ERIC Identifier: ED296812
Publication Date: 1988-01-00
Author: Cajete, Gregory A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Las Cruces NM.
Motivating American Indian Students in Science and Math. ERIC
Many American Indian students tend to drop high school math and science
courses which are not specifically required for graduation, with the result that
they do not acquire the necessary skills to enable them to pursue scientific or
technical careers. This digest will summarize the major characteristics of
American Indian student needs in the disciplines of science and math and then
offer constructive ways in which students can be motivated for greater
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CAUSES OF THE LACK OF STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT IN SCIENCE AND
Notwithstanding the failure of science and math curricula to provide focus
and challenge or to foster concept-building, American Indian students do achieve
relatively high scores on standardized tests in those subjects from kindergarten
through fourth grade (PROCEEDINGS, 1983).
However, by the time they reach junior high, many American Indian students
avoid science. Some of the factors contributing to avoidance are: 1) conflicts
between home and school regarding the purpose and importance of school; 2) an
abrupt movement away from lessons in context and interdisciplinary approaches to
teaching science and math in earlier grades toward more structured and linear
approaches in junior high; and 3) a social organization of lesson presentation
which is less group oriented and more authoritarian (Leap, 1982).
Another explanation cited is that American Indian students possess a cultural
world view that is significantly different from that of American society at
large. This, in turn, affects students' perceptions and receptivity to science
and math. Additionally, many American Indian students have unique learning
characteristics by which they perceive and process information. Therefore, an
approach that is different from the usual one is required to present science and
math content to these students (Cajete, 1986).
WHAT ARE SOME IMPORTANT AREAS TO BE CONSIDERED IN DEVELOPING MOTIVATIONAL
TOOLS FOR STUDENTS IN SCIENCE AND MATH?
Linguistic differences of American Indian students can add to the problems
which they encounter in science and math, especially if the student comes from a
predominately native language-speaking background. Most American Indian
languages do not categorize or abstract concepts in the same way that English
does. As a result, many concepts in science are not readily translatable into
those languages. Consequently, learning science or math becomes not only a
problem of acquiring new words but also one which requires learning an entire
specialized language (Schindler and Davison, 1985).
American Indian languages and culture make use of descriptive examples of
practical experience and knowledge which personify an intimate understanding of
natural phenomena. It is possible to use this cultural understanding of nature
to enhance American Indian student motivation in science and math courses. The
key tactic is facilitating the attitude among American Indian students that they
can accommodate both perspectives. This allows students to see how their
traditional and practical experience can be integrated into the more formal
content approach of "school" science (Cajete, 1986).
Underpreparation of many teachers in elementary science and lack of
culturally relevant coursework often condition students to expect "boring"
science and math classes and to believe that American Indian culture has nothing
in common with science and math education. Therefore, increased preparation
combined with cultural sensitivity on the part of science teachers becomes a
priority (Cornell, 1985).
A large proportion of science teachers and schools adopt content- oriented
and competency-based science and math curricula. Sole emphasis on this content
competency without an understanding of the learning and thinking process can
further manifest problems with the socio-cultural dimensions of science and math
education (Cornell, 1985).
WHAT ARE SOME MAJOR CHARACTERISTICS OF AMERICAN INDIAN STUDENTS' LEARNING
STYLES WHICH MAY AFFECT THEIR MOTIVATION IN SCIENCE AND MATH COURSES?
1. Seeing and Listening. Historically, many aspects of American Indian
culture were transmitted orally and visually through stories, ritual, art and
practical example. Since developing auditory learning, observation skills, and
memory by means of storytelling, oratory, and experiential learning are still
part of the informal education of many American Indian students, these
modalities should receive serious consideration for use in enhancing motivation
in science and math.
2. Practicality. Many American Indian students have less difficulty
understanding science/math concepts that are concrete or experiential. For
greater effectiveness, the teacher should begin with concrete examples and
practical applications which lead to the abstract. In addition, emphasis should
be placed on course content which is functional and relevant to daily living.
3. Caution. Many American Indian students are cautious when faced with
unfamiliar situations or activities, since learned behavioral patterns make them
sensitive to the reactions of others. Therefore, to the extent possible, class
presentations should be made informal and open. Friendliness and sincerity on
the part of the teacher are key factors in easing self- consciousness.
4. Field Sensitive Orientation. Many American Indian students express
field-sensitive behavioral tendencies in social interactions. These tendencies
directly implicate affect learning modalities. They include the tendencies to
respond more readily to personal encouragement and guidance from the teacher, to
base motivation for learning on an affective relationship with the teacher, and
to respond favorably to learning formats which begin with group orientation
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO TEACH SCIENCE AND MATH AS CREATIVE PROCESSES AND
CULTURAL SYSTEMS OF KNOWLEDGE?
Every cultural group has developed a philosophy and technology for the
application of knowledge about the natural world. Likewise, mathematics is a
cultural system which springs from a cultural group need to "count," "quantify,"
"manipulate," and "calculate" those things which that culture values. Yet this
dimension is rarely addressed in science and math curricula (D'Ambrosio, 1986).
Science and math at every turn involve a creative exploration of natural
phenomena and practical problem solving. Creativity in both disciplines follows
a discernible pattern, beginning with learning the basics, practicing,
internalizing, taking apart, and reassembling for greater synthesis and
understanding. This process "ideal" is implied in the scientific method and in
mathematical problem-solving. Creative teaching in this respect involves
facilitating creative thinking abilities through content which is both
personally and culturally relevant to American Indian students (Cajete, 1986).
This can be accomplished as follows:
1. Derive creative content from the immediate environment of the student,
making "the commonplace" the "creating place" for both student and teacher.
Contexts, situations and phenomena in the immediate environment, the home,
community or school are all sources for gleaning scientific content (Cajete,
2. Integrate contemporary American Indian issues and concerns with related
scientific information. Areas such as health, natural resource management,
ecology, self-determination, tribal government, history and relevant social
issues provide a wealth of content for scientifically relevant exploration and
discussion (Cajete, 1986).
3. Utilize American Indian culture-based content. Activities such as field
trips, the study of artifacts or ethnographic information, and guest speakers
can provide descriptive examples which personify American Indian knowledge of
nature while illustrating concepts in science and math. American Indian cultural
content can be developed through discussions and projects in astronomy,
psychology, botany, medicine, nutrition, agriculture, architecture, engineering
and many other science related fields (Cajete, 1986).
4. Establish learning situations which are experientially based and help
students develop inquiry skills by setting up a scientifically challenging
situation that stimulates creative problem-solving. Eskimo students at Gambell,
Alaska have, for example, shown that they are quite capable of winning at state
and international levels of future problem solving competitions. Contrary to
myth, many American Indian students avidly participate in team competitions,
especially if such competitions reflect group prestige. These students can excel
at scientific research providing they see a clear and immediate purpose for
their study (Guthridge, 1986).
5. Incorporate creative writing as a part of the presentation of science/math
content. By having students write about "their" thoughts and feelings about
topics like overpopulation, nuclear disarmament, AIDS, energy development on
reservations, and American Indian health and social problems, they learn to do
research, see the relevance of science and widen their own sense of engagement
concerning these issues (Blake, 1985).
6. Present art as an ideal vehicle for creativity in science and math.
Activities involving drawing, construction, or artistic exemplification of
science or math concepts allow for a fuller expression of culturally-related
ideas and for more complete involvement in the learning process (Cajete, 1986).
7. Explore the effects of technology on human lifestyles. Areas which may be
explored include comparison/contrast of American Indian traditional technology
with that of modern society, the traditional role of education in American
Indian society, and lifestyles and the environmental impact of both cultures.
Role playing, experiential learning, community research, and "what if" scenarios
are all excellent methodologies for discussions. Teachers can help students to
recognize that science and math are both creative processes and cultural systems
of knowledge. Insights are gained through combining and exercising learning
abilities. This is the nature of science and math "in the making" (Cajete,
WHAT GENERAL ROLES SHOULD THE TEACHER, COUNSELOR AND ADMINISTRATOR PLAY IN
ENCOURAGING AMERICAN INDIAN STUDENTS TO EXCEL IN SCIENCE AND MATH?
Motivation is a two-way street, and it requires the active participation of
both teacher and student. The teacher must begin by attempting to understand and
appreciate what the American Indian student brings with him or her in the form
of cultural knowledge, values, creative abilities, and interests. These are the
foundation for creating motivational tools and facilitating active learning. The
teacher must combine affective teaching with cultural sensitivity in dealing
with American Indian students. Creative teaching strategies must be implemented
which more completely involve American Indian students in the thinking processes
of science and math. Furthermore, the teacher must develop a working knowledge
of learning styles and teach to those styles at every opportunity. Also,
increased preparation in science/math education allows the teacher greater
flexibility in tailoring lessons to meet the needs of American Indian students
in those subjects.
The first step in the development of a strategy of motivation begins with
researching American Indian cultural content related to basic concepts in
science and math. The next step is incorporating instructional approaches into
the curriculum which utilize local, environmental, cultural and community
resources to further enhance the teaching for motivation and interest by the
American Indian learner.
Finally, counselors and administrators must play an active role in informing
American Indian students of academic requirements and related careers in science
and math, and they must improve their own understanding of science-related
professions. In addition, administrators must make a tangible commitment to
support teachers, curriculum, and program development focused on improving the
performance and self-image of American Indian students. Motivating American
Indian students in science and math requires continuous enthusiasm, high
expectations, and commitment on the part of teachers, counselors, and
administrators. It is challenging, but it can achieve the result of getting
American Indian students excited and eager to learn about science and math.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ameduri, Robert A. "Creative Science Through Laboratory Analysis." SCHOOL
SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS, (1977): 365-370.
Blake, William E. "Science and Creative Writing: An Ad(d)verse Relationship?"
SCIENCE TEACHER, (1983): 30-33.
Cajete, Gregory A. "Ethnoscience: The Things of Nature and the Nature of
Things." KUI TATK (Native American Science Education Association, Washington,
D.C.) (1985): 2.
Cajete, Gregory A. "Science: A Native American Perspective (A Culturally
Based Science Education Curriculum)." Ph.D. diss., International College/William
Lyon University, San Diego, CA, 1986.
Cornell, Elizabeth A. "Preparing Teachers to Teach Science," KUI TATK (Native
American Science Education Association, Washington, D.C.) (1986): 1-2.
D'Ambrosio, Ubirantan. "Socio-Cultural Bases for Mathematics Education," KUI
TATK (Native American Science Education Association, Washington, D.C.) (1986):
Guthridge, George. "Eskimos Solve the Future." ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION/SCIENCE
FACT (1986): 64-75.
Leap, William L. DIMENSIONS OF MATH AVOIDANCE AMONG AMERICAN INDIAN
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL STUDENTS. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Education,
1982. ED 244 748.
PROCEEDINGS: SCIENCE AND MATH EDUCATION, HEARINGS BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON
BUDGET. UNITED STATES SENATE, NINETY-EIGHTH CONGRESS, FIRST SESSION.
Albuquerque, NM, February 1983. ED 234 982.
Schindler, Duane E., and David M. Davison. "Language, Culture and
Mathematical Concepts of American Indian Learners." JOURNAL OF AMERICAN INDIAN
EDUCATION (1985): 27-34.