Ananda Marin: Bridging Culture and Schooling for Native American Children

Ananda Marin: Bridging Culture and Schooling for Native American Children

Learning Sciences doctoral student Ananda Marin in front of a mural painted by students from the American Indian Center in Chicago.
Learning Sciences doctoral student Ananda Marin in front of a mural painted by students from the American Indian Center in Chicago.
Photo by Marilyn Sherman

When doctoral student Ananda Marin takes students from the American Indian Center to the woods to learn about ecosystems, these students bring ideas from their community. And these ideas may differ from what their schools teach. For example, they may view plants as relatives — something their school curriculum might dispute.

Marin is addressing those differences between school ways and cultural ways through her research with professor Douglas Medin. Their grant-funded curriculum project to improve science learning for Native American students is designing learning environments that build on students’ community-based science understanding.

“One of the motivations for this project is that students are getting different messages from school and community about science. “Values from the community aren’t always appreciated in the classroom,” she says. “There are different ways of learning about the world.”

In the coming year, the researchers will integrate their curriculum into the after-school program at the American Indian Center. “One of the issues is that native students do well until middle school, and then their standardized test scores start to fall,” she notes. Overall, Marin seeks to enable Native American students to succeed in the classroom and “navigate the many communities they belong to.”

Recently Marin has developed a strong new focus on teacher learning. With the diversity of experiences among the project’s teachers, she recognizes that some do not have professional education training or expertise in certain content areas. “How do tutors and mentors in informal learning environments learn to become effective teachers?” she asks.

While her focus on teacher learning is new, her attention to education is not. As an undergraduate at Yale University, she was drawn to teaching. “I had always been concerned about achievement gaps between majority and non-majority students,” she says. Then she worked at the Chicago Children’s Museum facilitating a reading program in public schools. “That further solidified my interest in education,” she notes.

After completing a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard, she served as assistant dean of student services at Chicago’s Truman College. “Community colleges serve a very important function for students who aren’t able to access traditional colleges for a variety of reasons,” she maintains. At Truman, she began collaborating on Medin’s project, and she then decided to pursue a career in research. “I would like to teach, and I would like to continue doing research that’s community-based,” she says of her future plans.

At Northwestern, she has been recognized as a fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences program, which trains doctoral students in rigorous methods for education research. “We need that kind of research in the native community, but we need it done in a culturally sensitive way,” she says. She is planning research to look at Native American teachers on a national level.

Marin says she feels fortunate to be at SESP in the Learning Sciences program. “Being able to learn about cognition has made me think about the work I do in a different way,” she explains. Likewise, the program’s emphases on technology and social context have enhanced her work.

Despite her many academic honors, Marin’s start in schooling was inauspicious. “I hated school when I was in grade school,” she says. With a mixed background (her mother is white, her father African American and Choctaw), she was one of only two students of color in her suburban school. “That was really hard,” she recalls. “Our family was very different from other families.”

Her own experiences reflect the complicated history between minority populations and schools. “Schooling in America is very Westernized,” Marin asserts, adding that Native Americans have been concerned about schools forcing them to lose their traditions.

“We all have something to learn from one another,” she says. Still, while different perspectives are valuable for students, teachers need to understand how to nurture them for learning, she says. This brings her back to her current focus: “We need to be just as concerned about teacher learning as we are about student learning.”
By Marilyn Sherman