Curriculum, EdTech & Design, Indigenous Learning, Promising Practices

Building Bridges with Indigenous Learners

Teaching science through theatre

As a student embarking into the sciences more years ago than I care to admit, I fell in love with the periodic table. For me it was a metaphor for life and living. The relationships and inter-relationships spoke to me of human engagement and interaction, the results of such interactions leading to a myriad of potential products. As a student it all came together in the lab, when I experienced the chemistry in a hands-on way. To me, understanding where it fit in the real world was critical because then it had context, relevance and application and it really counted.

In his interview Re-thinking Curriculum and Pedagogy, Ted Aoki1 talks of “curriculum-as-lived” in contrast to “curriculum-as-taught,” and how the two often differ. I believe for many Aboriginal students in the current Eurocentric-based Western education system, this is the challenge: connecting the curriculum as taught with the curriculum as lived. It’s an even greater challenge because their lived experience is a different paradigm from the Eurocentric-based Western education system.

As an oral culture, Aboriginal knowledge is not held in textbooks, but rather is held by cultural experts such as elders, in ceremony, and in traditional practices. It is passed on (taught) through story, narrative or demonstration and learning is by doing.2 The laboratory for Aboriginal peoples is the real and applied world. This juxtaposition in ways of knowing and coming to learn is, I believe, key to the challenges many Aboriginal students experience in the Western education system. Context and relevancy are critical and without those, understanding is nearly impossible.

For my Master’s degree, I developed a narrative periodic table,3 in which each of the elements and their interaction with each other was illustrated with a short story. Those who read my stories would often tell me how it enabled them to understand a particular concept by putting it into a context they understood. Teachers would often ask for the stories to read to their class. So I began using narrative in my own teaching practice, and would demonstrate a concept with a mini-skit involving the students. Their favourite was when I demonstrated the difference between ionic and covalent bonds in terms of attraction to another person, dating and commitment – topics that were the focus of their current adolescent life. In thinking about the various chemical reactions, they became very creative in their own scenarios. It was easy to expand to concepts such as bond-breaking, with a jealous girlfriend as the contaminant who breaks up a relationship. Various scenarios expanded and morphed from there. I could then take those stories and further demonstrate them in the “real chemistry laboratory,” and finally in terms of pedagogical chemistry. It made for many “aha!” moments for the students. A Blackfoot student who struggled greatly with the sciences and mathematics said, “I don’t understand the textbook because I don’t know what most of the words mean. It helps when you explain it first with something that makes everyday sense to me so I can see the relationship.”

The concept of teaching through “acting,” a methodology specifically known as performative inquiry,became the foundation for a small university research grant5 I garnered to pilot this methodology as a means to engage Aboriginal students in learning science. Performative inquiry, based foundationally on relationships and inter-relationships, is a journey of “knowing, doing, being, creating.”6 While not specifically intended to be used to “put on a play” (although that can be the forum for communicating the message), it is used to enable understanding by bridging practice to theory in a practical, hands-on way – much as laboratory experiments enable the scientist to put theory into practice. Importantly, performative inquiry blurs definitive boundaries in an interdisciplinary way that enables students’ understanding. Performative inquiry allows students to understand how things work and to modify their “script” to try different approaches or scenarios. This methodology dovetails nicely with Aboriginal ways of knowing and learning, which are pedagogically based on relationships and inter-relationships, as well as with the experimental method of science, which continually makes adjustments to the parameters of an experiment to understand how it works.

I am fortunate in my position as Coordinator of the First Nations’ Transition Program (FNTP) to be able to tap into a resource of students who have successfully transitioned through the program. Connections to the neighbouring Blood Reserve high school allow me to work with a cohort of Aboriginal students with similar backgrounds and starting points. Two Blackfoot 2nd year university students, both from the community, worked as research assistants on the project. My purpose in choosing these students was to enable them to gain research experience, as First Nations students are often overlooked for such positions. Just as importantly, they were valuable mentors for our cohort. If high school students see post-secondary education success in others from the community whom they admire, they are more likely to see that possibility for themselves as well. Additionally, we had the good fortune of having experienced dance and drama academics volunteer their expertise on the project: one at the university and one nationally known performing theatre artist from the community, who was a great inspiration and mentor for the students.6


Video Clips

Get a glimpse of Michelle Hogue’s performative inquiry project, Chemistry Through Theatre, in action:




Our work took place with Grade 10 and 11 students from Kainai High School who were daunted by the prospect of having to take a chemistry course. We alternated between working at the high school and working at the university, so that the university would not seem like such a foreign place to come in the future. Of the 22 students initially registered in the pilot project, 13 stayed with the program to performance and received Science, Drama and elective course credits towards their high school diploma. Importantly, we continued to work with this cohort in a second pilot, using our culturally based performative inquiry methodology to augment and teach the curriculum of their Chemistry course.

Initially, it was our intention to use six Blackfoot Napi stories[8] to illustrate the six basic reactions of chemistry. As a result of unforeseeable circumstances as well as the readiness of the students in the time we had to work with them, it soon became evident that we had bitten off more than we could chew in this pilot. So we distilled our six stories down to three, and eventually to one longer story. The last thing we wanted for this first-time endeavour was to further turn the students off science by having it become a frustrating experience. Of the six stories we had initially selected, the students chose to continue with the story “Napi and the Rock,” one they were all familiar with growing up and that was complex enough to find and illustrate four of the six basic chemical reactions.

We chose a less-familiar version of “Napi and the Rock” to honour the family tradition of one of the students, though a number of versions were blended together to produce the final script. It was critical that the story also be embedded with Western chemistry, to build the bridges between the two paradigms. This turned out to be a very challenging process, and what looked good on paper often did not work in the performance development. There were continual rewrites to the script. For me, it was a learning experience that closely paralleled developing a lab to teach: what looks feasible on paper often does not necessarily translate to the chemistry lab, particularly if it has to be scaled to work for an entire class. I also developed a new appreciation and respect for what is involved in scriptwriting as well as in “carrying out” the script.

As already mentioned, one paramount and consequent result of the current Western education system is that Aboriginal students are expected to learn science through the White-Western way. Seldom, if ever, is the Western-educated scientist educated in Aboriginal ways of knowing. To address the issue of different paradigm views, we wanted the story to be an “educational” conversation between an elder and a scientist, both considered to be respected experts in their own culture, who come to understand the way each other sees science.

The Blood Reserve, situated on the prairie, has the beautiful backdrop of Chief Mountain, prefaced by the Belly Buttes (rolling hills), the Timbers, the Elbow River, and Cypress Hills, with the prairies in the foreground. This home of the students became the set design and is where the story takes place. Very few props were used in the set design or the performance; rather the geography of the Reserve as described above was depicted by the choreographed bodies of the students, who were also the actors of the play. Two of the less shy students became the elder and the scientist, who meet while the scientist, a chemist, is collecting specimens from the Aboriginal lands. The elder wants to know what the scientist is doing on their land. The scientist explains that he is “doing chemistry,” to which the elder explains that unlike the “science” of Aboriginal peoples, the science the “educated” scientist does destroys Mother Earth. The scientist asks the elder for an explanation of what he means by that; to him there is only one kind of science/chemistry, the one he has learned. The elder invites the scientist to “watch and learn” and the story unfolds. Through their conversation, connections between the two worldviews are made. The other characters include Napi (the trickster), coyote, rock, deer, rabbit, wind, sun, trees and nightingales. The play is comprised of six scenes, each of which morphs into the next through the dance movements of the students. A slapstick comedy “reaction” illustrates the chemistry throughout the play.

One might say this is just theatre or drama, and that is certainly a criticism I have heard many times, but this pilot project was a huge success on many levels. One of the most important outcomes was the students’ understanding of the chemistry they had learned. To assess whether the students had in fact learned any chemistry, in the final week I brought the chemistry lab to the theatre. I did each of the six basic reactions and without hesitation the students were able to identify the reaction, tell me the general formula, and give me a real-life example as well as a chemical reaction they had learned in class.

In interviews with the students, the key statements we heard over and over, were that:

  • they were not afraid of science any longer;
  • they gained much confidence, both in doing science and also in “being out there”;
  • they felt better about themselves;
  • they felt they belonged;
  • they were proud of themselves;
  • they believed in themselves because we believed in them;
  • they wanted to do it again next term; and
  • each said they saw themselves attending some form of post-secondary education, with ten of the 13 planning to attend university.

The most important take-away for me was that they wished more courses could be taught this way because “it made sense” for them.

Dufault wrote, “The chasm between non-Native and Native worldviews can be made smaller through increased awareness… both worldviews seek a balance of mind, body and spirit, but from different angles.”[9] I believe if we are aware of the “different angles,” and are willing to work with the differences in a new space, we can create bridges to enable success for Aboriginal students in science in the current education system.


Photo: Courtesy of Kainai High School

First published in Education Canada, November 2013


EN BREF – La chimie, telle qu’elle est enseignée dans le système scolaire occidental, rebute et exclut les élèves autochtones, dont la vision du monde est différente et qui sont généralement des personnes visuelles qui apprennent par la pratique et par l’expérience. Pour mettre les sciences à la portée des élèves autochtones et favoriser leur réussite, les éducateurs doivent explorer des techniques pédagogiques différentes intégrant les modes autochtones d’apprentissage et d’acquisition de connaissances. Appliquant une méthodologie d’acquisition de connaissances par la performance, ce projet pilote a abordé l’enseignement des sciences en créant des liens entre les sciences autochtones et occidentales, adoptant une approche théâtrale et visuelle intégrant la danse, le conte, la vidéo et la musique comme outils pédagogiques. Un conte traditionnel des Pieds-noirs (« Napi et la roche ») et les six réactions chimiques de base ont constitué la pédagogie de base de ce projet théâtral de chimie. Les élèves ont développé des compétences et des connaissances interdisciplinaires et ont établi des liens entre les concepts scientifiques de ces deux paradigmes.


1 “Rethinking Curriculum and Pedagogy: Interview with T. Aoki,” Kappa Delta Phi Record 35, no.4 (1999): 180-1.

2 See G. S. Aikenhead

3 Michelle M. Hogue, The Chemistry of Education: A periodic relationship (unpublished master’s thesis, University of Lethbridge, 2004).

4 L. Fels and G. Belliveau, Exploring Curriculum: Performative inquiry, role drama, and learning (Vancouver, B.C.: Pacific Educational Press, 2008).

5 CAETL Teaching Development Grant, “Chemistry Through Theatre” (University of Lethbridge, 2011). The second pilot was funded by an internal Social Sciences and Humanties Research grant (SSHRC).

6 L. Fels, “In the Wind Clothes Dance on a Line,” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 14, no. 1 (1998): 29.

7 Dr. Lisa Doolittle, a Fine Arts professor from the University of Lethbridge and Troy Twigg, a Blackfoot choreographer and performance artist from the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and York University.

8 Napi stories are Trickster stories in the Blackfoot culture intended to teach young children various life lessons. Blackfoot children grow up with these stories, much as children of the dominant culture grow up with fairy tales, so, they were a good cultural starting point.

9 Y. Dufault, A Quest for Character: Explaining the relationship between First Nations teachings and “character education” (master’s thesis, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 2003).

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Michelle Hogue

Associate Professor, Coordinator of First Nations’ Transition Program

Michelle M. Hogue is an associate professor and Coordinator of the First Nations’ Transition Program at the University of Lethbridge.

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