Across much of Canada, school boards are beginning to incorporate indigenous perspectives in their curricula – but it’s proving to be a big challenge in science, where Western and Indigenous perspectives can seem contradictory.
There are many reasons why the two frameworks can seem contradictory, explains Dawn Wiseman, a PhD student in the Faculty of Education and a postdoctoral fellow at the Faculty of Arts’ Kules Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS). KIAS is a research institute that supports ground-breaking interdisciplinary and comparative research. It is a key institute that facilitates collaboration between departments, faculties, and people across campus.
For one thing, says Wiseman, First Nations, Métis and Inuit (FNMI) thinking is rooted in their respective languages and not always easily translated into European languages.
But a very large challenge concerns how Western science and Indigenous cultures view the World and the way it works.
“In Western science, we often try to isolate things to study them,” says Wiseman. “Whereas in Indigenous perspectives, things tend to considered in the context of their relations.”
Science curricula from K-12
Wiseman is researching how stakeholders (elders, educators and policymakers) in eight educational jurisdictions in Canada are working together to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into science curricula from K-12.
This project builds on Wiseman’s previous experience at Concordia University in Montreal where she worked with the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science Native Access to Engineering Program (NAEP). The program worked to address the underrepresentation of Indigenous Canadians in engineering via K-12 resource development, teacher professional development, outreach and policy work with organizations across Canada.
In 2009, when she began her PhD program at the U of A, several Canadian provinces had recently mandated inclusion of Indigenous perspectives in the curricula and science teachers were expressing concern about what this would mean for them. It seemed like the perfect area for Wiseman to pursue in her dissertation.
“Most of my professional life has been spent in this area between the two perspectives, so I feel it is something I can talk about from personal experience,” she says.
“What’s the impact in the long-term on children who are taught about being interdependent, and interrelated to everything else?”
She’s particularly fascinated with this area since it’s not just about curriculum content changes, but a sea change in education. “You’ll hear people say, ‘It’s not just about putting a teepee on a worksheet’ – that’s a really tokenistic approach to what this could be. We’re looking at deep questions around education — what it is and what it’s for — and what science is,” says Wiseman.
In the course of her research, Wiseman has come across stakeholders who are very invested in the process, challenging as it is, and are finding ways to bring the two worldviews together in practice. One area of overlap is stewardship/sustainability, which is one of the research themes of KIAS. KIAS supports projects focused on issues of major local, national and global consequence, particularly around themes such as stewardship of the planet; culture, media, technology; and place, belonging and otherness.
Stewardship and sustainability
Most Canadian science curricula include stewardship/sustainability as key ideas in science. They are also important ideas for many Indigenous peoples as they emphasize interconnectivity and the importance of the land. An FNMI approach to stewardship/sustainability is likely to emphasize the intrinsic value of an ecosystem, whereas most current curricula emphasize the concepts as key to long-term economic health.
As a result, she wonders how the introduction of Indigenous perspectives into Canadian curricula will ultimately affect students.
“If we really start to take this seriously and bring it into our teaching, what’s the impact in the long-term on children who are taught about being interdependent, and interrelated to everything else? Will they make different decisions about things like removing oil from the tar sands, or other things that have a huge impact on the environment?” While we can only speculate at this point, Wiseman thinks there’s potential for a “fundamental change” in how the next generation approaches the big issues.
More about Dawn Wiseman: