Journal of American Indian Education

Special Edition
August, 1989


Karen Swisher and Donna Deyhle

Our Indian students feel inferior. They are passive in the classroom. A white kid can ask a question in the classroom. The Indians cannot ask questions because they don't understand. And they don't learn as much (Navajo counselor, personal communication, 1984).
For decades, educators and educational researchers have attempted to understand reasons for the high rate of academic failure among minority youth. Genetic characteristics, racial segregation and discrimination and/or cultural deprivation were offered as explanations for low achievement. Some researchers viewed the school as a panacea for bringing about educational equity; others viewed it as not making a difference.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the cultural-difference hypothesis was presented as an alternative explanation for low achievement. This hypothesis attributed poor academic performance to differences between children's home learning methods and environments and those of the school. Researchers such as Ramirez and Castenada (1974) and Philips (1972) suggested that the school culture was alien and often in conflict with the home culture, and that by creating a congruence between the school culture and the home culture, ethnic minority youths would be helped to make gains in their academic and emotional growth. Researchers in the mid-1970s also began to look at classrooms ethnographically to investigate the interactional structure of schooling; that is, the interactional context in which students from different minority group cultures prefer to learn and demonstrate what they learned.

In addition to the examination of cultural differences affecting the learning process in the 1970s, a powerful theoretical model emerged (Ogbu, 1978) which looked outside the schools to historical factors that formed and shaped minority responses to schools. According to Ogbu (1978, 1987), minority school achievement must be examined in relationship to the groups' experiences in the post-school opportunity structures (job market) and their responses to the perception of dismal future opportunities. This is not to ignore language and cultural differences, for it is within the context of the larger structural factors that language and cultural differences become persuasive and enhanced as oppositional cultural responses within the classroom. We agree with Ogbu's theory, but for the purpose of this paper, we focus on the in-school factors that teachers can effect and change in their interaction with their students.

In the 1980s, educational researchers and practitioners are continuing to search for instructional methods which will address the relationship of how children have "learned to learn" and the ways in which they are expected to demonstrate learning in the classroom. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate with specific classroom examples, learning style and interactional style differences of various groups of American Indian/Alaskan Native youth. Each example is followed by a summary of the literature, including research studies, concerning different cultural patterns of behavior. The paper concludes with suggestions for teachers to consider as they adapt their teaching styles of learning and interaction that students bring with them to the classroom.

Learning Style: The Acquisition of Knowledge and How It Is Demonstrated

It is our premise that people perceive the world in different ways, learn about the world in different ways, and demonstrate what they have learned in different ways. The approach to learning and the demonstration of what one has learned is influenced by the values, norms, and socialization practices of the culture in which the individual has been enculturated. In this section we will present and discuss differences and similarities in learning to learn and the demonstration of learning among several American Indian groups.

Learning to Learn

When I make an assignment, my Indian students are reluctant to finish quickly or to correct other peers' papers. My Anglo students are quick to jump into the task. The Indian students seem to need time to think about things before they take action on their assignment. It is almost like they have to make sure they can do it before they try. Or, on the other hand, they seem to just not care about doing their assignments (Teacher, personal communication, 1987).

It is generally accepted in the literature that the ways in which children have learned to learn prior to entering the formal education environment are influenced by early socialization experiences (John, 1972; Philips, 1972; Cazden, 1982). Different sociocultural environments result in behaviors that differ from culture to culture.

Differences between the home learning style and the school learning style are often manifested when an Indian child goes to school. Wax, Wax, and Dumont (1964) have described one such conflict situation in which performance does not precede competence:

Indians tend to ridicule the person who performs clumsily; an individual should not attempt an action unless he knows how to do it; and if he does not know, then he should watch until he has understood. In European and American cultures, generally, the opposite attitude is generally the case; we "give a man credit for trying" and we feel that the way to learn is to attempt to do so (p. 95).

Werner and Begishe (1968) presented evidence from the Navajo to illustrate how home culture affects styles of learning. They reported that Navajos seem to be unprepared or ill at ease if pushed into early performance without sufficient thought or the acquisition of mental competence preceding the actual physical activity. This philosophy, according to Werner and Begishe (1968), suggests "If at first you don't think, and think again, don't bother trying." In contrast, the Anglo approach, which stresses performance as a prerequisite for the acquisition of competence, is summed up in the philosophy of "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, again" (pp. 1-2).

Longstreet (1978) also reported the different ways in which Navajo children have learned to learn. She stated that Navajo children observe an activity repeatedly before attempting any kind of public performance. They do not have an adult close by helping and correcting them; instead, they observe and review the performance in their heads until they will perform the task well before presentation in front of an audience.

Brewer (1977), in describing learning at home and school for Oglala Sioux children said that observation, self-testing in private, and then demonstration of a task for approval were essential steps in learning. "Learning through public mistakes was not and is not a method of learning which Indians value" (p. 32).

In pointing out how culturally influenced styles may conflict with one another, Appleton (1983) reported differences found in Yaqui Indian learning style and that in the typical public school classroom. Using information from a report titled Culture: A Way of Reading, Appleton (1983) reported that Yaqui children avoid unfamiliar ground where trial and error or an inquiry method of reasoning is required. Yaqui children instead come to school believing that a respectful attitude toward any task includes doing the task well. For Yaqui, the activity done according to recommended or correct form is as important as the purpose or goal of the activity and if it cannot be done well, there is little reason to engage in the activity at all.

The above citations from the literature present examples from various tribal groups, i.e., Navajo, Oglala Sioux, and Yaqui, regarding the home socialization practices which influence the respective ways children learn to learn. They prefer to learn privately—competence precedes performance. Although each group is different and distinct from the others in language and in other aspects of their particular culture, a similar approach to learning seems to be prevalent.

Experiencing the World: A Visual Approach to Learning

I study like this. The teacher lectures and then I take notes. And then I read them over. I study them. And then when I take a test I see the study notes in my mind (her hands quickly outline a rectangular shape). I see the paper and then I know where the answers are when I see the paper in my mind (Navajo student, personal communication, 1988).

Within the last two decades, researchers have investigated the visual approach that many Indian groups use as a method by which they come to know or understand the world. John (1972) suggested that there is considerable agreement among social scientists, educators, and others "that the Indian children of the Southwest are visual in their approaches to their world" (p. 333). Impressions formed by careful observation and looking are lasting impressions. John (1972) reported that Navajo children learn by looking. "They scrutinize the face of adults; they recognize at great distances their family's livestock. They are alert to danger signs of changing weather or the approach of predatory animals" (p. 333). Appleton (1983), in describing Yaqui children, said they are encouraged to learn by watching and modeling; "learning the correct way to do a task by watching it being performed repeatedly by others is highly reinforced" (p. 173).

Indian children of the Northwest also exhibit the same sort of visual strength in how they view their world. For example, Kwakuitl children apparently have learned to learn by observation (Philion & Galloway, 1969; Rohner, 1965; Wolcott, 1967). Rohner (1965) pointed out a possible conflict situation in that Kwakuitl children learn by observation, manipulation, and experimentation in their homes, but in school the learning experience is limited to verbal instruction, reading, and writing. Philion and Galloway (1969) in their research with Kwakuitl children and the reading process stated that the children displayed remarkable ability in visual discrimination. By imitating the behavior of others, very young children (ages four or five) were able to follow complicated sets of directions without verbal directions.

Kleinfeld (1973) described the extraordinary accuracy of Eskimos in memory of visual information. She reported that their figural and spatial abilities enabled them to draw maps of the terrain which were accurate in significant detail and in spatial arrangements.

The visual strength of Indian children in the Southwest has also been the subject of reports by Cazden and John (1971) and John-Steiner and Osterreich (1975). Philips (1972) added to the literature on observations of visual strength from her work with Warm Springs, Oregon, Indian children. When viewed as cultural strengths and not weaknesses or deficiencies, the natural skills and abilities of Indian children contribute to providing a total picture of a child's learning style.

Field-Dependence/Field-Independence: The Influence of Culture

Yea, when I think about this field dependent/independent stuff, my Indian students seem to be more field sensitive. They do better when they understand the total picture (Teacher, personal communication, 1988).

Although field-dependence/independence is the most thoroughly researched dimension of cognitive style (Cazden & Leggett, 1981), there are few reports devoted to study of this dimension with American Indian students. The work of Ramirez and Castaneda (1974) with Mexican-American children has provided a framework for looking at the impact of culture on learning styles of Indian children. Ramirez and Castaneda (1974) have examined field-dependence/field-independence in light of cultural differences among Mexican Americans and postulate that Mexican-American youth tend to grow up in a culture in which family organization tends to produce primarily field-dependent or, as they term it, field-sensitive learning styles. Conversely, children reared in formally organized families that promote strong individual identity tend to be more field-independent (Cohen, 1969). It has been speculated that Indian children viewed from this paradigm tend to be more field-sensitive. However, in one study of field-dependence/independence in Navajo children, Dinges and Hollenbeck (1978) found that their Navajo sample scored significantly higher in a field-independent direction than the Anglo sample. Their findings are in contrast to previous research and hypothesized results which suggested that there is a direct relationship among family organization, cultural isolation, and field-dependence/field-independence for cultures of the United States and in other cultures of the world. They attempted to determine that a similar relationship also holds for American Indian groups, but found contrasting data. They suggested a multi-factor explanation comprised of genetic, environmental, experiential and linguistic factors unique to the Navajo to account for the outcomes.

In summary, the body of research which examined learning styles of American Indian students, although small, does present some converging evidence that suggests common patterns or methods in the way these students come to know or understand the world. They approach tasks visually, seem to prefer to learn by careful observation which precedes performance, and seem to learn in their natural settings experientially. Research with other student groups has clearly illustrated differences in learning style, whether they be described as relational-analytical; field-dependent/field-independent; or global/linear, can result in "academic disorientation." It is not clear where Indian students fit on this continuum. However, what is clear from the research summarized in the previous section is that American Indian students come to learn about the world in ways that are different from mainstream students.

Showing Competence: Public and Private Talk

I have noticed that when I asked a question, the (Pima) students would not respond; there was dead silence. But when I made a comment without questioning, they were more likely to respond and join in the discussion (Teacher, personal communication, 1988).

The way in which people prefer to demonstrate learning is an important corollary to the way in which they prefer to learn. It is as Mehan (1981) has described:

To be successful in classroom lessons, students must not only know the content of academic subjects, they must know the appropriate form in which to cast their academic knowledge. Although it is incumbent upon students to display what they know during lessons, they must also know how to display it (p. 51).

There is evidence that the ways in which children acquire and demonstrate knowledge are influenced by accustomed cultural norms and socialization practices (Cohen, 1969). The classroom context dictates an interactional style often in conflict with the interactional style of the home and/or community.

A body of recent research on minority children has produced studies that show different reactions to cooperative vs. competitive situations, questioning techniques, classroom pacing, and classroom organization. Included in this research is considerable ethnographic evidence on children's responses to different interactional situations in school and in their home and community.

In examining the issue of interactional styles or the demonstration of knowledge in classroom studies on Indian children, a focus has emerged which centers on the continuity/discontinuity spectrum as it relates to the child's home environment and the environment of the schools in which they are participants. Situations have been reported in which the interactional style of the home environment is at conflict or interferes with the interactional style required for successful participation in the classroom (Cazden, 1982; Dumont, 1972; Erickson & Mohatt, 1982; Philips, 1972, 1983; Van Ness, 1981).

In particular, recent studies point to the different cultural orientation Indian children experience when participating in classroom learning. One of the most extensive studies was done by Philips (1972) in which she examined participant structures and communicative competence with children from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon. Philips (1972) observed that Indian children were reluctant to participate in structures that required large and small-group recitations. However, they were more talkative than non-Indian children in the last two structures when they initiated the interaction with the teacher or were working in student-led group projects. She noted a failure of Warm Springs Indian children to participate verbally in their classrooms because the norms for social performance in their community did not support public linguistic performance, whereas, the school environment demanded this form of interaction. Philips' study revealed that observation, careful listening, supervised participation and individualized self-correction or testing are modes of learning in the Warm Springs Indian community. Philips (1972) concluded that this process of acquisition of competence may help to explain a reluctance of Warm Springs Indian children to speak in front of their classmates. An incongruency exists in that the process of acquisition of knowledge and demonstration of knowledge in the classroom are "collapsed into the single act of answering questions or reciting when called upon to do so by the teacher, particularly in the lower grades" (p. 388).

Other ethnographic research suggests that the communication difficulty experienced by the Warm Springs Indian children when participant structures are teacher-dominated and require public recitations may be generalized to other groups of American Indian children as well as other minority group children. Dumont (1972) found a similar situation in a study which contrasted two Cherokee classrooms. In one classroom, teacher-dominated recitations were a predominant structure and the children were silent. In the other classroom, the children were observed to talk excitedly and productively about all of their learning tasks because they had choices of when and how to participate and the teacher encouraged small-group, student-directed projects. The landmark research conducted by Philips (1972) and Dumont (1972) present frameworks for analyzing the interactional structure which exists in schools attended by children from other tribal groups. Their research indicates that some Indian children may be more apt to participate actively and verbally in group projects and in situations where they have control in volunteering participation and less apt to perform on demand when asked a question individually in a large group.

Cooperating and Competing: The Individual and the Group

You put them out on the basketball court and they are competitive as can be. But in the classroom they don't want to compete against each other. I can ask a question and when a student responds incorrectly no other student will correct him. They don't want to look better than each other or to put another student down. The Anglo students are eager to show that they know the correct answer. They want to shine; the Indian students want to blend into the total class (Teacher, personal communication, 1988).

There is evidence of the predisposition of Indian children to participate more readily in group or team situations. While much of the evidence on cooperation/competition is anecdotal, Miller and Thomas (1972) and Brown (1980) conducted studies with Blackfoot and Cherokee Indian children, respectively, using the Madsen Cooperation Board in which cooperative and competitive behaviors were examined. Miller and Thomas (1972) found dramatic differences between Blackfoot Indian children and white Canadian children while playing a game which permitted competitive or cooperative behavior, but rewarded cooperative behavior. White children behaved competitively even when it was maladaptive to do so, while Blackfoot children cooperated. Brown (1980) found Cherokee children to be more cooperative and less competitive than Anglo-American children. In Brown's (1980) study, he found a negative relationship between the cooperative behavior of Cherokee children and their school achievement. In other words, cooperative behavior produced lower achievement. Brown (1980) explained that in Cherokee classroom society, children closely follow traditional Cherokee norms such as maintaining harmonious relations, but more important is the norm which requires children "to hold fast to group standards of achievement that all of the children are capable of meeting" (p. 70). High ability students who do not want to violate this norm, keep from displaying their competence and the result, according to Brown (1980), is lowered achievement for many members of the classroom society.

The implications of this research are that if Indian children have learned to learn in a cooperative way, they may experience conflicts when they enter the competitive world of the classroom. It also confirms the findings of ethnographic studies that suggest that many Indian students avoid competition, which they view as unfair in its composition (Dumont, 1971; Wax, Wax & Dumont, 1964).

It is apparent that many Indian children tend to avoid individual competition, especially when one individual appears to be better than another. In fact, in many Indian societies the humility of an individual is something to be respected and preserved. Havighurst (1970) observed that "Indian children may not parade their knowledge before others nor try to appear better than their peers" (p. 109).

In looking at competition and the peer society of Indian youth, Wax (1971) stated that:

It has frequently been observed that Indian children hesitate to engage in an individual performance before the public gaze, especially where they sense competitive assessment against their peers and equally do not wish to demonstrate by their individual superiority the inferiority of their peers. On the other hand, where performance is socially defined as benefiting the peer society, Indians become excellent competitors (as witness their success in team athletics) (cf Dumont & Wax, 1969, p. 85).

What the literature suggests is that for Indian children from certain groups, public display of knowledge that is not in keeping with community or group norms may be an unreasonable expectation. It may be an experience that often causes Indian children to withdraw and act out the prototype of the "silent Indian child."

Teaching Style: Adaptation to Learning Style

The teaching style or method one chooses to transmit learning can have a significant effect on whether students learn or fail. As John (1972) suggested:

Styles of teaching are, in part, an expression of the goals of education. When working with Indian children, educators choose methods of instruction that zero in on what they wish to accomplish instead of methods that reflect the developmental stages of children or respond to the specific features of tribal life (p. 332).

In choosing methods for a particular situation, there are many variables to consider that will lead to optimal learning. Only recently has the culture of the learner been considered among those variables, other than as a deficiency to be remedied. As Burgess (1978) pointed out, "Unfortunately, many instructors ignore culture and its impact on learning both in 'content' and 'style', rather than devising methods and techniques through which culturally diverse individuals approach problem solving" (p. 52).

Leacock (1976) provided a strong rationale for understanding culture and its influence on instruction. She believed that "true cultural insight" enables one to look beyond differences that are superficial and socially determined to the integrity of the individual; it prevents misinterpretation of behaviors which do not follow an accustomed pattern. Leacock (1976) cited as an example teachers' misinterpretation of the pervading "cooperative spirit" in Indian societies and a reluctance of Indian children to compete with peers as a lack of desire and motivation. In essence, Leacock was saying that cultural differences are often misinterpreted and the lens through which the teacher views the behavior is colored by atypical behavior used as prototypes in the teacher training process. For example, "timidity" is often interpreted as lack of initiative, motivation, or the competitive spirit. If the behavior were viewed through a more culturally relativistic lens, the timid behavior might reveal a reluctance to compete with one's peers, or a reluctance to display learning in a way incongruent with the child's lifestyle. Wax, Wax and Dumont (1964) reported similar conflicts when teachers misinterpret cultural behavior. They concluded that:

When Indian children err, their elders "explain" which as we understand it means that they painstakingly and relatively privately illustrate or point out the correct procedure or proper behavior. However . . . teachers in school do not understand this. Their irate scolding becomes an assault on the child's status before his peers. At the same time, the teacher diminishes his own stature, inasmuch as respected elders among Indians control their tempers and instruct in quiet patience (p. 95).

Mohatt and Erickson's (1981) study of cultural differences in teaching styles in an Odawa school supports the differences between participant structures. Philips (1972) found in Warm Springs and illustrates that teachers who have viewed cultural differences as strengths have been able to create the type of atmosphere which motivate learning. In this study, an Odawa Indian and a non-Indian teacher were observed to see if there were differences in their teaching styles. Although both teachers were effective and experienced, they varied as to the strategies used with students. The Odawa teacher's strategies reflected Odawa cultural patterns of what is appropriate in ordinary social relations between adults and children and was manifested in pacing of classroom activities and interactions with students.

In most classrooms there is a tendency for teachers to introduce almost all new concepts and give all instructions verbally (Rohner, 1965; Appleton, 1983). This teaching style conflicts with the traditional cultural patterns reinforced in many Indian communities where visual strengths are encouraged. As John (1972) speculates, "If the description of the ways in which young Navajo children learn is correct, that is, that they tend to approach their world visually and by quiet, persistent exploration, then a style of teaching stressing overt verbal performance is alien to such a child" (p. 338). This is not to say that Indian children should not be expected to respond to verbal instructions nor perform verbally; rather, this information suggests that new concepts can be presented through alternative modes or teaching styles, and Indian children can display their learning in alternative interactions. For example, Cazden and Leggett (1981) recommend that because children differ in sensory modality strength, their learning may be depressed in overly verbal environments and schools should deliberately plan more multisensory instruction. While Cazden and Leggett were referring to children in bilingual classrooms, they do not use the term "bilingual classrooms" to refer to any classroom where minority children are present. Their recommendation makes sense for teachers of Indian children.

In the Classroom: The Application of Theory Into Practice

The premise of this paper is that although Indian students come to school with an approach to learning which is culturally influenced and often different from students of mainstream America, the styles which teachers use to deliver instruction are essentially the same for everyone. Philips (1983) capsulized this attitude when she said:

Surprisingly little attention has been given to the teaching methods used in teaching ethnic minority students in this country. Particularly when the notion of culturally relevant curriculum materials has been around as long as it has. It is as if we have been able to recognize that there are cultural differences in what people learn, but not in how they learn (pp. 132-133).

The best research intentions are often challenged by teachers with the "But what do I do on Monday morning?" syndrome. Translating theory into practice is an enigmatic situation with which educators have wrestled for years. Teachers who are empathetic and want to change, do not do so simply because they have not had the time to reflect, research, and restructure their teaching style. Embedded throughout this paper are implications for teachers of Indian students. In addition, the multicultural literature is replete with general suggestions and guidelines which should be considered when implementing learning style aspects to teaching. Bennett (1985) encourages teachers to know their own teaching and learning styles and determine how far they can stray from these strengths and preferences and still be comfortable. She cautions teachers to build classroom flexibility slowly, adding one new strategy at a time. Her encouragement to use all modes (visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic) when teaching concepts and skills is compatible with Cazden and Leggett's (1971) suggestion that teachers plan for multisensory instruction.

Cox and Ramirez (1981) recommend the use of direct observation and classroom experience for assessment and planning in addressing goals related to learning styles. They have summarized a field-tested process into six points:

  1. Assess students' preferred ways of learning and the way(s) in which student behaviors change from situation to situation.
  2. Plan learning experiences that address conceptual goals or skills or other objectives that incorporate the student's preferred ways of learning, using teaching methods, incentives, materials, and situations that are planned according to student preferences.
  3. Implement the learning experiences that were planned.
  4. Evaluate the learning experience in terms of attainment of conceptual or other goals as well as in terms of observed student behaviors and involvement.
  5. As the year progresses, plan and implement student participation in learning experiences that require behaviors the student has previously avoided. Incorporate only one aspect at a time of the total experience from the less familiar behaviors—focusing on only the reward, the materials, the situation, or the task requirements—so that the student utilizes what is familiar and comfortable or motivating as support for the newer learning experience aspects.
  6. Continue to provide familiar, comfortable, successful experiences as well as to gradually introduce the children to learning in new ways (pp. 64-65).

Following this process, teachers can implement specific methods and strategies which will communicate to Indian students an attitude of understanding and caring while demanding high performance. Kleinfeld (1979) has referred to this type of teacher as a "warm demander;" in other words one who can balance humanistic concerns with high expectations for achievement. The suggestions which we have outlined are distilled from many sources. Certainly, the authors whose work we have reviewed are to be given credit, but there are countless numbers of teachers in workshops who have shared workable ideas and, unfortunately, will remain nameless and unrecognized for the purposes of this paper. The following suggestions have special significance for teachers of Indian students:

  • Discuss students' learning style with them; help them to understand why they do what they do in the learning situation;

  • Be aware of students' background knowledge and experiences;

  • Be aware of the "pacing" of activities within a time framework which may be rigid and inflexible;

  • Be aware of how questions are asked; think about the discussion style of your students;

  • Remember, some students do not like to be "spotlighted" in front of a group;

  • Provide time for practice before performance is expected; let children "save face," but communicate that it is "okay" to make mistakes;

  • Be aware of proximity preferences; how close is comfortable;

  • Organize the classroom to meet the interactional needs of students; provide activities which encourage both independence and cooperation;

  • Provide feedback that is immediate and consistent; give praise that is specific.

We urge teachers to use our selected references. No one source can provide the answers to the complex questions facing teachers of Indian students. The community in which one chooses to teach will provide the most comprehensive resource for perplexing sorts of questions. Teachers must become participants in the community; they must observe and ask questions in such a way that genuine caring and concern is communicated. Teachers must let students (and their parents) know that they, too, are learners. An excellent source of guidelines generated by beginning teachers of Indian youth can be found in a program operated by the Division of Teacher Education at Indiana University. In this program, student-teacher volunteers over several years have been placed on Indian reservations in the Southwest. Their observations were organized into an article which emphasized that "anyone attempting to teach children of another culture should be as fully aware as possible of the language, customs, traditions, and taboos of that culture so that he or she can avoid classroom and community understandings and become an effective teacher" (Mahan and Criger, 1977, p. 13).


In summary, it seems appropriate to end this paper with an observation by a historian who participated in a conference about multicultural education and American Indians:

Schools, in general, can never hope to perfectly mirror the society they represent. Likewise, American Indian society, philosophy, and life (sic) can never be a perfect instrument within the format of the schools which came to us from Europe. But, the schools can do a lot more than they have done in the past! Furthermore, the time for them to do that something has long since passed" (O'Neil, 1979).


The typist of this paper is a Muskogee-Creek. She read the paper as she typed it and commented about the relevance of its content to understanding how she approached learning. She indicated that she had many of the "aha!" moments in which she was enlightened about her own learning style. She provided validity to our paper. We are happy that we were able to do this for her.

Karen Swisher is an Assistant Professor of Education and Director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University. Donna Deyhle is Associate Professor of Education in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Utah.


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