What Every Teacher Needs To Know
To Teach Native American Students
Introduction American students and to offer educational in 1990 concludes that Jicarilla Apache
practices that will likely aid this group of students had such great differences be-
Many Native American students have students to work to their potential. tween each other that the researchers who
problems in traditional American schools, conducted the study could not determine
and the dropout rate of Native American Dangers of Stereotyping the students’ tendencies. In addition,
students indicates this (Lomawaima, 1995; overgeneralizing can lead to stereotypic
Rhodes, 1988). Researchers often point out Swisher (1991) points out that many thinking and discriminatory practices.
that one reason students may encounter people do not recognize that Native Ameri-
difficulties in school has to do with a school can children are unique and differ greatly
district’s neglect for the learning style or from each other, even within one commu-
nity. Although Native Americans can differ
about Native Americans
culture of a given group (Pewewardy, 2008;
Rhodes, 1988; Swisher, 1991). greatly from each other like members of Many Americans know little about
Lomawaima (1995) explains that any other racial group and research does Native Americans. Fleming (2006) argues
numerous researchers hypothesized that not indicate that there is a unique Native that they could very well be one of the most
discontinuities between teachers and stu- American way of learning, careful atten- misunderstood groups in the U.S. One of
dents will hinder student performance in tion to common differences between Native the reasons few Americans have accurate
school. These discontinuities could involve American and mainstream students is im- knowledge of Native Americans has to do
learning and communication styles as well portant. Teachers need to understand the with what teachers teach in formal schools.
as a curriculum which is not culturally way Native American students are likely A good example of the way students are
relevant. Swisher (1991) explains that re- to perceive the world if they are seriously taught about Native Americans concerns
search suggests that traditional classroom interested in improving the education of what a typical American student knows
environments often interfere with the way this group. about this group in the state of Montana,
Native American children learn. Although it is important to consider where many Native Americans live.
The purpose of this article is to discuss the differences in learning style between Starnes (2006) reveals that although
the culture and learning styles of Native people of different cultures, overgeneral- students in Montana know a great deal
izing can lead to some harmful effects. about their own state, most would not be
Swisher (1991) gives a very good example, able to locate the seven Native Ameri-
Hani Morgan is a professor indicating that it is not wise to assume can reservations in that state. She adds
in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, that a particular group has a special style that students are likely to know about
and Special Education, of learning. Her example points out that sovereign nations but not likely to know
University of Southern Mississippi, although Native American students are that in their own state sovereign tribal
Hattiesburg, Mississippi. likely to be field-dependent, a study done
governments exist. One reason students way they do partly as a result of cultural learning as “watch then do” or “listen then
are usually not taught about these topics, values and early socialization experiences do.” An example of this type of learning can
according to Starnes, is because those in (Swisher, 1991). be of a father modeling a skill to a child.
power traditionally write history and typi- Although it is dangerous to overgen- Since learning this way emphasizes onser-
cally only include their own viewpoints. eralize, research has shown that Native vation, Native American students perform
Since textbook authors are not likely to American students are likely to behave and best in classrooms that involve a great deal
be of Native American descent, the Native react to teachers and teaching strategies in of visualization, especially mathematics
American view of American history is often specific ways that are often different from classes offering many forms of visual learn-
missing in school textbooks. mainstream students. In order to avoid ing opportunities (Pewewardy, 2008).
Another reason explaining why there stereotyping and overgeneralizing, teachers
are many misconceptions about Native should observe students before assuming Field-Dependence/
Americans has to do with the fact that they will respond in certain ways that re- Field-Independence
they tend to be more isolated than other flect anticipated cultural learning styles.
groups, and for this reason, knowledge Pewewardy (2008) explains that a
about Native Americans that outsiders Values review of literature indicates that Native
have is likely not to come from direct American students are likely to be field-
towards Humility and Harmony
experience (Fleming, 2006). Even in dependent. Irvine and York (1995) discuss
states with high concentrations of Native Many Native American communities that field-dependent students prefer to
Americans, most non-Native people know value humility and harmony (Swisher, work together instead of in isolation, but
very little about this group, and based 1991). This can lead students from these that all individuals may show signs of
on what they do know they are likely to communities to deliberately achieve less field-dependent and field-independent be-
have negative attitudes towards Native than Anglo students. Swisher (1991) ex- haviors at different times. Field-dependent
Americans (Fleming, 2006). plains that Native American students may students are highly visual and intuitive
Misconceptions about Native Ameri- underachieve to avoid appearing superior (Pewewardy, 2008).
cans can begin at a very young age when in order to not violate the traditional norms Field-dependent students also look to
children are introduced to popular trade of their culture. Native American students authority figures for guidance and have
books. Research on books for young read- are therefore not likely to perform tasks or difficulty perceiving themselves as sepa-
ers indicates that stereotypical portrayals problems that other students cannot per- rate from their environment (Irvine &
of Native Americans still occur in books form well because they do not want to be York, 1995; Pewewardy, 2008). Students
typically available in schools (Lindsay, viewed as superior or inferior as a result of who are field-dependent are also holistic
2003; Roberts, Dean, & Holland, 2005). their family’s emphasis on the importance and perceive things in relation to the
Some children’s books on Native Ameri- of unity, oneness, and cooperation. whole. Many minority groups are likely to
cans do not show one tribe in the illustra- In the Anglo culture possessions and be field-dependent, and Clarkson (1983)
tions but mix aspects of different tribes property have different meaning than suggests that women tend to fall in this
together (Reese, 1999; Roberts et al., they do in many Native American com- category as well.
2005). One book that was reviewed, for munities. In Native American communi- Field-independent students are likely
example, showed a totem pole made by the ties, possessions are important because to be detached, goal oriented, competitive,
Northwest Indians next to a tipi used by they can be shared, while in the Anglo analytical, and logical (Irvine & York,
the Plains Indians (Reese, 1999). Illustra- culture they are more likely to represent 1995; Pewewardy, 2008). It is easy for
tions like these do not accurately reflect a person’s individual social status or worth these students to break the whole and
the differences among Native American (Pewewardy, 2008). A person with more understand that its parts can be added
people and promote erroneous and stereo- possessions is likely to be treated with together to form the whole again. Field-
typical ideas in children. distrust in a Native American community, independent students typically tend to be
and getting wealthy may even be viewed non-minority students, and it is believed
Learning Style as undesirable. that they are field-independent in part
because the Anglo culture greatly values
More (1989) discusses that learn- Teaching by Demonstration personal autonomy and formal organiza-
ing style describes the cognitive process and Observation tion (Pewewardy, 2008; Strauss, 1993).
students use to process information and
mentions that researchers often use terms Learning in traditional Native Ameri- Responding to Questions
such as verbal/nonverbal and global/ana- can cultures is based to a great extent
lytic to describe different kinds of learning on observation and is different from Although More (1989) refers to a
styles. Various researchers identify the traditional learning approaches in U.S. study that found no significant differ-
learning styles of Native Americans us- schools (Bennett, 2007; More, 1989). In ences between Native American students
ing different classifications, which include many classrooms today, teachers encour- and non-Native students concerning the
field-dependence/field-independence, per- age students to solve problems and make waiting time a student typically uses to
ceptual strengths, reflectivity/impulsivity, mistakes. This is sometimes referred to as respond to a question, Pewewardy (2008)
behavior, role of the family, teacher/pupil trial and error learning. One of the reasons explains that Native American students
relationships, and cooperation versus Native American students are more visual tend to reflect more than mainstream
competition. and tend to learn from observation and students. Reflective students take more
A person’s learning style is deter- demonstration has to do with the fact that time than other students as they gather
mined by the way he/she consistently this is the way they are usually taught more evidence before offering an answer.
responds cognitively, affectively, and at home by their parents or elders (Red Once again, there is a connection be-
physiologically to a given stimulus. Na- Horse, 1980; Pewewardy, 2008). tween this behavior and the culture of Native
tive American students view the world the More (1989) describes this type of Americans. In traditional Native American
homes, there is strong emphasis on per- curate aspects of Native American people References
forming an activity correctly. As a result, and their culture, beginning in the primary
Banks, J. A. (2009). Teaching strategies for eth-
Native American students may not attempt grades. Banks (2009) offers activities at
nic studies. New York: Allyn & Bacon.
to answer unfamiliar questions for fear of various grade levels to teach the accurate Bennett, C. I. (2007). Comprehensive multicul-
not performing well. Teachers who do not cultural traditions and history of Native tural education: Theory and practice. New
understand these values and resulting at- Americans. In the primary grades, Banks York: Pearson Education.
titudes towards trial and error may perceive suggests using the concept of cultural tra- Clarckson, J. (1983). Urban learning styles. In
Native American students as lacking inter- ditions to teach all students about some of J. M. Lakebrink (Ed.), Children’s success in
est and motivation (Pewewardy, 2008). the traditions of Native Americans which school (pp. 115-139). Springfield, IL: Charles
are in many ways similar to those of main- C. Thomas.
Fleming, W. C. (2006). Myths and stereotypes
Culturally Responsive Teaching stream U.S. society. In high school, Banks
about Native Americans. Phi Delta Kappan,
suggests that students explore the way 88(3), 213-217.
Culturally responsive teaching is a American Indians were conquered, forced Gollnick, D. M., & Chinn, P. C. (2009). Multicul-
form of instruction that affirms the back- to assimilate, and to give up many aspects tural education in a pluralistic society. Upper
grounds of the students, considers their of their culture. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
cultures as strengths, and reflects and Grant, C. A., & Tate, W. F. (1995). Multicultural
utilizes students’ learning styles (Gollnick education through the lens of the multicul-
& Chinn, 2009). The traditional American tural education research literature. In J. A.
school curriculum is often criticized for This article has argued that in order Banks & C. A. M. Banks (Eds.), Handbook
alienating minority students by not includ- to teach Native Americans in a way that of research on multicultural education (pp.
ing their cultural contributions or respect- reflects their culture, teachers must realize 145-166). New York: Macmillan.
Irvine, J. J., & York, D. E. (1995). Learning
ing their culture fairly or accurately. that Native American students are often
styles and culturally diverse students: A
When teaching Native American stu- taught differently at home than are main- literature review. In J. A. Banks & C. A.
dents, Swisher (1991) first recommends stream students, but that Native American M. Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on
that teachers develop an accurate under- children can also differ greatly from each multicultural education (pp. 484-497). New
standing of their students’ preferred ways other. In general, Native American stu- York: Macmillan.
of learning. It is important for teachers to dents tend to be field-dependent, reflective, Lindsay, N. (2003). “I” still isn’t for Indian: A look
use teaching styles that match the learning visual, and cooperative. They may have at recent publishing about Native Americans.
styles of students. (Lippit, 1993; Swisher, difficulty with the traditional teaching School Library Journal, 49(11), 42-43.
Lippitt. L. (1993). Integrating teaching styles
1991). Teachers should not ignore activi- styles of U.S. schools because teachers of-
with student’s learning styles. Washington,
ties that do not reflect students’ preferred ten teach according to mainstream values DC: U.S. Department of Education.
ways of learning, because it is beneficial that do not correspond with the values of Lomawaima, K. T. (1995). Educating Native Ameri-
to students to understand cultural values minority students. cans. In J. A. Banks & C. A. M. Banks (Eds.),
that are different from their own (Pewe- In order for Native American students Handbook of research on multicultural educa-
wardy, 2008). to reach their potential in school, it is tion (pp. 331-347). New York: Macmillan.
However, when Native American stu- recommended that teachers understand More, A. J. (1989). Native Indian learning styles:
dents are introduced to learning experienc- those students’ preferred ways of learn- A review for researchers and teachers. Jour-
nal of American Indian Education, Special
es they have previously avoided, a teacher ing. Once this understanding is gained,
should include easier tasks and expose the teachers can introduce easy tasks to teach Pewewardy, C. (2008). Learning styles of American
students to these new approaches slowly in Native American students skills they have Indian/Alaska Native students. In J. Noel (Ed.),
order to allow the students to use what is likely avoided previously or have failed to Classic edition sources: Multicultural education
familiar to help them become successful in acquire. This will help Native American (pp. 116-121). New York: McGraw-Hill.
participating in the new skill (Pewewardy, students to use what is familiar to them Red Horse, J. (1980). Family structure and value
2008; Swisher, 1991). to allow them to become successful in par- orientation in American Indians. Social
Pewewardy (2008) mentions that re- ticipating in a new skill. Casework, 68(10), 462-467.
Reese, D. (1999). Authenticity & sensitivity:
specting the culture of Native Americans In addition, teachers must remember
Goals for writing and reviewing books with
in school should be relatively easy in the that the traditional curriculum has often Native American themes. School Library
near future for several reasons. First, since neglected or portrayed Native Americans Journal, 45(11), 36-37.
the population of elderly Americans is pro- negatively (Bennett, 2007). Many common- Rhodes, R. W. (1988). Holistic teaching/learning
jected to increase in the next century, the ly used textbooks, for example, have been for Native American students. Journal of
Native American norm of respect for elders criticized for depicting Native American American Indian Education, 27(2) 21-29.
should become increasingly desirable. Sec- culture as uncivilized and savage (Grant & Roberts, L., Dean, E., & Holland, M. (2005).
ondly, the increasing concern about global Tate, 1995). If ethnic minority groups such Contemporary American Indian cultures
in children’s picture books. Retrieved May
warming and the environment should lead as Native Americans are going to have posi-
15, 2008, from http://www.journal.naeyc.
people to greater appreciation for the Native tive experiences in school, it is important for org/btj/200511/Roberts1105BTJ.asp
American ideal of having respect for nature. their culture to be included and portrayed Starnes, B. A. (2006). Montana’s Indian education
Finally, as the world becomes more global in a fair way (Gollnick & Chinn, 2009). for all: Toward an education worthy of Ameri-
and different cultures continue to mix and can ideals. Phi Delta Kappan, 88(3), 184-192.
interact, the need to accept people the way Note Strauss, J. H. (1993). Reframing and refocusing
they are will be more important than ever. The photograph accompanying this article American Indian family strengths. Family
In addition, teachers must realize that is from a new learning center in Arizona that Perspective, 27(4), 311-321.
Swisher, K. (1991). American Indian/Alaskan
the traditional American curriculum has offers Native American students more educa-
tional opportunities. Photo by J. D. Long-Garcia, Native learning styles: Research and prac-
not represented Native Americans well tice. Retrieved October 15, 2008, from http://
and that all students need to learn ac- copyright 2009 The Catholic Sun Newspaper,
used with permission. www.ericdigests.org/pre-9220/indian.htm