#NativeAmerican Ways of Educating
The United States consists of lands that have been considered home to American Indians for thousands of years. Given this continuous relationship to the land there are orientations within American Indian culture that not only honor nature but that promote a relationship of engagement and harmony with the earth that calls upon one’s observational and mindful capacities. This culturally grounded worldview has inherent value for not only American Indian children but all children who now call this land their home. A world view that enhances relational skills with the earth promotes a framework that respects the existence of all living things; understands one’s reciprocal relationship with the earth; the impact that humanity has on the earth and its resources; our obligation in protecting her as well as our responsibility in healing her when humans fail to protect her. These understandings are most activated when in relation to the Earth. Conversely, fostering children’s relationship with the Earth promotes the possibility for what is known as “biophilia hypothesis” (Wilson, 1993); an innate need for connection and finding a place in the world. This encapsulates a sense of caring about the earth and the need to act responsibly toward it.
Despite the fact that American Indians existed upon this land thousands of years before the United States existed, the U.S. education curriculum is remiss in recognizing their contributions to the development and identity of the United States. For example, although major components of the Iroquois Nation’s governmental structure and philosophy were borrowed and adapted to create the United States’ governmental system (Weatherford, 1988), the attribution is rarely noted. In light of historical cultural invasion, the omission of First Nations history, culture, and contributions persists and exacerbates the Achievement Gap (Freire, 1995). The failure to recognize American Indians at all, underscores the psychological experience of American Indian students who are one of the subgroups most represented in the Achievement Gap (Institute of Education Sciences, 2011).
The U.S. Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) estimates that there are 564 tribal entities that are recognized and are eligible for direct funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs by virtue of their status as Indian tribes (Department of the Interior, 2010). California alone has 112 federally recognized tribes and the overall percentage of the Native American population is 1.9% (Humes, Jones, & Ramirez, 2011). Many American Indians have retained their identity as sovereign nations. This speaks to their persistence. On the other hand, U.S. public education has yet to fully honor and recognize American Indian orientations, contributions, and perspectives.
Most American Indian children attend public schools where disparities occur both at the k-12th educational level, and at post-secondary levels. During the 2010-11 school year, there were 378,000 AI/AN (alone) students in the U.S. public school system, comprising 0.7% of the total public school population (Aud, Hussar, Johnson, et al., 2012). In comparison, during this same time period, there were 49,152 students in Bureau of Indian Education Schools (Bureau of Indian Education, 2011). The high school dropout rate for Native American students is alarming and in previous years has reflected a rate as high as 50% (Herring, 1992). More recent research indicates that American Indian enrollment, retention, and graduation rates are lower than any other ethnic group (Harrington & Harrington, 2012). While estimates show some improvement for American Indians/Alaskan Natives having earned a high school diploma or equivalent, the figures still speak to their trailing behind their Euro-American counterparts by 12% (NIA, 2011). An awareness of the constant tension for American Indians children’s experience in public schools must be acknowledged in order to address it.
A review of educational and developmental theorists provides a backdrop by which to examine the pedagogy and curriculum delivered to millions of children across the Unites States. A survey of their recommendations for how we educate gives us pause as we consider what we do and why we continue to do it despite the disparate outcomes. The inherent disconnect between educational content and delivery, along with a discussion about the disparities, points to the need to revisit not only our pedagogy but the curriculum as well. In the end, an inclusive education that promotes the outcomes we desire are within our reach if we are willing to consider embracing a relational worldview that has been present on this land long before this was the United States.
Developmental theorists repeatedly emphasize the inclination and the benefits of children learning and engaging within our natural world. German Educator, Freidrich Froebel (1826) “believed that children had a desire to comprehend the extent and diversity of the world in order to better comprehend their own place within it” (Hart, 1979, p. 336). As we consider the motivation behind children’s aptitudes that would be drawn to and utilized within the fields of STEM, we also consider the factors contributing to disconnect between place (as represented by the natural world) and learning. Froebel explores this relational disconnect when he points to the need for “the harmony and unity of the natural world and a child’s desire to grasp this unity in order to develop a sense of inner unity.” In other words, connection to the natural world creates balance with oneself. This forces us to ask how does a child perceive the world and how would a child’s natural inquisitiveness be heightened by a greater relationship to the natural world? Froebel intones that children develop a greater use of critical consciousness and thinking when the child relates to the world. This relationship, in turn, enhances the child’s sense of self in the world while deriving value and worth from their conscious and acknowledged presence.
Her observations of children just learning to walk and who are encouraged to explore and study nature have multiple levels of growth when allowed to foster this intimate engagement with their surroundings. Montessori offers from her observations of children in their earliest stages that “nature seems to fill a vital emotional need (Montessori, 1948).” While this theorist provided ample reason for vitality in learning that would fulfill the needs from a developmental perspective, she also observed that the direction taken in modern life “separates children from nature so thoroughly that their powers of observation and feelings of love for the world just wither away” (Crain, p. 86). As we examine the nature of learning that tends to take place in most public school settings, there is a tendency to not only confine the child within the restraint of four walls but a large scale movement is underway in which children’s learning is being encouraged through the use of electronic mediums (Baskette, & Fantz, 2013). While there is no doubt that competence in computers, tablets, and other devices is vital for anyone living in and engaging in the global market and arena, foundational development and an appreciation for nature are neglected when children are denied access to the natural world.
Hungarian by birth, Margaret Mahler espoused the position that children should have opportunities to develop “rootedness” with natural surroundings in order to promote a sense of belonging. With experiences that connect children to the environment, in its’ most naturalistic setting, they can see themselves as part of something greater, outside of a social context, that enhances their sense of well-being. Subsequently, belonging in nature provides a place in which children can seek refuge for a budding ego that seeks validation, acceptance, and nurturance. The belonging that is derived from a oneness with nature was evident from studies in which children were observed in natural settings (Crain, 2011).
Socialization of boys and girls tends to limit the latter’s development related to spatial abilities as they are then restrained from engaging with environmental exploration and manipulation. This genderized socialization was discussed in Roger Hart’s study (1979) of 20 children living in a small New England community. His research question centered on “Where do children go when they leave their homes each day, how do they differentiate the environment into places, and how do they feel about these places?” (p. 3). While Hart’s study was conducted over thirty years ago, his observations uncovered how families whose parents were employed in manual-labor encouraged and allowed greater freedom for their children in the environment. This engagement promotes greater competence through locomotion. In contrast, children from “white collar” families who may have more material means had weaker competence in the environment. The school that the children from this study attended did not recognize the types of intelligence developed by the children with greater environmental competence but rather valued and recognized those with higher verbal abilities. Additionally, it was observed that girls were more constrained in their movements and not encouraged to develop their environmental competence. This had bearing not only in the development of their spatial abilities but also in their ability to mentally represent it (p. 345).
As we collectively examine the conclusions of these theorists we find a common thread of learning in ways that are derived from one’s engagement with the world outside of classroom walls. If we follow the line of thinking in which socially accepted models enhance children’s attitudes toward attitudes and beliefs (Plant, Baylor, Doerr, & Rosenberg-Kima, 2009; Rosenberg-Kima, Baylor, Plant, Doerr, 2008) then it would not be a far stretch to suggest that valuing a cultural worldview that possesses such attributes would provide a model that enhances this engagement and subsequently affecting one’s attitude. Doing so would entail not only valuing American Indian orientations but promoting this worldview within our educational system.
Engaging the minds and hearts of American Indian students as they experience education in our public education requires instituting respect for their culture, traditions, and history in the classroom. Stereotypes and negative images of Native Americans have negatively impacted American Indian communities and have cast a harmful perception of this community with those who have come to call the United States their home. Countering this historical legacy means demonstrating an appreciation and respect for their culture as there is much to be learned from this population and that can be applied in the classroom. A significant factor to consider is that an education that appeals to all must have a positive and transformative effect through the curriculum itself. This entails having a curriculum that is compatible with the shared worldview of the community members that it is intended to educate and it must be collectively created (Ball, 2004).
The standardization of learning outcomes in our existing school systems pressures educators to teach in ways that have detrimental impact on children’s natural inquisitiveness. Ameliorating the Achievement Gap must entertain orientations that remedy the disparity through evidence based practice. Building upon rather than squelching this natural inquisitiveness can only promote positive outcomes as we look for ways in which to promote intrinsic learning and readiness for career fields of the future.
Technology, in and of itself, provides opportunities to expand communication and learning, yet, is not, in and of itself, the answer to enhancing the growth and development of children. Considering children’s perceptions of themselves and of their perception of their world around them takes stock of what opportunities are being availed in which they are able to meaningfully engage in the world around them. What we know is that “Children who experience the natural world and who have opportunities to play and learn within it are more likely to choose science or related fields as careers” (Call to Action, p. 12).
Acknowledging, embracing, and learning from cultures whose orientations ground us in ways that promote a love of the natural world would benefit our children in multiple ways. Policy makers and educators are positioned to re-examine and implement what developmental theorists have taught us. With the ample provision of theory and the models provided by American Indians we have much to gain for those communities relegated to the margins of educational discourse and for those struggling to excel in learning environments that fail to maximize their full potential. In this endeavor, there would be not only a much more inclusive and engaging educational delivery but gains would be made in the field of social justice
The theorists have studied best practices and learning contexts that enhance children’s learning. The common themes emerging from their recommendations point to an alignment with orientations consistent with American Indian worldviews. Subsequently, the development of culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy would serve the dual purpose of enacting social justice initiatives while implementing curriculum and pedagogy that promotes greater STEM learning outcomes. Educational leaders who are willing to serve a community that has been marginalized after years of violent oppression must also seek to engage the scholarly community to enact transformative educational practices and policies. Standing on the foundation of American Indian orientations, supported by the recommendations of educational theorists, and moved by the need to create learning environments that promote the best in all children’s outcomes is a goal that not only minimizes the Achievement Gap but one that promotes healing of our nation’s historical violations.
This post was drawn entirely from the paper Integrating First Nation’s Knowledge and Orientations: A Conceptual Model toward Equity and Educational Advancement by Dr. Rose Borunda and Dr. Crystal Martinez-Alire. The article was published in the California State University Sacramento’s Journal of Transformative Leadership and Policy Studies
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