Native American Ways of Educating: A Paradigm of Learning

In an earlier post, I wrote about native science as providing a new paradigm for learning science.  The paradigm that I wrote about was based on the work of Gregory Cajete’s Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Library Copy).

UnknownMy own view is that Native science, as explored and presented by Dr. Cajete, is a paradigm that offers science educators a robust, and experiential way to engage their students in the learning and exploration of science. In this blog, I have described this as the humanistic science paradigm, which you can read more about here. It’s the ideas in Native science that I wish to talk briefly about here, and suggest that Cajete’s ideas should be a part of the movement recently to develop a new generation of science standards.

According to Cajete, “Native science is a metaphor for a range of tribal processes of perceiving, thinking, acting and ‘coming to know’ that have evolved through human experience with the natural world.” He emphasizes the notion that Native science is based on using the entire body of our senses in direct participation with the world. It is this notion of direct participation that is fundamental to a humanistic paradigm, and as Cajete points out, forms the foundation of the Native science paradigm.

Native science is holistic. Although Cajete points out that Native science includes such areas as astronomy, farming, plant domestication, plant medicine, animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, metallurgy, and geology, Native science goes further and extends these fields by including spirituality, community, creativity, and technologies that sustain and support environments of human life.

Dr. Cajete also observes that both scientists and non-scientists question whether there is such a thing as Indigenous science. Many argue that science is really a Western idea, and that Indigenous science knowledge is therefore not science. But, there are many that argue that Native science is indeed science. Cajete informs us that Native science can not be isolated from culture, and that when one is speaking about Indigenous or Native science, “one is really talking about the entire edifice of Indigenous knowledge.

Native American Ways of Educating

Julian Vasquez Heilig extends this thinking in his recent post “Native American Ways of Educating.” Heilig identifies problems in the education of American Indians, and based on research by Borunda and Martinez-Alire (link to their research article in The Journal of Transformative Leadership & Policy Studies), suggests that the standardization of American education (Common Core, High-Stakes Testing) is the antithesis of a paradigm of learning that emerges from native science.  See my recent eBook, The Mischief of Standardized Teaching & Learning for the an in-depth discussion of the havoc standardization has played in the education of American children.

Heilig writes:

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…read more…

Cajete’s paradigm of learning and the research by Borunda and Martinez-Alire provide the evidence that Native American science and learning should be espoused as part of any curriculum and teaching effort in our schools.  For example in Chapter 6, A Sense of Place in Cajete’s book, he outlines the science of living in relationship with nature:

Key questions for traditional Native Americans included how individuals and the tribal community could ecologically respect the place in which they lived, and how a direct dialogue among the individual, the community, and the natural world could be established and maintained. Wherever Indigenous people lived, they found ways to address these questions of survival and sustainability in profoundly elegant ways. They thought of their environments “richly,” and in each environment, they thought of themselves as truly alive and related.

We have ignored the significant contributions and ways of learning in American Indian tribes.  As David Orr suggests, we’ve tended to ignore the relationship that humans have with the earth.

What’s been your experience with Native science and learning?

Students Choose What to Learn: Freedom to Learn in the Science Classroom by Terrill L Nickerson

Guest Post: Terrill L. Nickerson

Terrill Nickerson is veteran high school science teacher with 26 years experience.  His first 15 years teaching science began in the Native American community, beginning on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona, and then on to teach at Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe, NM.  He is now teaching in various charter schools in New Mexico and Southern Colorado.  He holds bachelor degrees in Archaeology and Geology, a Masters of Science in Education, and is working on his Ph.D.  After several years as a professional archaeologist and paleontologist, and experiences writing curriculum for CDC, he pursued a career in science teaching.  Terrill says that because of the width and breath of his experiences, he is able to bring real-life experiences to the classroom, and use the practical science experiences he used in the field.  He brings project-based teaching to his students, involving them in designing data collection devices to be used in their own investigations.  His work in the Native American community led him to become a practitioner of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.  He now teaches in a small rural, agricultural community, with a large migrant work population.  

Terrill L. Nickerson commented on a recent blog post, Instead of School’s Industrial Culture, Students Need the Freedom to Learn.

I contacted Terrill to ask permission to use his comments for a post on this blog, as well as a bio.  His bio is amazing, and his experiences shed light on how great teachers work.  This is a teacher who not only has degrees in science and education, but worked professionally in various fields of science.  His teaching experiences in Native American and migrant family communities supports the notion that good teaching is experiential and problem based.

Terrill explains that students in his classes thrived in an environment where they were given the freedom to learn and to choose what they wanted to learn.

As you read Terrell’s “letter” think of the ways your own experience as a teacher resonate with his.

I am sorry to come to your post so late. I am a high school science teacher with 26 years in the classroom. I am also a doctoral candidate (ABD) in Education working on my dissertation. Your humanistic approach sounds like an extension of John Dewey’s philosophical approach to education (this comment is not a judgement, just an observation).

Most of my teaching career has been involved with marginalized or underrepresented populations and cultures. I began teaching science prior to NCLB and Race to the Top. As such I started my career at a time that experienced a trend recognizing that the schools were failing to address the needs of the highest ability students. Teachers addressed large class sizes and mixed ability classes by teaching to the middle.

Teaching at a Native American School

Fortunately, I chose to begin my science teaching career by moving to a Native American reservation in central Arizona. Becoming immersed in another culture (literally, I was 90 miles from the nearest main stream population), I had to adapt an anthropological/humanistic approach to my teaching. It was imperative that I respect and honor the culture and inherent knowledge of my students, while still teaching main stream science. I am told that I was very successful in this capacity, so much so that I was recruited to teach at one of the best known and respected Native American schools in the U.S., the Santa Fe Indian School [SFIS], in Santa FE, NM. I spent the next 12 years teaching there.

All Students are Gifted

Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website
Figure 1. Santa Fe Indian School website

Now to my point about your article. Because of the venue I found myself immersed, I was asked to coordinate the SFIS Gifted and Talented program. At the time that I took over the program, the school was operating under a unique paradigm about the definition of Gifted and Talented. My predecessor, had just completed her Master’s on the meaning of giftedness in the Keres Pueblo cultures of New Mexico.

According to her research, the Keres language lacked any words pertaining to the word “gifted”. In the Keres language cultures, “all students are gifted”, it’s just a matter of finding their personal area of strength, competence, or interest. This meant that some children are gifted drummers, some are gifted singers, some are leaders, some are artists, etc. That is to say, everybody had a natural talent or giftedness. Therefore, the gifted program sought to recognize as many students as possible, recognize their talents and include them in the program.

Of coarse, this philosophy did not sit well with the state and federal authorities, who saw it as a way to milk Special Education funding (Gifted and Talented) into the school. The policy at that time was that no more than 5% to 10% of a population should fall into the category of giftedness. We succeeded in identifying and servicing about 30% of our students (7-12) as having some form of giftedness. Needless to say, this created a case load of about 120 students for myself and my colleague to service. We were subject to all the paperwork and requirements that accompanying any Special Education program.

Democratic Curriculum

The way that I found to address this was to create a special program, generically called the Gifted and Talented seminar. The class was team taught by my colleague and myself. Given the ranges of talents, abilities, and interests represented, my colleague and I decided to design the class on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences philosophies (just coming into vogue then). Similar to your “Learn cloud Map”, my students democratically selected subjects they were interested in learning about, and then voted on which topic to pursue. My colleague and I then went out and gathered lessons, content and activities representing all of Gardner’s intelligences to form the curriculum. Everybody was given the opportunity to be an expert at some point in the unit. The “buy-in” was complete because they helped design the curriculum. It was very much like what you described in your article as “humanistic education”. Unfortunately, state and federal guidelines eventually forced SFIS to fall into line and alter their humanistic philosophy about Gifted programs.

I enjoyed your article and found a substantial amount for which I can relate. NCLB and Race to the Top has made my previous experience difficult to duplicate.

Terrill’s documents one way to give students the freedom to learn.  What are some ways that you have worked with students to “design the curriculum and in so doing the freedom to learn?

What are students to make of the number of extreme weather events?

In my last post on this blog, I discussed how Native science can inform about global climate change.  Some might say this is a stretch.  I do not.  In the Native science view of the environment, human communities are an integral part of ecological systems.  This is a fundamental concept of environmental science.  In this post I acknowledged reports written about the extreme weather events that have occurred not only this year, but for decades.  In particular I called our attention to the unbelievable floods in Pakistan, the searing heat and fires in Russia, and the heat wave over much of North America.

Here is a map to showing some of the extreme weather events of this past year.  These are only a few.
View Extreme Weather Events in a larger map

Jay Gulledge, Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, wrote on his Pew Center blog that there are important lessons to be learned from the “extreme weather” that has impacted many regions of the earth.

Here is a synopsis of his recent post on the Pew Center blog:

  • The weather of 2010 continues the chaos of recent years. In the past six months, the American Red Cross says it “has responded to nearly 30 larger disasters in 21 [U.S.] states and territories. Floods, tornadoes and severe weather have destroyed homes and uprooted lives …” Severe flooding struck New England in March,Nashville in May, and Arkansas and Oklahoma in June.
  • Nearly the entire northern hemisphere is experiencing a massive heat wave this summer. Back in February, heavy snowfall in D.C. prompted some politicians to decry global warming, but those voices are now silent in the searing heat that has gripped much of the world this summer.
  • The current flooding in Pakistan is the worst in that country’s history, with two million people homeless, 20 million affected, more than a million acres of croplands flooded, and signs of an incipient cholera epidemic.
  • Russia is locked in the worst heat wave and drought in its documented history, with unprecedented high temperatures in Moscow and hundreds of wildfires burning out of control. The combination of extreme heat and thick smoke and smog from the fires doubled the city’s death rate at the peak of the heat wave last week.

Gulledge raises the question: Is there a connection between these extreme weather events and global climate change?  It’s a question that is debated every time an extreme weather event occurs.  And the question is one that we should engage our students with.  Gulledge, one of the leading climate scientists answers the question, in part, this way:

As usual, there is no definitive answer about these specific events, but direct observations show that extreme weather events have become more frequent in the past half-century, and in the extreme cases that have been studied, the mechanisms are those that one would expect from global warming. At the most basic level, more droughts and heat waves are expected because of hotter, longer-lasting high pressure systems that dry out the land, as witnessed in Russia. On the other hand, more floods are expected because hotter air evaporates more water from the surface and holds more moisture.

Gulledge’s blog a valuable resource for our students.  Here you will be brought in touch with a website that provides reliable information on global climate change, and lead you to other sources of information.

Native Science and Global Climate Change

I wrote to a friend of mine who lives in Moscow, Russia to find out how he was doing with the extreme heat and fires that are creating the worst air pollution event in Moscow’s history.  He told me that he has been able to escape the heat by going to his daughter’s flat and workplace, each of which have air conditioning.  As he said, the combination of heat and smog is terrible.  Temperatures have been above 90 in Moscow for many days, and in combination with fires that have been difficult to control, the atmosphere in Russia’ capitol city is dangerous for all people.  And combine that with the fact that 1/5 of Russia’s wheat harvest has been lost to the raging fires.

In Pakistan more than two weeks of flooding has devastated more than 14 million people, destroying homes, and displacing people.  The floods were triggered by an unusually heavy monsoon season.  According to one report, 1/5 of the nation is under water.

In the eastern part of the United States, millions of people are enduring the hottest July and August in memory, and the forecast is that this severe hot spell will continue into the near future.

Last Winter, many cities in the U.S. experienced snowstorms that set records.  This could possibly happen again.

There are two articles that are pertinent to the extreme heat, smog, floods, and snowstorms that we are experiencing.  In a Science Progress article, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway suggest that the science of climate change has been distorted, and at the same time science is evoked as a defense.  They describe how a handful of scientists obscured the truth, not only about climate change, but issues related to tobacco and to the government’s “star wars” strategic defense system.  As they point out, the climate change deniers use the same “play book” that big tobacco firms used to try and convince the public that smoking tobacco did not cause cancer.

The second article is a piece in the Huffington Post by Ryan Grim and Lucia Graves entitled ‘Global Weirding’: Extreme Climate Events Dominate the Summer.  They quote environmental scientist David Orr suggests that these hottest hots, driest dries, wettest wets, windiest wind conditions are all part of pattern that is expected given the rise in Earth’s temperature.  Orr’s book Down to the Wire confronts climate collapse, offering an analysis of the destabilization of climate, and suggests a call to action.

As I have written in my last two posts, I have been exploring Gregory Cajete’s book Native Science.  Native science provides an understanding of the global events that have been mentioned above.  Cajete’s book is subtitled “natural laws and interdependence” and this in itself gives us a first look at one the key principles of Native science.  In Chapter 6 of Cajete’s book, A Sense of Place, he outlines the science of living in relationship with nature:

Key questions for traditional Native Americans included how individuals and the tribal community could ecologically respect the place in which they lived, and how a direct dialogue among the individual, the community, and the natural world could be established and maintained.  Wherever Indigenous people lived, they found ways to address these questions of survival and sutainability in profoundly elegant ways.  They thought of their environments “richly,” and in each environment, they thought of themselves as truly alive and related.

One of the important things that Cajete does in this chapter is to describe the wide range of advanced technologies that Native peoples developed with an awareness of the Earth as a living organism.  His examples include mining, hydraulics, and transportation systems, and in all of these cases he identifies how these systems were nature-centered, and further advanced than systems developed in the West.  As Orr points out in his book, we have failed to heed ecological and climate trends, and tended to ignore the relationship that humans have with the earth.

e-Readers & iPads: A Digital Learning Revolution?

There was an interesting article in USA Today raising questions about the use of e-readers, in particular, the iPad in higher education. Many of us who use these tools (right now my wife and I are on trip in the US Southwest & have with us an I-Book, an I-Pad, an I-Pad nano, and 2 I-phones) are often too quick to think that these tools as integral to classroom learning. some student’s report that they still prefer to use a textbook for studying, and that many put away cellphones, computers and Kindles.

e-readers, such as the i-Pad are powerful, yet unproven tools in the context of science learning

The emergence of the e-reader has taken off for those of us that read novels, but the use of e-readers as basic texts is still in the experimental stage. Yes, you can flip pages and highlight and save passages of text, but does this help students learn. But in spite of this, universities are embracing digital readers.

In one example, UC Irvine’s School of Medicine’s incoming class received a white lab coat, Zander a fully loaded I-Pad for all first year coursework.

I know that I would like the next edition of our book The Art of Teaching Science to be available in e-reader format. But will this be an enhancement for students in their science teacher education courses?  There has been the tendency in education to think that a “new technology” is a panacea, and will lead to “increased” learning.  But the research doesn’t support this view.  Here is a passage from the USA Today article:

A host of research over the past decade has shown that even the option to click hyperlinks to related material can create confusion and weaken understanding. One study found reading comprehension declined as the number of clickable links increased. A 2005 review by researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, of 38 studies found “very little support” for the idea that all those links to additional information enrich the reader’s experience. A 2007 study published in Media Psychology raised similar concerns about add-ons such as sound and animation.

What are the implications for K-12 science teaching?  More and more school districts are opting for digital textbooks in place of hardbound copies of texts.  Is this necessarily a good idea?  Will science learning be enhanced in the context of e-readers, and i-Pads?

In yesterday’s post, I talked about Gregory Cajete’s Native science research and how the Native science paradigm of learning is centered on the relationship among humans, human culture and nature.   Can digital technology be an integrative tool in a Native science or humanistic paradigm?  Experiential learning is at the heart of Native science, as well as the Western view of inquiry-based science.  Digital technology in the service of experiential learning can probably lead to increased learning.  But the important notion is the context of learning, and how science education is bringing students in touch with their lived experience, and closer to an understanding of nature, and an understanding of nature.

Source: The White Earth Tribal and Community College Extension Service