Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 27 Number 2
January 1988


Robert W. Rhodes

IN spite of studies by Chuck Ross (1982) and others which indicate that Native American students learn and mentally function in a somewhat different manner than do Anglo students in school, there has been little developed to implement a different learning/teaching methodology. Perhaps the reasons for the difference or the possibilities for change in the educational system are not clear. Patricia Wallis (1984) pleads for a holistic approach for Indian students, but additional argument and possibilities for curricular changes are needed.

Current Status of Indian Education

Even though there is a certain percentage of Native American students who succeed quite well through the current educational system, the formal educational process for Native American students has been largely ineffective, as has been demonstrated repeatedly by research studies (Indian Education, 1967-8; Kennedy, 1969). The dropout rate of Native American high school and college students is tremendous as compared with the general population, and the percentages of college students, college graduates, and professionals are likewise much smaller (Szasz, 1974; Coleman Report, 1966; Saslow and Harrover, 1968; Owens and Bass, 1969; TCI, Inc. and Educational Data Systems, Inc., 1987). There are several programs specifically designed to encourage Native students to enter fields which will lead to professional degrees and training such as mathematics, science, medicine. However, there are few Native Americans pursuing careers in any of those fields (Navajo Department of Higher Education, 1984; Selenger, 1969).

The Navajo tribal scholarship program supports hundreds of Navajo college students each year, but only about 10% of those supported graduate from college, according to tribal figures (Navajo Department of Higher Education, 1984). Further, research is sparse on this subject, but it appears that many of the Native Americans who succeed in higher education and who graduate and become successful in a career, have been reared in town rather than on the reservation.

This writer is most familiar with the Native Americans of Northeastern Arizona, particularly the Hopi and Navajo Indians, so most examples and specifics will be drawn from those populations.

Need for Change

In looking for reasons for the lack of success of Native American students in higher formal education, even in upper elementary grades and high school, and in the pursuit of professional careers, several possibilities are apparent. Contributing factors could include language problems including lack of proficiency in English, cultural difficulties in adapting to a campus situation, outside interests, lack of motivation toward education or career, lack of desire, lack of appropriate career models, and more. Some of these factors may play a part and others are transparently absurd, but something does not seem right about them. There is little research to conclusively support any of these possibilities and some research which indicates that Indian students do at least as well as the general population in school through early grades (Indian Education, 1967-8; Saslow and Harrover, 1968). Though their scores tend to fall off in higher grades on achievement tests, they continue to score well on nonverbal tests (McCartin and Schill, 1977; Havighurst, 1957; Bass and Burger, 1967-8; Dennis, 1942) such as tests of creativity, originality, problem solving, and manipulative tests. There is something else, something more basic, perhaps, which may be the determining factor. This is the match up of the thought processes required and encouraged for survival on the reservation and those thought processes required and encouraged for survival in institutions of higher education. The hypothesis that this difference in thought processes may be a major determinant in educational success appears to be worth study.

Native American Learning Style

There are several observations which appear to indicate a different thought process for Native Americans than for the population in general. One of these is the Native American means of telling a story or telling about a trip or other event. Often the process of telling such a story will take several hours. The emphasis in the process is on detail more than on major points or even chronology. There is usually some attempt at proceeding from the beginning in time toward the end in time, but if a detail is remembered out of sequence, it is usually put in. The details, the context, the surroundings and the feelings—the whole picture—are all just as important as the main points.

If this observation of story telling process is accurate, then it would follow that summarization abilities and probably note taking abilities of Native reservation students should be weak. Both of these processes involve synthesizing a situation and determining main points. Indeed, high school language arts teachers indicate that Native students at reservation schools are very weak at summarizing. One student from Tuba City High school verbalized his frustration at the process by saying, "There are no main points. They don’t make any sense without all the rest." These students have similar frustrations in trying to outline. The process demands a linear process rather than the broader, more holistic understanding with which the students are comfortable.

A second observation is of the presentational or group argumentative process. When a speaker is trying to make a point or influence listeners, he will usually begin with a description of the argument (i.e. they need money for a new school building), then proceed to explain one element or the ramifications in one direction (i.e. the advantages to students). He will then come back to the explanation before departing to explain another element (i.e. increased opportunity for community use). He will continue trying to explain as many ramifications of his proposal as possible (including negative ones such as decrease of grazing land available for cattle, other possible uses for the money), but always returning to the original point. The process would look like a circular or spiral process rather than a linear one. The relationships to other points (i.e. students, social life, land, cattle, water, increase of outside influence, jobs, funding sources) becomes as important as the main idea, but focus is always returned to the desired direction. In turn, most often the listeners will not comment or even question until they fully understand and feel comfortable with all aspects of what is being proposed. If they are in disagreement, they may remain quiet, feeling that they do not yet fully understand the proposal, or they may voice their opposition by following the same process. Overall, this procedure is very time consuming and involves much less "give and take" than does a comparable process in an Anglo group.

This second observation ties in with the observation that Navajos must fully understand something and have thought of all aspects of it before they will act on that information or try to act on it. The Navajo learning process is said to have four components. In order, they are 1) observe, 2) think, 3) understand/feel, and 4) act (Becktell, 1986). The comparable process for Anglos is said to be 1) act, 2) observe/think/clarify, and 3) understand (ibid). Where Anglos have developed a learning style based on learning from trials and failures, often called "trial and error," Navajos learn before they try and need trials with successes. Anglos learn easily from failures, where failures set back the learning process for Navajos (Becktell, 1986; Werner and Begishe, 1986).

This second observation lends itself to the philosophical idea that the whole is more important than the parts, even though it is made up of the parts. This is basically a Gestalt idea. The relationships are important in an idea, as in a family. The family and clan relationships are as important as are relationships of ideas. The parts can be studied, but only in relation to the whole. For example, a painter would understand the whole of a painting before beginning. In doing a gymnasium length mural for Shonto Boarding School, a Native painter first spent several hours simply looking at the blank wall. He then proceeded by applying all of the red paint to the sections which were to be red, from one end of the mural to the other. Next came the application of browns, then blues, and so forth. The shapes of what was being portrayed did not become apparent until well into the process. All of this was done without a paper sketch or sketch on the wall. The artist had the whole picture in his head and simply transferred it to the wall. Native rug weavers, basket makers, and potters follow the same process.

In this way of thinking, everything becomes a part of everything, with fewer discrete categories for observation or segregation of either ideas or people. This may lend itself to a more holistic observational technique, where the Anglo process of categorization lends itself to a more linear approach. Thus the Native American sees little or no differentiation between religion and daily life, has little trouble with the anthropamorphism of inanimate objects, practices holistic medicine, and follows numerous other practices indicating that his categorizations or segregations of ideas are fewer and different. The Anglo, on the other hand, sees medicine as separate from nutrition and reading as separate from science or social studies or math, as examples. The Anglo compartmentalizes by subject rather than seeing them all as a part of the relation to the person.

In the group process, following the second observation, there is traditionally no decision made until there is consensus. Voting is not an appropriate activity. The conclusion will come when it is time, when all of the relationships and ramifications have been explored, and when it feels right. Following this logic, the decision must respect everyone, and the voting process might rush some people and alienate others who could be helpful later if they agreed.

These observations must also be tied in with the developmental expectations for children in the culture. Children are given responsibility at a very early age. They may be responsible for younger children, for herding sheep, for helping with housework, cooking, or other chores. The situation is more like frontier rural life than like contemporary urban life. Children deal primarily with other children, either learning from older peers or teaching younger ones. Relations with adults are less frequent and more formal. The teaching and learning functions, then, become both essential to cultural expectations, and at the same time pragmatic rather than formal. Children learn how to keep others happy and what works by observation and by asking each other. Perhaps they learn more as adults do than as we think children do.

Teaching Styles

So far the writer has attempted to show that there is likely a different observational and thinking process for Native Americans raised on the reservation than for Native Americans and non-Native Americans raised off the reservation. These processes would affect the students’ learning processes. Before exploring that, though, we must first rule out the possibilities of teaching style differences off and on the reservation.

Most teaching on the reservation is very traditional in educational terms, utilizing mostly lecture/discussion techniques (though with only limited discussion in the more remote settings), utilizing mostly standard, state adopted textbooks and workbooks, and utilizing mostly traditional approaches and assignment practices as learned for and as appropriate for non-reservation urban school situations. The basic process is to "tell them what they need to know, then ask them what I told them." This teaching style is similar to most general population situations, though the classroom participation is somewhat less active both verbally and physically than it is off-reservation. Recently, the Whole Language approach has made some changes in this process in some locations.

Basically, the teaching styles on and off the reservation are similar, so, if the premise of a teaching/learning style conflict is at all valid, the problem must lie in the student learning styles. As educators, we most often assume that all students learn basically the same, as do most textbooks. We assume that the "student learning process" is basically similar to the way we learned when we were that age. "It worked for us, so it must work for eveyone," is apparently the thought. This must be at least a very egocentric assumption. Current research indicates that all students are not the same and all students do not learn in the same way. Research suggests differences in visual, aural, and tactile (haptic) learners as well as differences between left and right brained learners (Vitale, 1982). Limited research also indicates that the Native American population is more right brain dominant, more holistic, and more haptic than the general population (Ross, 1982). Note that these are all areas in which our educational system is weak. The case for learning/teaching style problems is strengthened.

While it would be unfair to argue that all instruction should be compatible with the learning style of a student, it surely can be argued that by understanding how a student learns most naturally, an instructional approach could be developed with a much higher likelihood of success. In trying to develop such an instructional strategy for Native American students, it would be appropriate to first look at how they learn in their own environment.

Learning Environment

First, for all of us, there are at least three educational environments. The first is the formal, in-school educational environment. That is the one in the classroom, with the teacher—the one we are all familiar with and think of as "education." A second environment, though, is the formal, out-of-school educational environment. For Anglos, this will include our religious training—a formal, non-school situation, but much like school. It could also include stories and training from grandparents and elders. For Native Americans, this would involve religious training, but could also include the learning of clan and society legends, relationships, stories, etc. The training would be from an elder or more knowledgeable person, but may or may not be in a formal setting. The third environment is the informal, out-of-school educational environment. In this one, we constantly learn from our experiences, from our friends, and from our family. This is how we learned to talk, to walk, to ride a bike, to observe our environment, etc.

How, then, can we make the learning process in these different environments more similar and use the processes from the informal situations to facilitate learning in the formal situations? It is most likely that we learn most naturally in the informal settings by our observations and from family and friends. The characteristics of this learning, for Native Americans, is somewhat different than it is for Anglos. Native Americans spend much more time watching and listening and less time talking than do Anglos. If they are interested in something they watch how it is done, they inspect the product, they watch the process, they may ask a quiet question or two. Then they may try it for themselves, often out of the public eye. They are their own evaluator to determine whether their effort was successful or needs improvement. When they feel comfortable, they will show what they have done to someone else, usually someone they trust. The help and critique they then get is constructive and non-threatening.

An example would be the boy who was learning to ride broncos for rodeo. He first watched his father break horses for several years. Then he went where he could be alone with a saddle and barrel and practiced. Probably he found a way to support a barrel with ropes between two poles, and tried that. Later he tried horses, still without an audience. When he felt comfortable, he asked his father to watch. He was successful in staying on for a short time, but then got thrown. His father smiled and complimented the boy and then asked him to watch while his father got on the horse and demonstrated again. The father didn’t tell the boy what was right or what was wrong. He asked him simply to watch again. The process would then continue, with the boy trying more, watching more, and refining his abilities. The attitude between the father and son would be one of positive development and improvement of something which was already successful by further observation and refinement.

The emphasis throughout this process is on the student understanding the process and feeling comfortable with it before trying it and "risking" himself. The emphasis is on success rather than on learning through failure. The assistance from outside is on improving a success rather than on turning a failure into success.

The learning style has elements of visual learning and of aural learning, but the most actual, individual learning takes place (perhaps in private) haptically, through actually trying to do the process. Usually this takes place at the individual’s pace and cannot be rushed, since understanding and comfort are essential.

Implications for the classroom, then, are almost obvious. Projects, individualization, peer teaching, reinforcement, non-threatening evaluations, structured play, incubation time, and private practice time would all be appropriate practices. Students would gain by having an idea about or understanding of a whole idea or concept before beginning detail work on a part of it. Perhaps less teacher direction and more teacher assistance would be appropriate. Perhaps we could allow for more movement, for freer time limits, for spaces and times for individual experimentation. The teacher would concentrate, then, on quiet praise, observation, and guidance.

Curricular Concepts

Also, we could utilize a more holistic approach. There is much confusion about the term "holistic" in education, but in this context it means a fostering of a broader base and context for understanding, a multi-level approach which encourages understanding of many aspects at the same time and of the interrelationships involved, which, in turn, encourages involvement, ownership, and commitment. A technique for developing this holistic approach could be to encourage the dissolution of subject area boundaries. A few basic concepts which pervade all subjects could be used as the central educational elements from which understandings could be developed. These basic concepts would be introduced at the beginning of the educational process and would provide much of the foundation of familiar materials and concepts from which to base new observations and discoveries. Instead of having the educational process revolve around subject areas, it would revolve around student perceptual processes.

In searching for such cross-disciplinary concepts, four were borrowed from a fifth grade social studies curriculum, Man: A Course of Study (1968), which seems to be appropriate for developing the processes in all subjects. These are the concepts of 1) the same and different. This becomes a means of comparing, classifying, and observing in all subjects and can be used with physical objects and with social situations. It is the foundation of math, science, and social situations and is the basis for patterns. 2) Cause and effect. This is another observational tool which can be used to determine causalities and probabilities in most subject areas of study. This implies that any occurrence has a cause and any action will have an effect. For example, a cause (dropping) will have an effect (breaking) and an occurrence (fight) must have had a cause (provocation). 3) Structure and function. This develops the ideas of natural laws based on needs of an organism or a culture and also pervades all subjects. It implies a relationship in which structure (i.e. leg) enable function (i.e. walking, running, standing, kicking) and the need for a function (i.e. rapid travel) demands structures (i.e. bicycle, car, airplane). In the social environment, a structure (i.e. family, town, club) enables function (i.e. security, organization and planning, trips and interests). Alternatively, functions (i.e. international trade) demand structures (i.e. governments). 4) Patterns. This examines recurrences and studies their effects on man and nature.

If concepts such as these four were introduced and developed throughout schooling, a more holistic understanding could be developed in all areas and the development of any subject area could begin from familiar concepts in which students felt comfortable. Encouragement could then be made and success would be more likely for experimentation, observation, and development of new ideas and relationships based on firm (and holistic) understanding. The classroom procedures would then be to encourage and develop familiarity utilizing a goal orientation and project orientation process. In a question of content vs. process, the procedure of the teacher would be to let the content develop from the process rather than the opposite as is most often done.


Utilizing the Native American learning styles of haptic, right brained and holistic learning, it would then be quite possible for the teacher to develop some appropriate classroom activities and expectations. If these assumptions are correct, the teacher would soon become aware, through experimentation, of how much of this approach could be used. Most likely there would need to be a mix for any group of Native American students, and perhaps a different mix for individuals within a classroom. By providing some techniques which consider different learning styles for different students, the teacher could develop strategies which would increase the likelihood of success for more students. In this manner, even awareness will increase sensitivity and lead toward an increase of positive student growth.

Dr. Rhodes has lived on the Hopi Reservation for 16 years and has been actively involved in the education of Hopi and Navajo students from head start through graduate school during that time. He is currently the Regional Coordinator for the Navajo/Hopi Region for the Center for Excellence in Education of Northern Arizona University.


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