Encyclopedia of Science Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Richard Gunstone

Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Nature of Science

  • Dawn SutherlandEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6165-0_407-2


Scientific Knowledge Cultural Context Indigenous Knowledge Indigenous Knowledge System Cartesian Dualism 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Cultural contexts; Knowledge; Science

Chalmers (1980) poses a fundamental question in the title of his book, What Is This Thing Called Science? Philosophers of science and science educators for decades have attempted to create one clear, all-encompassing definition of science. However, these two groups have rarely developed definitions on which they both agree. The complexity involved in establishing one agreed definition of science is in part due to the difference in the purpose of the definition. Philosophers look for a definition of science that will provide an accurate depiction of the process of science. This definition serves as a guideline to those in the pursuit of scientific inquiry, the scientist, and the production of new scientific knowledge. In other words, philosophers develop a functional definition of science.

On the other hand, science educators attempt to obtain a definition of science that will provide direction to those in the pursuit of learning already preestablished scientific knowledge. Thus, the definition of science is a pragmatic one, used to design curriculum, develop teaching strategies, and encourage the understanding of scientific knowledge. The motives of each discipline make the creation of one broadly adequate and acceptable definition of science virtually impossible.

In science education one definition of Western science, also referred to as Western modern science or Eurocentric science, is “the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence” (British Science Council 2009). This definition seems to be one in which both science educators and philosophers of science agree. The definition of the nature of science varies from curricula and policy objective statements; however, in general it refers to the “…values and assumptions inherent to the development of scientific knowledge” (Lederman 1992, p. 331).

Many science educators describe the nature of science by identifying its various presuppositions or tenets. This process has led to an inventory of tenets which may include nature is knowable, science is contextual, science is predictable, scientific knowledge is dynamic, scientific knowledge is generalizable, science is linear, science subscribes to Cartesian dualism, science is reductionist, science is anthropocentric, and science can represent reality. Research programs in science education that focus on the nature of science have looked at the public’s understanding of science, science teacher’s understanding of science, and student’s understanding of science using these tenets as a guide for evaluation.

In the new millennium, scientists have been urged by some international history and philosophy societies to learn from systems of indigenous knowledge. These indigenous traditions – which have also been labeled as local, traditional, or folk knowledge – developed as adaptations to their environments conditioned by their specific cultural contexts. The International Council for Science (ICSU) created a picture of indigenous knowledge that describes it as:

A cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment. These sophisticated sets of understandings, interpretations and meanings are part and parcel of a cultural complex that encompasses language, naming and classification systems, resource use practices, ritual, spirituality and worldview. (2002, p. 3)

Many authors have tried to identify the fundamental attributes of indigenous knowledge. One such list created by Aikenhead and Michell (2011) includes the following attributes for indigenous knowledge: place-based, holistic, relational, dynamic, systematically empirical, based on cyclical time, rational, and spiritual. Research programs in science education that focus on indigenous knowledge and the nature of science tend to concentrate on the process of incorporating indigenous knowledge into science instruction and the processes of learning science in a cultural context.



  1. Aikenhead G, Michell H (2011) Bridging cultures: indigenous and scientific ways of knowing nature. Person Canada, TorontoGoogle Scholar
  2. British Science Council (2009) What is science? http://www.sciencecouncil.org/definition. Accessed 9 Aug 2012
  3. Chalmers A (1980) What is this thing called science? Open University Press, Milton-KeynesGoogle Scholar
  4. International Council for Science (2002) ‘Science and traditional knowledge’, report from the ICSU Study Group on Science and Traditional Knowledge. http://www.icsu.org/publications/reports-and-reviews/science-traditional-knowledge/Science-traditional-knowledge.pdfon. Accessed 9 Aug 2013
  5. Lederman NG (1992) Student’s and teachers’ conceptions of the nature of science: a review of the research. J Res Sci Teach 29(4):331–359CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Research Office, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Science EducationThe University of WinnipegWinnipegCanada