Towards a First Nations Cross-Cultural Science and Technology Curriculum for

Economic Development, Environmental Responsibility, and Cultural Survival


Glen S. Aikenhead,

Curriculum Studies, University of Saskatchewan Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada



The purpose of this paper is to strengthen First Nations science education aimed at teaching Western science and at enhancing students’ cultural identity (MacIvor, 1995). This entails treating Western science as "a repository to be raided for what it can contribute to the achievement of practical ends" (Layton, Jenkins, Macgill and Davey, 1993, p. 135). "Practical ends" is broadly interpreted to mean: working at a job, preparing for a career (including a scientific or technological 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 First Nations peoples are highlighted in this paper: economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival.



I adopt a recently developed cultural perspective on science education that treats Western science as a subculture of Euro-American culture (Aikenhead, 1996). Because the culture of Western science can conflict with the cultures of First Nations students, learning Western science is considered to be culture acquisition that requires Aboriginal students to cross cultural borders from the everyday subcultures of their peers, family, and tribe, to the subcultures of school, school science, and science itself. My emphasis on border crossings implies a type of cross-cultural science curriculum for First Nations students, a curriculum designed for practical ends.



Cultures and Subcultures

A cultural perspective on science education views teaching as cultural transmission and views learning as culture acquisition (Wolcott, 1991), where culture means "the norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions of a group" (Phelan, Davidson, and Cao, 1991). This definition of culture has relatively few categories and they can be interpreted broadly to encompass anthropological aspects of culture as well as the educational attributes often associated with science instruction: knowledge, skills, and values. Canonical scientific knowledge will be subsumed under "beliefs" in Phelan et al.’s definition.


Within First Nations cultures, subgroups exist that are commonly identified by nation, tribe, language, location, religion, gender, occupation, etc. Within Western cultures, subgroups are often defined by race, language, ethnicity, gender, social class, occupation, etc. A person can belong to several subgroups at the same time; for example, a female Cree middle-class research scientist or a male Euro-Canadian working-class technician. 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, the mass media, and the physical, social, and economic environment. 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. We can talk about, for example, the subculture of northern Saskatchewan Cree, the subculture of females, and the subculture of science.


The Subculture of Science


Science itself is a subculture of Western or Euro-American culture (Jegede, 1995; Maddock, 1981; Ogawa, 1986; Pomeroy, 1994), and so "Western science" can also be called "subculture science." Scientists share a well defined system of norms, values, beliefs, expectations, and conventional actions -- the culture of Western science or "the subculture of science." The subculture of science has been characterized by the following attributes: mechanistic, materialistic, reductionist, empirical, rational, decontextualized, mathematically idealized, communal, ideological, masculine, elitist, competitive, exploitive, and violent (Kelly, Carlsen, and Cunningham, 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 (Hodson, 1993; MacIvor, 1995; Ogawa, 1995). This acculturation can threaten indigenous cultures, thereby causing Western science to be seen as a hegemonic icon of cultural imperialism (Maddock, 1981; Simonelli, 1994). In the case of First Nations peoples, the threat is real. To understand their position it is necessary to appreciate some cultural aspects to their view of nature, a topic to which we now turn.


First Nations 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 First Nations perspectives with their gentle, accommodating, intuitive, and spiritual wisdom, versus reductionist Western science with its aggressive, manipulative, mechanistic, and analytical explanations (Ermine, 1995; Peat, 1994; Pomeroy, 1992). They even differ in their basic concepts of time: circular for Aboriginals, rectilinear for scientists.


Aboriginal and scientific knowledge differ in epistemology. Pomeroy (1992) summarizes the difference succinctly:

  • Both seek knowledge, the Westerner as revealed by the power of reason applied to natural observations, the Native as revealed by the power of nature through observation of consistent and richly interweaving patterns and by attending to nature’s voices. (p. 263)
  • Ermine (1995) contrasts the exploration of the inner world of all existence by his people with a scientist exploring only the outer world of physical existence.


    On the one hand, subculture science is guided by the fact that the physical universe is knowable through rational empirical means, albeit Western rationality and culture-laden observations (Ogawa, 1995); 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 (Pomeroy, 1992). For example, when encountering the spectacular northern lights, scientists would ask, "How do they work?’ while the Waswanipi Cree ask, "Who did this?" and "Why?" (Knudtson and Suzuki, 1992, p. 57). 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 First Nations 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 First Nations culture is environmental responsibility (Knudtson and Suzuki, 1992), a quality that led Simonelli (1994) to define "sustainable Western science" in terms of First Nations cultures.


    My brief characterization of Aboriginal knowledge of nature hints at the intellectual challenges faced by First Nations 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 (Krugly-Smolska, 1995). Transmitting a scientific subculture 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 First Nations 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; MacIvor, 1995) which has highly negative connotations as evidenced by such epitaphs as "cultural imperialism," the "arrogance of ethnocentricity," and "racist." Assimilation has caused oppression throughout the world and has disempowered whole groups of people, (Ermine, 1995; Hodson, 1993).


    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 (West and Pines, 1985) 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 First Nations educators reject the conventional science curriculum (MacIvor, 1995), 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 Aboriginals (Nelson-Barber and Estrin, 1995). MacIvor’s (1995) response is an integration of Aboriginal and science education for the survival and well being of First Nations peoples.


    To achieve MacIvor’s goal, First Nations 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 and technology. These border crossings are essential to the success of cross-cultural education for First Nations students.


    Border Crossings


    A scenario illustrates some of the difficulties that First Nations 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 understanding of nature’s beauty 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 problematic.


    Research in developing countries has identified problems experienced by students who have an indigenous "traditional" background and attempt to learn a subject matter grounded in Western culture (Jegede, 1995; Pomeroy, 1994). Similar findings are found in reviews of First Nations research in science education (MacIvor, 1995; Nelson-Barber and Estrin, 1995). "Crossing over from one domain of meaning to another is exceedingly hard" (Hennessy, 1993, p. 9).


    Border crossings need not always be problematic, 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, emphasis in the original). Visa versa, the experience of border crossing by a Western physicist into a First Nations worldview was also described in terms of thinking differently: "we should all learn to talk and listen together without prejudgment, learn to suspend our prejudices, and allow our consciousness to flow along new lines" (Peat, 1994, p. 42). 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 First Nations 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. Based on the words and actions of 43 high school science students enrolled in two Californian schools with diverse student populations, 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 five categories (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; (4) "Outsiders" tend to be alienated from school itself and so border crossing into school science is virtually impossible; and (5) "Inside Outsiders" find border crossing into the subculture of school to be almost impossible because of overt discrimination at the school level, even though the students possessed an intense curiosity about the natural world.


    Costa’s research provides a framework within which important issues in First Nations 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 First Nations science education (MacIvor, 1995).


    Before we address some of the implications for the science curriculum, we need to clarify what content in science education has significance for Aboriginal students.


    Appropriate Knowledge for First Nations Students


    What knowledge from science education will help achieve such practical ends as economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival? Barriers to economic development have been uncritically attributed to a 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. (Cuban, 1994; Rotberg, 1994). Nelson-Barber and Estrin (1995) argue persuasively that current economic problems in the United States have nothing to do with recent claims of inadequacies in the country’s science education system because "there are at present too many college-educated workers for the available jobs requiring a college degree" (p. 2). A sound general education that nurtures flexibility, adaptability and prepares students for future on-the-job retraining holds greatest promise for economic development (David, 1995; 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. First Nations 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 (personal or professional), 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 context of use. One hazard, then, in negotiating the cultural borders between the everyday world and the subculture of science 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.


    The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, 1977) claimed that the prime obstacle to First Nations peoples’ participation in science was science’s lack of relevance to their everyday lives and to their cultural survival. Similarly, the knowledge, skills, and values found in the typical secondary science curriculum have been widely criticized throughout the world for being isolated and irrelevant to everyday events that affect economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival (Layton et al., 1993; Simonelli, 1994). "Science learned in school is learned as science in school, not as science on the farm or in the health clinic or garage" (Medvitz, 1985, p. 15).


    What knowledge, then, is related to the goals of economic development, environmental responsibility, and cultural survival? Layton (1991) and MacIvor (1995) argue in favour of practical instruction that integrates science, technology, and indigenous (commonsense) knowledge so that as adults, students will be able to construct "situation-specific knowledge which (is) often more functional in relation to their problem than that offered to them by ‘scientific’ sources" (Layton, 1991, p. 58). 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 (Solomon, 1992, ch. 1), Western technological/engineering knowledge (Layton, 1991), and Western scientific knowledge (Kuhn, 1970). 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;


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

    If science education is going to contribute to First Nations 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 (MacIvor, 1995; Simonelli, 1994).




    A cross-cultural perspective for the science curriculum suggests that learning results from the organic interaction among: (1) the personal orientations of a student; (2) the subcultures of a student’s family, tribe, peers, school, media, etc.; (3) the culture of his or her nation; and (4) the subcultures of science and school science. Much more research and development is needed to understand this organic interaction more clearly.


    In addition to bringing appropriate science and technology to First Nations peoples, cross-cultural education can work in the opposite direction. Non-Aboriginal students, as well as scientists and engineers, have much to learn from First Nations cultures (Peat, 1994), especially how to co-exist with Mother Earth and be environmentally responsible (Knudtson and Suzuki, 1992; Simonelli, 1994; Snively, 1995).





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