ENGAGING WITH INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGES IN SCIENCE CLASSROOMS
Michael Michie and Lorraine Williams
A workshop presented at CONASTA 60, the 60th Conference of the Australian Science
Teachers Association, Darwin NT, 11-14 July 2011.
We acknowledge the Larrakia people as the traditional owners of the lands around Darwin.
The workshop starts with a discussion about incorporating indigenous perspective in teaching
science. The workshop then heads outside and examines a 'bush tucker walk' close by in the
Darwin Botanic Gardens. After the walk, discussion refocuses on the range of possibilities
for engaging with Indigenous knowledge. Walking shoes should be worn.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures – a cross-curriculum
perspective in the Australian Curriculum: science (2011, pp.12-13)
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are strong, rich and diverse. Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander Identity is central to this priority and is intrinsically linked to living,
learning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, deep knowledge traditions and
holistic world view. A conceptual framework based on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Peoples‘ unique sense of Identity has been developed as a structural tool for the embedding
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures within the Australian
curriculum. This sense of Identity is approached through the interconnected aspects of
Country/Place, People and Culture. Embracing these elements enhances all areas of the
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander priority provides opportunities for all learners to
deepen their knowledge of Australia by engaging with the world‘s oldest continuous living
cultures. This knowledge and understanding will enrich their ability to participate positively
in the ongoing development of Australia.
The Australian Curriculum: science values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and
cultures. It acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have
longstanding scientific knowledge traditions.
Students will have opportunities to learn that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples
have developed knowledge about the world through observation, using all the senses; through
prediction and hypothesis; through testing (trial and error); and through making
generalisations within specific contexts. These scientific methods have been practised and
transmitted from one generation to the next. Students will develop an understanding that
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have particular ways of knowing the world and
continue to be innovative in providing significant contributions to development in science.
They will investigate examples of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander science and the ways
traditional knowledge and western scientific knowledge can be complementary.
One of the difficulties with implementing indigenous perspectives is because there are many
Indigenous languages in Australia and thus many Indigenous knowledges (see map). As
many of the languages are either no longer used or of limited extent, it means that the
associated knowledge has usually been lost or poorly recorded in the western knowledge
Culturally responsive science (Stephens, 2000)
• Culturally responsive science curriculum attempts to integrate Native and Western
knowledge systems around science topics with goals of enhancing the cultural well
being and the science skills and knowledge of students.
• It assumes that students come to school with a whole set of beliefs, skills and
understandings formed from their experiences in the world, and that the role of school
is not to ignore or replace prior understanding, but to recognize and make connections
to that understanding.
• It assumes that there are multiple ways of viewing, structuring, and transmitting
knowledge about the world—each with its own insights and limitations.
• It thus values both the rich knowledge of Indigenous cultures and of Western science
and regards them as complementary to one another in mutually beneficial ways.
What are the characteristics of culturally responsive science curricula?
• It begins with topics of cultural significance and involves local experts.
• It links science instruction to locally identified topics and to science standards.
• It devotes substantial blocks of time and provides ample opportunity for students to
develop a deeper understanding of culturally significant knowledge linked to science.
• It incorporates teaching practices that are both compatible with the cultural context,
and focus on student understanding and use of knowledge and skills.
• It engages in ongoing authentic assessment which subtly guides instruction and taps
deeper cultural and scientific understanding, reasoning and skill development tied to
What are some strengths of culturally responsive curriculum?
• It recognizes and validates what children currently know and builds upon that
knowledge toward more disciplined and sophisticated understanding from both
indigenous and Western perspectives.
• It taps the often unrecognized expertise of local people and links their contemporary
observations to a vast historical database gained from living on the land.
• It provides for rich inquiry into different knowledge systems and fosters collaboration,
mutual understanding and respect.
• It creates a strong connection between what student‘s experience in school and their
lives out of school.
• It can address content standards from multiple disciplines.
What are some difficulties associated with culturally responsive curriculum?
• Cultural knowledge may not be readily available to or understood by teachers.
• Cultural experts may be unfamiliar, uncomfortable or hesitant to work within the
• Standard science texts may be of little assistance in generating locally relevant
• Administrative or community support for design and implementation may be lacking.
• It takes time and commitment.
I want to describe simply some of the areas of science from which students would benefit from
inclusion of indigenous knowledge. These include weather and climate, ecology and land
management, and astronomy where there has been collaboration between indigenous and non-
indigenous scientists worldwide.
Indigenous weather knowledge has been synthesised in a number of localities from around Australia
and some of it is readily available on the internet (e.g. the Bureau of Meteorology‘s Indigenous
Weather Knowledge site, http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/). Such sites invariably show a more complex
local understanding of the seasons rather than the four evenly-timed seasons adopted from Europe or
the simplistic wet-dry season binary of tropical Australia. Other information is often presented
graphically in circular diagrams which reflect an Indigenous understanding of the cyclical nature of
the seasons rather than the western linear perspective of ‗time‘s arrow‘. This other knowledge
includes wind directions and rain patterns associated with the seasons, and seasonal plant and animal
abundances. Such local knowledge reflects positively the environmental education slogan, ―Think
globally, act locally‖.
Indigenous knowledge of plants and animals, their interactions and land management practices have
been acknowledged by some scientists and science educators and terms such as traditional
environmental knowledge (TEK) have been critiqued in the literature (Snively & Corsiglia, 2001).
Frances Bodkin, an Indigenous woman who is also trained in western science, makes the point that
Indigenous knowledge represents at least 35 thousand years of accumulated knowledge which has
been modified as the environment has changed (Bodkin, 2010). Two hundred and twenty years of
occupancy, relatively stable environments and the imposition of western ways of thinking from
Europe would hardly seem to compare yet western science has had the upper hand. This has started to
change as some western scientists, primarily ecologists and land managers, have started to collaborate
with Indigenous countrymen in local ethnobiological and land management projects.
The nature of Indigenous astronomy has been explored sympathetically by a number of astronomers
(Bhathal & Bhathal, 2006; Norris & Norris, 2009). Others have worked collaboratively with
Indigenous people (Cairns & Harney, 2003), while Morieson has been working on reconstructing
Boorong astronomy from north-west Victoria. Late in 2009 there was a conference on indigenous
astronomy held with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in
Bhathal, Ragbir, & Bhathal, Jenny. (2006). Australian backyard astronomy. Canberra:
National Library of Australia.
Cairns, Hugh, & Harney, Bill. (2003). Dark sparklers. Merimbula, NSW: Hugh Cairns.
Snively, Gloria, & Corsiglia, John. (2001). Discovering indigenous science: Implications for
science education. Science Education, 85(1), 6-34.
Stephens, Sidney. (2000) Handbook for culturally responsive science curriculum. Fairbanks,
AL: Alaska Science Consortium and the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative.
Science as a human endeavour (collated from Australian Curriculum: science, 2011)
Year level Sub-strand Elaborations
Year 1 Use and influence of science • considering that technologies used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
People use science in their daily lives, including when caring for their require an understanding of how materials can be used to make tools and weapons,
environment and living things (ACSHE022) musical instruments, clothing, cosmetics and artworks
Year 2 Use and influence of science • finding out about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use science to meet
People use science in their daily lives, including when caring for their their needs, including food supply
environment and living things (ACSHE035)
Year 3 Use and influence of science • researching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s knowledge of the local
Science knowledge helps people to understand the effect of their actions natural environment, such as the characteristics of plants and animals
Year 4 Nature and development of science • considering how scientific practices such as sorting, classification and estimation are
Science involves making predictions and describing patterns and used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in everyday life
Year 5 Nature and development of science • learning how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people used observation of the night
Important contributions to the advancement of science have been made by sky to assist with navigation
people from a range of cultures (ACSHE082)
Year 6 Nature and development of science • learning how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, such as the medicinal
Important contributions to the advancement of science have been made by and nutritional properties of Australian plants, is being used as part of the evidence base
people from a range of cultures (ACSHE099) for scientific advances
Year 7 Nature and development of science • investigating how land management practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Science knowledge can develop through collaboration and connecting peoples can help inform sustainable management of the environment
ideas across the disciplines of science (ACSHE223) • recognising that traditional and Western scientific knowledge can be used in
combination to care for Country and Place
Use and influence of science • investigating how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge is being used to
Science understanding influences the development of practices in areas of inform scientific decisions, for example care of waterways
human activity such as industry, agriculture and marine and terrestrial
resource management (ACSHE121)
Year 8 Use and influence of science • investigating how Aboriginal people recognise relationships in ecosystems by burning to
Science understandings influence the development of practices in areas of promote new growth, attract animals and afford easier hunting and food gathering
human activity such as industry, agriculture and marine and terrestrial
resource management (ACSHE136)
Year 9 Use and influence of science • considering the impacts of human activity on an ecosystem from a range of different
People can use scientific knowledge to evaluate whether they should accept perspectives
claims, explanations or predictions (ACSHE160)
LARRAKIA COASTAL PLANT USE WALK
Scientific name Common name Larrakia name
Ficus virens Banyan Galamarra
Canarium australianum Canoe tree
Flacourtia territorialis Cherry tree
Ficus racemosa Cluster fig
Erythrophleum chlorostachys Ironwood Deleynggwa
Carpentaria acuminate Cabbage palm Binbirrimba
Grewia asiatica Plum Willwil
Alstonia actinophylla Milkwood Apuwa
Bambusa arnhemica Bamboo Gwarikgwa
Sterculia quadrifida Peanut tree Dundil
Ipomea pes-caprae Beach morning glory
Casuarina equisetifolia Casuarina
Pouteria sericea Plum
Scaevola taccada Pipe tree
Hibiscus tiliaceus Beach hibiscus Larlwa
Morinda citrifolia Rotten cheesefruit