indigenous knowledge and western science

“When engaging in … comparative analysis of different world views,” declares author Ray Barnhardt,  “any generalizations should be recognized as indicative and not definitive, since indigenous knowledge systems are diverse themselves and are constantly adapting and changing in response to new conditions.”

Accepting this need to be cautious in judgment and to recognize trends and general characteristics, a TOK teacher could gain a number of good ideas for class from this excellent article, “Indigenous Knowledge Systems/ Alaska Native Ways of Knowing”.

As we might expect in moving from one cultural concept of knowledge to another, differences can be striking, for example in what is important to know, how it is gained, how it is communicated, how competency is measured (and its implications), and what significance the knowledge carries.  Yet, as this article makes clear, a comparison between western science and native knowledge of the world also illuminates the similarities, for example the close observation of regularities in the world and the recognition of non-linear dimensions.

Sensitivity about treating indigenous knowledge

I’ve long found it a rather sensitive issue to introduce indigenous knowledge into a Theory of Knowledge classroom. I’m not native myself and, as a Canadian, I’m aware that the voice that has often interpreted indigenous cultures has not been the “insider” voice and has not even been respectful.  I haven’t wanted to be just another Whitey perpetuating stereotypes through generalizations, and I’ve been very aware in my context of the offence readily taken by native people after so many years of being damaged.

In an international classroom, it would appear that introducing indigenous knowledge would be no different from drawing out students from many other parts of the world on cultural attitudes toward knowing – what it is, how it is gained.  Perhaps my sensitivity toward this particular cultural area comes from its being very close to home. I want to be, and be seen as being, respectful.  I wonder if other teachers have felt the same way.

How best to introduce other cultural concepts?

I’ve found it most comfortable and most effective, in discussing culture and religion in class, to ask students to speak about their own.  Yet often students are not actually familiar with major features of their cultural own context and, from their own limited experience, can convey rather lopsided impression.  Besides, many features of their own cultures are invisible to them or, if visible, difficult to convey to others.  Students can almost always be drawn out by appropriate questions, but even question-asking has a cultural overlay.

How, then, do we introduce students to concepts of knowledge beyond the western ones that so often dominate their schooling?  How do we help them to place their own knowledge in context of other possibilities, to realize not just features of others but features of their own?   And how do we do this without ending up teaching descriptive subject matter:  this group believes this, that group believes that?

As elsewhere in this blog, I must express appreciation of anthropology for the understanding it sheds on what we know and how we know it. But another question immediately arises:  how can we bring these insights of anthropology into TOK class, in ways that lend themselves to appropriate framing with TOK questions?

I’ll venture a few suggestions here, but would welcome response from other teachers with ideas of their own on how best to introduce alternative concepts of knowledge without ending up lecturing and simply conveying information.

Using films: I particularly like the film I recommended in my blog March 5, 2011 “Schooling the World: the White Man’s Last Burden”.  It focuses on knowledge and learning, and gives some fine visual images of what is lost with western cultural dominance.

Using stories: Stories dropped frequently into class catch student attention and act as reference points in discussions of knowledge developing over the months. The article I’m recommending today opens with a fine story that captures much about knowledge of the world and ways of communicating it.  I’d read out to a class, in context of learning about the world (all ways of knowing are involved and natural science), the description given by the elder of learning from his father how to hunt caribou.  I’d ask students then about what knowledge was involved, and ask them what they think the exam would be to “pass the course” – and what the implications would be of passing or failing.

Using diagrams: It is rare in my own experience to come across a good schematized picture of cultural concepts of knowledge and if anyone reading this blog can give some suggestions of good sources, that would be useful for all reader.  The article I recommend today provides an extremely interesting one:  Diagram 1 “Qualities Associated with Traditional Knowledge and Western Science”.  Scroll about half way down.

These three methods I’ve come up with this morning – films, stories, and diagram – use different balances of the particular instance and the general picture, just as we do in class.

I’d be glad to hear from others.

Eileen Dombrowski

INDEX to TOK meets Global Citizenship


Indigenous Knowledge Systems/ Alaska Native Ways of Knowing

Barnhardt, R., & Kawagley, A. O. (2005). Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Alaska Native Ways of Knowing. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), pp. 8-23.

1 Comment
  • Tracy hendricks
    September 2, 2012

    i am currently doing my master’s proposal in science teaching and we have been steered to do a paper on indigenous knowledge and the nature of science. your perspective as a teacher teaching indigenous knowledge is where i am at: how can i introduce and convince others to integrate indigenous knowledge into science?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *