Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum


Best Practices


In an article written for Sharing Our Pathways, Esther Ilutsik sensitively sketches a view of traditional Yup’ik learning. It takes little effort to realize that such learning looks and feels quite different than what goes on in many rural communities today, let alone in many classrooms. For one thing, in traditional learning the curriculum is not broken down into academic disciplines, but represents a holistic view of the world intimately connected to Yup’ik life, values and culture. For another, there is no set place or time to learn: learning takes place as part of the flow of life and community with extended exploration over time. For another, there is no one set teacher: the girl learns from her mother, older girls and community interactions. And for another, the teachers are Yup’ik and speak Yup’ik.

For those most concerned about culture and able to share cultural knowledge, language immersion schools, culture camps, Elder/youth conferences, Native teacher associations, an increased emphasis on supporting Native teacher education, and the development of Native curricula are powerful responses to the differences noted above and to the concerns raised by educators like Ilutsik. However, for those not engaged in such efforts, the issues are different. Among other things, we want to know which teaching practices might best support science learning while enhancing the cultural well being of students. For possible answers, we consider the similarities or potential similarities between traditional teaching and learning and strategies for teaching inquiry-based science. The following chart is one way to start thinking about this.

Traditional Teaching

Inquiry Teaching

Compatible Strategies

• Elders, family, community and peers teach • teacher as facilitator of learning; science as a social endeavor • community involvement, cooperative groups, peer tutoring; multiple teachers as facilitators of learning;
• learning connected to life, seasons, and environment • investigate fundamental science questions of interest to students • investigate fundamental science questions related to life, seasons and environment; investigate questions from multiple perspectives and disciplines

• learn by watching, listening and doing; Elder is expert

• emphasize skills and practical application of knowledge

• active and extended inquiry over time; use of print and electronic sources to help interpret or revise explanation

• focus on student understanding and use of scientific knowledge, ideas and inquiry skills

• learn by active and extended inquiry; use multiple sources of expert knowledge including cultural experts

• integrate skill development, understanding and application of knowledge

• knowledge shared through modeling, story telling and innovation • classroom communication and debate of understandings • diverse representations and communication of student ideas and work to classmates and community


Cultural Relevance and the Learning Cycle Model

Since the inception of the Alaska Science Consortium, we have pondered the fit between learning cycle model instruction (LCM) and Native ways of teaching and learning. As Native teachers began to participate in our institutes, we made a point of asking them whether the approach we advocated was appropriate for Native students, but it wasn’t until 1996 that we held a meeting with Native fellows to discuss just this topic. In general, Native ASC fellows were supportive of the LCM approach because it is constructivist in nature and emphasizes science as a process of understanding; students as explorers of science; and teachers as facilitators of learning. Nita Reardon in fact said, that the ASC gave her permission to teach the way she wanted to and the way she was used to. That being said, two caveats apply.

First, the application of knowledge is of paramount importance in Native cultures and has traditionally been equated with the ability to survive. Consequently, teachers viewed the “apply” phase of the cycle as most important—as true-to-life performance assessment (If given 3 bullets, do you return with 3 birds?). This emphasis on practical knowledge is so critical to Native teachers that they advocate beginning instruction with the “apply” phase (rather than with “gear-up”) and then working clockwise through the other steps as illustrated below.

Learning Cycle Model

Second, Native teachers were uncomfortable with the “generalize” phase of the LCM believing that sense-making is an ongoing and often internal process, and that identifying it as a formal step often feels uncomfortable and artificial. They also thought that while students would indeed be puzzling through things during their explorations, that the biggest ah-ha’s would occur when students actually tried to apply their knowledge in the real world (Why aren’t there ptarmigan where I expected them? Why didn’t it rain when the weather signs indicated it would?). Consequently, they favored a more subtle, student-driven, sense-making approach embedded throughout the LCM.

These 2 shifts in instruction are significant because they ground the experience for students in locally significant ways and because they alter the essence of the LCM not one whit. Beginning and ending lessons with “apply” readily incorporates traditional application and Elder knowledge at the beginning of the lesson where it belongs (almost as a gear-up) and at the end of the lesson when students test their learning. It also accomplishes the ultimate goal of applying knowledge to the real world. Similarly, treating “generalize” with a lighter (but still purposeful) hand allows for differences in the sense-making process and reflects the role of students as inquirers and of teachers as facilitators of learning. Again, it is a win-win situation so long as students truly explore first and so long as attention is truly paid to making sense of, rather than just running through explorations.

This latter point, however, cannot be emphasized too strongly. In other words, while it is critical that an Elder or other expert describes and repeatedly points out medicinal and edible plants or that they model (set the standard) for the skillful setting of snares, it is not enough. Students must have the opportunity to observe, collect and classify plants themselves or set snares themselves in order to develop their own skills and understanding. It is one thing to be told or even shown information, and it is quite another thing to learn and test personal knowledge and skills sufficiently enough to be able to use them in daily life. It is also important to remember that while “bringing in grampa” to talk to the class or accompany them on a field trip is a step in the right direction, it does not have the same impact as actually following up on that visit by creating relevant studies using grampa’s knowledge as a base, and involving students in meaningful exploration and application. The chart on the next page depicts some of the studies that meet these criteria.

You’ll notice that in all of these examples students are guided in active and extended inquiry through student investigations and use of questioning strategies which directly target student understanding and use of knowledge and skills. All of the activities involve cultural experts and the out of doors. And finally, all begin with a modeling of applied knowledge and end with student testing of their own expertise.

Share Knowledge

The sharing of knowledge is an important aspect of both scientific and Native communities. Scientists share and often harshly debate the procedures, merits and conclusions of scientific study, with the ability to replicate studies and reach similar conclusions being a critical aspect of the scientific process. Perhaps more softly and subtly, debate or at least sharing, is also a part of traditional systems. As pointed out earlier by Richard Glenn, “Ours is a culture of consensus. Agreement is mandatory on nearly every item passed on as traditional knowledge. If one person stands alone, he may be an expert or he may be wrong.”1 Such sharing of traditional knowledge is often done through storytelling, modeling and innovation connected to life, values and proper behavior. So in a classroom context, diverse representation and discussion of student observations, interpretations and explanations is a critical aspect of culturally responsive science instruction from dual perspectives. It is a process by which students clarify and extend their learning through discussion and questioning by others.

But the sharing of knowledge has another purpose more related to plain old manners and giving back to those who have given. Elders, community members and scientists who have helped with classroom studies will be eager to see the products of student work as will parents and community members who may have been only peripherally involved. Hosting a community night where people are thanked publicly and where studies and learning are showcased is a great way to share. By it’s very nature, it invites comment and discussion which can only promote learning. Things like booklets, posters or collections of work that can be made simply and distributed are also beneficial, as are political statements such as letters, resolutions or public testimony. This “giving back” completes a cycle that will build knowledge and encourage all to participate again.

Integrated Study, Traditional Camps and Science Fairs

While the above discussion has attempted to detail some key aspects of culturally relevant teaching with regard to the learning cycle model, there are many other strategies that could be included under “best practices.” Some of these are: (1) integrated (multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary) instruction; (2) use of traditional camps as educational settings; and (3) science fair camps and projects which explore traditional knowledge and merge with Western science concepts.. Brief discussion of these best practices follow.

culturally relevant teaching

Integrated Study

As has been stated throughout this handbook (and multiple other sources), Native knowledge is holistic in nature and inherently integrates aspects of many different school disciplines. Consequently, approaching culturally responsive science curriculum as integrated study makes consummate sense both in terms of Native knowledge and in terms of the need to address multiple subjects/standards in a single school day. Teachers are really good already at creating such integrated units and they value integration for the diverse learning opportunities and connections it creates. Extending such integration to feature/incorporate traditional knowledge can only strengthen such opportunities and connections while enhancing the cultural well-being of students. The following snow studies diagram is a sample of such integration.

snow studies diagram

Traditional Camps

As educators seek more effective ways to teach students, camps are emerging as a most successful means of connecting the school curriculum to students lives in culturally and educationally meaningful ways. Such camps are proliferating all over the state and occurring mostly during the summer with some notable exceptions2. As Kawagley (2000) points out, such camps can take a variety of forms from cultural immersion to language development to bridging science camps and thus serve a variety of needs. The most obvious advantages to such camps are that they allow young people the opportunity to interact with Elders and instructors in an environment that naturally promotes hands-on, culturally relevant learning according to the flow of life and seasons. For more information on such camps see the ANKN website or contact the ANKN office at 907-474-1902 for a copy of Resources for Native Science Camps, Projects and Fairs.

Science Fairs

Along with the recognition that traditional Native knowledge has much to contribute to the understanding of the natural world has come the recognition that science fairs should be redesigned to accentuate this understanding. The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and AKRSI have taken a lead in developing such science fairs, in which projects are based on questions that are important to the community and culture and Elders are recognized as experts along with Western scientists. Projects are judged both on cultural and scientific merit and must demonstrate thoughtful insight and understanding on all counts. The mechanisms for creating and participating in such fairs are well described on the ANKN website, or again, contact the ANKN office at 907-474-1902 for a copy of Resources for Native Science Camps, Projects and Fairs.


1. Glenn, Richard 1999 Traditional Knowledge, Environmental Assessment and the clash of Two Cultures in SOP
2. In Alakanuk, for example, a one-week fall culture camp for the whole school has begun the school year for the last four years, and they are looking to expand the camp experience in to other seasons and extended curriculum (See Sharing Our Pathways 5(2) 10–11

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