Friday, August 23, 2019

Proposal for an Australian Indigenous Version of Culturally Situated Design Tools

It is widely recognised that much effort and dollars have been spent on “closing the gap” between indigenous and non indigenous Australians without a great deal of success. Various proposals across the full range of educational methodologies have been proposed and implemented; from Noel Pearson’s Direct Instruction at the Instructionist end of the educational spectrum to Tyson Yunkaporta’s “8 ways” at the cultural end.

I offer the following as a positive contribution to this frustrating dialogue.

The idea is to marry indigenous culture with computer coding and other subject domains (art, maths, science etc.). This is an idea borrowed from the work of Ron Eglash and others in the USA drawing deep themes from African and Native American cultures. This approach has been called ethnocomputing or "Culturally Situated Design Tools".

The rationale includes these points:

1) Deep design themes, not trivial.
In the exemplar given below the circle, for instance, is a deep design theme found in aboriginal culture. One thing that needs to be avoided here is trivial adjustments to the curriculum such as counting boomerangs or didgeridoos in arithemetic class.

2) Emic (inside) cultural origins not etic (outside) origins
Building trust is a central issue. That requires permission, in this case, to emulate indigenous art as well as building rapport with the students. Educators are aware that building relationships is central to all good education.

In this case we employ the circle and line motif which is a feature of aboriginal art. The maths which arises from this art form is of emic origins, from inside the culture.

3) Dynamic, not static, culture
Culture is a dynamic entity, not static. For example, new media, eg. acrylic, were introduced by Geoffrey Bardon in the 1970s at Papunya. In this dynamic tradition, the computer provides another creative and flexible medium.

The fundamental goal here is to empower student’s sense of ownership over computing, maths and other subject domains through the use of a culturally enriched computer medium. The appeal is not so much to cultural pride but to the ability to explore and improvise with interesting and deep materials at the interface of culture, maths and computing, to create new hybrids in both machines and people.

An example:

Circle and line is a frequent motif of aboriginal desert art. I’ll illustrate this theme with some art works by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (1932-2002).

The circles can represent a wide range of things. They could be places where ancestral beings emerged from the ground, camped, performed ceremonies or rested after they had spent their energy.

Alternatively, they might represent a particular waterhole, campsite, dance ground, sacred site or some person, object, plant or animal which is the focus of attention. Or underground honey ant chambers, as shown in this work:

Or again, they might represent connections between people, different moieties or different kin groups

The lines may be straight or meandering. They could represent the tracks taken by Dreamtime beings, or humans. Sometimes footprints are included, or the tracks of different animals, or a digging stuck thrust into the ground, or the passageways of the honey ant chambers.


Computer coding is a flexible medium which enables multiple ways to represent circles.

Using Scratch or Snap! we can code the circle in various ways. The code enhances our understanding of the circle and how it can be represented in this medium. This can be done with dots or an unbroken line. To build tools that will do justice to the indigenous art work does take a lot of thought, research, collaboration and design effort. The tools also have to be usable initially by a novice to computer coding. To design all of this becomes complex, so the designer needs to be a good coder with a good understanding of the cultural form too.

I am part way through this process using Scratch and will then move on to developing a Snap! version. Here is one of the Scratch products showing some (not all) of the variable settings:

I have published my scratch project, indigenous_circles, here

Initially, the goal here is to build an application to draw circles with dots. There are many variables involved to make it satisfactory to the indigenous user: background colour; dot colour, saturation and brightness; circle radius; radius increment for next circle; dot size; dot spacing; should the dots be perfect circles or lumpy?; number of rings. The application has to be easy for a novice coder to use. And flexible enough to build a wide variety of diverse artistic products.

The computer medium is particularly well suited to craft regular or repeated or symmetrical themes. These themes are often found in aboriginal art. This forms a good starting point. Where other themes are present the images can be imported into the design. For example, go to this page and scroll down for a sheet of icons or symbols used in Papunya Central Desert art.

Probably, the most suitable program to use (following the example of Eglash) is Snap! due to it’s user friendliness (block coding) and power (ability to write custom procedures).


For this proposal to work known problems have to be overcome and a number of other essential practicalities are required. I’ll briefly list some of the issues here:
  • permission from the minority culture
  • building a bridge, both sides need to come to the party
  • opportunity to work with that culture intensively
  • a team of people (culturally aware educators and computer coders) to pursue these ideas
  • school cultures have been slow to take up innovative computing
  • organisation of time, space and technology in a way that will work be it in a formal school or outside of school setting

As well as indigenous art other themes which could be explored include language, kinship systems, astronomy, fire and water. Some of these themes have been presented in an integrated curriculum at Indigenous Knowledge. The approach advocated here is different with its use of computer coding to unite the different subject domains. Over time the possibilities and potential power of computer use in schools has diversified and increased.

This article only acts as an introduction into what could develop.

UPDATE (August 25th: I've created a new Scratch Studio, Indigenous Art Motifs

UPDATE (August 23rd: I found this a Scratch Studio called "Indigenous Art" by kmwilson who has been developing high quality work around these themes for a few years now.

Ron Eglash, Audrey Bennett, Casey O’Donnell, Sybillyn Jennings, Margaret Cintorino. Culturally Situated Design Tools: Ethnocomputing from Field Site to Classroom (2006)

Morphy, Howard. Aboriginal Art (1998), pp. 121-3

Snap! Build Your Own Blocks

Indigenous Knowledge (Teaching resources)