Learning among Traditional Native Americans (TNA)...


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  Native Americans share some common ways of dealing with information

A word or two of clarification from Andy Forsythe, teacher on the Rosebud Reservation in Mission, SD, who has been involved with Lakota culture and Native communities for quite a few years.

"The suggestions of characteristics of TNA is not definitive and will not apply to all Native people. These may be some characteristics of some traditional individuals but will vary depending on circumstances such age, geographic region they live in (i.e. on or off the reservation, or which community they live in within the reservation), and most importantly their tribal affiliations. Lakota traditions will be different from Ute traditions which will be different from Tlingit traditions and so on."

The following list is taken from  http://www.geocities.com/HotSprings/9569/education.html. To find out more about each characteristic, visit that site.

  • The average Native American incorporates a traditional learning style into daily efforts

  • Internal language is picture/emotion based

  • Interacting is generally via body language

  • Assume that there needs to be a 4 contact approach to the given topic/subject

  • There needs to be a "safe" environment, always

  • Dialogue is small groups oriented

  • Silence is generally [honored?] because there is a social mixture of differing "cliques" within the classroom

  • Never single out a student

  • Facilitate a "formed group" atmosphere prior to any instruction effort

Native Americans tend to regard concepts holistically and visually/symbolically.

"In schools everywhere, there is a strong tendency to emphasize verbal over visual symbolic thinking and to approach situations analytically rather than holistically. It follows that students whose cognitive tendencies do not match those school expectations are more likely to be less academically successful (Tharp, 1989). There is considerable evidence that Native American children suffer such a mismatch, since by-and-large they tend to think in holistic rather than analytic terms (Tharp, 1991). Informal learning in many Native American cultures is acquired in a holistic context." [Instructional Conversations in Native American Classrooms. (ERIC Identifier: ED376733 Publication Date: 1994-12-00)]

Native Americans value "wait" time.

"...Research has shown that "wait time"--the amount of time speakers are given to speak and respond--is substantially longer in Native American culture than in European-American culture."

"For Native Americans, the IC appears to be enhanced by extended wait time. Winterton (1976) studied the effect of extended wait time on Pueblo Indian children's conversations with a teacher. Results indicated that extended wait time, especially when it followed students' responses, was significantly related to the length of students' responses and the amount of student-to-student interaction. Verbal participation of less vocal students also increased, as did overall unsolicited but appropriate verbal responses." [Instructional Conversations in Native American Classrooms. (ERIC Identifier: ED376733 Publication Date: 1994-12-00)]

Native Americans tend to observe before acting or questioning.

 Children on Reservations learn through observation. Theirs is a quiet way. Their minds are active, but their actions are passive. All in good time. Observe, learn, and when you are ready, you can perform. Many Navajo women weave a perfect rug the first time they create it because they have observed enough to know how to weave a rug.

"Navajo and European-American mothers were shown videotaped episodes of Navajo and European-American children participating in a classroom. The mothers were told to rate the children on a number of dimensions. Differences concerning one particular episode--a European-American boy engaged in high levels of verbal and physical activity--were especially striking: The Navajo mothers believed the high verbal and physical activity were negative attributes (and therefore rated the boy negatively), whereas the European-American mothers believed them to be positive. By implication, it is possible that a European-American teacher might negatively evaluate the overall communicative and interactional styles of some Native American children." [Instructional Conversations in Native American Classrooms. (ERIC Identifier: ED376733 Publication Date: 1994-12-00)]

Native Americans tend to speak softly and avoid eye contact with authority.

"Other socio-linguistic variables that may influence the IC  between European-American teachers and Native American children are the volume at which teachers and students speak to each other [Native Americans tend to speak more softly (Darnell, 1979)] and expectations regarding speaker- and listener-directed gaze (Native American students might look down to express politeness when addressed by a teacher). This indicates, then, that communication embodies much more than speech alone." [Instructional Conversations in Native American Classrooms. (ERIC Identifier: ED376733 Publication Date: 1994-12-00)]

Native Americans tend to respond well cooperative learning environments.

"The social organization of a traditional American classroom is primarily whole-class oriented, with a teacher who leads, instructs, and demonstrates to the whole group. Some form of individual practice often follows, and learning is assessed by individual achievement. This system is ineffective for children of many cultures, who respond to this structure with a low level of attention to both the teacher and the coursework and with a high level of attention-seeking from peers (Gallimore, Boggs, & Jordan, 1974). Unfortunately, teachers usually attribute this behavior to low academic motivation rather than to inappropriate social structures (Tharp & Gallimore, 1976)."

Native Americans tend to not challenge authority figures.

Traditional Native Americans are taught to respect knowledge. They do not challenge authority figures. They do not question instructors. To do so is to show disrespect.

A study of the informal learning activity settings of Navajo and Hopi children indicated that adults regularly assign children their chores, but leave them to perform without adult supervision, even for difficult and complex tasks. For example, 7- or 8-year-olds are often assigned to herd sheep alone or to care for an infant sibling. When children require assistance in fulfilling these responsibilities, they often turn to peers or siblings. Most out-of-school learning for these children takes place in small peer-oriented groups (Rhodes, 1989).[Instructional Conversations in Native American Classrooms. (ERIC Identifier: ED376733 Publication Date: 1994-12-00)]


  1. How did your teachers reinforce you and build your confidence in school?

  2. Imagine that you are in the same school and that you were a Native American student straight from your Reservation. How do you think you would feel with that teacher and with those students?

  3. Imagine your life at this moment. What picture would you draw to reflect all of your activities, involvements, relationships, commitments, etc...? Where would you be in the drawing? What would you use to reflect the different areas of your life?

  4. Imagine a person that feels totally connected to all that is - someone, such as a native person in many cultures, who cannot separate him/herself from the environment. What picture might that person draw? How might it be different from yours?


  1. Design a physical classroom model that would produce the feeling of a community or cooperative environment. As an start, think of what the room would look like, feel like, sound like. Where would students spend most of their time? 

  2. Design 2 activities for an objective in your course that would be likely to help you capture  the participation and interest of a Native American students in meeting that objective. Describe what steps you would take to implement those activities. 


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