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Paul Moradkhan, NEH Summer Scholar 2015

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS)

Lesson Plan by Paul Moradkhan

High School

Length:  Eight lessons


Lesson 1 - Ways of Presenting Knowledge

The following graphics present two different ways of presenting the acquisition of knowledge.  What conclusions can you draw from them?  What do they each suggest about the traditions that produced them?

Theory of Knowledge

TOK is a course about critical thinking and inquiring into the process of knowing, rather than about learning a specific body of knowledge… The TOK course examines how we know what we claim to know. It does this by encouraging students to analyse knowledge claims and explore knowledge questions. A knowledge claim is the assertion that “I/we know X” or “I/we know how to Y”, or a statement about knowledge; a knowledge question is an open question about knowledge. A distinction between shared knowledge and personal knowledge is made in the TOK guide. This distinction is intended as a device to help teachers construct their TOK course and to help students explore the nature of knowledge.

Gregory Cajete, Look to the Mountain

The Centering Place is where the soul and intention of the vision are formed. This is the place where the "soul of the dream is honored. " The intention is energized and guided by one's innermost conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings. In whatever we learn, and by whatever means we learn, we are always true to our inherent nature and personality. This is why, in all that we endeavor to learn, we always learn something about ourselves.

Lesson 2 - Defining Indigenous[1]

by Andrew Brown, French American International School

Before airing any whole class first impressions or any reflection about what “indigenous” means or why “Indigenous Knowledge Systems” has been elevated to an official TOK Area of Knowledge; jump into the thick of the action by showing these two videos from Survival International.

There You Go!

Earth's Most Threatened Tribe

Students should be arranged randomly in groups of three. Allow them to decide who will take on the role of facilitator, scribe and or presenter. Allow students a timed 10 minutes to provide written answers the following questions.

  1. Define the term: "indigenous people."
  2. Provide 7 examples of indigenous people from around the world without looking online.
  3. Do you think that "Indigenous Knowledge Systems" is as an important TOK Area of Knowledge as, say, Mathematics and History.

Next ask the scribes from all groups (simultaneously) to step forward and write down their indigenous people examples from Question #2. Erase any duplicates; then call on volunteers who think that certain suggested examples do not merit inclusion on the list. "Are they indigenous enough for our list?" This should unsettle the students and provoke spirited discussion.

Next call on the scribe of first group to write the team's original Question #1 definition on the whiteboard in easily erasable marker. The presenter should read it stridently. Ask the facilitator if the team would like to adjust the definition based on the examples discussion. Then, call on each group in turn to modify and edit the class definition. Tell the class that definition is a work in progress.

Unleash some whole class discussion on Question 3. Remind the class about the importance of respect and the danger of oversimplification with stereotypes. Contentious issues like globalization, romanticizing traditional lifestyles, cultural relativism and assuming that even relatively isolated cultures are static will almost certainly emerge. Before attempting to pull this all together, show the next two videos. Students will relate strongly to the subject material and then discuss.

Baloji - "Le Jour d'Ap res"

All Blacks Haka (Ka Mate & Kapa O Pango)

Suggestions:  Use the films introduced at the Institute. 

Lesson #3 - Defining the Most Pressing Global Problems[2]

by Andrew Brown, French American International School

Jump right into this progressive activity without preliminary discussion.

1. Working alone (8 minutes)

Think very carefully; then list the 10 most pressing problems in the world.

2. Working in pairs (5 minutes)

[If there is an odd number of students make a triad.]

Students collaborate on combining their lists. There can only be 10 problems on the final list.  To save time just make crossings out and make edits what the students decide is the stronger of the two lists.

3. Keeping pairs intact, working in groups of four (5 minutes)

[If there is an odd number of pairs form a sextet.]

Again students collaborate on combining their lists. There can only be 10 problems on the final list. Again make edits on the stronger lists. A spokesperson should be appointed for each group.

4. Working in two large groups (5 minutes)

[Combine intact fours and sextets to make roughly evenly sized groups.]

Again students argue and collaborate on combining their lists. There can only be 10 problems on the final collaborative list. Again make edits on the stronger lists. A spokesperson should be appointed for each group. Only the spokespersons can speak at this stage.

5. Whole class. (5 minutes)

Spokespersons collaborate on combining the lists. Again, there can only be 10 problems on this final, whole class list. Non-spokespersons are silent witnesses at this stage. They will have a chance speak later.

DISCUSSION (10 minutes)

Spokespersons are silent witnesses for this stage of the activity. Appoint a student to lead this discussion. When the class is settled; write the final list of 10 problems on an erasable whiteboard (or digitally on a Smart Board).  The leader should ask if the class is broadly comfortable with the collaborative list. Then he/she should solicit any “runners up” that were eliminated during the earlier stages of the activity but did not make the list.  Allow 3 “runners up” only. Write them down below the main list. The leader should facilitate ordered discussion to determine whether or not a “runner up” should replace a problem in the main list.


  1. What were the constraints for this activity? Did the constraints enhance or detract from getting to a satisfactory final product?
  2. How many of the ten problems on the list were environmental problems?
  3. Did any aspect of Religious Knowledge Systems make the list? 
  4. In your view what is the single most pressing problem in the world today?
  5. How did our class results compare to Jared Diamond’s list below?

According to UCLA Geography professor, Jared Diamond (2005: 486-496): the most serious environmental problems facing past and present societies fall into a dozen groups:

  1. Destroying natural habitats or converting them for human activity
  2. Decimating wild food supplies, especially fish
  3. Reduction of biodiversity—both the number of species and sizes of populations
  4. Eroding and salinizing soils
  5. Serious depletion of finite fossil fuel energy reserves
  6. Over exploitation and overall reduction of world’s freshwater supply
  7. Approaching the ceiling of photosynthetic production available for human use
  8. Polluting with toxic chemicals
  9. Introducing destructive, non-native species
  10. Producing gases that cause ozone depletion and global warming
  11. Rampant increase of human population
  12. Per-capita environmental impact increasing with prosperity[3]

Lesson #4 - Creation Myths

Small Group Presentations

This is a straight-forward lesson in which students break into small groups (two to three members), choose one or a group of traditions from this website, and develop a presentation that covers that traditions creation story(ies).  The goal of this presentation is to give an overview of Indigenous origin stories for the whole class.  All students, when not presenting, are required to take notes.  For these notes, I ask that students focus on ‘problems of knowledge’ that arise in response to the creation stories they are hearing.

In the spirit of TOK, students are asked to create their own graphic organizer to help consolidate all of the information they glean from the website.  This should be an introductory activity when students first break into groups and access the website.  The goal here is to help students understand that there are common elements to all creation stories.  They will have to tease out what those common elements are by creating broad categories (animals, phenomena, deities, etc…) and organize them logically.  This may lead to interesting discussions about why these commonalities exist and their significance from a comparative religious studies perspective. 

An additional discussion can center around the format of the graphic organizer students chose to use.  What do their choices signify about them, their learning style, and about the larger culture that has shaped them?  Are there any interesting choices on display? After presentations, and as an extension activity, teachers may choose to combine groups and have students try to reconcile, combine, and refine their graphic organizers.

Lesson #5 - Ethnoepistemology(?)

Socratic Seminar #1

In his discussion of ethnoepistemology for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, James Maffie argues, “Ethnoepistemology thus rejects the tacit dualism and double standard of Western epistemology that exempts domestic (i.e. Western) epistemological practices from the same kind of anthropological scrutiny that the epistemological practices of non-Western cultures are subject to.”[4]  In delivering a unit on indigenous knowledge systems at the secondary level, it then becomes essential to help students understand this dualism and how it has and continues to operate in academia.  The goal of this lesson is to help students access the discussion and appreciate the intricacies of the arguments presented.  Part 1 of Maffie’s article is sufficient for the needs of this lesson.

While Maffie’s article does a great job framing the debate, some teachers may find the vocabulary challenging for their students.  It is therefore recommended that some class time be devoted to vocabulary scaffolding.

An alternative strategy is to conduct a Socratic seminar[5] in which students are given the article without scaffolding.  The point of the seminar would be to have students struggle with the difficult language/concepts, work together to address gaps in their knowledge, and help each other frame the debate with Maffie’s article as a guide. 

Some important words from the article are included below:






















a priori

a posteriori


sui generis

Guiding Questions:

  1. What comes first, experimentation or knowledge?
  2. Is there such a thing as a priori knowledge?
  3. Discuss reflexivity, symmetry and impartiality as it relates to epistemology.
  4. Give some examples of the double standards of Western epistemology

What is your opinion on the term “ethnoepistemology”?

Lesson #6 - Indigenous Knowledge Systems

Extended Essay Prep

Seniors in the TOK course are concurrently completing their Extended Essay (EE).  For many seniors, this is the first time they will be approaching such a ‘formal piece of scholarship’ as it is termed in the IB EE guide[6].  For this reason, exposing them to sample papers early in the process can help students better appreciate the nature and scope of the EE.  The working paper “Indigenous Knowledge Systems:  Characteristics and Importance to Climatic Uncertainty” by Susan Materer[7] facilitates this exposure in a few essential ways. 

The first is by demonstrating the format of academic papers, specifically as delineated by the APA.[8]  The cover page, abstract, introduction and similar sections are clearly presented.  These provide both a model for students to follow, as well as an opportunity for teachers to discuss the purpose and content of specific sections.  The paper also models in-text citation, which can lead to very productive discussions on how and when to give credit to one’s sources and the importance of academic honesty.

The second is by modeling appropriate academic language.  Most students will find this paper challenging because it attempts to synthesize two very different systems of inquiry.  This type of synthesis and higher order thinking skills will be essential in completing a satisfactory EE.  Again, a Socratic seminar in which students are encouraged to struggle with the text can be very helpful here.  The seminar leader may be tasked with creating a Venn Diagram or similar graphic representation of the similarities and differences between indigenous and western knowledge systems.

similarities and differences between indigenous and western knowledge systems.

The third is the fact that this is a ‘working’ paper whose authors are calling for comments from readers.  This is a concrete example of what we tell students all the time:  writing is a process not a product.  Accordingly, this paper has issues with both grammar and content that we can uncover as a class.  Also, students can choose to communicate with the authors in the spirit of collegiality.  Engaging a paper in progress can help students better understand the process of writing as well as help them navigate the steps of producing a good extended essay.

Sample Venn Diagram

Suggestion for this lesson:  Have students read excerpts from Cajete’s Look to the Mountain

Lesson #7 - Moral Relativism[9]

by Andrew Brown, French American International School

Baggini and Fosl (2008: 89) define a moral relativist as,

“anyone who rejects the view that moral rules and principles are absolute and universal, applying to all persons, in all places, and at all times.”

This is not the same as taking the crude position that “anything goes.” Outright subjectivism, or extreme cultural relativism, is, of course very quickly exorcized by a consideration of the nationalist and totalitarian genocides of recent history. Baggini and Fosl declare that being a moral relativist “is a bit like being a postmodernist” No moral philosopher of repute “would maintain simply, as relativists are thought to do, that no moral judgments are superior to any others.” The problem is that “what they say is often close enough to confuse those not prepared to attend to the details.” There are philosophical difficulties in pinning down moral rules and objective moral facts. In the real world:

“morality changes and evolves over time and place, and that moral codes appropriate for one set of circumstances may not be appropriate for another. “

According to Baggini and Fosl (2008: 88-89) this is not subjectivism because “[d]ifferent objective features of different societies may yield different objective moralities.” The disconcerting aspect of this is that competing and “incompatible moral standards” eventually “collide” and “there may be no way to resolve the difference between them rationally.

Baggini, Julian and Fosl, Peter S. (2008) The Ethics Toolkit: A Compendium of Ethical Concepts and Methods. Blackwell: Malden, MA.


  1. What issues compelled you to take a stand?
  2. Did you discover any aspect of your own convictions that had been previously unexamined?
  3. To what extent are you a moral relativist according to Baggini and Fosl's characterization?
  4. What competing moral standards emerged that seemed impossible to resolve by reason?
  5. Where do your own ethical stances come from?


Students should read and be given the chance to ask clarification questions about moral relativism[10]. Next broaden the discussion using the collage of images as a stimulus. The images range greatly in ethical import. Next students should be grouped in trios and invited to attempt the following assignment.


Read carefully and understand the following categories. Brainstorm examples in your group and discuss. Try to reach consensus on three examples in each category. Write them in the spaces provided.

  1. Something done differently in a country or culture that is not your own that has little or no ethical importance. It is just an interesting cultural difference that makes the world more interesting.






  1. Something done differently in a country or culture that is not your own that you disagree with on ethical grounds but can tolerate because your ethical disapproval is balanced by your general respect for cultural differences.







  1. Something done differently in a country or culture that is not your own that you strongly disagree with on ethical grounds and worth campaigning against at the international sanctions and diplomatic level.







  1. Something done differently in a country or culture that is not your own that is so extreme in terms of violating human rights that military intervention or full blown war is required to stop it.






If you have pacifist views this category would be reserved for direct action or civil disobedience. You personally would be willing to put yourself in harm’s way or risk a harsh prison sentence to protest the injustice.




Lesson #8 - Field Notebook and Think Piece

 As an English teacher, I rely heavily on student writing to assess student understanding.  The field notebook and the think piece are two ways I do this in ToK.[11]

 At the beginning of the year, I require all of my ToK students to purchase a notebook solely devoted to our class.  This will be their field notebook; a place for them to jot down interesting observations that they make outside of class.  The idea behind the field notebook is to get students thinking about the nature of knowledge in their own lives.  I keep the requirements to a minimum:  write in your field notebook every day, try to connect your observations back to discussions in class, and feel free to share entries with the class.

I often use current articles on cogent topics to get discussions going in class.  For this unit on Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and any other unit for that matter, I find think pieces offer an easy and flexible way for students to engage the content and for me to engage student performance.  The requirement is 500 words, typed and in MLA format.  It is an opportunity for students to reflect on issues and ideas we cover in class and to grapple with problems of knowledge.