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Whose Knowledge Counts in Shaping Our Children's Minds?

By Rebecca Thomas



As we celebrate Matariki, a time of renewal rooted in our connection to nature, I found myself revisiting Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind." This chronicle of human evolution, encapsulated on its cover with the provocative statements "Fire gave us power. Farming made us hungry for more. Money gave us purpose. Science made us deadly," offers insights into our history and how humans learn and evolve.


Rereading Harari's work in the context of our current educational landscape, I was struck by the parallels between our evolutionary journey and the ongoing debate in education. Harari's narrative invites us to compare Western science of learning principles with indigenous ways of knowing, offering potential insights into the very nature of human learning.


This comparison seems particularly relevant as we are currently grappling with how to integrate modern learning science with a curriculum that honours te ao Māori and its deep cultural whakapapa. As we navigate this complex task, Harari's key points about human development may offer valuable perspectives on how to create an educational approach that respects both scientific advancements and indigenous wisdom.


Let's explore how Harari's insights into human evolution might illuminate this critical discussion and help us shape an educational future that honours our past while preparing for our future.


#1 The Cognitive Revolution: Harari describes how complex language allowed early humans to create shared myths and social constructs. This aligns closely with indigenous learning principles that emphasise storytelling and communal knowledge-sharing. Our brains evolved to learn through narrative and social interaction, not through isolated, individual study. This emphasis on storytelling and communal knowledge-sharing aligns closely with Māori educational traditions, highlighting the potential loss if these practices are overshadowed by more individualistic Western approaches.


#2 The Agricultural Revolution: This period demonstrates humanity's deep connection to the land and seasons, mirroring indigenous principles of land-based learning and cyclical understanding of time. Our ancestors learned through direct interaction with their environment, a far cry from the classroom-bound learning often prioritised today. This deep connection to natural cycles is beautifully illustrated by Matariki; marked by the rise of stars, signalling the time for harvesting crops and honouring the dead. This special celebration exemplifies how indigenous knowledge systems intertwine celestial observations, agricultural practices, and cultural traditions, offering a holistic approach to learning that is deeply rooted in the rhythms of the natural world.


#3 Formation of Cultures and Religions: The emergence of shared belief systems underscores the relational nature of human societies. Indigenous learning principles often emphasise the interconnectedness of all things (relational ontology), reflecting this fundamental aspect of human cognition and social organisation. The concept of whakapapa embodies this interconnectedness, further illustrating how indigenous learning principles often reflect fundamental aspects of human cognition and social organisation.


#4 Trade Networks: The development of trade across cultures shows an innate human capacity for learning through exchange and relationship-building, a cornerstone of many indigenous educational philosophies. This aligns with the Māori value of manaakitanga emphasising the importance of relationships in all aspects of life, including learning.


#5 Scientific Revolution: While often seen as a departure from traditional thinking, even this era demonstrates the human drive to understand interconnections in nature, echoing the holistic worldview of many indigenous cultures.


#6 Empires and Globalisation: These phenomena highlight our species' growing awareness of global interdependence, aligning with indigenous perspectives that often emphasise the interconnectedness of all peoples and environments and our responsibility to protect it: kaitiakitanga.


#7 Ecological Awareness: Modern understanding of ecosystems mirrors indigenous teachings about the web of life, suggesting that this relational perspective is deeply ingrained in human cognition.


#8 Information Age: Even our latest technological advancements reflect a drive for interconnectedness that has been central to indigenous worldviews for millennia. The challenge is to harness these technologies in ways that support, rather than displace, indigenous ways of knowing.


What these examples from Harari's work reveal is that the way humans naturally learn – through relationships, direct experience, storytelling, and holistic understanding – aligns more closely with indigenous learning principles than with many Western educational approaches. For millennia, our species has acquired knowledge, adapted to new challenges, and passed on cultural wisdom without formalised educational theories.


Harari's work offers another crucial insight that's particularly relevant to our examination of the science of learning's influence on education. He points out that scientific research doesn't operate in a vacuum, but is deeply influenced by political, economic, and ideological factors. When it comes to funding research, there's often no purely scientific basis for choosing between competing projects. Instead, these decisions are shaped by wider societal forces. As Harari puts it,

"Scientific research can flourish only in alliance with some religion or ideology. The ideology justifies the costs of the research. In exchange, the ideology influences the scientific agenda and determines what to do with discoveries."

This observation compels us to think critically about the current push for science of learning principles in our education systems. It's worth considering how science of learning principles, developed in specific cultural contexts, align with or differ from long-established human learning patterns.


To critically examine the underlying assumptions and power structures that shape educational research and policy, you might ask:


  • Who benefits from this research agenda?

  • Whose worldview is being privileged?

  • Are we unconsciously allowing certain ideologies to shape our understanding of how learning should occur, potentially at the expense of indigenous knowledge systems?


The science of learning, despite its valuable insights, is not a neutral, objective force. It emerges from and operates within specific cultural and ideological contexts. By recognising this, we can begin to see why simply overlaying Western scientific principles onto education systems with strong indigenous foundations, is problematic. It's not just a matter of combining different types of knowledge, but of navigating complex power dynamics and competing worldviews.


This realisation highlights the importance of actively preserving and integrating indigenous learning principles. These principles aren't just culturally significant, they represent ways of understanding the world that can enrich and challenge our approach to education. one that is aligned with our evolutionary heritage as learners.


The content we need to learn in the modern world may have changed dramatically, but the way our brains are wired to learn remains rooted in our past.




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