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Essential Factors in Teaching Mathematics to American Indians

Cultural factors play an important role in the learning process for all students. A study of community colleges confirmed principles articulated in the literature applicable to American Indian students (Wildcat and Necefer 1993, pp. 37-45).
"Many Native Americans who are successful in completing high school enter postsecondary institutions academically unprepared for rigorous college science curricula. Community colleges must face the challenge of creating programs of instruction whereby these students...can be prepared for the course of study required in these fields.
"It is necessary to explore humanistic and holistic approaches of knowledge delivery to Native American students. Central to this approach is the recognition that Native American worldviews emphasize the importance of grasping the 'big picture' before one sets about studying particular things or subjects. An important component of successful math instruction for Native American students is transforming the learning of mathematics from a purely abstract logical exercise to a subject with a history and applicability to the complex web of life.
"The first challenge math instructors of Native American students must face is to create a classroom environment in which mathematics is seen as relevant and meaningful [Megginson 1990]. Native American students have to be convinced that mathematics relates to their life, or they will avoid the subject and/or refuse to fully participate in the learning process [Green 1978]. Cultural sensitivity to Native American values and behavior is crucial to successful classroom instruction. Direct eye contact, competitiveness, and boasting about oneself are taboos among most Native American peoples [California State Department of Education 1991]. Native American students prefer group-oriented learning environments and view group cooperation and harmony as more important than the success of one individual [Anderson and Stein 1992].
"Two issues converge here. First, it does not make sense to have at-risk students who have been failed for years by formal instruction in mathematics to make up their lost years in a semester or two.... Second, the learning style of Native Americans does not fit a time-bound notion of learning. The Native American approach to learning encourages one to learn by doing and admonishes one to be patient if a task at hand is not accomplished on the first try.
"The lack of professional Native American role models in mathematics often contributes to stereotypes Native American students may have of non-native mathematicians from the dominant society [Megginson 1990]. Native students often perceive mathematicians as calculating, obsessive, sloppy, isolated, and interpersonally out of touch with the real world. This image directly conflicts with attributes Native Americans value.
"It is unrealistic to expect Native American students to make up for 12 years of neglected or failed math instruction and immediately complete college-level math courses. Yet this is exactly the way most colleges treat unprepared students.... Native Americans can meet high academic expectations if they are given the opportunity to have their skills assessed.... [B]e prepared to give unprepared students the time they need,...make outside assistance available, and where possible, use peer tutors. In short, community colleges must hold high and rigorous standards for math and science programs, but must create instructional programs whereby students have an opportunity to meet those standards."
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