ERIC Identifier: ED376733
Publication Date: 1994-12-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics Washington DC.
Instructional Conversations in Native American Classrooms. ERIC
Research indicates that the instructional conversation (IC) can be an
effective method for raising the low academic achievement levels of various
groups of Native American students (Tharp, 1989; Tharp & Gallimore, 1988).
The IC is a dialog between teacher and learner in which prior knowledge and
experiences are woven together with new material to build higher understanding.
IC contrasts with the "recitation script" of traditional western schooling,
which is highly routinized and dominated by the teacher.
In order for the IC to be a truly effective method, however, educators must
take into account the following factors concerning the indigenous cultures of
their students: (a) sociolinguistics; (b) cognition; (c) motivation; and (d)
social organization. A description of each of these factors and their role in
implementing ICs among Native American populations follows.
Conventions regarding conversational style
vary across cultures. When a teacher and students from different cultural
backgrounds attempt to communicate, confusion and misunderstanding can arise as
their communicative styles interact. This problem is particularly acute when the
parties involved have no prior understanding of one another's culturally based
communicative conventions. For example, research has shown that "wait time"--the
amount of time speakers are given to speak and respond--is substantially longer
in Native American culture than in European-American culture.
For Native Americans, the IC appears to be enhanced by extended wait time.
Winterton (1976) studied the effect of extended wait time on Pueblo Indian
children's conversations with a teacher. Results indicated that extended wait
time, especially when it followed students' responses, was significantly related
to the length of students' responses and the amount of student-to-student
interaction. Verbal participation of less vocal students also increased, as did
overall unsolicited but appropriate verbal responses.
A study by Guilmet (1979) provides some insight into other possible reasons
why Native American children experience communication difficulties in
classrooms. Navajo and European-American mothers were shown videotaped episodes
of Navajo and European-American children participating in a classroom. The
mothers were told to rate the children on a number of dimensions. Differences
concerning one particular episode--a European-American boy engaged in high
levels of verbal and physical activity--were especially striking: The Navajo
mothers believed the high verbal and physical activity were negative attributes
(and therefore rated the boy negatively), whereas the European-American mothers
believed them to be positive. By implication, it is possible that a
European-American teacher might negatively evaluate the overall communicative
and interactional styles of some Native American children.
Other sociolinguistic variables that may influence the IC between
European-American teachers and Native American children are the volume at which
teachers and students speak to each other [Native Americans tend to speak more
softly (Darnell, 1979)] and expectations regarding speaker- and
listener-directed gaze (Native American students might look down to express
politeness when addressed by a teacher). This indicates, then, that
communication embodies much more than speech alone.
In schools everywhere, there is a strong tendency
to emphasize verbal over visual symbolic thinking and to approach situations
analytically rather than holistically. It follows that students whose cognitive
tendencies do not match those school expectations are more likely to be less
academically successful (Tharp, 1989). There is considerable evidence that
Native American children suffer such a mismatch, since by-and-large they tend to
think in holistic rather than analytic terms (Tharp, 1991). Informal learning in
many Native American cultures is acquired in a holistic context.
Effective instructional conversation can accommodate differences in cognitive
tendencies by providing support when cognitive strategies are less familiar to
students and by capitalizing on students' preferred ways of thinking. The
instructional conversation with Native American students is most effective when
this visual/holistic tendency is taken into account. That is, even when teachers
want to emphasize verbal/analytic skills, instruction can be more successful
when using a visual/holistic approach.
For example, during ICs, concepts can be embedded holistically in students'
previous knowledge and experiences, particularly by linking concepts to the
children's world outside school. Experiences with Navajo and Zuni Pueblo
children suggest that the incorporation of holistic or visual elements into ICs
make these lessons more interesting and engaging and ultimately produce more
expanded discourse (Tharp & Yamauchi, 1994). Navajo third-grade children
clearly preferred--and often demanded--to hear or read a story through to the
end before discussion, rather than discussing it in successive piecemeal
Native American students may not be motivated to
participate in instructional conversations at school, because they are not
interested in the materials they are supposed to be discussing. Often these
materials are based on the experiences of the majority culture and may not seem
relevant to the children's lives. Some Native American schools have attempted to
introduce more culturally relevant materials in their curriculum. For example,
the Pacific Northwest Indian Reading and Language Development Program
represented an attempt to develop a culturally relevant reading curriculum for
Grades 1-3. Teachers transcribed stories told by their Native American students
and used them as reading texts. A one-year post-test revealed gains in
participants' oral language production and language complexity as compared to a
control group. Gains were especially dramatic in students who had been
identified by pre-test scores as "non verbal." The materials also had an impact
in the home environment. Native American parents judged the culturally relevant
books to be worthwhile and useful and reported an increase in language-related
activities at home, which were developed around the culturally relevant
materials (Butterfield, 1983).
The ways that classrooms and schools
organize internally has profound effects on how instructional conversations are
conducted and, indeed, on whether they are conducted at all. The social
organization of a traditional American classroom is primarily whole-class
oriented, with a teacher who leads, instructs, and demonstrates to the whole
group. Some form of individual practice often follows, and learning is assessed
by individual achievement. This system is ineffective for children of many
cultures, who respond to this structure with a low level of attention to both
the teacher and the coursework and with a high level of attention-seeking from
peers (Gallimore, Boggs, & Jordan, 1974). Unfortunately, teachers usually
attribute this behavior to low academic motivation rather than to inappropriate
social structures (Tharp & Gallimore, 1976).
A study of the informal learning activity settings of Navajo and Hopi
children indicated that adults regularly assign children their chores, but leave
them to perform without adult supervision, even for difficult and complex tasks.
For example, 7- or 8-year-olds are often assigned to herd sheep alone or to care
for an infant sibling. When children require assistance in fulfilling these
responsibilities, they often turn to peers or siblings. Most out-of-school
learning for these children takes place in small peer-oriented groups (Rhodes,
Although successful peer conversations can be developed by small peer work
groups, it is also important to understand how the teacher can engage children
in successful ICs. The conduct of successful ICs depends heavily on appropriate
social organization. Barnhardt (1982) reported on several effective Native
American classrooms. She emphasized that the majority of each school day was
spent in individual or small group activities. The teachers characteristically
moved among the students, kneeling or squatting down on the floor for individual
discussion that could be lengthy and quiet because the other students were
occupied with their own individual or small group tasks. To signal that another
part of the lesson was arriving, the teacher raised her voice, which indicated
to the larger group that it was once again part of the audience.
A final feature of effective activity settings for instructional
conversations is joint productive activity, a common interaction pattern in many
Native American cultures. Joint productive activities refer to instructional
activities that are given focus by actually producing something--a dwelling, a
work of art, a performance, a science experiment--or by solving a problem or
making a plan. Not only should there be adequate opportunity for cooperative
work among groups of peers in the classroom, but the jointness of activities
should also include the teacher working as a participant in the
activity--"teacher" being understood to include elders and experts.
Grubis (1991) reports a joint productive activity from an Eskimo village
school in the Point Hope region. A whaling boat constructed in the school by
students and community members became the context for instruction in basic
skills. In biology, a seal was dissected and whales were the object of
scientific study. With knowledge provided by elders, the social and cultural
dynamics of whaling informed social science in a unified K-12 curriculum strand.
Attention to the above factors--sociolinguistics, cognition, motivation, and
social organization--and a concern for embedding abstract concepts in everyday,
culturally meaningful contexts, will help to ensure that the IC is an effective
instructional tool for Native American students.
Barnhardt, C. (1982). Tuning-in: Athabaskan
teachers and Athabaskan students. In Barnhardt, R. (Ed.), "Cross-cultural issues
in Alaskan education" (vol. 11). Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Center for
Cross-Cultural Studies. (ED 232 824)
Butterfield, R.A. (1983). The development and use of culturally appropriate
curriculum for American Indian students. "Peabody Journal of Education," 61,
Darnell, R. (1979). "Reflections on Cree interactional etiquette: Educational
implications (Working Papers in Sociolinguistics No. 57)." Austin, TX:
Southwestern Educational Development Laboratory.
Gallimore, R., Boggs, J.W., & Jordan, C. (1974). "Culture, behavior and
education: A study of Hawaiian-Americans." Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Grubis (1991, November). "Education in indigenous communities." Paper
presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association,
Guilmet, G.M. (1979). Maternal perceptions of urban Navajo and Caucasian
children's classroom behavior. "Human Organization," 38, 87-91.
Rhodes, R.W. (1989). Native American learning styles. "Journal of Navajo
Education," 7, 33-41.
Tharp, R.G. (1989). Psychocultural variables and constants: Effects on
teaching and learning in schools. "American Psychologist," 44, 349-359.
Tharp, R.G. (1991, July). "Intergroup differences among Native Americans in
socialization and child cognition: Native Hawaiians and Native Navajos." Paper
presented at the workshop on Continuities and Discontinuities in the Cognitive
Socialization of Minority Children, Washington, DC.
Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1976). "The uses and limits of social
reinforcement and industriousness for learning to read (Tech. Rep. No. 60)."
Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate, Kamehameha Early Education Program.
Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). "Rousing minds to life: Teaching,
learning, and schooling in social context." New York: Cambridge University
Tharp, R.G., & Yamauchi, L.A. (1994). "Effective instructional
conversation in Native American classrooms (Educational Practice Report No.
10)." Santa Cruz, CA and Washington, DC: National Center for Research on
Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning.
Winterton, W.A. (1976). "The effect of extended wait-time on selected verbal
response characteristics of some Pueblo Indian children." Unpublished doctoral
dissertation, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.
This Digest is based on a report published by the National Center for
Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language, "Effective Instructional
Conversation in Native American Classrooms," by Roland Tharp and Lois Yamauchi.