An Outline of Indigenous Teaching and Learning Orientations (from Gregory Cajete, Look to the Mountain)

One of the most important elements of Indigenous teaching and learning revolves around "learning how to learn." Learning how to learn is a key element in every approach to education. Therefore, the cultivation of the human capacities listening, observing, experiencing with all one's senses, developing intuitive understanding, and respecting time-tested traditions of learning naturally formed the basis for skills used in every process of Indigenous learning and teaching.

Native American people in both North and South America developed a variety of approaches to teaching and learning. These approaches ranged from loosely organized informal contexts in hunter-gatherer tribes, to formally organized academies of the Aztecs, Maya, Inca and other groups of Mexico, Central, and South America. Whatever the approach, there was a continuum of education in Tribal American societies that involved an array of ritual/initiatory practices, closely following the human phases of maturation and development. In each phase of this continuum, an important aspect of learning how to learn was internalized. Learning how to learn in Tribal societies unfolded around the following four basic areas of orientation.

First, the attention to practical needs of the Tribal society, which systematically addressed learning related to physical, social, psychological, and spiritual needs of Tribal members. The most important of these were learning how to survive in the natural environment and learning how to be a productive member of the Tribal society.

Second, the teaching of individuals in individual ways when they showed the readiness or expressed the willingness to learn. The emphasis was on allowing for the uniqueness of individual learning styles and encouraging the development of self-reliance and self-determination.

Third, the application of special intellectual, ritual, psychological, and spiritual teaching tools that facilitated deep levels of learning and understanding. Indigenous teaching was predicated on three basic criteria: flexibility, viability, and effectiveness.

Fourth, the honoring and facilitating of the psychological and transformational process of flowering or opening to self-knowledge and the natural capacities of learning. This was usually accomplished by helping individuals overcome their self-generated impediments to learning.

The list of Indigenous axioms that follows represents the wisdom and creative approaches applied by Tribal teachers in creating an educational process that reflected a sophisticated ecology of education. Indigenous education allowed for a diversity of sophisticated teaching tools that few modern educational approaches are able to duplicate in breadth and creativity. These interpretations of Indigenous teaching axioms are derived from a host of readings and observations related to Indigenous education in American Indian, Sufi, Taoist, and East Indian teaching traditions. They are presented in a simplified form with a minimum of description in the hope that teachers will apply their creative interpretations based on the development of their own lessons and curricula. As processes, these axioms are applicable to the holistic presentation of any content and adaptable to every age level.

  1. Tribal teachers begin teaching by building on the commonplace. We have common experiences, understandings, and human traits that can be used to pose a problem in terms, forms, or experiences that are familiar to students.

  2. Remember that learning is a natural instinct and that success in learning something new is tied to human feelings of self-worth. Create a learning environment that flows with this natural current of humanness. Enabling successful learning is an essential step in cultivating motivation and enhancing self-confidence in learning.

  3. Basic understanding begins with exploring how things happen. Observing how things happen in the natural world is the basis of some of the most ancient and spiritually profound teachings of Indigenous cultures. Nature is the first teacher and model of process. Learning how to see Nature enhances our capacity to see other things.

  4. The focus of teaching on perennial phenomena, such as solar and lunar cycles, stimulates the deepest level of learning how to learn and the development of self-knowledge.

  5. Indigenous teaching focuses as much on learning with the heart as on learning with the mind.

  6. Indigenous teaching facilitates learning how to see how one really is rather than an image manufactured through one's or other's egos. This real perception of self helps the student realize that they are essentially responsible for the barriers to their own learning.

  7. The real situation provides the stage for most Indigenous learning and teaching. Overt intellectualization is kept to a minimum in favor of direct experience and learning by doing. Teaching through a real situation expands the realm of learning beyond speculation and allows the students to judge the truth of a teaching for themselves.

  8. Readiness to learn is considered a basic determinant for the success or failure of a teaching. Indigenous teachers recognize that readiness for learning important things has to be conditioned through repetition and the attunement of the student to the teaching. They watch for moments of teachability and repeat the teaching of' key principles in numerous ways and at various times.

  9. Placing students in situations in which they constantly have to examine assumptions and confront preconceived notions is a regular practice of Indigenous teachers. Through facilitating this constant examination of what students think they know, they remain open to new dimensions of learning and prepare for higher levels of thinking and creative synthesis.

  10. Indigenous teaching is always associated with organic development. Indigenous teaching is planted like a seed, then nurtured and cultivated through the relationship of teacher and student until it bears fruit. The nature and quality of' the relationship and perseverance through time determine the outcome of a teaching process. Apprenticeship, and learning through ritual stages of learning readiness, are predicated on the metaphor of' planting seeds and nurturing the growing seedlings through time.

  11. Teaching is a communicative art. Indigenous teaching is based on the nature and quality of communicating at all levels of being. Indigenous teachers practice the art of communicating through language, relationship to social and natural environments, art, play, and ritual.

  12. Teaching and learning is a matter of serving and being served. Service is the basis of the relationship between student and teacher. This foundation is exemplified most completely in the apprentice-teacher relationships found in all expressions of Indigenous education.

  13. Indigenous teaching involves making students think comprehensively and facilitating their awareness of the higher levels of content and its relationship to other areas of knowledge. Such comprehensive thinking forms a firm foundation for the creative process of teaching and learning. Comprehensive preparation and immersion in a learning process invite new understandings. They allow perceptions of dimensions of knowledge that are there all the time but need to be worked before they reveal themselves.

  14. Indigenous practices such as creative dreaming, art, ritual, and ceremony help the student externalize inner thoughts and qualities for examination. Such practices help students to establish a connection with their real selves and learn how to bring their inner resources to bear in their lives. Helping students gain access to their real selves is part of the transformative education that is inherent in Indigenous teaching.

  15. Indigenous teaching revolves around some form of work. Indigenous teachers recognize that work invites concentration and facilitates a quietness of the mind. This leads to illuminating insights about what is being taught.

  16. Tribal teachers understand that all teaching is relative, and each path of knowledge has its own requirements that need to be addressed. Flexibility and learning how to adjust to the demands of the moment are key skills cultivated throughout Indigenous education.

  17. Learning about the nature of self-deception is a key aspect of Indigenous preparation for learning. A first step in understanding the nature of true learning is reaching a level of clarity regarding why one is learning. Students become aware that ambition, self-gratification, power, and control as purposes for learning are forms of self-deception. These have to he avoided because they lead to misuse of knowledge and further perpetuation of self-deception.

  18. Tribal teachers realize that striving for real knowledge requires a cultivated sense of humility. The human tendencies toward pride, arrogance, and ego-inflation have to be understood and avoided in the search for one's true face, heart, and vocation.

  19. Mirroring consequences of a teaching back to students to expand their perspective and deepen their learning is often used in Indigenous education. Tribal teachers facilitate learning through direct, and at times provoked, perception. They do this by setting up a situation that forces students to see the limitations of what they thought they knew. In this way, students are encouraged to reach deeper into themselves and realize the deeper levels of meaning represented by a teaching. This practice helps students cultivate the humility necessary for maintaining an openness to new learning and the creative possibilities of a teaching.

  20. The cultivation of humility prepares a foundation for the students to learn the nature of attention. Attention may be considered a foundation of Indigenous learning in that almost every context from learning basic hunting and fishing skills, to memorizing the details of ritual, to listening to story, to mastering a traditional art form relied on its practiced application. Attention in the Indigenous sense has to do with the focus of all the senses. Seeing, listening, feeling, smelling, hearing, and intuiting are developed and applied in the Indigenous perspective of attention.

  21. Learning the nature of appropriate activity is a natural consideration of Indigenous teaching. Activity in Indigenous life always has a purpose. Busy work is not a concept Tribal teachers are interested in perpetuating, since helping students learn to engage in activity appropriate to the situation is a skill required for more advanced Indigenous teaching.

  22. Knowledge and action are considered parts of the same whole. Properly contexted and developed knowledge leads to balance in terms of action. Therefore, to assure the integrity and rightness of an action, a great amount of time is spent reflecting and seeking information and understanding before forming an opinion or taking an action. Prayer, deep reflection, patience, and "waiting for the second thought" are regularly practiced in Indigenous decision making.

  23. A concept of "each person's work," akin to the Hindu concept of "karma," is honored in the processes of Indigenous education. Indigenous teachers see that each student is unique and has a path of learning that they need to travel during their life. Learning the nature of that path is many times the focus of Indigenous rites of initiation and vision questing. The trials, tribulations, and work that become a part of each individual's learning path constitute the basis for some of the most important contexts of Indigenous teaching and learning.

  24. From the Indigenous perspective, true learning and gaining significant knowledge does not come without sacrifice and at times a deep wound. Indigenous teachers realize that only by experiencing extreme hard-ship and trauma are some individuals ready to reach their maximum level of learning development. The ritual incorporation of life's hard-ships into such ceremonies as the Sun Dance transforms the reality of woundedness into a context for learning and reflection. In this way, the wound or traumatic life-event is mobilized to serve as a constant reminder of an important teaching. As long as the wound or the repercussions of an event are used to symbolize something deeply important to know and understand, they provide a powerful source for renewal, insight, and the expansion of individual consciousness.

In summary, a primary orientation of Indigenous education is that each person is their own teacher and that learning is connected to each individual's life process. Meaning is looked for in everything, especially in the workings of the natural world. All things comprising Nature are teachers of mankind; what is required is a cultivated and practiced openness to the lessons that the world has to teach. Ritual, mythology, and the art of storytelling combined with the cultivation of relationship to one's inner self, family, community, and natural environment are utilized to help individuals realize their potential for learning and living a complete life. Individuals are enabled to reach completeness by learning how to trust their natural instincts, to listen, to look, to create, to reflect and see things deeply, to understand and apply their intuitive intelligence, and to recognize and honor the teacher of spirit within themselves and the natural world. This is the educational legacy of Indigenous people. It is imperative that its message and its way of educating be revitalized for Life's sake.

Look to the Mountain, Look to the Mountain!

Gregory Cajete, Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, 2004.

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