Reading and the Native American Learner Research Report

Sources of Educational Difficulties

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Sources of Educational Difficulties
Among American Indian Students

Although many American Indian students are successful in the current formal educational system, this system is nonetheless relatively ineffective in meeting the needs of American Indian students on a group-wide level. For years, many teachers and administrators have realized that for students in general, and language- and cultural-minority students in particular, academic success stems from the cumulative effect of excellent classroom instruction and learning environments that are supportive and culturally appropriate. Yet many classrooms still fail to fully provide American Indian students with these prerequisites to academic success; numerous teachers witness the silent, subconscious cultural discomfort of many American Indian children that effects their learning and achievement in the classroom (Tennant, 1998).

Quantitative data reflect such anecdotal evidence of the current formal educational system’s relative ineffectiveness in regard to American Indian students. Nationally, American Indian students have the highest high school dropout rate of any minority group (Reyhner, 1994). In Washington State, American Indian elementary and secondary school students score below state and national averages on standardized achievement tests (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction [OSPI], 1994, 1998c).6,7 In this section we discuss what current research and theory suggests are the primary reasons for this relatively low level of academic success among American Indian students.
Cultural Difference Theory
In recent years, a number of researchers and theorists have suggested that a primary reason for the relatively low level of academic success among minority students in the United States (including American Indians) is that there is often a discontinuity between the cultures and languages of these students’ homes and communities and the culture and language of mainstream American society and the public schools. According to this theory, minority students come from backgrounds that equip them with linguistic, cognitive, and interactional styles that are not fully supported by typical public schools which are instead usually structured to support those styles common to white, middle-class students. It is believed that these discontinuities often result in systematic and recurrent miscommunication in the classroom as well as a failure to acknowledge and build upon the knowledge and abilities that minority students bring with them to school. The following discussion addresses the two most common foci of research on the cultural differences faced by American Indian students: sociolinguistic discontinuities and learning style differences.8
Sociolinguistic Discontinuity
Researchers and theorists have suggested that American Indian students often face a discontinuity in typical U.S. classrooms between the varieties of English that they speak (in terms of vocabulary, grammar, phonology, and rules of discourse)9 and the types of English spoken by their non-Indian peers and teachers. Research conducted by Leap (1993) and Phillips (1983) supports this hypothesis. Although conducted in separate American Indian communities, these studies nonetheless found that American Indian students in both locations possessed culturally derived assumptions about what constituted appropriate language use in classroom settings that differed in a number of ways from the assumptions of their “Anglo” peers and teachers.10, 11 One example of this is Leap’s finding that non-Indian teachers typically expect a continuity of discourse, believing that all comments in a given discussion should “build directly on the point of view outlined in the initial speaker’s remarks,” while Ute Indian students assume that continuity of discourse depends on listeners’ use of inference and therefore “speakers are not obligated to connect their comments to the preceding speaker’s remarks” (1993, p.217–218). Another example is Phillips’ finding that Warm Springs Indian children learn culturally appropriate ways of conveying attention and regulating speaking turns that differ in many ways from what their Anglo teachers and peers assume to be appropriate. For instance, while Anglo individuals frequently use gestures, direct eye contact, and verbal rejoinders to indicate that they are listening to what others are saying to them, Warm Springs Indians use less direct cues to show that they are paying attention.

Cultural difference theorists argue that differing assumptions about appropriate language use such as these contribute to routine miscommunication in the classroom as well as a general uncertainty in American Indian children “as they find they do not understand the teacher, and the teacher does not understand them” (Phillips, 1983, p.127). Erickson (1993) points out that

to the extent that either party [teacher or student] … reflects on the situation, cultural explanations for what is happening do not occur to them. The teacher tends to use clinical labels and to attribute internal traits to students (e.g., “unmotivated”) rather than seeing what is happening in terms of invisible cultural differences. Nor does the teacher see student behavior as interactionally generated - a dialectical relation in which the teacher is inadvertently coproducing with students the very behavior that he or she is taking as evidence of an individual characteristic of the student. Given the power difference between teacher and student, what could be seen as an interactional phenomenon to which teacher and student both contribute ends up institutionalized as an official diagnosis of student deficiency. (p.29–30)
Also contributing to classroom miscommunication are grammatical and phonological differences between the nonstandard varieties of English often spoken by American Indian students (varieties that are collectively termed Indian English) and the variety of English spoken by their teachers. These differences may cause a teacher to misunderstand a child or to define what he or she hears as unacceptable. In addition, Leap argues that among the American Indian students he studied, such differences (specifically pronunciation differences) resulted in students encountering difficulties mastering the standard spellings of words. Furthermore, Leap found that these students’ written compositions were influenced by Indian English grammar and rules of discourse; although Leap argues that such influences did not diminish the expressive power of these compositions, they nonetheless resulted in student writing that was not always consistent with classroom expectations of standard English literacy.12

Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995) assert that an additional problem that Indian English-speaking students face is that

when learners and teachers differ in language, teachers frequently use their own language as a normative reference…. They consider “standard English” as language, instead of a language. As a result, learners who speak a different version of English are seen as language deficient. Rather than the issue being defined as an object for teaching in the area of “standard English” the learner is seen as impaired and using “inferior English.” The most common result of this perspective, and the one most disastrous to the attitude of the learner and the teacher, is a lowered learning expectation on the part of the teacher for the student. There is clear and long-standing evidence that low expectations on the part of teachers lead to lower motivation and learning on the part of students [italics in original]. (p.147)
Learning Style
It is also frequently asserted that American Indian students often face discontinuities in relation to learning styles. Before exploring this argument however, it is necessary to provide an overview of learning style theory generally. The term “learning style” lacks a standard definition among researchers, but in its broadest sense the term refers to the “characteristic or usual strategies of acquiring knowledge, skills and understanding by an individual” (More, 1989, p.17). Research in the area of learning styles has provided various nonmutually-exclusive typologies that are intended to provide a lens through which to identify individual differences among learners. Examples of learning style typologies include:

  • Sensory Modality Strength: This typology categorizes learners according to the type of sensory input they utilize most for information. Learners are categorized as: visual, meaning they remember best by seeing or reading; auditory, meaning they remember best by hearing; or tactile-kinesthetic, meaning they remember best by writing or using their hands in a manipulative way.

  • Global/Analytic: This typology categorizes learners as global or analytic. Global learners initially require an overall picture when learning a task. In contrast, analytic learners are fact oriented and proceed with learning a task in a step-by-step manner.

  • Field Sensitivity/Field Independence: This typology categorizes learners as field-sensitive or field-independent, depending on how their perceptions are affected by the surrounding environment. Field-sensitive learners enjoy working with others to achieve a common goal, and most often look to the teacher for guidance and demonstration. Field-independent learners enjoy working independently, like to compete, and ask for teacher assistance only in relation to the current task.

  • Impulsive/Reflective: This typology categorizes learners according to the speed with which they respond to questions and the corresponding rate of error. Impulsive learners respond more quickly and usually with a higher rate of error. Reflective learners respond more slowly and have a lower rate of error.

  • Cooperation/Individualism: This typology categorizes learners as cooperative or individualistic. Cooperative learners excel in community projects and in group activities designed to encourage collaboration among students. Individualistic learners do best in more competitive and teacher-centered settings.13

It is generally believed among researchers that an individual’s strengths or preferences in relation to the categories within such typologies (i.e., his or her learning style) result from the interaction of innate predispositions and developmental processes with social and cultural influences (Guild, 1998; Henry and Pepper, 1990).

Researchers and theorists have asserted that American Indian students often face a discontinuity between the learning styles that they come to school with and the learning styles that are supported and rewarded in typical U.S. classrooms. Research suggests that American Indians typically (1) value and develop acute visual discrimination and skills in the use of imagery, (2) value cooperative behavior and excel in cooperative environments, (3) perceive globally, and (4) are reflective learners (Cleary and Peacock, 1998; Guild, 1998; More, 1989; Swisher, 1990; Swisher and Deyhle, 1989). In contrast, it is believed that white middle-class individuals typically (1) value and develop refined verbal skills, (2) value competition among individuals and excel as independent learners, (3) perceive analytically, and (4) are impulsive learners (Guild, 1998; More, 1989; Wlodkowski and Ginsberg, 1995). Because the characteristics typical of the latter group are usually more valued and supported in U.S. classrooms, American Indian students are placed at a disadvantage.

One common example of the discontinuities that American Indians often face between their learning styles and those supported in typical U.S. classrooms is grounded in the distinction between trial-and-error learning and watch-then-do learning (Boseker, 1998; More, 1989). A number of researchers have noted that American Indians tend to learn how to perform an activity by repeatedly observing the activity being done by a competent other, perhaps practicing in private, and not attempting to perform the activity publicly until confident that it can be done well (More, 1989; Rhodes, 1988; Swisher, 1990; Swisher and Deyhle, 1989). Wax, Wax, and Dumont (1964) state that “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” (p.95, as cited in Swisher and Deyhle, 1989). More (1989) notes that this watch-then-do type of learning

is very different from the trail-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. (p.19)
Guild (1998) argues that when there are inconsistencies such as this between a child’s learning style and “school expectations and patterns, the child needs to make a difficult daily adjustment to the culture of the school and his or her teachers” (p.104). Similarly, Leaver (1997) states that when teachers’ “teaching styles do not match students’ learning preferences, conflicts usually occur” (p.69).
The Macrostructural Explanation
Research conducted by John Ogbu (e.g., Ogbu, 1978) suggests that although discontinuities in linguistic, cognitive, and interactional styles may present challenges to American Indians and other minority students, cultural difference theory is inadequate because it fails to explain why some minority groups in the United States are academically successful despite the fact that members of these groups encounter such discontinuities in their educational experiences. According to Ogbu (1991), this theory fails to explain such occurrences due to a limited focus and a failure to consider both (1) the historical and broad societal forces that can encourage or discourage members of minority groups from striving for school success, and (2) a minority group’s “collective orientation toward schooling and striving for school success as a factor in academic achievement” (p.6). Ogbu argues that a more comprehensive theory is one that not only considers the discontinuities minority students experience in school, but also addresses the discriminatory treatment (whether political, economic, or otherwise) experienced by particular minority groups at the hands of the dominant societal group. Furthermore, and more importantly, a more comprehensive theory is one that addresses individual minority groups’ cultural models (i.e., their respective understandings of how society, or any particular domain or institution within society, works, as well as their respective understandings of their places in that working order) (Ogbu, 1991).

A primary component of the more comprehensive theory that Ogbu presents is the distinction between immigrant minorities and involuntary minorities. Immigrant minorities are groups that “have generally moved to their present societies because they believed that the move would lead to more economic well-being, better overall opportunities or greater political freedom” (1991, p.8). Examples include Japanese and Chinese immigrants to the United States. In contrast, involuntary minorities are groups that “were brought into their present society through slavery, conquest or colonization” (1991, p.9). Examples include American Indians and African-Americans in the United States. Ogbu notes that while both immigrant and involuntary minorities routinely experience discontinuities in their school experiences, as well as discriminatory treatment in school and the larger society, immigrant minorities tend to have a much higher degree of academic success than involuntary minorities. He argues that this results from the qualitatively different cultural models possessed by these two groups which causes them to perceive and respond to the dominant societal group, and the institutions controlled by it, in different ways.14

Immigrant minorities tend to respond to economic, political, and social barriers as problems they can overcome “with the passage of time, hard work, or more education” (1991, p.11). These barriers are perceived as largely temporary and a price to be paid as immigrants to a foreign country. Furthermore, immigrant minorities have a “positive dual frame of reference,” meaning that they evaluate their current and potential economic, political, and social status in reference to members of their homeland, not to the dominant group in their host society.

Immigrant minorities also tend to interpret the cultural and language differences that they encounter in school and the workplace as problems to be overcome in order to achieve the goals of emigration. Hence, although immigrant-minority students routinely encounter difficulties in school due to cultural and language discontinuities as well as discrimination, their parents and communities instill in them the need to learn those aspects of the language and culture of their schools that are necessary to succeed academically. Significantly, immigrant minorities do not interpret such behaviors as giving up their own culture and language, and at least during the first generation they retain a strong sense of the cultural identity that they brought with them to the United States.

In contrast, involuntary minorities such as American Indians interpret the social, economic, and political barriers against them quite differently. Unlike immigrant minorities, they compare their status with that of the dominant group and conclude that “they are worse off than they ought to be for no other reason than that they belong to a subordinate and disparaged minority group” (1991, p.14). Furthermore, they do not view their situation as temporary, but instead attribute their poorer conditions to what they perceive as permanent and institutionalized discrimination “perpetuated against them by dominant-group members and by dominant-group-controlled institutions such as schools” (1991, p.23). Consequently, although involuntary minorities emphasize the importance of education in the achievement of economic or social success, “this verbal endorsement is usually not accompanied by the necessary effort” (1991, p.24). Instead, they tend to develop “folk theories of getting ahead” in which schooling does not play a primary role. These theories are reinforced in the minds of children as they get older and become aware “of how some adults in their local communities ‘make it’ without mainstream school credentials” (1991, p.25). For example, Kramer (1991) found that Ute Indians did not feel that education was particularly important, citing the fact that some of their Tribal Council leaders had only a few years of elementary school education. Furthermore, “tribal members with college degrees did little better in tribal employment than those who had not completed a secondary education” (p.298).

Also in contrast to immigrant minorities, American Indians and other involuntary minorities do not consider cultural and language differences between themselves and the dominant societal group as barriers to be overcome. Instead, involuntary minorities tend to respond to discriminatory treatment by the dominant group, including historical attempts at forced assimilation in the case of American Indians, by developing an oppositional identity in relation to the dominant group. Within this oppositional identity, cultural and language differences are considered “symbols of identity to be maintained” (Ogbu, 1991, p.15). These symbols support a sense of collective or social identity in a minority group and help the group cope under conditions of subordination.

Oppositional identities negatively influence school success because involuntary minorities, unlike immigrant minorities, do not make a clear distinction
between what they have to learn or do in order to succeed in school (such as learning the standard language and the standard behavior practices of the school) and the dominant-group’s cultural frame of reference (which may be seen as the cultural frame of reference of their “oppressors”). (Ogbu, 1991, p.26)
Hence, learning the standard language and the standard behavior practices of the school are viewed as detrimental to the minority groups’ own culture, language and identity, which in turn leads to resistance (whether conscious or unconscious) or ambivalence toward school learning. Involuntary-minority students who adopt attitudes conducive to school success, or who behave in a manner favorable to academic success, risk being accused by their peers of acting like the enemy (i.e., the oppressive, dominant societal group). Involuntary-minority students who nevertheless strive toward academic success often feel compelled to utilize strategies to conceal this from their peers, such as becoming the “class clown,” pretending not to be concerned with academic excellence, et cetera.

Hence, Ogbu’s work suggests that for American Indians the hindrances to academic success are not limited to classroom discontinuities in linguistic, cognitive, and interactional styles. American Indians also tend to view education as providing few extrinsic rewards, such as better future employment opportunities, given their interpretation of the social, economic, and political barriers they face in mainstream society. Furthermore, American Indians, like other involuntary minorities, tend to develop an oppositional identity that conflicts with the adoption of attitudes and behaviors conducive to school success.

Section III

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