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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Accommodating Indigenous students' cultural resources in science classrooms

Philemon Chigeza
Lecturer, School of Education, James Cook University

The article is adapted from sections of the author's paper 'Accommodating Indigenous students' cultural resources in science classrooms: an approach to enhance learning agency', presented at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Education Conference, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, 26–27 November 2010.

Within the Australian education community there is widespread agreement that Indigenous perspectives should be incorporated in the curriculum. For example, in April 2008 the Queensland Studies Authority issued a statement acknowledging the importance of understanding, maintaining and promoting the diverse Indigenous languages, and calling for schools and communities to recognise and value local Indigenous knowledge systems (QSA 2008).

The author takes two Year 9 science classes, composed entirely of Torres Strait Islander students, at a school in Far North Queensland. In 2007 and 2008 he introduced elements of Indigenous language and culture into the classes, and conducted a study measuring their impact on students' science learning. The study was reported in a paper presented at the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Education Conference last November. The present articles summarises sections of that paper.

Explaining and addressing the poor performance of Indigenous students

The academic performance of Indigenous students in the Torres Strait and Cape District is amongst the lowest nationally, according to a report that analysed 2008 NAPLAN data (Masters 2009). This report suggested that by Year 9 Indigenous students in remote parts of Queensland are six to seven years behind the average academic performance of non–indigenous Queensland students, in terms of literacy, numeracy and science.

Poor performance is often explained through a deficit model. Essentially, such a model blames the student, without looking at the learning environment or instructional practices, and thus explains failure in terms of poor motivation, low interest and low ability levels of students (Biggs 2003, Boykin 1994). A deficit model also fails to acknowledge and build upon struggling students' cultural resources. In the case of Indigenous students these resources include storytelling, ceremony, songs and ritual, as well as the diversity of their languages and dialects through which they communicate and share knowledge.

The article examines some ways in which these multiple strengths can enhance students' learning in the science classroom and also serves the larger purpose of greater social and racial justice. The approach presented considers westernised school science knowledge in relationship with Indigenous students' cultural knowledge systems, in a science classroom where the students engage with formalised science learning.

The classroom research study

The two science classes contained a total of 44 Torres Strait Islander Year 9 students, 23 girls and 21 boys. They spoke a variety of Creole languages, but only seven were proficient in Standard Australian English (SAE).

The author created four learning activities which drew on cultural experiences familiar to the students and explained concepts using Torres Strait Creole descriptors as well as formal scientific terms. The activities all focused on the concepts of energy and force.

Qualitative instruments were employed to capture the students' sociocultural interactions and science learning in the science classroom. They included: (1) observations on how students were able to use science terminology, and participate in learning the science concepts, (2) students' written work as they attempted or completed the learning activities, (3) class discussions, and (4) the author's research journal.

The learning activities

Science learning using the Kup Mauri

Using a traditional Kup Mauri sand oven students explored the way that heat energy is transferred through conduction and convection. They carried out the work and discussed their findings using familiar Creole language. The oven is a shallow hole in the ground with a layer of smooth rocks. A wood fire heats a layer of rocks to high temperatures. The rocks then heat food. The students investigated physical properties of insulation materials, both traditional (coconut or banana leaves) and modern (aluminium foil) used to wrap the food. The students also compared the Kup Mauri to conventional ovens in terms of energy efficiencies. Extension activities were related to the thermal flask (how we keep our coffee warm). Through this exercise students started to realise that their traditional and everyday knowledge systems created opportunities for them to conduct authentic scientific inquiry, and gain authentic scientific knowledge.

Science learning using a traditional drum and didgeridoo

Students investigated vibrations (kinetic energy) using the traditional drum. They were keen to try different beats on the drum and analyse the waveforms produced on an oscilloscope. Students used their community knowledge and languages to investigate tightening the skin of the drum, loosening the skin (using the sun and hot plate as heat sources, causing expansion of the skin). Students investigated how sound is produced (vibrating skin) and air pressure at the end of the drum using a barometer (compressions and rarefactions). Using a microphone (to pick the soundwave produced) and connected to an oscilloscope (to display the soundwave), students explored the loudness and pitch of the soundwaves.

Students were fascinated with the relationship between the amplitudes and frequencies of the waveforms and the loudness and pitch. The exercise also created an opportunity for community engagement, with one student suggesting that they invite participation by a grandfather who made these traditional drums.

The investigations were repeated using the didgeridoo. Students were eager to take turns in producing these waveforms and measuring the amplitudes and frequencies. Extension activities involved how we pick sound (vibrating eardrums, vibrating loudspeakers) and sound production from string instruments.

Science learning using the marbles game

Marbles, a popular game with Indigenous students, was used to investigate gravitational potential energy and its conversion into kinetic energy. Students rolled a marble down a ramp at different heights, measured the horizontal distance it travelled, and compared the results to their earlier estimations. Extension activities involved investigating projectile motion and gravitational acceleration.

Science learning in the sportsfield

The students were keen to show their skills kicking balls, running and recording distances and times. Most students voluntarily demonstrated the different ways that their favourite Indigenous sports stars kick the ball. Students measured the angle and range of different types of kick. They were shown a formula that governed the flight of a ball through the air. After debates about accurate measurement of the angle of kick and controlling the impulse of force, they realised using human senses was a subjective measure, and agreed on the need to use a measuring scale for reliability and accuracy. Most students were able to understand and explain the fact that the forces of gravity and frictional drag acted on an airborne football.

Students also measured average speed in terms of time to run and to cycle 100 metres, and calculated and compared the average speeds (distance travelled divided by time taken). Extension activities investigated the need to use more effort (force) to increase speed and relating that to acceleration (rate of change of speed).

Students expressed disbelief that what they were doing in the outdoor activities was the science they had found difficult to comprehend in the classroom situation. The students displayed an improved level of interaction with the concepts in that they understood that in order to run faster, you need to put in more effort (force) and they related that to acceleration, as rate of change of speed, an attempt at conceptualising Newton's second law of motion (F = ma).


The inclusion of familiar cultural practices and terminology from Creole languages was observed to produce significant improvements in students' levels of participation and also their understanding of the scientific concepts underlying the activities. The students were able to talk and explain science to each other in new ways.

Before using the learning experiences that drew on cultural practices familiar to students, only seven students were observed to actively participate in learning. After the learning experiences were introduced 37 students were observed to actively participate. The students were observed to talk and explain science to each other using a combination of direct action (gestures) and a variety of Creole languages.

This project has encouraged the researcher to develop educational practices that create space for Indigenous language and knowledge systems, and provide room for negotiation of language and culture in science classrooms. The research also encouraged educational practices in the school that mobilise and marshal Indigenous students' cultural resources.


Existing systemic constraints continue to sideline Indigenous languages, knowledge, skills and experiences in the science classroom. Those Indigenous students who have little or no knowledge of SAE are asked to demonstrate scientific understandings in a language not their own, conveyed in writing, a non-traditional form, and they must negotiate knowledge(s) that are inimical to their well-established cultural ways of being in the world. However, with careful and creative thought, it is quite possible to position these Indigenous students as knowledge creators capable of controlling their own learning.


Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Buckingham: Open University.

Boykin, A. W. (1994). 'Afrocultural expression and its implications for schooling'. In E. R. Hollins, J. E. King & W. C. Hayman (Eds.), Teaching Diverse Populations: Formulating a Knowledge Base (pp. 243256). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Masters, G. N. (2009). A Shared Challenge: Improving Literacy, Numeracy and Science Learning in Queensland Primary Schools. Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.

Queensland Studies Authority. Indigenous Perspectives Statement 2006–08 (April 2008). Retrieved 16/11/09 at www.qsa.qld.edu.au/downloads/approach/indigenous_statement_04_08.pdf.

Key Learning Areas


Subject Headings

Social life and customs
Secondary education
Language and languages
Middle schooling
Indigenous peoples
Torres Strait Islanders
Science teaching