“A different spatial outlook”

Exploring the differences in spatial reasoning between the dominant culture and indigenous cultures

Allocentric & egocentric coordinate systems

“Spatial navigation is a central human cognitive skill. Various scientific studies have concentrated on investigating differences in navigation performance and navigation strategies, in particular dividing egocentric and allocentric navigation. Navigation can be based on different reference frames using distinct coordinate systems to encode spatial information. An egocentric coordinate system is located within the agent and is conditioned upon his orientation in space, while an allocentric coordinate system codes relations between objects, independent of the observers’ orientation. [Source]

On the dominant culture’s conception of spatial skills:

“Spatial thinking, or reasoning, involves the location and movement of objects and ourselves, either mentally or physically, in space. It is not a single ability or process but actually refers to a considerable number of concepts, tools and processes.” (National Research Council, 2006).

On the spatial orientation skills of indigenous Australians:

“Australia’s Indigenous languages are rich in spatial terminology … Desert children’s ability to handle directional and spatial terminology in particular is taken as a sort of intelligence test similar to the counting prowess test among Europeans.”[Source]

“The ability to apply such knowledge is a product of nurture, not nature — it cannot be genetically transmitted any more than it is possible to transmit concepts about number and computation to other little Australians, except via processes of acculturation.”[Source]


“Not subject to the rotation of observers or reference objects

“Speakers of the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr (hereafter GY) at the Hopevale community near Cooktown, in far North Queensland, make heavy use in discourse about position and motion of inflected forms of four cardinal direction roots – similar in meaning to north, south, east, and west. The system of cardinal directions appears to involve principles for calculating horizontal position and motion strikingly different from familiar systems based on the anatomies of reference objects, including speakers and hearers themselves.

“Rather than calculating location relative to inherent asymmetries in local reference objects, or from the viewpoint of observers themselves characterised by such asymmetries, the GY system apparently takes as its primitives global geocentric coordinates, seemingly independent of specific local terrain and based instead on horizontal angles which are fixed, as it were, by the earth (and perhaps the sun) and not subject to the rotation of observers or reference objects. [Source]


“Left and right are not essential directions in your body”

“The Warlpiri children’s knowledge of compass terms was such that I preferred to use them in the classroom in some circumstances where left and right would normally be used. It is on the syllabus in the Space strand to teach young children to know left and right, but this is difficult for Warlpiri children. Really, left and right are not essential directions in your body. You know where your front is because that is the way you face. You know where your back is because that is behind you. You know where your head is and where your feet are because you can feel them in the orientation of your body.

“The point is that in Warlpiri language not only north, south, east and west, but also up and down are all in one united set of directional terms … The terms related to up and down are also included in the set of directional terms. So for a Warlpiri child left and right are really difficult; the compass terms are much more their way of doing things. ”  [Source]

yarning circle
Yarning (storytelling) Circle [Source]

Implications for education, in Australia and elsewhere:

“Educators contributing to, writing and implementing … [Australian] national curricula will be expected to “embed” literacy and numeracy strategies as well as Indigenous knowledge/s into diverse subject areas, including English and the arts.

“Such a cross-curricula approach means that into the foreseeable future Australian maths and science education will need to be conceptualised outside of what are often perceived as those disciplines’ own self-referential silos.

“The more difficult pathway will involve taking these ideas and shaping them into a curriculum that goes beyond inclusion of “Indigenous perspectives” but foregrounds “Indigenous knowledge” at the level of the episteme. [Source]

[Thanks to Carolyn Galbraith who started me down this path today by recommending I read the article It’s time we draft Aussie Rules to tackle Indigenous mathematics. It’s a great read. Go read it!]

One thought on ““A different spatial outlook”

  1. Thanks for putting this together. I think this is going to be really challenging for everyday educators unless there is a lot of teacher training, as it really is mind-blowing stuff for most of us! Which means, I think, a lot will get ignored . . . which is sad, because not only does it deepen the understanding of indigenous Australians, but also deepens the understanding of mathematics. The stuff I’ve read related to the curriculum has been very simplistic, like teaching the names of numbers in a particular aboriginal language (which may not be the local language). Whereas realising that there’s not just one way of seeing the world? That’s true education.


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