Diversifying Pedagogy: Indigenous Ways of Knowing Has Been Making Its Way out of Tribal Colleges into Mainstream Universities, but This Method of Teaching Has Its Critics

By Pember, Mary Annette | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, April 17, 2008 | Go to article overview

Diversifying Pedagogy: Indigenous Ways of Knowing Has Been Making Its Way out of Tribal Colleges into Mainstream Universities, but This Method of Teaching Has Its Critics


Pember, Mary Annette, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


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Indigenous or native ways of knowing, indigenous knowledge, indigenous science, traditional ecological knowledge are terms that have been making their way out of tribal colleges and into mainstream universities in recent years. What exactly do they mean?

According to Dr. Dawn Adrian Adams, Choctaw, founder of Tapestry Institute, these terms refer to two separate, yet intertwined endeavors, epistemology or types of knowledge and pedagogy, methods of teaching and learning. Tapestry Institute is a think tank of elders, artists, scientists and scholars who research and advocate an indigenous worldview. Adams insists that diversity is the power of their groups, and that the institute focuses on studying the natural world and reconnecting people to it.

Dr. Lori Lambert, of the Mi'kmaq/Abenake tribes, e-learning trainer for online faculty at Salish Kootenai College, a tribal college in Montana, defines tribal knowledge or science as scientific skills that native people have valued and used for generations to discover the dependable way things work in their world. Indigenous knowledge is also deeply rooted in place and tied to culture; it includes beliefs, values and practices that are usually passed along orally.

Indigenous ways of knowing, according to Adams, refers to pedagogy. IWOK often uses stories to engage learners and emphasizes the notion of community in the process. Strictly speaking, IWOK is focused on the process of learning rather than the outcome and emphasizes the holistic understanding of a topic or situation. Adams maintains that a science class taught from the mainstream Western perspective would be primarily focused on clear-cut outcomes.

Instructors at tribal colleges found early on that American Indian students did not respond well to traditional Western instruction; rather, they were better able to grasp STEM-related theories when the information was presented in a more handson, demonstrative style. For instance, Lambert, who teaches environmental and health sciences, does not rely on lecturing to convey lessons; she often tells stories and makes analogies to culturally meaningful activities in students' lives.

"I build a relationship to what is known and what is going to be known in the class," she says.

She explains the human integumentary system, the external covering of the body, by making an analogy to sewing a traditional buckskin dress.

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Critics of such knowledge systems claim that they conflict with the positivist heritage of science. Dr. Noretta Koertge, professor emeritus in the department of history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, Bloomington, is the editor of A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science. In an interview with Friedrich Stadler discussing what they describe as "the science wars," Koertge criticizes some new knowledge systems for viewing science as a cultural enterprise like religion, ideology or the arts. "Scientific knowledge is the best knowledge that we have," she states.

Those working within indigenous knowledge frameworks, however, maintain that there are far more commonalities with Western science than differences.

"Indigenous knowledge and 'Big Science' have been cast in opposition, which is a mistake. That divisiveness is more about power and politics," says Dr. Megan Bang, postdoctoral researcher at the Technical Education Research Center in Cambridge, Mass.

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Opponents would make the claim that indigenous knowledge is devoid of empiricism, which is not true, adds Bang. She points out that astronomy, like indigenous science, is deeply observational.

"Our people used the same tenets in pursuit of knowledge that scientists use when setting up a study. They began with careful observation and made hunches regarding probable outcomes," says Lambert.

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