Braiding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander approaches into science teaching

The Australian Curriculum requires teachers to incorporate the cross-cutting theme of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge into all subjects.

For many science and maths teachers that’s an unfamiliar challenge and some may struggle to address the theme authentically, according to a new paper by University of the Sunshine Coast published for an Australian Institute of Physics Conference.

Dr Margaret Marshman lectures in maths and science education at the University of the Sunshine Coast. 

She is the lead author of the paper which proposes drawing on Indigenous approaches to learning as a teaching method, rather than seeking to incorporate specific content.

Although as the paper observes, “this is a difficult space, and many teachers fear causing offence by doing the wrong thing.”

Marshman’s paper offers practical examples of ways to apply one Aboriginal learning framework called the ‘Eight Ways of Knowing’ into school science teaching.

The Eight Ways of Knowing, described by Tyson Yunkapora from James Cook University, suggests a teaching and learning framework based on Aboriginal knowledge and protocol from Country in western New South Wales.

The eight ways include: story sharing, learning maps, non-verbal, symbols and images, land links, non-linear, deconstruct and reconstruct, non-linear and community.

Marshman explains how this framework might work in a lesson context.

“You think about starting with story sharing, and then mapping the journey of where you could be going with the learning,” she says.

“Using nonverbal ways of teaching, so in maths and science using concrete materials, […] students doing some experiments, trying things.”

Symbols and images can be used to represent the learning, Marshman says. And then trying to map the learning journey onto land.

“Nonlinear is saying, well, your learning is going to jump all over the place. And deconstruct, reconstruct is about [how] you often have to deconstruct the learning, and then build it in a new way, as you further develop your knowledge,” she says.

The community link is about sharing what you’ve learnt with others.

Marshman says the approach connects in many ways to quality teaching approaches. 

In the paper, Marshman explains how the approach could be applied to learning about the water cycle.

She uses the metaphor of “braiding” to describe this approach of drawing on Indigenous pedagogy. Marshman says this recognises Indigenous science as an explicit and enduring thread, as opposed to the idea of ‘integrating’ which carries the risk of Indigenous science being diminished and subsumed by a dominant Western context.

There are a lot of common aspects linking western science and Indigenous science, Marshman says. In general mainstream western approaches tend to be specific in contrast to Indigenous approaches which take a more holistic view.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge is one of three cross-cutting priorities in the Australian Curriculum. Sustainability and Australia’s engagement with Asia are the other two.

The purpose of these cross-cutting themes is to encourage learning that is relevant, contemporary and engaging for students. 

The priorities are intended to be taught across all subjects, as a way to “enrich the content of the learning areas, where most appropriate and authentic, allowing students to engage with and better understand their world,” according to version 9.0 of the Australian Curriculum published by the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority.

Marshman says its important, including in the context of maths and science, to valuing knowledge and approaches from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

Having diverse cultures represented in the classroom is important for all children. “If students don’t see their culture in the classroom, they disengage”.

During NAIDOC Week (2-9 July 2023), an annual observance in Australia that celebrates and recognises the history, cultures and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Cosmos is publishing a series of articles on Australia’s First Peoples and science. 

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