Don’t Believe the Hype: Indigenous Student Learning Styles May Not Conform to the Literature

Roppolo, K. & Crow, C. (2007). Native American education vs. Indian learning: Still battling Pratt after all these years. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 19(1), 3-31.

Written in Blood

I surrender to Roget’s pocket Thesaurus

I confess my crime of breaking into this container of words,

and slaughtering this poem with meta innuendo./

But I needed something. I wanted to gather the dust

of 84 warriors and 62 women & children. I robbed,

from this vault of words, language of the enemy, in hopes/

I could capture these people, allow their prayers to

Reach Wovoka in the final hour before I end this poem.

I wanted to know that I am not merely grieving from the guilt /

of that European blood that separates me from two worlds.

I need to know that I can be allowed my grief.

Sadly, I have failed. This 1961 Cardinal edition thesaurus/

I depended upon has betrayed me. Betrayed my Indian kin.

With this language there are times I feel I’m betraying myself.

In my search for synonyms for murder, I find Cain,/

Assassin, barbarian, gunman, brute

hoodlum, killer, executioner, butcher

savage, Apache, redskin.

(Midge, p. 212)


I am using Tiffany Midge’s poem (Harjo & Bird, 1997) to speak a truth about the relationship between Indigenous peoples and dominant-culture education. The legacy of 300 plus years of “Indian education” has left Indigenous communities fractured and traumatized. Our people are in various stages of quasi-assimilation (because we know it’s impossible for full assimilation as we are racialized as brown, or red as is often referenced), without identity, ashamed, and thankfully, recovering. In much of the literature education is lauded as the key to our future and our very survival (Campbell, 2007; Guillory & Wolverton, 2008; Harjo & Bird, 1997; Roppolo & Crow, 2007). Unfortunately, college degree attainment has not become widespread among Indigenous peoples in the U.S.  despite the various research examining this social problem (Guillory & Wolverton, 2008). This week, I turned to a small pilot study that took place at a tribal college on teaching Native American literature to Indigenous students, for a slightly different approach to Indigenous learning at the college level.

In Native American education vs. Indian learning: Still battling Pratt after all these years, Roppolo and Crow (2007) rely on the research about Indigenous students’ learning styles to construct an intensive week-long Native American literature course for five (mostly Cheyenne and Arapaho) students. The authors used two quantitative assessments—one to assess whether students are auditory or visual leaners and the other to assess if they are individualistic or collectivist. Upon finding that the students in their course did not test as the assessments predicted—visual and collectivist, the authors used their knowledge of Cheyenne and Arapaho culture to create an additional assessment to measure assimilation in hopes of explaining the contradictory results. Following are some questions on the assessment. Answering true to the first four and false on the last question reflect “traditional” responses.

  • If I acquire a beautiful object that I value greatly and someone I respect will appreciate it, I would give it to them as a measure of my respect and gratitude without regret.
  • Life experience is more important than book learning, though both can be beneficial.
  • Sometimes hard things have to be said, but it is important to say them in a good way so that people won’t be offended no matter how bad their own behavior has been.
  • My family’s needs are more important than my own.
  • If I went to somebody’s house after eating a large meal and they offered me food, I would politely say that I was full, but thank you, or find some other way of turning down the offer.

The authors also used qualitative data collected from student assignments and their own observations as participants in the research. They found that the literature on Indigenous education does not always apply and that researchers must be willing to change their methods mid-practice in order to impact learning. As the subtitle suggests, society is still using predetermined notions (current literature) of what Indigenous students are like to create an educational environment for them that may not work.

Theoretical Frameowork and Literature Review

The authors used a constructivist approach as a learning theory, philosophy and application in the classroom. Constructivism is the idea that students have their own cultural wealth they bring into the classroom and rather than ignore that capital, the instructors build upon it so that students can construct new knowledge upon the foundation of previously constructed knowledge which is beneficial for learning. I found the literature review sparse, however the authors used an article that reviewed the recent literature (as of 2003) on improving academic performance among Native American students. They also use literature that examined historical educational practices toward Indigenous peoples, the impact of cultural literacies, cultural variables, and cross-cultural assessment in learning environments and a few specific research studies about Indigenous peoples and education. I think they could have used more research to support their own. I am convinced that that the articles situate the authors’ contribution as innovative, however, I am not convinced that the 12 articles specifically about Indigenous students sets a solid foundation for the author’s contribution. It seems to me there could be a lot more support for their argument.

Data and Analysis

Three quantitative methods: Joyzelle Godfrey’s Assessment of personal tendency toward individualism or collectivism, Brainworks Personal Evaluation to test for audio/video preference, and their own 24-item survey to test for assimilation. The 24-item survey was created midweek to find out why students had tested as auditory learners rather than visual and individualistic rather than collectivist. Interestingly, the students’ scores contradicted the literature that theorized Indigenous students were holistic and visual learners. The authors also used qualitative data, the students journaling and classroom assignments as well as the author’s own observations as participants in the learning environment. The qualitative data offered more insight into how the students connected with the coursework and gave a richer description of how the students’ lived experiences impacted the work they completed in the class. The two quantitative methods that tested preferences for audio/visual and individualistic/collectivist revealed the students to be unlike what the data had shown for Indigenous students—which led to the creation of a new assessment.


The authors theorized that students tested strongly as both visual-auditory because the culture requires it. Engaging in traditional ceremony requires one to complete complex tasks often after very long instructions. One needs auditory focus to be successful. Also, attending ceremonies and watching what others are doing prepares one for the day it is their turn. The authors suggest their contradictory findings on students learning styles makes the case that we should not apply predetermined theory and practice to Indigenous students but must be flexible to change theory mid-practice to ensure real learning happens and that new pedagogies and theories can arise.

The authors’ findings are in line with the complexity of human beings and the idea that people adapt. Being willing to adjust your research methods mid-stream takes reflection, critical thinking and courage. To me, this is what it means to be innovative and to practice excellence. The authors did not accept the contradictions and report those findings, instead they set out to figure out why the students in their research contradicted the literature. In the end, the students’ final projects were a mix of visual representation, spoken, and written word.


Campbell, A. (2007). Retaining American Indian/Alaska Native students in higher education: A case study of one partnership between the Tohono O’odham Nation and Pima Community College, Tucson, AZ. Journal of American Indian Education, 46(2), 19-42.

Guillory, R.M., Wolverton, M. (2008). It’s about family: Native American student persistence in higher education. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(1), 58-87.

Midge, T. (1997). Written in Blood. In Harjo, J. & Bird, G (Eds.), Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America (p. 212). New York: Norton.

Roppolo, K. & Crow, C. (2007). Native American education vs. Indian learning: Still battling Pratt after all these years. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 19(1), 3-31.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *