ERIC Identifier: ED335175
Publication Date: 1991-05-00
Author: Swisher, Karen
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
American Indian/Alaskan Native Learning Styles: Research
and Practice. ERIC Digest.
Educators of American Indian and Alaskan Native students are concerned
for a growing number of students who do not find school a meaningful place.
These students are becoming "school weary." Studies of learning style among
Native students provide some clues about this phenomenon, and this Digest
presents a brief review of that literature. It includes a definition, specific
examples, cautions about overgeneralizing learning style research, and
suggestions for classroom practice.
The information is presented with a view respectful of more than 500
tribal groups. These groups represent an estimated 200 languages, each
with its own unique government and social system. Too often, the significance
of this variety is overlooked. Many observers fail to recognize that American
Indian and Alaskan Native children are individuals who differ dramatically
from one another, even within their own communities.
LEARNING STYLES: IMPORTANCE FOR NATIVE CHILDREN
Appleton (1983) defined learning style as the method by which one comes
to know or understand the world. It is the accustomed pattern used to acquire
information, concepts, and skills. The available literature suggests that
cultural values and early socialization experiences influence the way American
Indian and Alaskan Native children ("Native children" hereafter) understand
their world. The examples that follow point out two important aspects of
learning style. These are:
(1) learning by observation and
(2) the manner in which competence is demonstrated.
Wax, Wax, and Dumont (1964) gave examples of learning in Oglala Sioux
society, where individuals must observe tasks in actual practice before
attempting performance. Brewer (1977) also suggested that observation,
self-testing in private, and then demonstration of a task for approval
were essential steps in learning. Making mistakes in public was not, however,
accepted as a way to learn.
Similar evidence regarding observation as a prerequisite to performance
was presented about Navajo (Werner & Begishe, 1968; Longstreet, 1978)
and Yaqui societies (Appleton, 1983). These cultures respect the ability
of a person to learn experientially, without the constant supervision and
correction so characteristic of formal instruction. This respect gives
individuals the autonomy of knowing when performance of a task is ready
for public scrutiny. Such studies show that the way in which children demonstrate
their learning in a school setting is related to the way they have acquired
TYPICAL CLASSROOM LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS AND NATIVE NORMS
At the same time, many reports suggest that typical classroom learning
environments interfere with the way Native children learn. Philips' (1983)
now classic study provides a general model for looking at how children
from Native groups interact in the classroom. In classrooms attended by
Indian children in Warm Springs, Oregon, Philips observed that Indian children
hesitated to participate in large- and small-group recitations. On the
other hand, they were more talkative than non-Indian children when they
started interactions with the teacher or worked on student-led group projects.
Philips described a process of acquiring competence that reflected Warm
Springs' norms: observation, careful listening, supervised participation,
and individualized self-correction or testing. The norms of their culture
helped explain why the children were reluctant to speak in front of their
classmates. Similar disruption of cultural patterns in classrooms attended
by Sioux and Cherokee children had been reported previously by Dumont (1972).
The work of such researchers as these suggests that for many Native children,
a public display that violates community or group norms may be an uncomfortable
experience. Perhaps it is this respect for norms that is responsible for
the stereotypic "silent Indian child."
Another circumstance affects the achievement of Indian students, to
the frustration of concerned observers. Often, a very able student will
hide academic competence to avoid seeming superior. Brown (1980), for example,
presented evidence that Cherokee children were more cooperative and less
competitive than their Anglo counterparts, which seemed to produce lower
achievement among the Cherokee children. He explained that in Cherokee
society, traditional norms called for maintaining harmonious relations.
In the classroom, these norms required students to hold fast to group standards
of achievement that all were capable of meeting. Thus, very able students
may repress their knowledge and contribute to the lower achievement of
In many Native societies, the humility of the individual is a position
to be respected and preserved. Advancing oneself above others or taking
oneself too seriously violates this key value. If Native children learn
best cooperatively, they will experience discomfort and conflicts in classrooms
that are too competitive or in which the competition is unfair.
CAUTIONS ABOUT GROUP CHARACTERISTICS
Knowing about group characteristics is important. Such knowledge, however,
is not much help when it comes to individual learners. Diversity within
cultural groups exists and reveals itself as differences among individuals
in language use, child rearing, and formation of social networks. The degree
to which members of a group absorb customs from the larger society ("macroculture")
also determines diversity within the group. For this reason, assuming that
a particular group will have a particular learning style is not a good
A recent exploratory study demonstrates this point. Swisher and Page
(1990) assessed Jicarilla Apache students for field dependence and field
independence. These researchers wanted to test the common notion that Native
students tend to be field dependent. Their study concluded that within-group
differences exist to the point that no general tendencies could be determined
without further research.
Although group characteristics may provide a basis for further investigation
into individual characteristics that may constitute a learning style, overgeneralizing
group tendencies can have three important ill effects (Swisher, 1990).
Such overgeneralizing can contribute to:
* Stereotypic notions about the relationship between learning style
and cultural group membership.
* Discriminatory practice (for example, inappropriate grouping).
* Inappropriate excuses for failure in teaching and learning.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR TEACHERS
Cox and Ramirez (1981) recommend that teachers use direct observation
and classroom experience for instruction that takes account of learning
styles. Their field-tested process has six steps:
(1) Assess students' preferred ways of learning and the way(s) in which
student behaviors change from situation to situation.
(2) Plan learning experiences that incorporate the students' preferred
ways of learning--using teaching methods, incentives, materials, and situations
that are planned according to student preferences.
(3) Implement the learning experiences that were planned.
(4) Evaluate the learning experiences in terms of attainment of conceptual
or other goals, as well as in terms of observed student behaviors and involvement.
(5) As the year progresses, plan and implement student participation
in learning experiences that require behaviors the student has previously
avoided. Incorporate only one aspect of the less familiar behaviors at
a time--focusing on only the reward, the materials, the situation, or the
task requirements. This way, the student can use what is familiar to support
the new learning experience.
(6) Continue to provide familiar, comfortable, successful experiences,
as well as to gradually introduce the children to learning in new ways.
(Cox & Ramirez, 1981, pp. 64-65)
The following tips address more specific issues. Ask yourself how they
apply to your school or classroom. These tips come from many sources, including
teachers attending workshops across the nation (see Swisher & Deyhle,
1989, for more details).
* Get to know the norms and values of the community from which the children
* Be aware of students' background knowledge and experiences.
* Discuss the students' learning styles with them; help them understand
why they do what they do in learning situations.
* Be aware of the pacing of activities within a time framework that
may be rigid and inflexible.
* Be aware of how questions are asked; think about the communication
style of students.
* Remember, some students do not like to be spotlighted in front of
* Provide time for observation and practice before performance; let
students save face, but communicate that it is "okay" to make mistakes.
* Be aware of proximity preferences; find out how close is comfortable.
* Organize the classroom to meet the interactional needs of students;
provide activities that encourage both independence and cooperation.
* Provide feedback that is immediate, consistent, and private, if necessary;
give praise that is specific.
* Consider the whole child when organizing and planning for learning
experiences; consider a whole-language, thematic approach.
* Be flexible and realize that while the goals remain constant, there
are alternative ways for students to reach the goals.
Informal student- and teacher-observable behavior checklists have been
developed by Ramirez and Castaneda (1974). Other instruments that assess
cognitive style, affective style, perceptual modality, and multidimensional
mental functioning have been developed and are described in a publication
by Cornett (1983).
TEACHING STYLE: THE OTHER HALF OF LEARNING STYLE
Teachers must first of all know their own learning style and related
teaching style strengths. Teaching style, after all, is a critical factor
in communicating expectations of school learning styles. The assessment
instruments noted in the previous paragraph are valuable tools for identifying
both learning- and teaching-style tendencies.
Above all, teachers must be what Kleinfeld (1979) described as "warm
demanders," adults who balance humanistic concerns with high expectations
for achievement. They must communicate an attitude of understanding and
caring while at the same time demanding high performance.
Appleton, N. (1983). Cultural Pluralism in Education. New York: Longman
Brewer, A. (1977). On Indian education. Integrateducation, 15, 21-23.
Brown, A. (1980). Cherokee culture and school achievement. American
Indian Culture and Research Journal, 4, 55-74.
Cox, B., & Ramirez, M. (1981). Cognitive styles: Implications for
multiethnic education. In J. Banks (Ed.), Education in the 80s: Multiethnic
Education (pp. 61-71). Washington, DC: National Education Association.
Cornett, C. (1983). What You Should Know about Teaching and Learning
Styles (Fastback No. 191). Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Foundation.
Dumont, R. (1972). Learning English and how to be silent: Studies in
Sioux and Cherokee classrooms. In C. Cazden, V. John, and D. Hymes (Eds.),
Functions of Language in the Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
Longstreet, E. (1978). Aspects of Ethnicity. New York: Teachers College
Philips, S. (1983). The Invisible Culture. New York: Longman Press.
Swisher, K. (in press). Learning styles: Implications for teachers.
In C. Diaz (Ed.), Multicultural Education in the Twentieth Century. Washington,
DC: National Education Association.
Swisher, K., & Page, B. (1990, April). Determining Jicarilla Apache
Learning Styles: A Collaborative Approach. Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Boston, MA.
Swisher, K., & Deyhle, D. (1989). The styles of learning are different,
but the teaching is just the same: Suggestions for teachers of American
Indian youth. Journal of American Indian Education [Special Issue on Learning
Styles, August], 1-14.
Wax, M., Wax, R., & Dumont, R., Jr. (1989). Formal Education in
an American Indian Community. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
Werner, O., & Begishe, K. (1968). Styles of Learning: The Evidence
for Navajo. Paper presented at a conference on styles of learning in American
Indian children, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.