barman (Eds.), First Nations education in Canada: The circle unfolds. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press, pp. 139-153.

    Wolcott, H.F. (1991). Propriospect and the acquisition of culture. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 22, 251-273.