ERIC Identifier: ED480732
Publication Date: 2003
Author: Jacobs, Don Trent
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Shifting Attention from "Discipline Problems" to "Virtue
Awareness" in American Indian and Alaska Native Education. ERIC Digest.
There is a risk in using many of the terms commonly applied to this
subject. Phrases like "classroom management," "child discipline," or "behavioral
issues" can mislead by focusing too much on children's compliance with
rules and too little on their developing relationships. This Digest suggests
a different parlance to use when trying to decrease negative behaviors
that prevent American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) children from contributing
to healthy and peaceful classroom environments. Rather than thinking about
behaviors per se, the author recommends ways to help children understand,
care about, and act upon core virtues (Lickona, Schaps, & Lewis, 1997).
"Core virtues" are meant herein to represent universally acknowledged attributes
such as courage, generosity, humility, honesty, fortitude, and patience;
they are different from "values," which may differ from culture to culture.
INTEGRATING VIRTUES INTO OTHER LEARNING
It is not enough to treat core virtues as a separate area of study.
Instead, teachers need to develop and work from a holistic perspective,
weaving virtue awareness continually into all aspects of teaching and curriculum
(Jacobs & Jacobs-Spencer, 2001). When students don't grasp this larger
picture of interconnections, it is easy for them to align virtues with
misguided values. For example, Native youth too often attempt to demonstrate
courage through acts of violence (1). Such a misinterpretation of courage,
an important virtue in most Indigenous philosophies, may help explain why
levels of negative risk-taking behaviors such as fighting and substance
abuse continue to be higher for AI/AN youth than for the general population
For courage, generosity, or humility to positively guide behavior, such
virtues must be considered in a variety of relevant contexts through stories,
class discussions, role-playing, and critical evaluation about how virtues
play out in life and why they are important for harmonious relationships.
Unlike most character education approaches, which tend either to be authoritarian
or to treat virtues superficially (e.g., the common "virtue of the month"
approach), such a constant integration of virtue awareness into all curriculum
is natural to AI/AN ways of learning (Jacobs, 1998). Young people do not
learn to hunt or weave without also learning the relationship of these
activities to generosity, patience, humility, respect, and so forth. Even
the traditional names of particular places on Indian lands often have wisdom
stories associated with them (Basso, 1996).
When children understand how virtues play into all subjects and learning
processes, they begin to comprehend the reciprocal relationships that surround
them. In turn, they may begin to seek inner meaning, exploring their experiences
in light of the virtues. Without such insights, young people may remain
frustrated by uninvestigated values and doctrines that seem unassociated
with their developing integrity and character.
Thinking about thinking. For virtue awareness to be authentic, that
is, not just about following rules, teachers must give students continual
opportunities to think about how they come to certain conclusions. This
is especially important for AI/AN children. "Learning about the nature
of self-deception is a key aspect of Indigenous preparation for learning,"
Cajete explained (1994, p. 225). When a student is not fully engaged in
learning and acts out in negative ways, self-deception and its irrationalities
are usually involved. Full engagement requires awareness about one's beliefs,
intuitions, and past experiences as these relate to making sense of the
world (Schoenfeld 1987, pp. 189-215). When emotions or actions become negative,
teachers can help students by simply asking them to consider what fears
led them to their assumptions, what authority figure determined their preconceptions,
or even what words they use (Jacobs, 1998).
UNDERSTANDING VIRTUES IN CONTEXT
Bergstrom, Miller, and Peacock (2003) observed American Indian adolescents
who identified strongly with Indian culture and were able to find and walk
"The Good Path." That is, they had come to appreciate the core virtues
in ways that remained obscure to those who lack this sense of identity.
Sanchez-Way and Johnson (2000) synthesized research that indicated a relationship
between cultural identification and vulnerability to drug use. They described
Indian culture as including many opportunities to transmit underlying spiritual
values to the young. Tharp's research also showed that when children were
not required to renounce their cultural heritage, school achievement improved
Beauvais and Oetting (1999) wrote about the importance of families that
provide a stable environment for youth. They concluded that Indian families,
not schools, should be the primary focus of substance abuse prevention
because when families value the spiritual aspects of traditions, then the
core virtues come to life.
Awareness of relationships and the importance of virtues in them reduces
the risk that children will fall into negative behaviors such as substance
abuse (Fisher, Storck, & Bacon, 1999). However, although an emphasis
on families may ideally result in the greatest preventive gains, this is
not always possible in seriously impaired families. An experiment at Loneman
Elementary School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation illustrates how
a sense of family and constant virtue awareness can nonetheless be brought
into the school environment. Sandra K. Blacksmith, one of the teachers
involved in the project, had this to say:
Focusing on the virtues and the extended family concept was the most
rewarding and successful experience of my teaching career. I found my students
becoming responsible, competent, caring, considerate, watchful, protective
and using critical thinking skills daily. I watched the natural leadership
talents of boys and girls blossom. They were looking toward each other
to solve their differences. This system takes time. You must let children
take the lead. You must be a facilitator (2001).
UNDERSTANDING VIRTUES IN ASSOCIATION WITH NATURE
A weakness of many current character education programs is an underlying
assumption that virtues are human and therefore separate from nature (Jacobs,
2002). As Cohen (1990) explains, sometimes nature is the best teacher.
Many children gain a passion for justice, beauty, and cooperation when
they discover (often at an intuitive level) the interconnectedness of all
life--the spiritual power that abides in landscapes, rivers, and wildlife
(Cohen, 1990). Traditional stories often feature the teachings of animals
who steadfastly practice generosity, courage, patience, or other virtues.
Beyond the collective wisdom of Indigenous people, research studies
have also confirmed how vital a role nature can play in the building of
character. A recent meta-analysis looked at the effectiveness of "wilderness
therapy" programs by assessing behavioral and emotional symptoms of 858
clients before and after their involvement in one of the eight outdoor
behavioral health care programs studied. The study showed statistically
significant improvements in behavior, in the reconciling of family relations,
and in helping to address more serious underlying issues that drive problem
behavior in youth (Russell, 2001). This healing effect of natural outdoor
systems may be especially useful for AI/AN students, whose cultural heritages
are likely to embrace nature as an integrated part of human existence.
BUILDING SELF-ESTEEM IN RELATION TO VIRTUOUS CHARACTER
Knowing one's self as possessing virtues is a requirement for a spiritually
fulfilling existence, according to Coopersmith (1967). Brendtro, Brokenleg,
and Van Bockern (1994) agree and show in "Reclaiming Youth at Risk" how
traditional Native educational practices address four bases of individual
self-esteem: (1) belonging nurtured in a cultural milieu, (2) competence
ensured by opportunities for mastery, (3) power fostered by encouraging
the expression of independence, and (4) generosity as the preeminent virtue.
QUESTIONING HEGEMONY AND "WORLDVIEW"
Virtues bring harmony to relationships when students see the practicality
in living as though "we are all related." When adults contradict this spiritual
imperative, children naturally become suspicious. For this reason, a critical
awareness of hegemony may be important. As other scholars have noted, when
the dominant culture's assumptions remain unchallenged intellectually,
minority students often find ways to challenge them emotionally or behaviorally.
McEwan explained, "Disempowered people resist their domination" (2000,
p.127). Likewise, Erickson observed, "Consistent patterns of refusal to
learn in school can be seen as a form of resistance to a stigmatized ethnic
or social class identity. . . . Students can refuse to accept the negative
identity by refusing to learn" (1993, p. 43). McEwan (2000) also states
that "the struggles for power that occur throughout the educational system
cannot be divorced from the painfully arbitrary nature of who has and does
not have a voice in our society" (p.125).
According to Joan F. Goodman, "If children are to become critical thinkers,
tolerant of competing interests and loyalties, and strong, independent
moral agents, they must be active participants in moral decisions" (2002,
p. 35). The idea that all skills and knowledge should reflect virtues and
be used to care for self and others is inherent in many AI/AN traditional
views on teaching and learning. To study academic subjects without incorporating
virtues and caring is to do something without purpose. Having a life purpose
has been found to be predictive of positive life adaptation (Kumpfer, 1999)
and, in the worldview of many Native cultures, "one of life's most important
developmental tasks is discovering one's own life purpose" (Sanchez-Way
& Johnson, 2000, p. 44). Teachers would serve their students well by
learning to help them in this discovery process.
In "Control Theory in the Classroom," Glasser argues for ways to allow
youth to exert power over their lives. He says that discipline never really
succeeds if it does not recognize the universal need of all persons to
be free and in control of themselves (1986). In nurturing students toward
responsible independence, it may be wise to remember that the legacy of
Indigenous cultures supports a balance of autonomy and independence. Brendtro,
widely recognized as an international authority on peer cultures and child
management, states this clearly:
Native American philosophies of child management represent what is perhaps
the most effective system of positive discipline ever developed. These
approaches emerged from cultures where the central purpose of life was
the education and empowerment of children. Modern child development research
is only now reaching the point where this holistic approach can be understood,
validated and replicated. (1994, p.35)
Addressing the goals for "virtue education" that have been described
in this article may be one way to understand and replicate this holistic
approach, which worked for thousands of years. Perhaps, with new priorities
in teaching and learning, it can work again.
(1) See research on Indian juvenile gangs at http://www.csus.edu/ssis/cdcps/nativegang.htm
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