Indigenous education specifically focuses on teaching indigenous knowledge, models, methods, and content within formal or non-formal educational systems. The growing recognition and use of indigenous education methods can be a response to the erosion and loss of indigenous knowledge through the processes of colonialism, globalization, and modernity. Indigenous communities are able to “reclaim and revalue their languages and [traditions], and in so doing, improve the educational success of indigenous students,” thus ensuring their survival as a culture.
Increasingly, there has been a global shift toward recognizing and understanding indigenous models of education as a viable and legitimate form of education. There are many different educational systems throughout the world, some that are more predominant and widely accepted. However, members of indigenous communities celebrate diversity in learning and see this global support for teaching traditional forms of knowledge as a success. Indigenous ways of knowing, learning, instructing, teaching, and training have been viewed by many postmodern scholars as important for ensuring that students and teachers, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, are able to benefit from education in a culturally sensitive manner that draws upon, utilizes, promotes, and enhances awareness of indigenous traditions, beyond the standard Western curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
- 1 Cultural context of indigenous learning in the Americas
- 2 Indigenous American ways of learning
- 3 Criticisms of the Western educational model
- 4 Benefits of indigenous education
- 5 Educational gap
- 6 Importance
- 7 Challenges (as seen with the Na)
- 8 Associated organizations
- 9 See also
- 10 References
Cultural context of indigenous learning in the Americas
A growing body of scientific literature has described indigenous ways of learning, in different cultures and countries. Learning in indigenous communities is a process that involves all members in the community.
The learning styles that children use in their indigenous schooling are the same ones that occur in their community context. These indigenous learning styles often include: observation, imitation, use of narrative/storytelling, collaboration, and cooperation, as seen among American Indian, Alaska Native and Latin American communities. This is a hands on approach that emphasizes direct experience and learning through inclusion.The child feels that he/she is a vital member of the community, and he/she is encouraged to participate in a meaningful way by community members. Children often effectively learn skills through this system, without being taught explicitly or in a formal manner. This differs from Western learning styles, which tend to include methods such as explicit instruction and testing/ quizzing. Creating an educational environment for indigenous children that is consistent with upbringing, rather than an education that follows a traditionally Western format, allows for a child to retain knowledge more easily, because they are learning in a way that was successful for them in the past in their community.
The structure of indigenous American classrooms that reflect the organization of indigenous communities eliminates the distinction between the community and classroom and makes it easier for the students to relate to the material. Effective classrooms modeled off of the social structure of indigenous communities are typically focused on group or cooperative learning that provide an inclusive environment. A key factor for successful indigenous education practices is the student-teacher relationship. Classrooms are socially constructed in a way that the teacher shares the control of the classroom with the students. Rather than taking an authoritative role, the teacher is viewed as a co-learner to the students, and they maintain a balance between personal warmth and demand for academic achievement. For example, in an indigenous Mazahua community in Mexico, teachers have been observed to let their students move freely about the classroom while working in order to consult with other students.
Teachers in indigenous classrooms in a Yup'ik community in Alaska rely on group work, encourage the students to watch each other as a way to learn, and avoid singling out students for praise, criticism, or recitation. Praise, by Western standards, is minimal in indigenous classrooms, and when it is given it is for effort, not for providing a correct answer to a question. Classroom discourse in indigenous classrooms is an example of how the teacher shares control with the students. Observations in the Yup’ik and Mazahua communities show that indigenous teachers are less likely to solicit an answer from an individual student, but rather encourage all of the students to participate in classroom discourse. In the Yup’ik classroom direct questions are posed to the group as whole, and the control of talk is not the sole responsibility of the teacher. Classrooms in indigenous communities that incorporate indigenous ways of learning utilize open-ended questioning, inductive/analytical reasoning, and student participation and verbalization, in group settings.
Escuela Unitaria (One-room one-teacher)
Escuela Unitaria is a one-room one-teacher style of schooling that is used in some rural communities, which utilizes ways of learning common in some indigenous or indigenous-heritage communities in the Americas. The school serves up to six grades in a single classroom setting with smaller groups (divided by grade level) in the classroom. Community involvement is strongly implemented in the management of the school. Learning activities are not just inside the classroom but also outside in the agricultural environment. Children are self-instructed and the content involves the students’ rural community and family participation. The school is structured to meet cultural needs and match available resources. This classroom setting allows for a collaborative learning environment that includes the teacher, the students, and the community. Integration of cultural knowledge within the curriculum allows students to participate actively and to have a say in the responsibilities for classroom activities.
Indigenous American ways of learning
As a main model of learning in some Indigenous heritage communities of the Americas, children are included in a range of activities where they are expected to actively contribute to community endeavors. Rather than being separated and directed away from the “adult work” or given a lesson out of context, the young indigenous-heritage children are expected to actively participate and pitch in. This incorporation allows children to learn by simply participating in everyday activities which in turn allows them to choose activities that are better suited for their individual liking. Furthermore, a study was done on children who have immigrated from indigenous communities in rural Mexico. They were less likely to regard activities that Westernized culture regarded as “chores” to be a type of work. These children felt that activities such as taking care of siblings, cooking, and assisting in cleaning were activities necessary to help the family.
In Yucatec Maya communities, children from 1–5 years old learn to perform chores at home by observing adults activities and being allowed to engage in adult activities. In doing so, children are not afraid of making mistakes. To perform tasks that require higher skills, children of older age do not have a system that sets a given age in which they have to have a given skill to perform a given task; each child learns based on his/her own motivation. This is in part because all activities in the community are designed around adult needs and a culture that provides independence to children to develop skills at their own pace.
Furthermore, Maya communities utilize this learning method via inclusion in their midwifery traditions. This practice is so widespread and deeply rooted in their culture that it begins at a very young age. The midwife will include the child so that they can participate in the midwifery traditions of their community. Once the midwife has a child, she then passes down her knowledge and include her child in the birthing process, making the midwifery tradition cyclical. By observing and pitching in, these young women learn the workings of midwifery and how one becomes a midwife.
Children are involved in different forms of activity, which range from momentary interactions to broad societal foundations and how those compliment their community’s traditions. In Maya Belize culture, girls as young as four can work alongside their mothers when washing clothes in the river- rather than being given verbal instructions, they observe keenly, imitate to the best of their ability, and understand that their inclusion is crucial to the community.
In a Mazahuan community of Middle Americas, inclusion of children in society facilitates their motivation to engage with their social world, as can be seen among children in the marketplace. The Mazahuans develop the capacity to maintain Middle American culture and ethnic identity in the face of increased vulnerability to foreign society through learning which is highly dependent on individual experience with social interaction. The inclusive and welcoming environment of the marketplace setting allows children to participate in everyday social practices and take initiative to learn about their culture, facilitating communal collaboration. By learning both traditional and modern elements of Mazahuan marketplace culture, children develop a certain “ethos” of Middle American identity. This learning transmission highlights the crucial role Indigenous ways of learning play in the growth of Indigenous education.
In Indigenous American communities, the inclusion of children in communal activities motivates them to engage with their social world, helping them to develop a sense of belonging. Active participation involves children undertaking initiative and acting autonomously. Similarly, Learning by Observing and Pitching In (LOPI)  supports informal learning which generates self-sovereignty. The combination of children’s inclusion, development of independence, and initiative for contribution are common elements identified in Indigenous American ways of learning.
Education in Indigenous communities is primarily based on joint engagement in which children are motivated to "pitch-in" in collective activities through developing solidarity within family, resulting in reciprocal bonds;. Learning is viewed as an act of meaningful action and productive work, not as a separate activity. When asked of a self-report about their individual contributions, Indigenous Mexican heritage children placed emphasis on the community rather than on individual role. Their contributions emphasized collaboration and mutual responsibility within the community.
Active engagement with the social world can be seen among children in a Mazahua community. The maintenance of Mazahua culture is based on learning dependent on individual experience with social interaction rather than on formal teachings. Participation in everyday social practices at the marketplace exposed children to everyday situations of social communication. Children being included into daily tasks and events motivated them to be apart of the Mazahua marketplace setting. This allowed collaboration with others, thereby preserving Mazahua culture. Through early rooted social experience, children were able to take initiative and directly involve with people in their Mazahua society. By giving children space to explore on their own, they are able to gain independence from an early start.
Learning through collaborative work is often correlated with children taking responsibility on their own; thus, autonomy is often observed within the community. In one such Mazahua community, children are not the center of adult’s attention. Although Mazahua parents play a supportive role in their children’s learning process, the offered guidance is not authoritative. Rather, adults actively invite children to freely engage in real-life situations;. By creating a supportive environment, children are often expected, as well as motivated to take action on their own within communal activities and family endeavors. Initiating collaboration between family and community members in Indigenous American communities can be seen among Mazahua children and their mothers during the construction of a market stall. While installing glass panes, children worked in small groups and autonomously swapped roles when needed. The mothers allowed the children to take initiative and assume primary roles; in turn, this motivated them to take initiative and collaborate more often.
In many indigenous communities of the Americas, children rely on assessment to master a task. Assessment can include the evaluation of oneself, as well as evaluation from external influences, like parents, family members, or community members. Assessment involves feedback given to learners from their support; this can be through acceptance, appreciation or correction. The purpose of assessment is to assist the learner as they actively participate in their activity. While contributing in the activity, children are constantly evaluating their learning progress based on the feedback of their support. With this feedback, children modify their behavior in mastering their task. 
In the Mexican Indigenous heritage community of Nocutzepo, there is available feedback to a learner by observing the results of their contribution and by observing if their support accepted or corrected them. For example, a 5-year-old girl shapes and cooks tortillas with her mother, when the girl would make irregular tortilla shapes her mother would focus her daughter’s attention to an aspect of her own shaping. By doing this, the young girl would imitate her mother’s movements and improve her own skills. Feedback given by the mother helped the young girl evaluate her own work and correct it.
In traditional Chippewa culture, assessment and feedback are offered in variety of ways. Generally, Chippewa children are not given much praise for their contributions. On occasion, the parents offer assessment through rewards given to the child. These rewards are given as feedback for work well done, and come in the form of a toy carved out of wood, a doll of grass, or maple sugar. When children do not meet expectations, and fail in their contributions, Chippewa parents make sure not to use ridicule as a means of assessment. The Chippewa also recognize the harmful effects of excessive scolding to a child’s learning process. Chippewa parents believes that scolding a child too much would “make them worse,” and holds back the child’s ability to learn. 
For the Chillihuani community in Peru, parents bring up children in a manner that allows them to grow maturely with values like responsibility and respect. These values ultimately influence how children learn in this community. Parents from the Chillihuani community offer assessment of their children through praise, even if the child’s contribution is not perfect. Additionally, feedback can come in the form of responsibility given for a difficult task, with less supervision. This responsibility is an important aspect of the learning process for children in Chillihuani because it allows them advance their skills. At only five years old, children are expected to herd sheep, alpaca and llamas with the assistance of an older sibling or adult relative. By age 8, children take on the responsibility of herding alone even in unfavorable weather conditions. Children are evaluated in terms of their ability to handle difficult tasks and then complemented on a job well done by their parents. This supports the learning development of the child’s skills, and encourages their continued contributions.
Criticisms of the Western educational model
As mentioned above, there has been a modern-day global shift towards recognizing the importance of indigenous education. One reason for this current awareness is the rapid spread of Western educational models throughout the world. Starting in the 19th century when Native Americans were forced into U.S. government boarding schools up until today when volunteers build schools in various remote villages, there is a strong, and some might say blind, belief that a Western education or schooling is the only way to provide a “better life” for indigenous children. The film “Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden” addresses this issue of modern education and its destruction of unique, indigenous cultures and individuals’ identities. Shot in the Buddhist culture of Ladakh in the northern Indian Himalayas, the film fuses the voices of the Ladakhi people and commentary from an anthropologist/ethnobotanist, a National Geographical Explorer-in-Residence, and an architect of education programs. In essence, the film examines the definitions of wealth and poverty, in other words, knowledge and ignorance. Furthermore, it reveals the effects of trying to institute a global education system or central learning authority, which can ultimately demolish “traditional sustainable agricultural and ecological knowledge, in the breakup of extended families and communities, and in the devaluation of ancient spiritual traditions.” Finally, the film promotes a deeper dialogue between cultures, suggesting that there is no single way to learn. No two human beings are alike because they develop under different circumstances, learning, and education.
The director and editor of the film Carol Black writes, "One of the most profound changes that occurs when modern schooling is introduced into traditional societies around the world is a radical shift in the locus of power and control over learning from children, families, and communities to ever more centralized systems of authority." Black continues by explaining that in many non-modernized societies, children learn in a variety of ways, including free play or interaction with multiple children, immersion in nature, and directly helping adults with work and communal activities. “They learn by experience, experimentation, trial and error, by independent observation of nature and human behavior, and through voluntary community sharing of information, story, song, and ritual.” Most importantly, local elders and traditional knowledge systems are autonomous in comparison to a strict Western education model. Adults have little control over children’s “moment-to-moment movements and choices.” Once learning is institutionalized, both the freedom of the individual and his/her respect for the elder’s wisdom are ruined. “Family and community are sidelined…The teacher has control over the child, the school district has control over the teacher, the state has control over the district, and increasingly, systems of national standards and funding create national control over states." When indigenous knowledge is seen as inferior to a standard school curriculum, an emphasis is placed on an individual’s success in a broader consumer culture instead of on an ability to survive in his/her own environment. Black concludes with a comment, “We assume that this central authority, because it is associated with something that seems like an unequivocal good – ‘education’ – must itself be fundamentally good, a sort of benevolent dictatorship of the intellect." From a Western perspective, centralized control over learning is natural and consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy; and yet, it is this same centralized system or method of discipline that does not take into account the individual, which in the end stamps out local cultures.
Benefits of indigenous education
For indigenous learners and instructors, the inclusion of these methods into schools often enhances educational effectiveness by providing an education that adheres to an indigenous person’s own inherent perspectives, experiences, language, and customs, thereby making it easier for children to transition into the realm of adulthood. For non-indigenous students and teachers, such an education often has the effect of raising awareness of individual and collective traditions surrounding indigenous communities and peoples, thereby promoting greater respect for and appreciation of various cultural realities.
In terms of educational content, the inclusion of indigenous knowledge within curricula, instructional materials, and textbooks has largely the same effect on preparing students for the greater world as other educational systems, such as the Western model.
There is value in including Indigenous knowledge and education in the public school system. Students of all backgrounds can benefit from being exposed to Indigenous education, as it can contribute to reducing racism in the classroom and increase the sense of community in a diverse group of students. There are a number of sensitive issues about what can be taught (and by whom) that require responsible consideration by non-Indigenous teachers who appreciate the importance of interjecting Indigenous perspectives into standard mainstream schools. Concerns about misappropriation of Indigenous ways of knowing without recognizing the plight of Indigenous Peoples and "giving back" to them are legitimate. Since most educators are non-Indigenous, and because Indigenous perspectives may offer solutions for current and future social and ecological problems, it is important to refer to Indigenous educators and agencies to develop curriculum and teaching strategies while at the same time encouraging activism on behalf of Indigenous Peoples. One way to bring authentic Indigenous experiences into the classroom is to work with community elders. They can help facilitate the incorporation of authentic knowledge and experiences into the classroom. Teachers must not shy away from bringing controversial subjects into the classroom. The history of Indigenous people should be delved into and developed fully. There are many age appropriate ways to do this, including the use of children's literature, media, and discussion. Individuals are recommended to reflect regularly on their teaching practice to become aware of areas of instruction in need of Indigenous perspectives.
Some indigenous people view education as an important tool to improve their situation by pursuing economic, social and cultural development; it provides them with individual empowerment and self-determination. Education is also a means for employment; it’s a way for socially marginalized people to raise themselves out of poverty. However, some education systems and curricula lack knowledge about indigenous peoples ways of learning, causing an Educational Gap for indigenous people. Factors for the Education Gap include lower school enrollments, poor school performance, low literacy rates, and higher dropout rates. Some schools teach indigenous children to be “socialized” and to be a national asset to society by assimilating, “Schooling has been explicitly and implicitly a site of rejection of indigenous knowledge and language, it has been used as a means of assimilating and integrating indigenous peoples into a ‘national’ society and identity at the cost of their indigenous identity and social practices”. Intercultural learning is an example of how to build a bridge for the educational gap.
Other factors that contribute to the Education Gap in Indigenous cultures are socioeconomic disadvantage, which includes access to healthcare, employment, incarceration rates, and housing. According to the Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in their 2015 Closing the Gap Report, the country is not on track to halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy achievements for Indigenous students. The government reported that there had been no overall improvement in Indigenous reading and numeracy since 2008.
Indigenous knowledge is particularly important to modern environmental management in today’s world. Environmental and land management strategies traditionally used by indigenous peoples have continued relevance. Indigenous cultures usually live in a particular bioregion for many generations and have learned how to live there sustainably. In modern times, this ability often puts truly indigenous cultures in a unique position of understanding the interrelationships, needs, resources, and dangers of their bioregion. This is not true of indigenous cultures that have been eroded through colonialism or genocide or that have been displaced.
The promotion of indigenous methods of education and the inclusion of traditional knowledge also enables those in Western and post-colonial societies to re-evaluate the inherent hierarchy of knowledge systems. Indigenous knowledge systems were historically denigrated by Western educators; however, there is a current shift towards recognizing the value of these traditions. The inclusion of aspects of indigenous education requires us to acknowledge the existence of multiple forms of knowledge rather than one, standard, benchmark system.
A prime example of how indigenous methods and content can be used to promote the above outcomes is demonstrated within higher education in Canada. Due to certain jurisdictions' focus on enhancing academic success for Aboriginal learners and promoting the values of multiculturalism in society, the inclusion of indigenous methods and content in education is often seen as an important obligation and duty of both governmental and educational authorities.
Many scholars in the field assert that indigenous education and knowledge has a “transformative power” for indigenous communities that can be used to foster “empowerment and justice." The shift to recognizing indigenous models of education as legitimate forms is therefore important in the ongoing effort for indigenous rights, on a global scale.
Challenges (as seen with the Na)
There are numerous practical challenges to the implementation of indigenous education. Incorporating indigenous knowledge into formal Western education models can prove difficult. However, the discourse surrounding indigenous education and knowledge suggests that integrating indigenous methods into traditional modes of schooling is an “ongoing process of ‘cultural negotiation.’"
Indigenous education often takes different forms than a typical Western model, as the practices of the Na ethnic group of southwest China illustrate. Because Na children learn through example, traditional Na education is less formal than the standard Western model. In contrast to structured hours and a classroom setting, learning takes places throughout the day, both in the home and in adults’ workplaces. Based on the belief that children are “fragile, soulless beings,” Na education focuses on nurturing children rather than on punishing them. Children develop an understanding of cultural values, such as speech taboos and the “reflection” of individual actions “on the entire household.” Playing games teaches children about their natural surroundings and builds physical and mental acuity. Forms of indigenous knowledge, including weaving, hunting, carpentry, and the use of medicinal plants, are passed on from adult to child in the workplace, where children assist their relatives or serve as apprentices for several years.
However, increasing modernity is a challenge to such modes of instruction. Some types of indigenous knowledge are dying out because of decreased need for them and a lack of interest from youth, who increasingly leave the village for jobs in the cities. Furthermore, formal Chinese state schooling “interferes with informal traditional learning.” Children must travel a distance from their villages to attend state schools, removing them from traditional learning opportunities in the home and workplace. The curriculum in state schools is standardized across China and holds little relevance to the lives of the Na. Na children are required to learn Mandarin Chinese, Chinese and global history, and Han values, as opposed to their native language, local history, and indigenous values. Methods of instruction rely on rote learning rather than experiential learning, as employed in Na villages.
Several individuals and organizations pay for children's school fees and build new schools in an attempt to increase village children's access to education. Yet such well-intended actions do not affect the schools’ curriculum, which means there is no improvement in the sustainability of the children's native cultures. As a result, such actions may actually “be contributing to the demise of the very culture” they are trying to preserve.
Many organizations work to promote indigenous methods of education. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples makes particular reference to the educational rights of indigenous peoples in Article 14. It emphasizes the responsibility of states to adequately provide access to education for indigenous people, particularly children, and when possible, for education to take place within their own culture and to be delivered in their own language.
Indigenous peoples have founded and actively run several of these organizations. On a global scale, many of these organizations engage in active knowledge transfer in an effort to protect and promote indigenous knowledge and education modes. One such organization, the Indigenous Education Institute (IEI), aims to apply indigenous knowledge and tradition to a contemporary context, with a particular focus on astronomy and other science disciplines. Another such organization is the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC), which was launched during the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education (WIPCE) at Delta Lodge, Kananakis Calgary in Alberta, Canada in August 2002. The founding members were Australia, Hawai’i, Alaska, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium of the United States, Canada, the Wänanga of Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Saamiland (North Norway). The stated aims of WINHEC include the provision of an international forum for indigenous peoples to pursue common goals through higher education.
- Alternative education
- Bilingual education
- Traditional knowledge
- Indigenous language
- Indigenous peoples
- Traditional ecological knowledge
- Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- Traditional knowledge
- Indigenous rights
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- In the Canadian province of Manitoba for instance, collaborative efforts between the government and post-secondary institutions (both universities and colleges) has resulted in the implementation of 13 Access Programs (spanning several disciplines and program focus areas). These Access programs often place emphasis on indigenous methods and content in the delivery of post-secondary education and training, while also providing students with a variety of other culturally sensitive supports (such as elders and mentors) in order to enhance their success in higher education. Advocates of such programs will often highlight the fact that, between 2001/02 and 2005/06 (most recent available data) a total of 800 students successfully graduated from these programs with post-secondary credentials, while an average of 70.8 per cent of all students enrolled during these same years were Aboriginal. Statistics cited according to pp. 141–143 of the Manitoba Council on Post-Secondary Education Statistical Compendium For the Academic Years Ending in 2006  According to these advocates, the inclusion of indigenous models of education in those Access Programs that are intended for Aboriginal learners, is an important factor contributing to the completion of post-secondary education for the estimated 566 Aboriginal students who would not otherwise have been likely to achieve this same level of success.
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