Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 27 Number 1
October 1987


Arthur J. More

Following a brief discussion of the meaning of the term learning style, four areas of research which provide evidence for important differences in Learning Style between Indian and non-Indian students are reviewed: (1) internal cognitive processes or learner characteristics; (2) external or environmental conditions; (3) teaching and communication styles; and (4) traditional learning styles. Differences in Learning Style occur frequently but are not found with sufficient consistency to suggest a uniquely Indian learning style. However, they occur often enough to warrant careful attention. Implications for teachers are described.

The term "Native Indian" is commonly used in Canada. For this article the term "American Indian" can be used interchangeably with "Native Indian." The need to provide more effective education for Native Indian students encourages teachers, researchers, and Indian parents to examine the concept of Learning Style both closely and critically. Recent research and teacher data indicate that important differences in Learning Style between Indian students and their non-Indian counterparts are often observed (es., More, 1984; Karlebach, 1984; Williams, 1986). The differences are not consistent enough to suggest a uniquely Indian Learning Style, but they occur often enough to warrant careful attention.

The Meaning of "Learning Style"

The concept of Learning Style originated in the study of individual differences. As educators and researchers tried to understand the tremendous range of individual differences between children, they began to look for the sources of individual differences. One such source was Learning Style and one of the factors affecting Learning Style was cultural differences (Berry, 1976). According to Lesser, "people who share a common cultural background will also share, to a certain extent, common patterns of intellectual abilities, thinking styles and interests" (1976, p. 137). Messick (1976) concluded that ethnic groups, independent of socioeconomic status, display characteristic patterns of thinking styles that are strikingly different from one another.

There has been a considerable amount of research which defines Learning Style as internal cognitive processes, using such terms as "global/analytic," "impulsive/reflective," "verbal/nonverbal," or "field dependent/field independent," which describe the manner in which the student codes, organizes and processes information. That is, they describe the strategies the student uses to understand and remember. On the other hand, many studies limit Learning Style to type of sensory input and attempt to assess the relative effectiveness of learning through hearing, seeing or touching. Some studies broaden this slightly to include general perceptual abilities (e.g., Kaulbach, 1984). Other studies focus on Learning Style as the physical characteristics of the setting in which the learning takes place.

The connotation of the word "style" varies considerably among researchers. For some researchers, "style" refers to a pervasive psychological characteristic ("cognitive style") that cuts across intellectual, perceptual and interpersonal functioning (Witkin et al., 1977; Keefe, 1979). Others consider "style" as the "best" or "preferred" manner in which a person learns (Hunt, 1979). The author prefers a broader connotation of "style" as the "usual" or "characteristic" manner in which a learner functions. This makes it possible to separate questions of preference and effectiveness. Further, there is confusion in the literature between the terms "teaching style" and "Learning Style," which can be distinguished on the basis of differences between teaching and learning. For example, a teacher’s most effective teaching style may not correspond to the student’s most effective Learning Style (see Smith and Renzulli, 1984, for a more complete discussion of this issue with practical examples).

There is frequent confusion between Learning Style and "learning abilities." Learning Style usually refers to the characteristic or usual strategies by which a student learns; "learning abilities" refer to how effectively a student learns. For example, a student may usually attempt to learn difficult concepts in science by using mental images (Learning Style), even though that student does not learn effectively (learning ability) by that process. For practical purposes, the two are hard to differentiate, because students tend to use their stronger learning styles more frequently.

More (1984) conducted a series of structured interviews and workshops with teachers and Indian parents, and found that most teachers and parents think of "Learning Style" more broadly than merely referring to "sensory mode" and "physical setting." To them it also refers to the broad range of learning conditions surrounding the learner, type of instruction and teacher/ learner relationships (see also Hunt, 1979, p. 27) as well as thinking processes. Further we found that many teachers do not clearly distinguish between the learning style of their Indian students and the educational problems which these students have to face.

The term "learning style" as used in this paper is defined as:

The characteristic or usual strategies of acquiring knowledge, skills and understanding by an individual.

The definition allows for a number of Learning Styles to simultaneously be present; it also allows one to refer to "stronger" and "weaker" Learning Styles as well as "preferred" Learning Style in the second definition admits, in addition, that each Learning Style/ability may be stronger or weaker. Learning Style includes more than sensory mode (hearing, seeing, touching) or physical environment (heat, light, time of day). It entails each cognitive process by which the student learns, including internal cognitive processes and relevant external conditions. However, the emphasis of this paper is on one important aspect—internal cognitive processes.

Recent Research

Recent research is examined under four headings: (1) Internal Cognitive Process; (2) External Conditions; (3) Teaching and Communication Styles; and (4) Traditional Learning Styles.

Internal Cognitive Processes

Many approaches to learning style are best described as processes on a continuum or spectrum. Examples include: "global/analytic" (More, 1984, pp. 67-74), "impulsive/reflective" (Messer, 1976), "field dependence/field independence" (Witkin, et al., 1977) and "simultaneous/sequential processing" (Kirby, 1984). Some continua have been researched extensively. Others have not.

Global/analytic (simultaneous, holistic, relational) processing emphasizes the whole and the relationships between its parts (e.g. whole language, sight word vocabulary building meaningful context). Analytic processing emphasizes processing individual parts and gradually building the whole in a carefully controlled sequence (e.g. phonics, sounding out words). Analytic processing is usually sequential or ordered.

Much light has been shed on this continuum by Das et al. (es., 1979, 1982) and Kirby (1984). In their work, the "global/analytic" continuum is referred to as "simultaneous/sequential" cognitive processing. "Simultaneous processing" is defined as a synthesis of separate elements into a group, or perceiving as a whole—similar to aspects of many traditional and modern Indian cultures. The term "sequential processing" refers to processing information in a serial or sequential order—an analytic, ordered process (Das, et al., 1979). For example, in early reading, sight word vocabulary tasks require simultaneous processing, while phonics tasks requires sequential (and analytic) processing.

Krywaniuk (1974) tested low achieving, grade three Native Indian and white children and found that, even though their general ability scores were equivalent, the Native Indian students scored higher on simultaneous measures and lower on successive measures than the white students. He also found that the Indian students appeared to be processing some of the tasks differently from the whites. Kaufman and Kaufman (1983, pp. 152-154) reported similar results with Navajo children but not with a more assimilated group of Sioux children. Results of our work with 7 and 10-year-old Indian students indicate that they use simultaneous processing more frequently and effectively than their non-Indian counterparts (More, 1984), and appear to be using different patterns of cognitive processing.

The simultaneous/sequential continuum appears to be somewhat similar to other cognitive style continua including field independence/dependence, impulsive/reflective, and conceptual level (Das et al., 1979, pp. 140-144), as well as the global/analytic dichotomy (Bradshaw & Nettleton, 1981, p. 51). It is securely based on a theoretical model and instruments are available for measuring it (Das et al., 1979, pp. 51-53).

The simultaneous/sequential research results reveal a serious mismatch between learning styles of Indian students and, for example, the usual teaching style of beginning reading. Many beginning reading programs still emphasize sequential processes through a heavily phonetic approach. However, the strength of many Native American students appears to lie in simultaneous processing. Does this mismatch cause, in part, the extensive reading problems of many Native Indian students? The research certainly indicates that this is a viable hypothesis.

Some students habitually use imagery in order to understand and remember difficult concepts. The images may be concrete or abstract. Others students are more likely to use verbal processes e.g., labels or definitions. The use of imagery as a tool for understanding highly complex concepts was an important part of learning in many traditional Indian cultures (Tafoya, 1982; John 1972). Systems of legends are an excellent example of such usage. Recent research by Bryant (1986), Karlebach (1986), More (1984), and Greenbaum and Greenbaum (1983) has shown that Native students tend to imagery coding while non-Native students use verbal coding.

The impulsive/reflective dimension refers to speed of response to a question, and the corresponding error rate. The impulsive learner responds more quickly and usually has a higher error rate, the reflective learner responds more slowly and has a lower error rate (Messer, 1976). The only study of Native Indian subjects in the literature found no significant differences between Indian and non-Indian students (More, 1984). However, given the apparent effects of cultural differences between Indian and non-Indian students found during classroom question-and-answer sessions (as reported by teachers and parents), this may well be a fertile area for further study.

Our discussions with Indian people and teachers have often centered on a continuum which we have come to call trial-and-error/watch-then-do. This dimension is similar, in some ways, to the impulsive/reflective continuum. Learning in traditional Indian cultures can often be described as watch-then-do (e.g., learning to make a fishnet) or listen-then-do (e.g., learning values through legends taught by an elder) or think-then-do (e.g., thinking through a response carefully and thoroughly before speaking). This is very different from the trial-and-error learning which is usually encouraged in the classroom. Trial-and-error learning means that a student "tries out" an answer verbally and successively refines the answer after feedback on errors from the teacher or from fellow students. In skill learning, it involves trying the new skill and working on the errors to improve performance.

Concern about the contrast between traditional Learning Style for Native students and contemporary classroom practice has been raised frequently enough to warrant further study. Such study would include describing the dimension more precisely, developing methods of identifying it systematically, and carrying out classroom observations, among other activities.

Field dependence/field independence also uses a continuum approach. Field independence is the degree to which an individual can separate a figure from its background, a part from the whole, or oneself from the environment and other people. A field independent person is more able to impose an organizational structure on a disorganized set of facts or observations (e.g., making a mental map of the surrounding terrain). A field dependent person is less able to separate a part from the whole, but is more conscious of other people and therefore often more socially intuitive.

MacArthur (1968) found that Canadian Eskimos and northern Indians, as representatives of hunting/gathering societies were more field independent. That is, they were more able to impose a structure on a field when it had little inherent organization (e.g., unmapped territory), as a probable result of their living style and child rearing practices. Weitz (1971) studied two Indian cultural groups, Algonkian and Athapaskan, and within these groups studied urban/transitional and traditional groups separately, in addition to male-female and older-younger groupings. She found that the overall group scored very high on field independence and the more traditional people were more field independent than urban Native Indian people. Further, she reported that field independence increased with age and that females were more field independent than males. A recent study by More (1984) found that field independence increased with age for school age Native Indian children. However, a recent study by Cullanine (1985) contradicting these results found the non-Indian elementary students slightly more field independent than Indian elementary students from two relatively isolated Indian villages.

Finally, concrete/abstract is yet another Learning Style using a continuum. Concrete processing refers to the processing of information directly related to things which may be touched, seen, smelt, or heard. For example questionnaire rods in learning arithmetic concepts make use of concrete processing. Abstract processing involves information that cannot be perceived indirectly through the senses, particularly concept learning.

Teacher interviews have indicated that Indian students learn more frequently and more effectively using concrete rather than abstract processing (More, 1984). However, no research has been carried out to corroborate these teacher opinions. Related evidence from studies of imaginal (concrete and abstract) coding versus verbal coding, (and research on the use of concrete materials as a way of making [culturally] irrelevant learning tasks more relevant) suggest that concrete/abstract differences of Indian students may merely reflect degree of irrelevance rather than Learning Style differences.

External Conditions

External conditions refer to factors which are external to the learner or occur prior to the actual cognitive processing of information. External conditions include modes of sensory input as well as the physical and social surroundings in which the learning takes place. Thus, external conditions may include such factors as visual versus auditory input, working with adults, working with fellow students, and liking levels.

Kaulbach (1984) recently reviewed studies of the performance of Indian students on visual, auditory, and kinesthetic perceptual tasks. Most of the samples included American Indians and Eskimos. He interpreted the results of studies with the Draw-A-Man tests and the Illinois Test of Psycholinguistic Abilities as supporting the hypothesis that

Indian and Inuit children are most successful at processing visual information and have the most difficulty performing well on tasks saturated with verbal content . . . (However) it is too premature to imply from these results alone that Native children are deficit in the ability to conceptualize through language (p. 30).

Vernon (1969) found that the most highly developed abilities for Canadian Inuit and northern Indian students were perceptual and spatial abilities. Bowd (1971) found that Native boys had well-developed spatial/mechanical abilities.

These results apply to Learning Style to an unknown degree. That is, the studies assume that the students usually use their best abilities or Learning Style, but this was not assessed directly.

Teaching and Communication Styles

Teaching and communication styles are related to Learning Style, although they are not the same. Some exciting work has been done by Scollon and Scollon (1983), Philips (1972) and Erickson and Mohatt (1982) on culturally based communication styles as they apply to the classroom. Kleinfeld has completed valuable studies of teacher effectiveness which relate to styles of communication of Native Indian students (Weinfeld, 1972).

Some work has been done on matching teaching styles and Learning Style, but not with Native Indian students. Results show that if the teacher’s style matches the student’s Learning Style, the learning is superior to situations in which the teaching style and Learning Styles do not match (Smith and Renzulli, 1984).

Traditional Learning Styles

Little attention has been paid to traditional Native Indian learning styles. Even less has been paid to the relationship between traditional and contemporary learning styles in Native Indian children. Some reference was made above to traditional learning styles (global and watch-then-do). Vernon (1969), Berry (1976, 1980) and Weitz (1971) have studied cross-cultural cognitive style, which bears some relationship to traditional Learning Style.

We know that legends and stories were the primary method of teaching values and attitudes (Scollon & Scollon, 1983; Tafoya, 1982; John, 1972). The legends and stories often had highly symbolic meanings and involved intricate relationships - an aspect often ignored by non-Indians. The use of symbolism, anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to animals, gods and objects), animism (giving life and soul to natural phenomena such as rocks, trees, wind, etc.) and metaphors appears to have been an extremely effective method of teaching very complex concepts. These methods allowed the learner to understand at his or her level of cognitive and emotional development. When the learner recalled the story or legend a few years later, it acquired an even deeper meaning—use of legends therefore being somewhat similar to the notion of the spiral curriculum in today’s education system.

Watch-then-do (as described above) was a primary method whereby the child acquired skills within the family group. Explanations and questions in verbal form were minimized. Supervised participation was a major characteristic of skill learning (John, 1972; Tafoya, 1982). Talking about oneself, even in a learning situation, was often considered boastful and inconsiderate (Scollon & Scollon, 1983).

Traditional Native Indian views of the future were quite different from contemporary Western cultures and have an impact on learning styles. These differences are difficult for non-Indians to understand, and too complex and varied to explain fully here. However, contrary to popular stereotypes of Indians, the future was highly valued, but conceptualized differently (Gue, 1971). Classroom motivation often involves the future (e.g., future use of schooling, deadlines). As a result, motivation using the future may have quite different results with Indian and non-Indian children (Davis & Pyatowski, 1976).

The notion of "teaching" was conceptualized in a completely different manner in many traditional Native Indian cultures:

Children are expected to constantly observe the world around them and learn from it. From this it can be seen that one does not ‘teach’ a child to learn. This amount of intervention in the child’s autonomy would risk forever destroying the child’s ability to observe and learn from his own motives. The child is encouraged only to seek out knowledge of human experience and skills by being present in practice or their telling (Scollon & Scollon, 1983, p. 101).

Child raising practices also are related to Learning Style. A major characteristic of traditional Native life was that children were allowed to explore and be independent as soon as they were able. They were allowed to learn from their mistakes. A policy of non-interference existed unless there was real danger. Often misbehaviour was ignored so that the child would learn the natural consequences of misbehaviour and learn to be in charge of his or her own behaviour. Another major factor was that grandparents and other elders in the extended family were responsible for much of the teaching of the child (Scollon & Scollon, 1983; Tafoya, 1982).

Communication style was another important aspect of traditional life, and has important implications for the study of Learning Style. Communication was both verbal and non-verbal, but the non-verbal was much more important than in contemporary Western society. Silence was also used as a means of communication. Eye contact and quiet calmness were important methods of discipline and communication. Children were not tested or questioned after a learning situation—they were expected to self-test (Philips, 1972; Scollon & Scollon, 1983; Erikson & Mohatt, 1982).


The research results described above suggest that, among Native people, there is:

a higher frequency and relative strength in global processing on both verbal and non-verbal tasks;

b relative strength in simultaneous processing, but a possibility that sequential processing abilities develop much slower than simultaneous skills because they are not used in the primary grades;

c the possibility of using strengths in simultaneous processing to develop sequential processing;

d higher frequency and relative strength in processing visual/spatial information;

e higher frequency and relative strength among Indian students in using imagery for coding and understanding;

f. lower frequency and relative weakness in verbal coding and understanding; and

g. reflective more than impulsive (or watch-then-do rather than trial-and-error).

It is evident that, despite the interest in Learning Style by educators and Native Indian communities, only a limited amount of research has been carried out. In particular, very little research has been carried out on traditional Indian Learning Style although a few studies (Weitz, 1971; John, 1972) have explored the relationship between general traditional cultures and Learning Style. Considerable attention has been devoted in the past few years to hemispheric specialization (right brain/left brain) and cognitive processes. Unfortunately, the results of this research appear to be questionable (see Ross, 1982, and Chrisjohn & Peters, 1986). There may be a relationship between hemispheric specialization and Learning Style but no research exploring this relationship in Indian students has been reported.

Implications for Teachers

Identification of Learning Styles: Identification of learning styles of individual students is difficult because there are no accurate and easily administered measures available. The most popular inventories usually ask students to state their preferred learning styles. They measure a large range of Learning Style but are usually limited to measures of external conditions, by means of small numbers of items. The results are often highly unreliable and consequently of questionable validity (for further information see Davidman, 1981). Most inventories appear to be very superficial and encourage teachers to believe they know more about their students than is in fact the case. There are some individually administered measures which are useful for research papers, but they are too time-consuming and require too much training to be useful in the regular classroom setting.

Systematic observation of student learning in the classroom setting is the most effective method of identifying individual Learning Style. We have developed a teacher in-service program to achieve this (see Note 1). Most teachers already have some understanding of Learning Style identification through their own experience and the goal of the program is to build on this understanding. In exceptional cases of serious achievement problems, specific testing by a school psychologist could be very useful.

Match Teaching Style to Learning Style. When dealing with difficult learning tasks it is essential to match teaching style to Learning Style. This process is also one in which most teachers have some experience. As with Learning Style identification, a carefully developed in-service program can provide the specific skills and understanding. This is a part of our teacher in-service program. The goal of the program is not to develop a new theoretical background or a host of new teaching skills. Rather, the intended outcome is the honing of existing skills and background understanding.

Improve Weaker Learning Styles. It is important to strengthen weaker Learning Styles so that students will have a range of styles to draw on. For example, the word recognition and sight-word vocabulary approaches to teaching reading use the global learning style appropriate for young Indian students. Teaching style should accommodate this pattern. But, at the same time, students need to develop phonics skills (an analytical skill) which is often more effective with very complex words. It is often possible to do so by strengthening the weaker Learning Style using the stronger Learning Style. For example, phonics skills which involve individual sounds and letters can be developed, in part, using the students’ global skill for completing the incomplete, viz: __n1y, o___ly, on___y, onl___.

Select Appropriate Learning Style. Finally, students need to learn how to select the most effective Learning Style according to the type of learning task and their own stronger Learning Style. We have found that in some situations the Indian students use one Learning Style regardless of the task. In some cases, Learning Style selection is a matter of habit, but in other cases the student may not have had practice in choosing the most appropriate style. Even primary level students could benefit from instruction in this area.

Skill at strategy selection is better accomplished through practice with various styles than through teaching models for selection. We do not recommend check lists or charts for the students to learn—this just complicates the task. Practice which utilizes a variety of Learning Styles will facilitate the development of an intuitive selection process by the student. Such practical tasks and exercises are part of our teacher in-service program.

Some Specific Implications

VisuallPerceptuallSpatial Information: Many Native Indian students show strengths in using visual/perceptual/spatial information. That is, given the choice they usually, and more effectively, process information this way, rather than verbally. Two implications for teachers follow from this observation. First, it is more effective with Native children to present new and difficult material in a visual/spatial/perceptual mode rather than a verbal mode. Second, many students need to improve their skills in the verbal mode, perhaps through the visual/spatial/perceptual methods.

Coding with Imagery. Many Native Indian students frequently and effectively use coding with imagery to remember and understand words and concepts. That is, they use mental images to remember or understand, rather than using word associations. This suggests that use of metaphors, images or symbols is more effective than dictionary-style definitions or synonyms in helping many Native Indian students learn difficult concepts. The images are not necessarily simple, they may be very complex and abstract. It also may mean that many Indian students need to develop their skill at using dictionary-style definitions.

The use of coding by imagery does not imply that the students are inferior intellectually; it simply recognizes that they have a strength in an area that many non-Indian students do not. Indeed, the use of imagery is a common feature of many gifted programs and is used to explain some of the most abstract scientific concepts (for example, ask a science teacher to explain the Theory of Relativity clearly without using imagery or metaphor).

Global/Analytical Processing. Differences in global/analytic (or simultaneous/sequential) skills carry far-reaching implications for the teacher. For example, a mismatch between Learning Style and teaching styles in beginning reading, already discussed above, may result in the reading achievement of Native Indian students deteriorating to some extent during the primary grades and then "nose diving" in the intermediate grades when both global and analytical skills are necessary. Global/analytic differences have implications for many other areas of learning. Many a new topic in school is approached in an analytic, sequential manner. The topic is introduced a little bit at a time, in a carefully sequenced manner. Often the overall picture (the global view) of the topic is not presented until the end of the teaching sequence. For many Native Indian children (and others) this approach would be much more effective if the overall purpose and the overall structure were described before the analytic sequence was begun. The term "advance organizers" has been used by some educators to describe this approach. The effectiveness of first developing the overall purpose and structure is particularly effective for topics with which the student may have little direct experience (cultural relevance). Further, it seems probable that this approach could increase motivation.

These are but a few of the many possible classroom applications of Learning Style research results. At this point, however, applications to the classroom are still being assessed and developed as more research is carried out. Pepper (1986) has compiled a list of many useful suggestions based on her research and on a review of the literature, as well as on practical experience with Native people. Our teacher in-service program includes a significant section in which teachers adapt and revise materials specifically for their own teaching situation.


A word of caution is necessary since an over emphasis on learning styles differences may lead to a new form of inaccurate labelling and stereotyping of Native Indian students, or, even worse, diagnoses of brain differences or genetic differences. Misplaced emphasis could result in a focus on the weaknesses of Indian students rather than on their strengths. The reader is reminded that the most effective application of learning style theory lies in the greater understanding and ability to adapt to individual differences, and in identifying and building on the strengths of Indian students.

A major question remains to be answered: is there a uniquely Indian learning style? The research certainly shows frequent common patterns of Learning Style among Indian students. However, the research also shows important differences among many Indian cultures. Furthermore there is considerable overlap between Indian and non-Indian Learning Style patterns, especially where there are similarities in lifestyle. Cultural differences are only one component of learning styles; there appears to be a number of other equally important components which contribute to the development of a particular learning style of an individual. So the answer to the question must be: No, there is not a uniquely Indian Learning Style. However, similarities among Indian student learning styles are found consistently enough to warrant careful attention by researchers and teachers.

The way of life of Native Indian people is not found exclusively in museums; it is a present-day reality. The relationship between traditional Native Indian cultures and contemporary Native Indian cultures is complex. Contemporary Native Indian cultures do not duplicate traditional cultures, but they draw extensively from tradition. This complex relationship may be found in the area of Learning Style as much as any other cultural phenomenon. Very little research has explored the connection between past and present cultures. Consequently, the teacher is left to look for elements of traditional culture in her students of today. A significant number of Learning Styles from the past are very much alive today, even for urbanized Native Indian students (More, 1984). Only programs of research and explorations of the implications for teachers will shed light on this important but complex area.


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