How South Dakota Teachers See Learning Style Differences

Feb 15th, 1991 | By | Category: 2-4: Teaching: Community and Culture in the Classroom, Research
By Dauna Bell Browne, Department of Behavioral Sciences, University of Alaska, Fairbanks and Leland Bordeaux, Dean of Instruction, Sinte Gleska College

A number of researchers have reported that Native American children have special cognitive strengths. Native American children typically show a characteristic pattern of scores on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised which apparently distinguishes them from other populations (McShane and Plas, 1984; Browne, 1984). Strengths identified in visual-spatial abilities, visual memory, or holistic processing, for example, make important contributions to unique learning styles. Other investigators have concluded that distinctively different child-rearing practices have fostered the development of learning styles characterized by observation and imitation. (See Kaulback, 1986; and Moore, 1984 for reviews of research.)

Although substantial research supports the proposition that Native American children have special leaning strengths, we have not been successful in documenting how those strengths can be utilized to make school more successful for Native children. Kleinfeld (in press), after reviewing five studies, concluded that “none provided substantial support for the hypothesis that instruction adapted to Native American’s distinctive learning style resulted in greater achievement” (p. 22).

The traditional quantitative research paradigm tends to isolate details from their context in order to control variables to the greatest extent possible. It is not surprising that attempts to do traditional research in a culture which establishes meaning within existing context are not very productive. Even within an ethnographic paradigm where observations are made in natural settings, conclusions drawn by researchers outside of the particular ethnic context may be based on incomplete data.

The research is clear that some of the differences in learning styles probably have a cultural basis. And yet we don’t seem to be able to apply that knowledge to making school learning more successful for Native American children. If we are going to bridge this gap between theory and practice, clearly our search for answers needs to take a new direction. Perhaps we ought to be looking to classroom teachers and the learning environments they create for answers.

In educational research, problems occur when elementary teachers attempt to use research in their classrooms. We know that each teacher operates out of a personal theory about the world, about children, and about teaching (Clark, 1988). The learning environments which become the context within which children learn are created from teachers’ personal theories. One of the difficulties teachers experience in replicating the successes reported by researchers may be that there are differences between the personal theories of the researchers who develop research-based models and those of teachers who attempt to implement them.

With this in mind, we decided to ask teachers about their personal theories of differences in children’s learning styles. We wanted to see 1) whether teachers were internalizing beliefs that culture influences children’s learning styles; 2) how they see relationships between learning style and achievement; and 3) whether we could see any evidence that their beliefs influence how they teach reading and language arts to elementary children.


During the spring semester of 1989 we conducted a survey of 841 elementary teachers and aides in all South Dakota schools with an appreciable number of Indian students enrolled. Items for the questionnaire were written by the researchers based on their knowledge of elementary teachers and programs.

The survey questionnaire was designed by the researchers and reviewed by a number of teachers in the local school district to insure that the items were understandable. After several minor revisions the surveys were sent to elementary school principals who disseminated them to elementary teachers and teacher aides. The questionnaire consisted of eighteen items. The first nine asked for demographic information. Seven items explored the respondents’ use of strategies related to teaching of the language arts. One item asked respondents to identify the extent to which they believed selected factors were related to reading achievement. Finally, respondents were asked to indicate their beliefs about whether Euro-American and Native American students have different learning styles.


Our research sample included all of those elementary teachers and aides employed in schools identified by the South Dakota Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as having 100 or more Indian students enrolled. The sample included personnel from public schools, private schools, Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, and tribal-run schools. Follow-up contacts were made by telephone until 75 percent of the surveys (673 of the 841 sent) were returned for analysis.

Statistical Analysis

Data from the surveys were entered into the university computer and analyzed using SPSS-X programs. Statistical procedures used included frequencies with cross tabs as appropriate. The Mann Whitney test was used to determine statistical significance.



Of the 673 respondents, 80 identified themselves as Native American and 593 as Euro-American. The Native American respondents tend to teach elementary classes that have a higher percentage of Native American students. Sixty percent of all Native American teachers and aides teach classes that have 100 percent Native students. In contrast, only 15.4 percent of the Euro-American teachers and aides work in classrooms of 100 percent Native students.

Both groups included teachers and aides at all grade levels, though Native Americans reported multilevel assignments nearly three times as often as did Euro-American respondents. However, we found many differences in both educational background and job description among those respondents who classified themselves as aides. Some aides are certified teachers, some are not. Some aides work under the direction of a classroom teacher, reinforcing the teacher’s instruction. Others work with small groups of children and have major responsibility for program planning. The differences seemed too great to consider all aides as one group. We decided to collapse the groups since interpretation by groups would not be meaningful. Native American respondents reported somewhat lower educational levels. Fifty-nine and six-tenths percent of Native respondents had four years or more of college as compared to 86.9 percent of the Euro-American respondents.

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