Monroe Helps Advance Quality Education for Indian Students in Montana

Eula Monroe

The Department of Teacher Education (TEd) at BYU aims to prepare competent, caring, and reflective educators who contribute to the growth and development of children and youth of all cultures and backgrounds. Eula Monroe, a mathematics teacher educator in the TEd department, is committed to culturally responsive mathematics education, not only in her on-campus teaching, but also in the professional development she provides at other sites.

One of these sites is the Montana Public School System, where Monroe has consistently advocated for meaningful Native American education, traveling there each summer since 1985 to give workshops to teachers with Native American students in their classrooms.

Montana is the fourth largest state in the nation in land area, but has fewer than a million people. Of these, about 90% are white, with the largest minority being Native American (typically identified as either Indian or Native in Montana). In 1999 the Montana state legislature launched Indian Education for All, which mandates that all children in the public school system learn Indian education. Monroe has played an integral part in helping teachers of these students provide quality education focused on the specific learning needs of Native students in the classroom.

“Montana teachers have had many professional development opportunities to learn about Native groups—meaning their histories, cultures, games, foods, etc.,” Monroe said. “But one thing Montana hasn’t done a lot with yet is to help teachers learn about Native ways of knowing or learning. Culture affects ways of knowing, and Native ways of knowing are not necessarily the ways of knowing that help [non-Native] children thrive in classroom settings, particularly the more traditional ones.”

It is important for teachers to have knowledge of Native groups and to use that knowledge in lesson planning, but Monroe emphasizes the greater need for understanding how Natives learn mathematics. Monroe focuses on getting teachers to incorporate culturally responsive pedagogy for their Indian students. Some key points of culturally responsive pedagogy in mathematics education for Native learners have been identified by Judith Hankes (2000), a Native American mathematics educator. They are contrasted with dominant cultural pedagogy in the following table, which is adapted from Hankes’ work in this area.


Instruction Focus Area Dominant Culture Pedagogy *Native American Pedagogy
Role of the Teacher Teachers generally behave in a didactic manner, disseminating information to students. The facilitating teacher role promotes cooperative and autonomous learning. Conversational topics are not controlled by individual speakers.
Student to Student Interaction Students primarily work alone. Caretaking patterns of extended families and bonded community interactions are replicated in group learning experiences.
Curriculum Curricular activities rely heavily on textbooks and workbooks. Lessons relate to real problems that will likely confront the student.
Time The day is partitioned out into blocks of time and content coverage. Time on task is considered important. Instruction/learning is time-generous rather than time-driven. When an activity should begin is determined by when the activity that precedes it is completed.
Concept Formation Concepts are presented part-to-whole with emphasis on basic skills. All knowledge is relational, presented whole-to-part not part-to-whole. Just as the circle produces harmony, holistic thinking promotes sense-making.
View of Learner Students [may be] viewed as blank slates onto which information is etched by the teacher. Each student possesses Creator-given strengths and is born a thinker with a life mission.
Assessment Student assessment is viewed as separate from teaching and occurs almost entirely through testing. Testing often stratifies students and promotes competition. Age and ability determine task appropriateness. Learning mastery is demonstrated through performance. Creator ordained mission determines one’s role in life; no one mission is better than another. Competition and situating one as better than another is discouraged.

*Most of the ideas in this column are roughly congruent with the reform-based recommendations of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (2000) for helping all children learn mathematics. Many districts and classrooms across the United States are moving toward a reform-based perspective.

For Monroe, the key is to teach teachers what to do with cultural information. Understanding the implications of cultural differences is crucial for teachers who must alter current teaching strategies or develop new ones to help their Native students be successful. Sometimes a solution may be as simple as contextualizing math problems within Native cultures: presenting problems in ways that deal with what Native children know about, believe, accept, and do. Then all students in the classroom can be encouraged to solve the problems in ways that make sense to them.

When implementing culturally relevant pedagogy, teachers may need to modify ways they interact with their students. For example, teachers will often challenge a student’s ideas to help him or her further shape or build a mathematical argument. However, since Native children are typically taught to hold their elders in high regard, many will not openly disagree with a teacher. Thus this teaching strategy, although a good one in many contexts, may inhibit rather than strengthen a Native child’s thinking. Similarly, when a teacher asks a question and expects students to volunteer answers, she or he must understand that because of a less competitive and more contemplative upbringing, many Native children spend time thinking the issue through before considering any participation at all. Monroe helps teachers learn how to work with differences like these in order to provide quality education for all students in the classroom.

Monroe says she enjoys working with teachers who serve populations who seem to need special help in order to succeed. “The Native American population is one of those populations that has historically been unsuccessful in conventional school settings,” Monroe elaborated, “but not because Natives are incapable of succeeding. We need to break through those barriers that keep children from learning in ways that are innate and familiar to them to help them become who and what they’re capable of becoming.”

5 January 2010