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?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University