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Response to The Australian 13/3/14: 'Indigenous culture in maths nonsense'

Dear Editor,
I would like to applaud Mr Warren Mundine and the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Council for ensuring that Indigenous Culture and Language is an integral part of the Australian Curriculum (Patricia Karvelas, “Warren Mundine: indigenous culture in maths nonsense”, 13/3); however, I disagree with the assertion that Indigenous perspectives should not be included in the maths and science curriculum since maths and science has no cultural basis.

The main purpose of including Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum is to improve educational outcomes for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. For Indigenous students, they will have a greater capacity to relate to the curriculum and, for non-Indigenous students, they will gain a greater understanding, appreciation and respect for Indigenous people and culture.

We should not forget that Australia was colonised on the premise of Terra Nullius (land belonging to no one), which, amongst other things, saw the silencing of Indigenous people and culture within the education system. At best we were referred to as a noble savage; a relic of the past whose culture and language has no relevance in modern Australia. Our education system must focus on overturning these ideas to allow a place for Indigenous people within the curriculum.

Maths and Science are culturally based so including Indigenous perspectives in maths and science is not nonsense as claimed by Mr Mundine. For an example, we need to look no further than the story of David Unaipon (1872 – 1967). Mr Unaipon was an Aboriginal man from the Ngarrindjeri people who held provisional patents for 19 inventions. Using his cultural knowledge of the boomerang, Unaipon invented the rotary blade for the helicopter. This is a prime example of how the marriage between Indigenous and Scientific knowledge created something unique and before its time. Mr Unaipon also revolutionised the shearing industry by inventing the hinge that allows the shearing blades to be mechanically driven. Even though we learn that Australia’s economic development rode on the sheep’s back, an understanding of David Unaipon’s inventions, in any sense, has not been part of Australia’s education system.

If we do not include and Indigenous perspective in the maths and science curriculum, we also run the risk of students not knowing about how Indigenous people managed the land for over 40,000 years, which has recently been the subject of an award wining book by Prof. Bill Gammage. Students will not know that scientists are now starting to build positive relationships with Indigenous people to be part of solutions for many pertinent environmental issues such as climate change.

The idea of Indigenous perspectives in the Australian curriculum is new and needs further work to know how best to implement these ideas. It does not have to be included in all aspects of the maths and science curriculum like “learning to add and subtract” as Mr Mundine asserts but needs to be constructed in a meaningful way for the benefit of all students. Let’s not continue the silencing of Indigenous people and culture in the science and maths curriculum. Let’s not write the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives off because it is “too hard”. Let’s construct an education for our children so that they can face the challenges of today and tomorrow together as Australians embracing our rich cultural diversity and the ideas that can spring from this diversity.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Chris Matthews
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance

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