Bringing science and development together through news and analysis

Raising awareness of indigenous knowledge in science and technology education


Over recent years, a greater awareness of indigenous knowledge has increasingly been linked to global sustainability. But there is still little consensus about whether, and if so how, IK should be introduced into Western-based education systems. This paper points to a number of important aspects for those who wish to raise awareness of IK in science and technology education. Consideration of these issues will assist in the broader context of enhancing the contribution of science and technology to human development both locally and globally.


Over recent years, sustainable development has emerged as a powerful concept in both environmental and international development communities. It is widely accepted that for society at large to fully understand the issue, science and technology teachers need to embrace environmental sustainability in their teaching approach.

But while a number of global organisations — including the World Conservation Union (IUCN), Unesco, and the World Bank — are increasingly linking global sustainability to a greater awareness of Indigenous Knowledge (IK), there is still little consensus about whether, and if so how, IK should be introduced into Western-based education systems.

This paper points to a number of important aspects for those who wish to raise awareness of IK in science and technology education. Consideration of these issues will assist in the broader context of enhancing the contribution of science and technology to human development both locally and globally.

Why the interest in indigenous knowledge?

National education systems, at a global policy level, are seen as a critical building block in fostering positive attitudes about human rights, equitable resource management and development, and the preservation of the Earth's diversity. But, in the past, Western-based education has also been criticised for dismissing and attempting to supplant IK. It is therefore worth asking why these systems now want to incorporate aspects of IK into their curricula.

Those involved in Western science and technology are beginning to recognise the value of IK in terms of gaining an insight into managing ecological sustainability and resource biodiversity. And in one sense, indigenous peoples might welcome this interest as a chance to preserve their knowledge systems and securing acknowledgement of their rights under international legal protocols.

On the other hand, many are suspicious of non-indigenous business people, scientists, teachers and government officers — whether foreign or local — trying to elicit their traditional ecological knowledge, for example, while refusing to recognise their fundamental human rights.

Furthermore, while most people would agree that Western science and technology has changed the way humans live and relate to the world around them, not everyone calls this "progress". There are pressing concerns about the impact of practices arising from Western science and technology, and their tendency to replace alternative ways of knowing about the world (see, for example, a discussion of concerns raised at the 1999 World Conference on Science held in Budapest).

Recognising the traditional resource rights of indigenous communities

A very useful way in approaching curriculum development in this area is to explore the extensive global frameworks that highlight the nexus between science, environmental sustainability and IK.

Over the past 60 years, there has been a sustained attempt to create a global approach to these issues. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, together with Caring for the Earth, the Convention on Biological Diversity and Our Common Future , provide a framework for discussions about how humans interact with the Earth's resources.

Importantly, the rights of indigenous communities over the resources they manage is also recognised by these frameworks. For example, the preamble to the Convention on Biological Diversity "recognises the close and traditional dependence of many indigenous and local communities ... on biological resources, and the desirability of sharing equitably benefits arising from the use of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices relevant to the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of its components".

Despite these international guidelines, Western governments, corporations and scientists are increasingly turning their attention to what they see as untapped 'natural resources' around the world. As Langton argues, they overlook the fact that many of these complex and biodiversity-rich resources have long been cared for and managed by indigenous peoples, who point out that these are not 'natural resources' but cultural landscapes. Any attempt to include elements of IK in Western educational systems would need to make clear this perspective.

As the late Darrell Posey (founder of the International Society for Ethnobiology) said: "There is a danger that in the sudden flurry of interest in indigenous and traditional knowledge, economic, political and environmental issues will dominate, overshadowing the basic human, cultural and scientific rights that are already afforded to local and indigenous communities."

With this in mind, teachers, government advisers and curriculum-development specialists should encourage learning institutions and students to be aware of the legal protections already afforded to indigenous communities regarding their knowledge and resource rights.

Putting IK into a scientific context

Western science and technology education relies on the assurance that what is taught is researched and proven according to recognised standards. Even if teachers have not seen the experiment themselves, they can be sure that good science will have had its findings tested by appropriate methods, and that these findings have been accurately documented and accepted as being true.

The Western scientific approach has therefore developed a significant body of documented evidence from which it develops new and refined ways of doing things. This is not the case for IK systems, in which knowledge tends to be passed on orally. Instead, within indigenous communities, knowledge is subject to its own tests of time and application. The knowledge is always local and context-specific, quite unlike the Western scientific quest for universals.

A related problem is that IK has rarely been set within the context of Western science or tested using scientific methods, which has led to its questionable status within conventional Western education. This raises the important question of what theoretical and methodological approaches should be adopted when collecting IK.

In cases where IK has been subjected to Western theories and research methodologies, a new kind of abstracted knowledge has been created. It is this secondary form of knowledge, not the original IK itself, which is amenable to documentation and teaching in the classroom or on a field trip. It is important that students recognise it as being equal to other scientific knowledge, and subject to the same type of critical analysis.

When looking for such secondary IK to incorporate into a science or technology curriculum, teachers and advisers should encourage students to gain the skills needed to ascertain that the documented IK is indeed reliable. Such skills would include the ability to identify the following:

  • that there has been informed consent on behalf of the indigenous community, for example through a recognised community leader;
  • that the IK documented is the result of informed participation by such a person;
  • that documentation strengthens the capacity of indigenous communities to participate in the conservation management of their own resources; and
  • that non-indigenous partners have entered into clear agreement with the indigenous community about the ethical, theoretical and methodological issues regarding the dissemination and legitimation of the IK under examination.

In summary, teachers and learning institutions need to know that any IK brought into a Western classroom stems from a rigorous and ethical research methodology.

Impact of Western education on indigenous communities

While Western education systems have been developing an awareness of the importance of IK as part of the jigsaw of global ecological sustainability, some developing nations have been strengthening Western science and technology teaching to enhance their own national development.

Western science and technology is increasingly looked to as a way of enabling developing communities to benefit from globalization. Building capacity in science and technology is therefore a high priority for many developing nations, with the idea of 'technological leapfrogging' a particularly appealing prospect.

However, this poses many problems, particularly in postcolonial countries where Western-style education systems are seen as having failed indigenous students. In Peru, for example, the hierarchical school system has been denounced for promoting only a narrow, memorised form of learning. This situation places indigenous learners in the position of being able to reproduce western knowledge, but lacking the skills to critically analyse or test such knowledge.

Similar observations have been made about European aid, development and colonisation in Africa, where education systems have traditionally required indigenous learners to know more about the geography, history and culture of the colonising country, which tends to be regarded as 'better' that locally-focused knowledge.

Furthermore, the demand for enhanced capacity is not always coupled with strong national commitments to environmental sustainability. Even lower priority tends to be given to the traditional resource rights of indigenous peoples — unless they, themselves, are in control of the government. In Brazil, for example, descendants of colonial settlers are developing the country's economy at the expense of indigenous people's rights.

In contrast, some parts of the previously colonised world, such as Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands, have seen local IK re-emerging as part of the process of nation building and development. In such countries particular emphasis is given to incorporating IK into science and technology education.

The success of collaborative learning partnerships

Despite its complexity, a number of themes and protocols are emerging around the use of IK in Western science and technology education. A key example — of particular relevance to countries with both indigenous and non-indigenous communities — is the need to develop collaborative learning partnerships.

The basic framework for these partnerships would be that:

  • indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge can be taught together within a Western-based science and technology curriculum;
  • both indigenous and non-indigenous collaborators have a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities regarding the inclusion of IK in the curriculum;
  • the intellectual value of indigenous peoples' knowledge is credited: teachers should convey to their students that IK is as important as Western science;
  • there is sound and accurate documentation of local IK, particularly traditional ecological knowledge, that has been verified by both knowledgeable indigenous leaders and Western scientists; and
  • the traditional resource rights and intellectual property rights of the indigenous collaborative partners are recognised, for example through a sui generis system (a custom-made national system of intellectual property).

Indigenous leaders and teachers should take equal responsibility in devising methodologies for curriculum development and teaching, and in shaping the partnership. It is possible, for example, that the teacher would undergo a period of learning within the local indigenous framework before being entrusted with IK that could be taken back to the classroom.

It is clear that the success of this approach relies on a formal agreement between the parties about their rights and responsibilities. This would ideally be guided by a global charter (such as the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People) and implemented at a national level. It could be envisaged, for example, as a Memorandum of Understanding between a government education department and an equivalent indigenous body (for example a council of elders education committee).

There are some excellent examples of what can be achieved in indigenous/non-indigenous collaborations once a collaborative learning partnership is in place. See, for example, Unesco's Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future website, and Kawagley & Barnhardt's paper Education Indigenous to Place: Western Science Meets Native Reality.


This paper addresses the practical considerations that must be made when thinking about raising awareness of IK in science and technology education with particular, but not exclusive, focus on issues of development.

This paper makes the following recommendations:

  • that teachers wanting to include IK in their curricula should become familiar with conventions that frame our understanding of the importance of IK systems and traditional ecological knowledge;
  • that teachers within Western-based education systems develop skills to ascertain the accuracy of any IK brought into science and technology education;
  • that reliable documentation processes should be developed by indigenous and non-indigenous people working together;
  • that protocols should be developed for establishing collaborative learning partnerships; and
  • that further work should be undertaken to bring together best practice in relation to raising awareness of IK and traditional ecological knowledge in science and technology education.

In conclusion, the West's growing interest in indigenous knowledge arises at a time when the biodiversity of our planet is under threat. Though it is increasingly acknowledged that indigenous peoples, living on their traditional lands, are well placed to advise on the management of their resources, IK still has a lower status than Western science.

For this to change, indigenous people and non-indigenous researchers need to establish collaborations based on mutual respect, so that the knowledge that emerges from these partnerships enhances our capacity to sustain life on this planet rather than to exploit it.

Zane Ma Rhea is a lecturer and consultant at the National Centre for Gender and Cultural Diversity at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia.


Battiste, Marie & Henderson, James Youngblood. 2000. Protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Heritage: A Global Challenge. Saskatchewan, Canada: Purich Publishing Ltd.

Langton, Marcia. 1998. Burning Questions: Emerging Environmental Issues for Indigenous Peoples in Northern Australia. Centre for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management, Northern Territory University, Darwin, Australia.

Ma Rhea, Zane and Rigney, Lester Irabinna. 2002. Researching with Respect: Supervising Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Students in James Sillitoe et al Assisting Research Students from Non-Traditional Backgrounds. Victoria, Australia: HERDSA, pp.8 - 19

Masemann, Vandra. 1990. Ways of Knowing: Implications for Comparative Education. Comparative Education Review. 34(4), Pp. 465-73.

Ninnes, P. 2000 Representations of indigenous knowledges in secondary school science textbooks in Australia and Canada. International Journal of Science Education. 22(6), 603-617.

Posey, Darrell A. 1996. Traditional Resource Rights: International Instruments for Protection and Compensation for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. IUCN.

Posey, Darrell A. and Dutfield, Graham. 1996. Beyond Intellectual Property: Toward Traditional Resource Rights for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Ottawa, Canada: IDRC Books

Teasdale, G. R and Teasdale, J. I. 1992. Voices in a Seashell: Education, Culture, and Identity. Suva, Fiji: UNESCO and University of the South Pacific.

Teasdale, G. R & Ma Rhea, Zane (eds.). 2000. Local Knowledge and Wisdom in Higher Education. UK: Elsevier Pergamon.

Thaman, Konai Helu. 1995. Concepts of Learning, Knowledge and Wisdom in Tonga, and Their Relevance to Modern Education. Prospects 24(4), December, Pp. 723-34.