ERIC Identifier: ED468000
Publication Date: 2002-09-00
Author: Hilberg, R. Soleste - Tharp, Roland G.
ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Theoretical Perspectives, Research Findings, and Classroom
Implications of the Learning Styles of American Indian and Alaska Native
Students. ERIC Digest.
Although research on learning styles has found variation between cultural
groups in styles of learning (e.g., Park, 2001; Zhang & Sternberg, 2001),
great variation has also been found within groups (e.g., Nuby & Oxford,
1998). These findings suggest that even in classrooms consisting exclusively of
a single cultural group, as is the case in many reservation schools, teachers
must use a variety of instructional strategies. Effective teaching requires
This Digest begins with a brief discussion of two prominent definitions of
learning styles and then describes studies that have found differences between
the learning styles of American Indian students and students of other cultural
groups. The Digest then presents instructional interventions stemming from
learning styles research.
DEFINING LEARNING STYLES
The research literature on
learning styles comes from several disciplines, contributing to the disjointed,
inconsistent, and often contradictory information regarding what learning styles
are and how they can be measured. According to DeBello (1990), "There are nearly
as many definitions of learning styles as there are theorists" (p. 203).
Sternberg (2001) reports that most learning styles research studies have yet to
be replicated. Further, studies tend to be tied to a particular instrument,
often without sufficient evidence of construct validity or internal consistency,
and whatever the particular instrument measures is called a style. Sternberg
offers his own definition of styles: habitual patterns or preferred ways of
doing something that are consistent over long periods and across a variety of
activities. He defines five dimensions of learning styles: function (creative,
task-oriented, or evaluative), forms (singular or distributed focus, flexible,
or prioritized), levels (concrete or global), scope (intrapersonal or
interpersonal), and leanings (liberal or conservative).
Another prominent definition was put forth by Riding and Rayner (1998), who
saw learning style as an individual's repertoire of learning strategies (the
ways in which learning tasks are habitually responded to) combined with
cognitive style (the way information is organized and represented). They
maintain that while it may be possible for learning "strategies" to change over
time, the cognitive "style" dimensions in their model (wholist-analytic, the
tendency to either organize information into wholes or parts; and
verbal-imagery, the tendency to represent information while thinking either
verbally or in images) do not.
While Sternberg maintains that learning styles, by his definition, vary
across contexts, may change over time, and are, to some degree, socialized,
Riding and Rayner argue that they are relatively fixed and therefore "not"
RESEARCH FINDINGS ON THE LEARNING STYLES OF AMERICAN INDIAN
Research, based on a variety of theoretical frameworks and using a
variety of methodologies and instruments, suggests that among American Indian
and Alaska Native students, there is some tendency toward (a) a global, or
holistic, style of organizing information, (b) a visual style of mentally
representing information in thinking, (c) a preference for a more reflective
style in processing information, and (d) a preference for a collaborative
approach to task completion. Evidence supporting each of these claims is
herewith fully discussed.
Global (holistic) cognitive style. Learners who organize information globally
derive meaning from concepts by first developing an understanding of the whole
context. In contrast, analytic, or linear, thinkers develop understanding after
all the pieces are understood separately then brought together (Tharp, 1989).
Much classroom instruction is dominated by an analytic presentation of
information, with little consideration of the overall context or meaning
(Henderson & Landesman, 1995). Two studies based on this theoretical
dichotomy examined the cognitive organization of information of American Indian
students. First, Davidson (1992) studied differences in the cognitive strengths
of American Indian and White students using the Kaufman Assessment Battery for
Children. She found that, on average, students in the American Indian sample
scored higher on simultaneous processing (used in global, or holistic,
cognition) while students in the White sample scored higher in sequential
processing (used in analytic, or linear, cognition). Second, Backes (1993)
described two types of learners: the abstract-random learners, who prefer
deductive, holistically presented information, and the concrete-sequential
learners, who prefer inductive, linear instruction. Global/holistic thinkers
benefit from (a) an overview of concepts prior to explanations of segments or
details, (b) discussions focusing on overarching themes and use of metaphors,
and (c) use of visual presentations. Using the Gregoric Style Delineator, Backes
assessed learning style differences between American Indian (Chippewa) and
non-Indian students, especially in how they process and organize information. He
found that the largest percentage of students in the American Indian sample fell
predominantly into the abstract-random range, and the largest percentage of
students in the non-Indian sample scored in the concrete-sequential range.
Visual cognitive style. Many studies have shown that there are greater
proportions of visual information processors (as opposed to verbal) among Native
American groups of students than among students from other groups (e.g., Rougas,
2000; Morton, Allen, & Williams, 1994). For example, Rougas used the
Woodcock-Johnson Psycho-Educational Battery Test of Cognitive Ability to examine
differences between Mohawk and White adolescents' visual abilities. Her study
found significant differences, with students in the Mohawk sample demonstrating
greater strength in visual processing. Though there were also differences found
between the samples in long-term retrieval, short-term memory, auditory
processing, comprehension-knowledge, and broad cognitive ability, the means for
both samples in all areas fell within the average range on all these subscales.
Morton, Allen, and Williams (1994) used the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for
Children to test differences in language and nonlanguage tasks with English
monolingual Ojibwa and non-Indian adolescents. They found that students in the
American Indian sample performed better on subtests linked with visual/spatial
processing, and that the control group did better on the language subtests.
In a study linking style to achievement, Riding and Rayner (1998) found that,
given a choice of learning material, verbalizers will choose the text version
and imagers will choose a version with illustrations. Imagers almost double
their learning performance if they are presented with information that includes
text and illustration compared to just text, while the performance of
verbalizers remains the same.
Reflective information processing. Some students learn by observing the tasks
they are to perform, referred to by Nelson-Barber and Estrin (1995) as a
watch-then-do approach. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was used to examine the
learning styles of Native American and African American secondary students (Nuby
& Oxford, 1998), revealing significant differences: Students in the African
American sample scored higher on the "judging" scale, associated with quick
decision making, while students in the Native American sample scored higher on
"perceiving," associated with a more relaxed, reflective decision-making style.
Collaboration. According to many American Indian and Alaska Native observers,
in traditional Native communities and homes, children usually collaborate with
others to accomplish tasks and solve problems (see, for example, Chavers, 2000).
However, in most classrooms, students are expected to complete much of their
work individually. According to sociocultural theory, children naturally and
often effortlessly develop into competent members of their families and
communities by engaging in dialogue and shared activity with more experienced
members (Vygotsky, 1978). Riding and Read (1996; as cited in Riding and Rayner,
1998) found that while all students in their self-report study preferred pair or
group work to individual work, "wholists" (global/holistic thinkers) were
especially partial to group work, lower-ability "wholist-imagers" in particular.
RESEARCH ON INSTRUCTIONAL INTERVENTIONS
and often confusing, the research literature on learning styles has given rise
to a variety of instructional interventions aimed at improving the learning of
American Indian students. For example, Hilberg, Tharp, and DeGeest (2000)
studied Native American middle school students in a two-week unit on fractions,
decimals, and percentages. Students first generated survey questions of
interest, then collaborated in small groups to analyze and depict survey
results. They found that students in the experimental group retained more
mathematics and reported more positive attitudes toward mathematics than
students in the control groups.
In a quasi-experiment involving sixth-grade mathematics classes on an Indian
reservation in New Mexico over eight weeks, students in the experimental
condition formed self-selected student-led groups in which they rotated to
learning stations to engage in a variety of tasks. In addition to allowing
self-direction, these activities emphasized visual, tactile, and auditory
materials. Students in the self-directed, peer-learning condition outperformed
their peers in achievement in mathematical concepts and skills (Cardell, Cross,
& Lutz, 1978).
Hopkins and Bean (1999) examined the effects of a verbal-visual word
association strategy for word root instruction with middle and high school
students on the Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana, using a
think-aloud procedure to model the strategy followed by guided practice and
informal collaboration. Students created a word graph for each word consisting
of the root, its definition, a personal association, and a visual of the
association. Authors reported that students demonstrated increased achievement
on quizzes and improved interest and engagement.
Hayes and Allinson (1993) performed a review of studies that examined the
interactions between individual learning styles and instructional strategies.
Ten of 17 studies support the hypothesis that the instructional strategies used
will influence the achievement of students with different learning styles.
Swailes and Senior (2001) propose that learning styles research would benefit
from development of a better, unified theory, and that more research is needed
on the differences between preference, styles, and strategies. Riding and Rayner
(1998) stated that much of the work on learning styles to date has been
exploratory, and that we now must systematically investigate the aspects,
nature, role, and applications of learning styles.
While there are many theories, models, and
instruments that purport to measure learning styles, there seems to be evidence
to support two useful conclusions based on research conducted to date. First,
there are some differences in learning styles between cultural groups. Second,
there is growing evidence that instruction for both Native and non-Native
students that includes observational and collaborative activities, and in which
information is presented holistically and with visuals, produces gains in
At a recent gathering of educators and researchers working with Native
students (Chavers, 2000), it was asserted that improving education for Native
students will require long-term commitments and funding for research on student
learning styles and their impact on student achievement. We propose that this
research must also include additional tests of classroom interventions that
accommodate differences in learning styles.
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