Education: Building on Indigenous Knowledge

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Education: Building on Indigenous

I ndigenous Knowledge (IK) can act as Building on prior knowledge
a powerful tool in a learning environment
to teach students. Conventional curricula
Educators can avoid “cookbook
and achievement tests in many countries,
approaches”3 in their teaching and
however, do not support students’
allow students to “construct” their
Notes learning based on their IK. Learning knowledge based on their prior
environments need to be adapted to help
knowledge4. For instance, educators
students build on their indigenous com-
can pose problems of relevance to the
munities’ knowledge and by recognizing
students, and value students’ points of
students’ culture and value systems.
view, i.e. respect their culture,
Educators can further this type of
tradition, and identity students bring to
education by combining appropriate
the classroom.
pedagogical techniques1. What follows
Educators can also use students’
are various strategies that can help
prior knowledge as a foundation to
educators recognize IK that students
build on and teach new concepts - this
bring with them to learning environments
process is known as constructivist
and use this as a stepping-stone to help
learning. This type of learning
K them succeed academically. In addition, creates a “step-by-step” learning
three educational programs that have
process allowing students to slowly
successfully integrated IK into their
learn knowledge of a concept accu-
projects are highlighted.
rately. This also avoids development
of alternative conceptions, which
often happens when students are
Prior Knowledge
expected to leap from no knowledge
Prior knowledge can be thought of as
to a concept.
students’ experiential knowledge. They
are various forms of knowledge students
No. 87
gain from living and working in their
communities and homes or from other
IK Notes reports periodically on
December 2005
Indigenous Knowledge (IK) initiatives
local activities. Educational research
in Sub-Saharan Africa and
has shown that teaching supported
occassionally on such initiatives
with prior knowledge increases
outside the region. It is published by
students’ ability to grasp material
the Africa region’s Knowledge and
taught to them2. In addition, when
Learning Center as part of an
evolving K partnership between the
students find personal relevance in the
World Bank, communities, NGOs,
material they are learning, they are
development institutions, and
more apt to retain information.
multilateral organizations. The views
Therefore, the first important peda-
expressed in this article are those of
the authors and should not be
World Bank
gogical technique is recognition of
attributed to the World Bank Group or
students’ prior knowledge, which can
its partners in this initiative. A
also be thought of as their IK.
webpage on IK is available at

World Learning for International Development
Helping students learn by building on their prior knowledge
World Learning for International Development (WLID) is
can also motivate students. Educators can modify teaching
a Non-Governmental Organization based in Washington,
materials and strategies, and look at how tasks are pre-
D.C., USA. Some of the activities in their organization
sented, such as making material more personally relevant
include: (i) projects in multilateral education and training;
to students. Ultimately this will help students develop
(ii) improving the quality and equity of education pro-
personal interest or motivation regarding the materials
grams; and (iii) social advocacy. One of their innovative
taught to them. This concept ties into how students can
education programs is Popular Participation in Curriculum
feel ownership of the information they learn and avoid the
and Instruction (PoPCI)1, which focuses on integrating the
“banking concept” as discussed by Paulo Friere.
IK of a local community into the formal school curriculum.
The PoPCI model is based on observations on the Ethio-
pian school system regarding the low rate of successful
Ownership of Knowledge
students graduating from public primary schools. In
response to high dropout rates among students, and
Incorporating IK into an educational environment can also
parents taking their children out of school because they
help students feel ownership of the knowledge they bring to
failed to see the relevance of the education presented to
learning environments. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed
them, the PoPCI project added a twist to the conventional
Paulo Friere suggest that allowing students or individuals to
education system and re-exposed students to knowledge
have ownership of their knowledge is equivalent to respect-
from their everyday surroundings.
ing their culture, tradition, and identity. He writes that
The PoPCI initiative teams classroom teachers with
educators can avoid teaching students as if they are
“local experts” to create and deliver lessons for primary
“empty vessels [and] abandon the education goal of
school students on relevant topics, or students’ IK, such as
deposit-making.”5 When education is not taught merely as
carpentry, pottery, traditional medicines and agriculture.
“banking” information, students have the opportunity to
For instance, PoPCI brought local blacksmiths, weavers,
understand the relevance and meaning of the knowledge
and other community resource members into the school.
they are being taught.
Typically, local occupations, such as the blacksmiths, are
The following chart shows how the three pedagogical
viewed in these communities as a “lower caste” profes-
techniques are linked:
sion. The introduction of PoPCI into the curriculum,
however, allowed for blacksmiths to overcome this stigma
and become part of the formal educational system. This
Chart 1
effort brought back respect for these professions. Stu-
dents saw both the teacher and local expert as an author-
personal relevance to material taught, leading to personal
ity in instruction and an expert in their fields. This process
motivation to learn
allows students to value their community knowledge as
equivalent to what is taught in school. Students also began
to value local and modern sector occupation choices after
their graduation. For a student to realize that he or she
BUILDING BLOCKS: Instruction using prior knowl-
can learn from their community members through the
formal school curriculum is the most valuable education.
Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative project
BASE: Prior Knowledge = Experiential Knowledge =
Another example is the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative
Indigenous Knowledge
project (AKRSI)1, funded by the United States National
Science Foundation and sponsored by the Alaska
Federation of Natives. AKRSI follows a similar template
The number of programs that have successfully inte-
as PoPCI by incorporating Native Alaskans’ knowledge
grated communities’ IK into educational programs is
and culture into the conventional school curriculum. They
increasing significantly. Three examples are offered here.
do this in a number of ways. As an example, in science

classes, students learn about physical concepts of tension,
force, and weight by studying the snowshoes that Native
IK needs to be addressed and integrated into educational
Alaskans wear. Lesson plans follow the United States
programs since the reasons for the lack of education in
national science standards and at the same time reinforce
rural areas go beyond access to schooling, affordability, and
the culture of native students. Another example is the
lack of resources. When prior knowledge or IK is inte-
annual science fair. Students are required to produce
grated into the classroom settings or learning environments,
science projects that include scientific concepts as well as
students better connect to material taught and can become
an aspect of their culture. At these fairs, science teachers
a major knowledge source for their community’s sustain-
judge students on their science content knowledge and a
able development.
native elder also judges their performance based on the
cultural content. Children’s science knowledge and their
cultural knowledge are recognized and valued in this
Respecting the culture and tradition that Native Alaskan
students bring into the classroom is essential to motivate
them to attend school and continue to achieve as students.
However, motivation is only one aspect of student achieve-
ment. When students see their culture represented in the
curriculum, they develop self-esteem knowing that they are
also an integral part of their school and have the ability as
well as the opportunity to study alongside other students.
There are several programs like ARKSI throughout the
Global Fund for Children
Global Fund for Children (GFC)8 is an organization based in
Washington, DC, USA. GFC provides small grants to
education programs around the world and many of the
programs recognize IK as a valuable component. For
example, one of the projects it funds, through the Vikram
Sheila Organization, educates students on mathematics and
science concepts based on their agricultural work. In a
village outside of Calcutta, India, students are taught basics
in mathematics (such as addition and subtraction) by adding
and subtracting crops, cattle, etc. on the farm. In addition,
students are taught scientific concepts based on their
agricultural work. Consequently, education is based on
students’ occupation and an indigenous context.
These projects demonstrate how students unfamiliar with
content taught through the conventional curriculum can
learn to appreciate it when connections are made to the
knowledge they hold from their environment and communi-
ties. In addition, students are better able to understand and
utilize their surrounding environment and natural resources
to develop their community in a sustainable fashion.

1 Defined as “the art, science, or profession of teaching.”
6 Information on PoPCI is based on a presentation by Dr.
See Webster’s Dictionary (2004)
Joshua Muskin, project director
2 See Jegede (1999) in Semali and Kincheloe (1999)
7 See
3 Learning standard methodological approaches
8 See, founded in 1994
4 See The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, Brooks
by Maya Ajmera and modeled after the organization
and Brooks (1993)
“Global Fund for Women.”
5 See Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere (1993)
This IK Note was written by Deepa Srikantaiah, Consultant, Africa Region, World Bank. For more information,
e-mail [email protected] or [email protected]