Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Science education and indigenous knowledge

Yesterday afternoon I attended a forum on Science and Mathematics teaching in Ontario schools. It was put on by The Centre for Science, Mathematics and Technology (SMT) Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto (Toronto, Canada).

OISE is one of the places responsible for training teachers in Ontario. It offers advanced degrees (Masters. Ph.D.) in education. I thought this might be a good opportunity to network with the people responsible for teaching science in our high schools.

Here's a description of the forum ...
SMT Forum on Science and Mathematics - (4:30 PM - 6:00 PM)

What is Optimum Knowledge for Teaching Science and Mathematics?: This forum explores the question of what K-12 teachers need to know in order to teach mathematics and science well. Join our panel of teacher educators and scholars as we discuss this important issue in a shifting teacher preparation landscape. Panelists: Professors Larry Bencze, Beverley Caswell, Indigo Esmonde, Cathy Marks Krpan, and John Wallace Moderator: Professor Steve Alsop (York University). Types of knowledge identified in the literature include conceptual understanding of the subject, pedagogical content knowledge, beliefs about the nature of work in science and mathematics, attitudes toward these subjects, equity and social issues, and actual teaching practices with students. However, the literature is incomplete with respect to which of these is relatively more or relatively less important. The amount and character of such knowledge really needed to help children learn is a contested issue..
It sounded very interesting.

The audience seemed to consist mostly of OISE faculty members and graduate students in education with a few teachers and teachers in training. I felt very much out of place since I was unfamiliar with the jargon and the philosophy. Much of the discussion was about whether it was really important for math and science teachers to understand the subjects they were teaching (conceptual understanding) or whether it was more important for them to have pedagogical knowledge. The discussion focused on something called "pedagogical content knowledge," which seems to be a combination of the two types of knowledge.

This was too esoteric for me. The biggest problem in science education at the K12 level is that there's not enough of it and it's not being done very well. We are graduating students from high school who are scientifically illiterate even though they have the grades to get into the best universities. The average high school graduate doesn't know what science is and doesn't understand the value of the scientific way of knowing in the modern world.

We're not doing a better job in the universities but this group at OISE is supposed to be studying science education so I expected some insights.

One of the phrases that puzzled me was "indigenous knowledge." Everyone in the room seemed to think this was a good idea but I had no idea what they were talking about. Turns out, they were referring to the local knowledge of indigenous peoples, or native North Americans. Apparently we are training teachers to expose our students to this other way of knowing.

One of the examples was from a school in Northern Ontario that takes students on a field trip to learn from the elders of the local tribe. The students learn, for example, how to filet a fish but at the same time the elder tells them how the fish are getting smaller due to climate change. They were also told that no wild rice grew in Rainy River last year and this is also because of climate change (see Rainy River Cereal – A traditional way today for a description of this "health food").

Now, it seems to me that if science is properly taught, then students will understand evidence-based knowledge and the importance of controlled experiments. They will be skeptical of anecdotal evidence and wary of conclusions based on personal experience. Thus, I would expect a lot of questions from the students on the field trip and I would expect that the tribal elder might be challenged. This will not turn out well.

On the other hand, if the students are taught that there are many different, and valid, ways of knowing then there shouldn't be a problem. The students will respect the traditional folklore of the local indigenous people and incorporate it into their learning experience. It all sounds very correct.

I wish I had heard of some other examples so I could understand better how it's supposed to work. I imagine that when high school biology teachers finish the section on evolution they would invite a local tribal elder to come in a recount the indigenous knowledge of the tribal myths of creation. That way, students would get a dose of difference forms of knowledge about the history of life. Everybody will be happy, except perhaps, the other indigenous people whose myths are being ignored.

I'm still trying to learn about this new (old?) way of knowing. Does anyone out there have some specific examples of how it integrates into science education? How does it work in Scotland? Do they teach Norse mythology and Viking wisdom in science classes there or do they have to go back to the stone age cultures in order to discover the real indigenous knowledge?


  1. For real indigenous knowledge, you have to ask an African. Everybody else is a recent immigrant.

    1. I understand that Baavian the dog-faced baboon is very wise. He knows all the just-so stories. Or you could try the bi-coloured python rock snake.

  2. Since you ask, we do not teach Old Norse scientific theories in Scotland. we teach the facts, but mot the thought patterns, of current science, and then allow volunteers to come into our schools with materials from Answers in Genesis. The Scottish (education is devolved within the UK) Education Secretary has repeatedly ignored requests from teachers for guidance on creationism and ID, on the grounds that our teachers are wonderful and don't need it. The results are sometimes grotesque:

  3. I encountered this sort of fuzziness when I visited the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian about 5 years ago. There was a nice presentation which described the current scientific beliefs about ancient Asian migration to the New World over the Bering Strait and so forth, but then it hedged its bets by saying "But many tribes say that they have always lived here" as if that that was a legitimate counter opinion.

    1. There was a fascinating exchange in a National Geographic special on Y-chromosome studies of ancestry, in which Spencer Wells talked to various people about what that said about their ancestry. One group was some Navajo people. He mentioned that Y chromosomes connected them with people in central Siberia.

      They rejected this, saying that their traditions said that they had always lived here. Wells did not argue with this but simply pulled out photos he had taken of these particular central Siberians and started to show them to the Navajo folks. They got very interested and one guy said "he looks exactly like my Uncle Frank!".

      And then I find this fascinating web page which seems to be grappling with the contradiction.

  4. Perhaps this quote from the philosopher Kant can help in thinking about knowledge: 'Intuition without concept is blind; concept without intuition is empty. "

    1. Wikipedia has it as: "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." or this translation may be better: "Thoughts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." (

      Thanks for pointing that out - now we know where Einstein got his famous "Science without Religion Is Lame, Religion without Science Is Blind". Kant's version seems much better.

      Don't see the connection without the post though - are you suggesting that students need to speak to a tribal elder to learn about intuition?

    2. Happy with your discovery of the origin of the quote from Einstein!
      I think brilliant scientists like Einstein and Darwin, glimpsed beyond conventional from their intuitions and could conceptualize new worldview so that it can also be seen by the rest of us.

  5. The idea of indigenous knowledge systems is quite popular, and you can find writing on it all over the web. Here's an example:

    If you manage to wade through it, perhaps you can post a summary for those of us who are less patient.

  6. As far as I am concerned, indigenous knowledge is not really of a different kind than any other kind of knowledge. There is stuff that makes sense and works (e.g. using plants with certain aromatic oils against throatsore, Aboriginal fire management practices etc.) and there is stuff that just doesn't (e.g. the idea that female genital mutilation is somehow beneficial).

    The former category will most likely have been arrived at through trial and error, through testing practices and seeing what results they give. In other words, through science in all but name being done without lab coats or double blinding, but still the same principle.

  7. The purpose , even in this example, is always to try to say Indian intelligence/science was not inferior to english Identity politics is always number one in the establishment these days.

    i say the stone age has nothing to contribute to my world and my world very little to a later better world.
    Man gets smarter , just like kids growing up, and trying to deny real differences in smarts based on identity and time is what would slow intellectual progress.
    Pride of status can't be allowed to interfere with human progress.
    Exalt Canadians, regardless of identity as long as its irrelevant, and don't exalt segregated identities who did or do walk on our soil today. its foolish and intrusive and oppressive.
    NOW if they went to a creationist seminar that would be different. maybe a global warming climate critic also. Then a little fishing although peta people are about. I know some.

  8. I'm curious how widespread this kind of thing is beyond Canada. I know it's a big deal in Northern Canada - the legislation that created Nunavut includes a section mandating equal weight of advice from scientists and Elders for policy decisions. This had led to ignoring calls from ecologists and wildlife biologists for reduced polar bear hunting quotas because the population of bears appears to be declining (without ascribing blame for that decline - it's likely that climate change is having more of an effect than direct mortality from hunting), in favour of comments from elders stating they think there are plenty of bears, perhaps even an increasing population, because they see more bears near shore and near settlements. When the ecologists replied that this is probably a behaviour shift, in which bears are spending more time near land because ice conditions are poor, not an increased population size, the ecologists were ignored and high hunting quotas were maintained.

    That's a small, singular example. I'm sure there are others.

    I have a book on my shelf named "Two Ways of Knowing". It's an account of the voyage of the CCGS Amundsen, conducting the Circumpolar Flaw Lead System Study during the fourth International Polar Year (2007-2008). The activities and knowledge about sea-ice and related subjects of the scientists is placed on equal footing with the advice and interpretations of a group of mostly Inuit non-scientists who were on board.

    In Canada, indigenous people are a greater proportion of the population in northern regions. This geographic association means most of the apparent calls for respecting other ways of knowing (i.e. traditional knowledge, rather than scientific findings) come from or are applied in northern Canada - like that school in northern Ontario Larry mentions.

    I see it as an attempt to redress serious historical wrongs regarding the way English- and French-speaking people with European ancestors (or being European themselves) interacted with First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people. I support, in a general way, such attempts - we Canadians have a lot to answer for in our history, and the quality of life in many native settlements is appallingly poor. But I do not think pandering to just-so stories from anybody is justified.

    1. Your right. its about a modern establishment taking up the natives case against Canadians past and present.
      We never did anything wrong and these natives gained from our civilization. they just want more without moving to our cities and all that.
      Canadians would be less ricj if they lived in the obscure north and didn't make a successful modern civilization there.
      Its all left wing identity segregational policies to divid up the nation to the gain of the Indians or foreigners as opposed to Canadians and French Canadians.
      its in everything and simply pops out in these matters of knowledge about the area up there.
      Its something that is unjust and must be fixed.
      All for one and one for all if in one nation because it confirms the original American, british and French settlers creation of the nation. the others gain by immigration and full citizenship by our liberality.

    2. Robert, I don't want to be considered right by you (nor do I wish to possess your right - learn about apostrophes, please).

      I disagree strongly with your characterisation of modern Canadian society.

      There is indeed something unjust and in need of fixing in Canada, but it's not what you think it is.

    3. Robert, there is indeed something that is "unjust and must be fixed" in Canadian society and you are it.

  9. I've always had trouble with the concept of 'ways of knowing'. I teach IB and have never been convinced by any explanations that they are different. Indigenous knowledge is/was often the unrecorded observations of nature over time. Its not magic. They noticed trends and passed this knowledge from generation to generation. The only problem I see is that because it wasn't necessarily recorded for posterity or controls in place to ensure validity it leads itself to uncertainty. Frankly, its a degree of - what should we call it - rigour? Consistency? I also feel its the same when mother's say they intuitively 'know' things about their child. I also think this isn't a 'different' way. Its based on the unrecorded pattern of evidence [observations] made over the course of the childs life. Its also NOT magic or different. Its less rigourous and hard to check because it hasn't been recorded or controlled well. Hence it leaves itself open to bias/error/uncertainty. It cannot be verified. It cannot be reproduced. All important to 'science' but in essence the same processes. What am I missing?

    1. Imagine that you just finished teaching the section on evolution to your high school students. It included information on the evolution of humans and their migration out of Africa.

      Now, imagine that you invite a local tribal elder to come into your classroom to present the indigenous knowledge of evolution and human evolution in particular. That "knowledge" is almost certainly going to be different from what modern science says.

      It's unlikely that the tribal elders used the scientific way of knowing to arrive at their "knowledge," don't you think?

      But even assuming you are correct to say that indigenous knowledge is just a bad application of the scientifc way of knowing, I have a problem. Why expose students to the fact that indigenous knowledge is erroneous, biased, and not reproducible? Is it so they can question and challenge the tribal elders for basing their beliefs on unreliable knowledge? In other words, is the goal of the exercise to show students that the scientific way of knowing (i.e. Western science) is superior?

      That's got to be the inevitable result unless the teachers go out of their way to emphasize that the indigenous way of knowing is just as reliable as the scientific way of knowing. And if they are doing that in the classroom, they should be fired.

    2. Indigenous knowledge is just creationism writ large.

      By all means teach it in anthropology, history of religion, sociology classes and perhaps use it an example of the evolution of the scientific method, but when it pushes it's way into the science classroom it's just another form of IDiocy.

      Which makes me wonder how creotards and IDiots would react if it was pointed out to them that their claims are just the flotsam and jetsam of bronze age tribal goat herder indigenous knowledge.

  10. A good book to read which addresses many of the positives and also adequately covers a range of the pitfalls involved in the cross-over between Environmental sciences (biology, ecology etc.) is called "Sacred Ecology" by Fikret Berkes (get the latest edition with some great updates).

    In the book Fikret outlines the nature of both types of knowledge generally - expanding in some detail on the diagram shown above and then uses field examples to demonstrate their operation.

    Indigenous knowledge is an area that I work in and I'm always glad to see interest in the subject - it is important to incorporate a range of local perspectives into comprehensive studies (such as those conducted by Environmental scientists and social scientists) especially Indigenous perspectives, but at the same time we cannot be led by a history and legacy of oppression and/or feelings of guilt and blame.

    Berkes quite sympathetically and elegantly points out the shortcomings in both traditional knowledge and traditional scientific approaches to problems and cautions that either taken in the extreme can be detrimental to our (usually) common goal of greater understanding, appreciation of, respect for and protection of our natural environments - the key is to approach them as complimentary systems, not mutually exclusive categories and to mediate any dissonances between them openly and with a shared vision in mind.

    Often we (non-Indigenous professionals) tend to view these scenarios in mutually exclusive terms (as in science vs. religion/superstition/psuedo-science etc.) - again, if we can drop that aspect of the relationship I think we all stand to gain much from these interactions and often the differences in opinion and approach can be revealing of possible new directions for study and collaboration.

    If you are more interested in a mixed pedagogy of Indigenous knowledge and science then I would highly recommend the work of the Tewa scholar Gregory Cajete and particularly his books "Look to the Mountain" and "Native Science" - they might seem a little bit "non-scientific" at first, but if you are patient with coming to understand the methods and conceptual worldview he presents, then you see a very promising vision for combining these two approaches to understanding our place in the world in exciting, dynamic and beneficial ways. He doesn't do all the conceptual work for you, but if you can apply some of your own life experiences to the models and scenarios Cajete puts forward, you might start to gain some useful insight into (what I think is) a great new approach.

    Happy Reading!