Prioritise Indigenous Knowledges and embed a western science perspective

28 Nov 2019

Kup Murris is a specialised cooking technique used throughout Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait Islands). An earth oven filled with stones and firewood to cook our meats and seasonal vegetables.  Every step of preparing a Kup Murri is a well thought out process, where each material is carefully selected to ensure our produce and staples are cooked to perfection.

Kup Murris is a specialised cooking technique used throughout Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait Islands). An earth oven filled with stones and firewood to cook our meats and seasonal vegetables.  Every step of preparing a Kup Murri is a well thought out process, where each material is carefully selected to ensure our produce and staples are cooked to perfection. My ancestors knew what particular natural resources conducted and insulated heat better than others through years of experimentation. This tradition has been practiced for thousands of years and my ancestors knew heat could move from one object to another and that the transformation of heat occurs via three ways; conduction, convection and radiation. Funnily enough, these are two broad content descriptors in the Australian National Curriculum for Science (ACSPH016 and ACSSU049).

Using this knowledge they crafted and created a functional mechanism of trapping all forms of heat and used it to their advantage, to cook a beautiful feed. I might add that these are but two examples of how western science links in, but what is most important here, is that we did not require the ‘scientific’ language to explain the process and theories, as we had been practicing this for thousands of years before what we now call western science began developing in other parts of the world. We championed the practicality of our understanding of the natural world and used it to survive and thrive.

One of my many favorite lessons to teach my students, is during a chemistry unit for Year 8s and Year 10s. I show them how sophisticated Aboriginal knowledges and understandings were through the colour manipulation of ochre with heat. Our people knew that you can alter the colour of the ochre pigment, if you treated the ochre with heat and the colour is dependent on how long you expose the ochre. An intelligent discovery due to thousands of years of inquiry, experimentation, engineering and perfection.

There is the illusion among Australian society that western science was the beginning point for ‘civilisation’ on this continent and that without it, our people would not have advanced nor would our people have survived through the ages. We hold it as the epitome to explain our natural world and the phenomenons that exist within it. Western science is seen as more trustworthy because it seems to provide empirical and testable knowledge which is then supported through academic research and study. With this thinking we then denounce all other systems of knowledge as lesser, or ‘inadequate’. I find this with great frustration, even as a Science teacher, I am expected to prioritise scientific concepts and theories as more credible and the accepted way of thinking. While I am preaching to mob who know and understand what Indigenous Knowledges are, I want to stress its importance and the fact that, western science has a long way to catch up to it.

Throughout centuries, Indigenous people have been the first innovators and without any coincidence, we have been responsible for the development of many technologies and discoveries. Indigenous Knowledge systems encompass a more holistic and interconnected reality as well as being governed through reciprocity and respect for nature. Indigenous Knowledges do not compartmentalise the disciplines or branches that western science recognise, nor does it see humans and nature as separate entities. Indigenous Knowledges acknowledge that because we gain our subsistence and autonomy from the natural environment, we thus have a responsibility to nurture the preservation and conservation of it. There has been a wave of studies on the comparison between western science and Indigenous Knowledges. Reading through these papers, one theme is always apparent, that we must not try and validate Indigenous Knowledges using foreign scientific criteria, as it lessens it superiority.

I say that western science has a lot to learn from Indigenous Knowledges, to provide explanations and solutions to major issues our modern world is currently facing. Some of the environmental problems like the water availability in the Murray Darling basin and bushfire management through fire stick farming could have been more appropriately managed if Indigenous Knowledge systems were prioritised. Society says ‘look to the science’ for the answers, I say that society should look to the continuation of our knowledge systems and ask for the solutions. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are living evidence that our knowledge systems work. Indigenous Knowledges should be the core of explaining and knowing how our natural world operates and then linking in a western science perspective rather than embedding the ‘Indigenous perspective’. While I respect and honour that not all Indigenous Knowledges should be known, however, for the knowledges that can be openly known, lets hold that to be the basis of our ‘scientific’ thinking. This conversation or movement can start with education, and it can start with young people in school. From primary to secondary, we need to begin to dismantle western science as being more credible and open up the conversation that Indigenous Knowledge systems are valid. Young people need to be engaged with different systems of thinking and that Indigenous Knowledges offer an acceptable way of explaining phenomena.

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has just released 46 new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elaborations for the Science curriculum from Foundation through to Year 6.  This is to complement the existing 49 elaborations for Year 7 to Year 10. These elaborations illustrate how Indigenous Knowledge can further explain scientific concepts and theories and help students develop a better understanding of them. These elaborations range from ‘exploring how the size and shape of traditional instructive toys’ explains physical properties of objects based on their size and shape (ACSSU005, Foundation), how ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ observations of the external features of living things are mimicked and replicated in traditional dance’, explains living things have a variety of external features (ACSSU018, Year 1), the ‘exploration of cultural stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples explain the cyclic phenomena involving sun, moon and stars and how those explanations differ from contemporary science understanding’, explains Earth’s rotation on its axis causes regular changes, including night and day (ACSSU048, Year 3) and ‘discussing how modern approaches to fire ecology in Australia are being informed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge and fire management practices’ further explains how scientific knowledge is used to solve problems and inform personal and community decisions (ACSHE100, Year 6). These are just a few examples of the 95 elaborations collated and collaborated by the ACARA writing team. You can read more about the elaborations here.

The content elaborations include teacher background information to provide further detail and support for teachers explaining the elaborations as well as linking in justifications of what students will gain from the elaborations. The background information is extensive and includes referenced academic material and research. Here teachers have the ability and opportunity to fully engage and include Inidgenous Knowledge in their everyday Science teaching from primary years through to secondary. Time and time again, I hear teachers say “I would include Indigenous perspectives, but I have no idea where to start or how do I go about finding about it and what if I get it wrong?” These are direct quotes I hear from colleagues all the time but here we have ACARA providing that exact resource to address the concerns of  non-Indigenous teachers when it comes to embedding Indigenous perspectives in the Science curriculum. We can even look to this a ‘no excuse’ and accountability opportunity for teachers to embed Indigenous Knowledges in the Science curriculum – and throughout the whole curriculum because we acknowledge that every subject links and feeds into one another. Indigneous people have listened to the concerns of non-Indigenous teachers and we have provided and addressed that concern. I say that through these elaborations, we hold non-Indigenous teachers to be more accountable, that we push the responsibility of non-Indigenous teachers to take the cross curriculum priority; Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures more seriously and responsibly. We can hold non-Indigenous teachers more accountable to the Australian Teacher Professional Standards 1.4 and 2.4.

There is great agency in listening and using Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples knowledge systems, there is also great agency in showing the world as the young people who gathered at the Garma Youth Forum in August this year stated our ‘Aboriginal genius’. Let us show, honour and champion that.

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