Native American Identity and Learning

By Ed Finkel

At the American Indian Center in Chicago and the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin, science learning of Native American children is the subject of ongoing research. Photo by andrew campbell

SESP professor, doctoral student find Menominee Indian children learn science differently — and are often told they're wrong

In fourth grade, children on the Menominee Indian reservation in northeastern Wisconsin score above average on standardized tests in science, which ranks as their best subject.

The knowledge of ecology that Native American children bring to the classroom is an asset to be explored, according to researchers Douglas Medin and Megan Bang.
By eighth grade, those same children score below average, and their science scores lag behind those of other subjects. Where do they go wrong?

They don't, says Doug Medin, Northwestern professor of psychology and education, who along with a SESP doctoral student, Megan Bang, has been conducting research into different styles of science learning among children on the Menominee reservation, in Chicago's Native American community and in mostly white schools near the Menominee reservation.

"What's going on is a cultural clash between orientation and worldview," says Medin, co-director of Northwestern's program in cognitive studies of the environment and director of the program in culture, language and cognition. He draws an analogy to how Americans typically view British people as driving on the "wrong" side of the road.

"A lot of Americans who travel to England get run over and get into accidents because all of their attentional habits are geared to people driving on the right side of the road, as opposed to the left side," Medin says, referring to the disparity between the American Indian identity and classroom expectations. "I think for Menominee kids coming to school, that's a lot of what happens. It's just a variety of kinds of practices that mismatch."

Researching the cultural clash
Medin, who has been doing research on the Menominee reservation for seven years, and Bang, a Native American who serves as director of education at Chicago's American Indian Center, have done their work through on-site observations, review of curricula and interviews with students, parents, teachers and tribal elders.

Research found a "cultural clash" between American Indian identity and classroom expectations that affects the learning of science.

They have worked in partnership with researchers at both the Indian Center in Chicago and Native American Educational Services College in Wisconsin, where they have hired students. "This isn't Northwestern University doing 'parachute research' as an outsider," Medin says. "This is a cooperative enterprise with tribal colleagues." Joe Podlasek, executive director of the American Indian Center, hopes the contact with researchers from Northwestern will change the outlooks of young people in a community with a 72 percent school dropout rate.

Medin's and Bang's research on children's science learning derives from earlier work to understand the differing logic of expert fishermen, both Menominee and "majority culture," meaning white. "If you're a majority-culture kid, you tend to reason taxonomically," and you would generalize about a property from a bee to a fly because they're similar, Medin says. "If you're a Menominee kid ... you also might generalize that property from a bee to a bear, and you would explain it by saying, 'Well, I know bears eat honey, and that's how the property would be passed from one to the other.'"

A connection with nature In general, Medin says, the youngest Menominee children exhibit far greater knowledge of the natural world than their majority-culture counterparts. "Younger Menominee kids are twice as likely to know that plants are alive as the rural majority kids," he says. "In lots of ways, Menominee kids come to the classroom ahead of the game. That's exactly where the puzzle arises."

Their research has uncovered several pieces of that puzzle. Bang says she has noticed "interesting and unexpected overlaps" between children on the Menominee reservation and Indian children in Chicago, about half of whom are Menominee.

"Both Indian populations tend to engage in what we call 'observing practices,'" she says, "anything from sitting outside on your porch to doing what people call forest walks, where you walk through a forest with a more knowledgeable adult, or sibling, or cousin, or uncle." In contrast, Bang adds, among rural white children "the majority of ways they reported interacting with nature were either work-based or recreational-based."

Perhaps for this reason, Bang says. "Both Indian populations tend to see themselves as a part of nature. Whereas the rural majority culture would see themselves as something separate and have something of a management perspective on nature, the Indian people would say nature takes care of them."

More than one right answer
They have found Indian children are aware of this different perspective from an early age. For example, they have asked children to imagine the respective purposes that a science teacher and a tribal elder might have in telling them a story about a bear, an eagle and a fish at the mouth of the Menominee River.

This is purposely designed to cue the Menominee creation story, and kids on the reservation responded as intended, saying that "the elder is telling us that because we need to know who we are and where we came from, and we need to be able to pass it on to our kids and grandkids." The Chicago children did not know this creation story, per se, but "they expected some sort of moral lesson or history" from the elder.

In either case, they predicted their science teacher was probably talking about habitat, characteristics of the bear or the food web, Bang says. "They're aware that there are two distinct ways of knowing the same content, and they realize that a teacher in school would tell them different content and expect them to do different things with it than their elders might."

The problem is that their teachers — and standardized test-makers — don't have this bicultural perspective that recognizes what the children have to offer. And between fourth and eighth grades, when science starts to emerge as a distinct subject, Menominee children's early ecological knowledge transforms from an advantage into a risk in the classroom, Bang says.

"It sometimes becomes 'wrong' in the context of the science classroom," she says, "which is ironic because in higher-level education, that is exactly the kind of reasoning you would want people to be using."

The culture clash plays out on multiple levels, such as how Indian children answer questions, Medin says. "Particularly if you have a majority-culture teacher, there may be the expectation that you're going to get to the point right away," he says. So if the student is using "Menominee discourse — which involves providing the background and context before you present the information — the teacher hears the first part of the information and then just cuts the kid off."

Medin recalls one story that "brought tears to my eyes" about a Menominee adult who, as a child attending a school off the reservation, raised his hand when the teacher asked if anyone had questions and said: "I wonder why, when people go outside on sunny days, they tend to sneeze?" The other students in the class laughed, the teacher laughed and, he said, "I never raised my hand again."

Bridging two worldviews
Medin and Bang, who have received funding through the Spencer Foundation for much of their research to date, expect to hear this spring about a proposal to the National Science Foundation. It would fund an after-school program that would help Indian children, both on the reservation and in Chicago, build upon their general awareness of these cultural divides — and better navigate across them.

"First, we want to give them science in the context of driving on the side of the road they were brought up to drive on," Medin says. "And second, what we're trying to do is a set of bridging activities, explicitly marking the distinctions between Native American and majority culture worldviews and practices."

Bang explains that part of the motivation is the "critically low" number of American Indian students receiving advanced degrees in the sciences. "We need expert scientists in the Indian community," she says. "But it is not the goal to get the kids to not drive on their own side of the road. We'd like to develop a way for kids to become expert at both.

"One of the things that I think is unique about this is that there's lots of talk in science education, in the past anyway, about replacing Indian kids' 'misconceptions,'" she says. "We don't use that model. We see the knowledge that Indian children bring with them to the classroom as an asset and something to be supported, explored and further developed."

Ed Finkel, a graduate of Medill School of Journalism, is a freelance writer.
By Ed Finkel