Doug Medin Study Contrasts Native American and Non-Native Storybooks

Doug Medin Study Contrasts Native American and Non-Native Storybooks

Doug Medin

Culture shapes U.S. classroom learning in many ways, with the primary but often unnoticed influence being European-American culture, according to professor Douglas Medin. He and his co-researchers shone a light on one example of culture shaping science thinking by comparing children’s stories written by both Native American and non-Native authors.

In this recent study, Medin and his colleagues examined stories for 4- to 8-year-olds with Native American and non-Native authors. They found important differences in the depictions of nature and the relationship between humans and nature that have implications for science teaching.

Medin’s co-authors for an article on this study in the International Journal of Science Education are Morteza Dehghani of the University of Southern California, Megan Bang (PhD09) of the University of Washington, and Ananda Marin (PhD13), Erin Leddon and Sandra Waxman of Northwestern University. All are affiliated with Northwestern as graduates or faculty members.

The study’s overall finding was that Native storybooks are more intimately engaged with the rest of nature than non-Native books. The researchers identified cultural differences in the knowledge orientations of Native Americans and European Americans that were reflected in the children’s books.

The researchers found four main differences between Native and non-Native stories:

  • Native-authored storybooks were more likely to indicate context through language choice and tense.
  • Native books provided deeper, more complex information about the natural world — such as specific rather than general categories of fish.
  • Showing an emphasis on intergenerational relationships and respect for elders, Native books were more likely to include terms for second-degree relationships.
  • Native books were more likely to indicate causes of events and processes in nature, such as cycles of seasons.

This study has interesting implications for elementary school teaching. “Inclusion of Native-authored storybooks in elementary science inquiry units could foster the development of relational thinking about the natural world, regardless of a child’s background,” the authors say. “Native storybooks may shape attention to the natural world in productive ways for science learning because they call attention to complex natural events, process and relationships.”

For more than a decade, Medin’s research team has focused on the role of culture and related orientations in the development of knowledge and reasoning about the natural world. Through community research they have collaborated in considering the knowledge orientation of two Native American communities — one in Chicago through the American Indian Center and the other in Wisconsin with the Menominee tribe.

Medin is the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology and holds a joint appointment in Education and Social Policy. He is a member of the National Academy of Education, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. Medin is also a recipient of an American Psychological Association Presidential Citation and the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 5/28/14