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Scanned-Digitized Version
Thomas (Tom) R. Hopkins

Original Citation
Meriam, Lewis. THE PROBLEM OF INDIAN ADMINISTRATION. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928, 872 pp.


Teaching Methods in Indian Schools. An understanding of modern less formal methods of teaching is greatly needed in the Indian Service. Indian schools should at least reach the level of better public schools in this respect. This is especially necessary because the best modern teaching, especially with young children, takes into account the kind of personality problems that are basic in the education of Indians.

Need for Knowledge of Modern Methods. Although there are some striking exceptions, principals and teachers in Indian schools as a rule are not acquainted with modern developments in teaching, though " educational leave " has brought some improvement. The impression a visitor almost inevitably gets upon entering the classroom of an Indian school is that here is a survival of methods and schoolroom organization belonging in the main to a former period. The nailed-down desks, in rows; the old-type "recitation"; the unnatural formality between teacher and pupil, the use of mechanistic words and devices, as "class rise !," "class pass! "; the lack of enriching materials, such as reading books and out-of-doors material, all suggest a type of school-keeping that still exists, of course, but has been greatly modified in most modern school systems, if not abandoned altogether, as the result of what has been made known in the past twenty-five years about learning and behavior.

This condition is, of course, only what one would expect from what has already been said about personnel. If methods of teaching in Indian schools, with a few conspicuous exceptions, are old-fashioned, without, for the most part, the redeeming quality of " thoroughness" that some of the old-time teaching is supposed to have had, it is due almost entirely to the lack of training standards and professional personnel. An encouraging feature of the situation is that here and there one does find interesting and successful efforts to get away from the formal and routine in teaching; a first-grade teacher trained under Montessori getting a delightful spontaneous activity out of her little Indian children; young college women coming back from a summer-session demonstration school touched with the newer way and struggling to put the new ideas into practice; still other teachers using the Indian interest and talent in art to give Indians a creative opportunity; a principal and group of boarding school teachers demonstrating that Navajo children, proverbially so shy that they hang their heads and will not speak in the presence of visitors, can in a few short months, with the abandonment of the stiff furniture and stiffer military routine characteristic of government boarding schools, become as lively human beings as any white children. These suggest the possibilities if personnel can be improved, if teachers can be helped by supervisors and staff specialists who know better methods, and if every effort is made to keep the education of the Indian in the stream of modern education development instead of isolated from it.

Study of the Individual Child. Perhaps the most characteristic fact about modern education is the attention given to study of the individual child and the effort to meet his needs. This is the real justification for intelligence testing and for the whole measurement movement. Given more knowledge on the part of the school and teacher of the health of the child, of his abilities, of the home conditions from which he comes, it should be possible to help him more satisfactorily to capitalize on what he has for his own sake and for the sake of society. So little measurement work has been done in government Indian schools that one danger in the measurement movement has not developed to any extent, but it needs to be borne in mind: Testing, particularly intelligence testing, should never be used in a school as a means of denying opportunity, but only as a means of directing opportunities more wisely. Most of the talk about some Indian children "not being worthy of an education beyond the grades" is indefensible. It is based on a misconception of the reason why society furnishes schooling at all. Discovery of low mental ability in any child, white or Indian, no more relieves society of the responsibility of educating him than diagnosis of a weak heart by a physician would relieve society from giving the person thus diagnosed a chance at life—in both cases the diagnosis becomes the first step in a process of improvement. It is at least as necessary in the case of Indian youth as in the case of white, perhaps more necessary, that the Indian's capacities and traits, whatever they are, shall be developed to the full; that he may become an asset rather than a liability to the community.

Using Tests in the "Regular Subjects." In the Indian schools not even the most elementary use has as yet been made of either intelligence testing or objective tests of achievement in the types of knowledge and skills that are usually referred to as the "regular school subjects." Thus reading, the one basic tool for the intellectual processes, is seldom taught with the resources that modern research in this field has put at the disposal of teachers. " Silent reading " is seldom understood or utilized, and the large number of supplementary readers that are always available for the use of children in a good modern primary room are almost never found in an Indian school. Some of the texts used in teaching reading antedate modern scientific work in this field, and even teachers who have recently been at summer schools and know better find it difficult to get what they need. Few, if any, of the teachers in Indian schools develop their own reading materials out of the life about them, as do many successful primary teachers of the newer type.

Almost the only use made of achievement tests with Indian children is found in public schools, though such testing is almost the only way in which questions as to the effectiveness of the half-day plan, the platoon plan, and other schemes involving the tool subjects can be answered. A practical way to improve this situation, apart from encouraging attendance upon summer sessions and visits to other schools, would be to develop close relations between Indian schools and nearby universities, such as already has been begun at Haskell Institute. Perhaps the most obvious example of the lack of utilization of the modern testing movement is in connection with the annual examinations. If examinations are to be used at all in this way, they should at least be formulated in accord with modern principles. A staff person at Washington familiar with measurement procedure could straighten out this testing business and direct considerable valuable work in the schools by teachers and other workers.

Emotional Behavior and Teaching Methods. Recently efforts to analyze and measure "mental ability," or intelligence in the restricted sense, have been supplemented by a very great interest in understanding other elements in the lives of human beings that are usually described as "emotional behavior " and "personality." Although the terms may be subject to criticism, there can be no question as to the significance of the thing itself. Important though it is that human society should be interested in "intelligence" in the narrow sense, and especially make better opportunities for gifted children than it now does, the fact remains that for the everyday concerns of life emotional reactions are much more important. Unless teaching methods take these into account they cannot succeed in the fundamental educational task of affecting human behavior to better ends. Members of the survey staff were struck with the fact that this is particularly the case with regard to Indians, but that Indian schools and those in charge of Indian affairs generally have given almost no attention to the problems that are involved. Nearly every boarding school visited furnished disquieting illustrations of failure to understand the underlying principles of human behavior. Punishments of the most harmful sort are bestowed in sheer ignorance, often in a sincere attempt to be of help. Routinization is the one method used for everything; though all that we know indicates its weakness as a method in education. If there were any real knowledge of how human beings are developed through their behavior we should not have in the Indian boarding schools the mass movements from dormitory to dining room, from dining room to classroom, from classroom back again, all completely controlled by external authority; we should hardly have children from the smallest to the largest of both sexes lined up in military formation; and we would certainly find a better way of handling boys and girls than to lock the door to the fire-escape of the girls' dormitory.

Methods Depend Upon Personnel. Teachers already in service can be helped to better teaching methods to some extent, but in the end the problem of method comes back again to that of personnel. Teachers prepared in the better teachers' colleges and schools of education would not have to be told that there are more scientific methods than are now used in Indian schools. Their training would lead them to keep constantly in touch with educational journals and other sources of information on changes in education. If, in turn, the principals of schools were better equipped they would know how to direct more effectively the efforts of teachers who already understand better methods. And unless the administration of the Indian jurisdiction is in the hands of a superintendent sufficiently trained to understand how to let qualified technicians in health, education, and social work do their own work, even properly equipped employees cannot carry on their activities effectively. The matter reaches still further back, of course, to the office at Washington. With staff specialists constantly in touch with educational changes, ready to advise and encourage in experimentation and prepared to help teachers keep alive on developments, newer methods are bound to come. It is significant that the few signs of better methods in the Indian schools are in those fields, namely in domestic arts and in nursing, where there is the beginning of professional aid at the central office.


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Last modified April 24, 2008