Cross-Cultural Communication: A Professional Development Learning Center

Taking What You Learn into the Classroom

In this video made in 2003 for the Anchorage School District, Yup'ik linguist Vernon Chimegalrea explains how he changed his behavior from being a "good Yup'ik" to being a good student in the Western sense.

Vernon's experience is repeated even today in Alaska's many villages, where the culture of the classroom is determined primarily by the teachers, most of whom come from the Lower 48 or from mainstream Western culture.

A challenge for teachers is to meet the students partway -- to alter their own classroom behavior at least as much as they are asking their students to change theirs.

Research About Strategies Appropriate to Alaska Native Students

Researchers have questioned why the Western model of education works so poorly among Native students ever since such schooling was brought to Indian Country.

in 1908, educator George Wharton James reported, "Again and again when I have visited Indian schools the thoughtful youths and maidens have come to me with complaints about the American history they were compelled to study . . . "When we read in the United States history of white men fighting to defend their families, their homes, their corn-fields, their towns, and their hunting grounds, they are always called 'partriots,' and the children are urged to follow the example of these brave, noble, and gallant men. But when Indians -- our ancestors, even our own parents -- have fought to defend us and our homes, corn-fields, and hunting-grounds they are called vindictive and merciless savages, bloody murderers, and everything else that is vile."

In Alaska, beginning in the 1970s ethnographic research (Kleinfeld 1972, Barnhardt 1977 and many following), video studies (Collier 1979), and historical investigation (Ongtooguk 2000) have provided answers.

Kleinfeld found that the most effective teachers were what she called "warm and demanding." They established personal relationships with the students but expected high quality in their work.

Collier filmed two sets of teachers without sound in a rural Athabascan classroom in Alaska. The films showed clearly that the rhythm, flow, and motions of the Athabascan teachers created a sort of smooth dance with the students, whose rhythm, flow, and motions were complementary. The non-Native teachers' actions were quicker and more angular. Instead of a smooth dance with students, the film shows competing styles of nonverbal communication with students moving one way and the teachers another.

Demmert (2005) surveyed all literature dealing with the education of Native American youth. He reported that the following components support effective education for Native students:

1) Cultural Compatibility Theory: the closer human interactions in the school and in the classroom are aligned with those of the community, the greater the likelihood that the goals of the school will be reached;

2) Cognitive Theory: for learning to occur, relevant prior knowledge in a person’s long term memory must be stimulated or utilized;

3) Pedagogical Theory: teaching strategies must be congruent with the traditional culture as well as contemporary ways of knowing and learning;

4) Sociological Theory: traditional cultural characteristics and adult-child interactions are stressed as the starting place for one’s education;

5) Authentic Assessment: Culturally-based methods of assessing student performance are most effective.

Other researchers have noticed some basic and fairly easy-to-incorporate insights into effective practices when working with Native students:

  • Determine your students' preferred communication and learning styles, and identify your own. Decide how to stretch yourself and your students.
  • Work with parents; involve them in the process (this can be challenging if the parents themselves had bad experiences in school and are therefore reluctant to engage in a school setting)
  • Keep in mind that most Native communities allow children to make their own decisions at an early age. Involve the students in setting protocols, determining what they want to learn, posting classroom rules, and determining appropriate classroom practices.
  • Think of the classroom as a community -- ideally, an extension of the community you're in. Learning is a collaboration between teacher and student.

For more information about educational strategies appropriate to Native American students, visit the Culture and Change Learning Center on this web site.

What about non-traditional methods?

In less technical language, Demmert's findings are that the most effective instruction for Native American children closely follows their communication styles, has content that references the students' own experiences, is taught in the way that children are taught at home, involves a team of support for the student beyond a single teacher, and asks the child to demonstrate knowledge or skills in a way that is culturally appropriate.

This does not mean that non-traditional activities such as computer labs can't be used. In fact, in Anchorage a new on-line program for Native students who are short on graduation credits is having success. One key is that, like these children, the students actually meet as a group periodically to establish a learning community. Although their direct interactions are with the computer screen, they constantly chat with and support one another as they work their way through the lessons.

A web search for Cross-Cultural Communication leads to thousands of sites, including a number of entertaining and enlightening videos as well as teaching strategies and activity ideas.

Hands-on Learning: Everyone Responds, Right?

Hands-on learning in a guided practice setting is effective with almost all students. But the way the learning occurs is not necessarily the same in all cultures.


A case in point was a class in basket weaving presented in the city of Anchorage by two Yup'ik master basket makers. The students sat around a table, each with grass in front of them. The two women, one of whom spoke no English, sat at their places and began weaving. No one talked. Soon the students picked up the grass and peered closely at their teachers, trying to imitate them. At that point, the teachers stood up and walked over to the students and helped them begin the coil, one by one. The entire class proceeded in this fashion, with very little talk, lots of observation, expert modeling, and gentle correction.

The teachers' method was deliberate and in keeping with Yup'ik ideas about how people learn. When a student started trying to weave, the teachers knew she was open to instruction, and went over to help her. They did not try to teach until the student exhibited readiness. So, although the teachers were the acknowledged holders of the information, it was the students who signaled what they wanted to learn and when the instruction would occur.

Examples from Alaska

The next three short videos made in Barrow, Alaska, contrast two methods of teaching: a language-centered approach in which the learner reads the instructions and then follows them, and an observation/hands-on approach in which the learner observes the teacher and tries to mimic her behavior.

North Slope Borough School District teachers continue to decipher written instructions. Keep watching!

The workshop participants' attempts are finally rewarded when teacher Jana Harcharek leads the way. Both the skill (cutting up frozen raw maktak, or whale blubber) and the method (little discussion, demonstration and close observation, and supportive mentoring) are traditional Iñupiaq practices.

Learning and Communication Style Typologies

A great deal of research and many web sites are devoted to learning styles. The simplest divides students into visual, auditory, or kinesthetic/tactile learners. Click on the link highlighted here to take a test to learn your own learning style.

A more thorough typology deals with what are called "multiple intelligences." The idea behind it is that IQ tests assess only a small portion of what it takes to be a successful, intelligent human being. Our species could not have survived with the skills that are measured by IQ tests alone, nor can an individual be successful at life and work with only an intellectual understanding of the world. Much research has gone into defining other types of intelligent. The most accepted list includes:

a.    Linguistic
b.    Logical-mathematical
c.    Musical
d.    Spatial
e.    Bodily-kinesthetic
f.     Interpersonal
g.    Intrapersonal
h.    Naturalist

Exercise Seven: Your Learning Style

Go to this web site and take the survey to identify your own style. You'll find that you, like everyone, have multiple strengths, but many people find one or two dominant areas and one or two very weak areas.

Now do an informal survey of your teaching style. Do you, like most people, teach to your strengths? Consider: what happens to those students who have different learning styles? How do you accommodate their needs?

Another widely used typology was developed by Dunn and Dunn to measure student preferences in immediate environment, emotionality, sociological factors, physiological factors, and processing inclinations. This web site link can tell you more about their typology.

The important thing for teachers to know is that you tend to teach to your strengths. In other words, if you're strongly logical-mathematical, you will design lessons and strategies that call on those faculties in your students. Once you have identified your own profile, you can use that information to stretch yourself so you can deal more effectively with your students.

Studies of Native American students have not shown them to have strong dominance in one area or another. Instead, as a group their styles seem to be diverse, with some degree of strength in each of the eight realms.

Exercise Seven Continued: Where Do You Fit In?

Look at the photographs on this page, each showing a different teaching and learning situation. Imagine yourself teaching and learning in these settings. Which seem most natural? Which reflect the way your classroom operates most often? What can you imagine doing differently to engage students who might have different communication or learning styles from yours?

Specifically, when you look at the picture on the right, what can you learn about the proxemics, or spatial positioning, of the people? What culture's practices seem to be dominant here?