International Review of Education

, Volume 65, Issue 1, pp 47–65 | Cite as

Raising the standard for testing research-based interventions in Indigenous learning communities

  • Sharon Nelson-BarberEmail author
  • Zanette Johnson
Original Paper


Preserving the unique contours of cultural communities is integral to the rich weave of our collective human heritage. However, the postcolonial United States (US) educational paradigm, reflected in curricula and standards based on white middle-class norms, has a flattening effect on the vibrancy of diverse languages and community traditions. Based on their own research, the authors demonstrate that, for distinctive populations like Indigenous groups, research-based educational interventions can actively inhibit learner achievement and suppress cultural vitality. This article presents examples of how Diné (Navajo) public schools are affected at system, teacher and individual levels, illustrating how, in a specific cultural milieu, some research-based “best practices” are not in fact for the best. Each example highlights some of the ways in which “understanding context” is an essential ingredient paving the way for student success. The authors argue that in order to optimise the potency of educational innovations developed for Indigenous learners, interventions must adhere to a higher standard of assessment practice. They suggest employing local testing and incorporating stakeholder opinions as part of the strategic design of measuring students’ learning progress, as a way of responding to the particular needs and dispositions of a community’s unique learners.


Indigenous learning communities Research-based educational interventions Self-determination Comprehensive school reform Assessment strategies 


Rehausser les normes de contrôle des interventions fondées sur la recherche dans les communautés apprenantes autochtones – La préservation des spécificités uniques des communautés culturelles est essentielle au tissu précieux de notre patrimoine humain collectif. Néanmoins, le modèle éducatif postcolonial des États-Unis d’Amérique, reflété dans les normes et les programmes scolaires élaborés à partir des critères d’une classe moyenne blanche, a un effet destructeur sur la vitalité des diverses langues et traditions communautaires. À partir de leur propre étude, les auteures démontrent que pour des populations distinctes telles que les groupes autochtones, les interventions éducatives fondées sur la recherche peuvent inhiber activement les performances des apprenants et supprimer le dynamisme culturel. L’article présente des exemples de cette influence sur les écoles publiques Diné (navajo) au niveau de l’individu, des enseignants et du système, et illustrent que dans un milieu culturel spécifique certaines « meilleures pratiques » fondées sur la recherche ne sont en réalité pas les meilleures. Chaque exemple éclaire certaines situations où la « compréhension du contexte » est un ingrédient essentiel qui ouvre la voie à la réussite de l’apprentissage. Les auteures avancent que, pour optimiser l’effet des innovations éducatives conçues pour les apprenants autochtones, les interventions doivent être ajustées à des normes supérieures pour la pratique de l’évaluation. Elles proposent d’utiliser l’évaluation autochtone et d’intégrer les opinions des parties prenantes dans la conception stratégique de la mesure des progrès d’apprentissage, répondant ainsi aux aptitudes et besoins particuliers des apprenants uniques d’une communauté.


Forced assimilation, removal from homes and ancestral lands, language bans, and colonial and military schooling have created a legacy of cultural trauma that continues in present-day United States (US) with cultural disrespect (e.g., mining at Oak Flat, an Apache sacred site in Arizona),1 the deliberate transgression of Native lands (e.g., Dakota Access Pipeline oil spills)2 and criminal neglect (e.g., the epidemic of rape and murder of Indigenous women that goes uninvestigated).3

The unrelieved, ongoing intensity of this cultural wounding has required a great deal of energy simply for survival, and shifted the focus away from proactive community efforts. However, it has also motivated many Indigenous communities to organise campaigns and promote self-determination (see, for instance, Idle No More and Kū Kiaʻī Mauna).4 There is evidence that emotional, mental, cultural and spiritual health indicators improve among peoples engaging in efforts towards revitalisation and cultural perpetuation (Trimble et al. 2014; LaFromboise et al. 2006). Researchers need to follow the lead of how these diverse communities feel it is best to proceed. Our own experience with research in Indigenous communities tells us that Indigenous methodology, which prioritises Indigenous voices, is the most suitable approach to take, since the debate and direction of the research is for the communities to decide. It is a process that must foreground their wisdom, expertise and perspectives.

We reclaim self-determination every time we speak our languages and practise our ceremonies; it is present each time consider Indigenous ways of knowing in contrast to colonial or dominant-paradigm models and make an intentional choice about which one makes more sense to apply for the context in hand. This kind of deliberate decision-making from a place of alignment within an Indigenous knowledge system is an essential element of educational processes, if we are to create room for biocultural diversity to flourish. Preserving the unique contours of cultural communities is integral to the rich weave of our collective human heritage.

However, the postcolonial US educational paradigm, reflected in curricula and standards based on white middle-class norms, has a flattening effect on the vibrancy of diverse languages and community traditions. As Diane Ravitch (2016) argues, the pressure to create a national curriculum in the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI),5 finalised and introduced in 2010, suppresses that diversity as it promotes uniform ideas of excellence and discourages true equity in favour of the appearance of “equalness”.

Although their freedom has always been constrained, until the expansion of federal involvement in local education that was set in motion by President George H. W. Bush during the 1990s, there was some level of protection for remote Indigenous communities in rural, island or arctic locations, where it was evident that heritage traditions and language formed a key aspect of community integrity. Local school administrators exercised their own decision-making to some degree, in some cases informed by community stakeholders. But under the federal reach of the No Child Left Behind Act (GoUSA 2002), the Every Student Succeeds Act (GoU 2015)6 and the Common Core State Standards there is little room for even that small measure of local control. As Indigenous educators persist and resist, we are nurturing the treasured human wisdom that is richly represented among the Indigenous communities of the world – true wealth that forms a foundational resource for our survival in the current era of rapid change and climate instability.

The lateral thinking7 embedded within diverse cultures is a key asset as we pursue diverse solution strategies to help Homo sapiens8 adapt and survive during a critical period in the Anthropocene.9 According to Edward de Bono,

The purpose of thinking is to collect information and to make the best possible use of it. Because of the way the mind works to create fixed concept patterns, we cannot make the best use of new information unless we have some means for restructuring the old patterns and bringing them up to date (De Bono 1970, p. 14).

Applied to culture and education, it is clear that their roles complement each other:

Culture is concerned with establishing ideas. Education is concerned with communicating those established ideas. Both are concerned with improving ideas by bringing them up to date (ibid., p. 9).


The shifting sands created by the Common Core State Standards Initiative in the US have been so intense and long-lasting that now it is not uncommon for school districts and teachers to throw up their hands and wonder, “Where can we begin to make a difference?”

New tests, new technologies and new standards are fuelling the ever-changing landscape for schools, leaving little room for pedagogical growth, and limiting time for reflection and action research on the part of teachers. Many learning communities are looking to educational researchers for evidence on promising innovations to direct them, and have rushed to integrate new research-supported alternatives like computer-adaptive assessments that pledge to improve student performance on high-stakes tests. However, many of the available scientifically research-based innovations fail to account for a fundamental variable in their effectiveness, namely: context.

Governmental emphasis on the scientific study of educational methods intensified with the No Child Left Behind Act (GoUSA 2002), making randomised controlled trials in educational research an urgent priority. However, this new focus had an adverse impact on Indigenous students (Winstead et al. 2008). As Douglas Medin and Megan Bang (2014) point out, it is not the norms and values of non-dominant communities which drive the development of scientific educational interventions. Instead, tests of interventions are based on established white middle-class norms, thus putting students who have to accommodate to cultural differences at a disadvantage. Despite colonisation and the assimilative practices of the past, which were targeted to extinguish heritage languages, practices and identity (e.g., forced removal of children from their homes to boarding schools),10 Indigenous communities maintain their own established norms, values and lifeways (Brave Heart and DeBruyn 1998; Nelson-Barber and Trumbull 2016; McCarty and Lee 2014).

As we have noted elsewhere (Nelson-Barber and Johnson 2016), when mainstream assumptions are encoded into educational norms, this poses challenges for Indigenous students, who must bridge the gap in areas like

community values, worldview and epistemology, modes of discourse (rhetorical style, questioning style, interactional style including nonverbal communication), participation in cultural practices, environmental knowledge, sense of place, low/high classroom status, socioeconomic status, identity strength, and teacher/student roles (ibid., p. 45).

Indigenous students should not bear the weight of always having to adapt; educational leaders and researchers need to take on greater responsibility for creating a wider range of learning processes and resources that can be shown to be accessible to all students. While the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA; GoUSA 2015) has promised a heightened decision-making focus at the local level, in effect, little has changed in assessment practice, or for Indigenous learners. Similarly, although strategies for guidance and technical assistance around culturally inclusive practices have been developed in some states;11 only a few states, with the exception of Montana’s 1999 Indian Education for All (IEFA) legislation (Montana State 1999), have formal expectations for teachers. In other words, teachers are expected to use “recommended” strategies in a context where major state-level policies, like “English only”,12 run in direct opposition to those recommendations, as well as counteracting the aims of Indigenous educators.

The use of scientific methods in educational research is widely accepted and governmentally encouraged; however, scholars continue to debate whether its use is even appropriate (Shavelson and Towne 2002), given the diverse variables within learning contexts, which cannot be mapped effectively in controlled experiments. The National Center for Education Research13 recognises this and promotes a more nuanced view in pursuit of its mission to gather scientific evidence of “what works for whom and under what conditions” (NCSER and NCER 2016, p. 8). We must unmask the convenient illusion that a single set of “solutions” will ever be found. We take the position that emerging practices and technologies must be specifically examined as they operate within specific communities across diverse contexts. This article seeks to illuminate how large-scale educational research can be misused and misapplied when generalised without local testing in communities with unique features, needs and contours. The examples that follow communicate some of the effects of misapplied educational research findings, and explain how detrimental outcomes for learners can result from using innovations that are scientifically proven to be “best practices”.


This article recounts and extends our recent research (Nelson-Barber and Johnson 2016) which was designed to find out what teachers believe to be particularly beneficial for student growth in their local community contexts. We sought initially to identify the kinds of pedagogical practices that teachers found effective for Diné [Navajo]14 learners; then we expanded our study to include what the teachers emphasised, namely that student achievement increases when teachers employ cultural integration strategies in lieu of so-called “best practices”.

Over a three-year period, we held a series of meetings with practising Diné educators from across the Navajo Nation who were earning their Master’s degrees and Native language certifications as members of a dual language teacher preparation programme. Our respondents were teaching at a diverse set of community-controlled, contract, charter, public and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)15 schools. Throughout the research period, we conducted individual and group interviews and focus group discussions with 30 educators, visited 18 Diné schools, and observed classroom teaching across communities. The personal stories we collected included information about teaching practices, successes, past experiences as students, current professional challenges, and dreams. In these interviews, our respondents characterised “culture teaching” as indistinguishable from and fundamentally integrated with content area knowledge. Due to our noticing the prevalence of this pattern early on, we inquired more broadly about what they felt was important for Navajo learners’ success. In doing so, we incorporatied Indigenous research methodology (Kovach 2010; Tuhiwai Smith 2013), and privileged the voices of Indigenous participants.

We also applied qualitative analytical methods (Spradley 1979; Glaser and Strauss 1967; Bogdan and Biklen 1998) that yielded teacher accounts of the many ways in which schools’ implementation of district and state guidelines through compulsory research-based solutions did not result in Indigenous learner success. We used a grounded theory16 approach to develop a conceptual framework (Fig. 1) that models the many aspects that influence the cultural community where our respondents teach (DeGroat et al. 2015).
Fig. 1

Creating an ecology of support for Indigenous learners’ success

The conceptions of teaching and learning that emerged from the perspectives of our respondents differ substantially from current “conventional” and “dominant” models in the US. The strategies some of these Diné teachers were using successfully to boost Indigenous student achievement were very specific and community-culture-oriented; yet, many expressed that there were eminent constraints that kept them from fully enacting (and further developing) the strategies they knew to be beneficial for student learning.

Our respondents identified myriad ways to shape the relationships, communication pathways, institutional structures and curricular conditions inside the system so that they could fully implement promising practices that make use of local wisdom in content areas to promote content excellence. In Fig. 1, these key relationships affecting teaching and learning (the inner group of yellow circles around the central circle) are represented in yellow. The dark blue entries (the arrows on the octagon) denote areas of opportunity where needs can be met by providing better access to information, research and technical assistance for teachers and communities. The green circles (around the outside of the octagon) represent desired features that would characterise a system that supports optimal implementation of culture- and language-based teaching. It is also important to draw attention to the structure of the Figure as a whole, which represents the eight-sided hooghan, a traditional Navajo dwelling.


The Indigenous teacher interviews revealed several areas where concerns converged, and one of the key issues was the ineffectiveness of “best practices” in Navajo communities. The examples we present in this section identify salient patterns of how research-based strategies and “best practices” fail to promote Indigenous learner achievement at system, teacher and individual levels.

System level: Family involvement as a “best practice”

As reported in our previous work (Nelson-Barber and Johnson 2016), the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 emphasised the need for schools to involve families as partners in supporting children’s education. Research has found that family involvement is an important practice which fosters learner outcomes (Nelson-Barber and Johnson 2016; Weiss et al. 2010). However, Navajo teachers are finding it difficult to carry out family involvement activities in their communities, given the continual intrusion of factors like colonial education and assimilative schooling,17 differing cultural values regarding success, and diminishing intergenerational transmission of knowledge and fluency in the heritage language.

One widely accepted approach to promoting family involvement asks siblings and parents to engage in shared reading activities each day. Unfortunately, such exercises are an impediment to some families because of differences in language use patterns between Diné children, their parents and their grandparents; also, patterns of time at work can affect reading at home, and books may also be in short supply. Furthermore, traditional Indigenous methods of child-rearing focus on behaviours, interactions and conversations and approaches to literacy which may, at times, be in direct conflict with those found in conventional schooling. For example, community members may be unaccustomed to “active reading” approaches such as making predictions (about what might happen next in a story) or questioning (developing critical thinking skills). Due to the experience-based nature of Diné communication, it is often uncomfortable for older adults to discuss content with which they do not directly engage.

Although many teachers are fluent in and eager to use heritage language and specialised interactive protocols in the classroom, finding ways to authentically integrate such local knowledge can be deterred when schools ask them to model the stories, structures and skills on the dominant culture (Ladson-Billings 2014). As our respondents noted in our 2016 study (Nelson-Barber and Johnson 2016), community members use discourse styles in both Diné and English that are specific to their locale and do not necessarily align with the patterns presumed by “best practices”. Adverse consequences can occur when assumptions like these go unchallenged.

One teacher described an element of her Navajo family’s spiritual tradition that has been changing – the practice of waking up in the dawn hours and running eastward, towards the rising sun, to pray. She explained that although this had been a regular event for her family each morning when she was growing up, today’s parents and children rarely engage in this joint activity. As more and more elders pass on to the next world, fewer fully acculturated community members are around to model many of the cultural protocols. Heritage activities that are known to build Diné language and cultural identity are pushed out by pressure to use practices recommended on the strength of research findings based on dominant cultural contexts. This teacher was very concerned that many of the defining facets of Navajo life are becoming less visible in her community, and children are learning fewer cultural essentials. Given these inhibiting circumstances, it is becoming increasingly difficult to bring community knowledge into the classroom.

Historically, children were engaged from an early age in high-function heritage practices like gathering plants for medicine, livestock-herding or carrying water. Over time, these activities provided a series of prominent spaces for youth to acquire the Navajo worldview, including a sense of place and relationships that is fundamental to Diné identity. Traditional heritage language learning was an inseparable, foundational aspect of cultural and spiritual growth, a process led by grandparents through a process of intergenerational knowledge transmission. However, largely due to the cultural and historical trauma resulting from boarding school experience, many members of today’s older generations have had to embark as adults on a rediscovery of their identity, along with their experience of the enduring contributions of their people (Brave Heart and DeBruyn 1998). With the goal of easing ongoing trauma and paving the way for greater success in school and in life, many opted to speak only English to their children. This particular effort has also impeded the cycle of intergenerational learning so central to Navajo life. Today it continues to disrupt the normal socialisation of many children as competent participants in Navajo society and curbs their abilities to communicate with elder family members who speak only Diné bizaad (House 2005).

One of our respondents suggested that “family involvement” models might accommodate student learning in and out of school. Being resourceful in the use of different types of local, community-determined activities bears the potential of taking advantage of the locally and globally valued knowledges that exist in Diné communities. The teachers we interviewed in our study (Nelson-Barber and Johnson 2016) called for malleable formats, varied schedules and multiple learning destinations to improve learner performance and sustain quality Navajo cultural life.

Teacher level: Fidelity of implementation as a “best practice”

In ongoing efforts to improve students’ academic performance, many school districts across the US are seeking curricular and programmatic innovations already proven to boost learning. To fully execute these intentions and raise test scores in ways similar to those achieved in research trials, teachers are being asked to follow particular fidelity of implementation procedures. Though this is a sound area of focus for many learning communities, Navajo educators have definite ideas about particular conditions that can inhibit learner success. They reference contextual issues and concerns that must be addressed alongside any curricular or programme reforms.

A prevailing area of need is finding ways to lessen the cultural trauma that carries over into all aspects of a child’s life, including the classroom (Brave Heart et al. 2011; Benham and Heck 1998). Significant historical loss – of culture, language, identity, traditions – continuously impacts daily relationships, a child’s knowledge base, their understanding of their place in the community, in the family, their filial relations, to name but a few. These factors in turn influence how any programme or curriculum or test is received and whether or not students will benefit from it in terms of learning outcome. Crucially, educational authorities need to be aware of questions such as: How do recommended programmes account for cultural differences? Community-specific needs? Dialectal protocols? Social hierarchies?

The enduring, painful resonance of historically rooted cultural trauma is something that all educators in our study recognised; their primary recommendation was to explicitly acknowledge cultural trauma as a barrier to learning, and address it accordingly. Rather than maintaining fidelity to externally devised curricula or programmes as “best practice”, cultural integration was the critical action our respondents identified as the best mechanism to curtail the impact of cultural trauma on learning.

According to these Diné teachers, maintaining fidelity to nationally prescribed education programmes in Navajo communities creates a loss for learners who are not able to benefit from teachers’ cultural expertise. Informed Diné teachers are able to meld local traditions of Indigenous knowledge, ecology and heritage language with school-based “best practices” in ways that are context-sensitive – considering factors like the tribal heterogeneity or homogeneity of the group, the cultural identity of the authors whose texts are being taught, and the students’ interpretive frame for the content, etc. to enhance student experience (Kana‘iaupuni and Kawai‘ae‘a 2008).

Hawaiian teachers in Shawn Malia Kanaʻiaupuni and Brandon Ledward’s (2013) study of teacher practices at Native Hawaiian culture-based schools did just this. They combined conventional strategies of “best practice” with context-adaptive, culture-based approaches, providing higher quality instruction that better resonated with student understandings. Unlike these educators, the Diné teachers whose opinions we are presenting here had little to no license to make individual instructional decisions related to culture or to infusing heritage language into their lessons.

There are exceptions. After making a strong case for bringing place-based learning to his students, our respondent Brendan,18 a middle school-level Diné educator, was able to undertake his brand of culture teaching. One of his goals was to bring alive the scientific knowledge that is implicit in many of the heritage activities his students regularly engaged in, ranging from sheep herding to weather prediction. He also wanted to help them make connections between important rites and rituals and the cultural responsibilities that accompany seasonal changes. Essential to this approach were trips to cultural sites in the community. Brendan understood that academic content becomes clearer to students when it can be linked to real-life experiences and cultural understandings. This kind of skills development contributes to the growth of knowledgeable contributors to a harmonious Diné society.

While this approach was devised at teacher level, it is one of many strategies that can be used and adapted at system level to promote conceptual development and content learning in the formal education of youth, and it is particularly effective for Diné learners in spite of the fact that it does not resemble content delivery in other communities.

A different set of issues arose for Burke, another Diné culture teacher we interviewed in our study. On the surface, his primary-level classroom – a hooghan on campus – seemed ideal. He understood the importance of exposing his Grade 4–10 students to their heritage language and culture, and he delivered culture-focused material. However, culture-teaching is so much more than sharing words, artefacts and history. Burke also needs the pedagogical and structural latitude to organise his teaching in culturally aligned ways. For example, conventional structures like class period length do not allow the time needed to accommodate various culturally responsive practices, such as opening protocols, the iterative patterns of Navajo language or the distinctive pedagogy that is culturally sustaining. Burke was aware of the irony. Although the hooghan is characterised as a healing place, he was backed into a corner, following the rules of others and unable to fully execute what he knew could best support learning outcomes for his students.

This example illustrates reasons why fidelity of implementation cannot stand as an unexamined goal for Indigenous learning communities – it must be interrogated in relationship to the community contours that address the needs of learners and the assets that Indigenous teachers bring with them as professionals.

Individual learner level: Adoption of comprehensive school reform programmes as a “best practice”

Although many US school districts favour comprehensive school reform (CSR)19 programmes, research has yet to establish the impacts of these methods on student achievement (Borman et al. 2003; Vernez et al. 2006). Still, some educators do presume that the tightly regulated instructional approaches associated with these programmes are appropriate for diverse populations (Aladjem and Borman 2006; Ede 2006). As an example, Gloria Ladson-Billings (2014) points to teacher preparation for high-poverty schools that often centres on structure rather than on more innovative instructional and curricular processes. Amanda Datnow et al. note that “in some cases, educators’ beliefs about student ability, race, and language served as constraints to reform” (Datnow et al. 2003, p. 143), thus adding stereotyping as an additional factor alongside fidelity of implementation that contributes to the variable results of these programmes for diverse learners.

Below, this subsection contrasts two episodes of Diné teaching in high-performing upper primary classrooms – one illustrates instruction that is culturally situated and learner-directed and the other uses conventional CSR methodology.

In Briana’s CSR classroom, structure was abundant. Entering the room, one felt a strategic sense of “order” – from the conventional arrangement of student desks in rows to the level of control exhibited by the teacher. As youth sat quietly at their desks, talk was in English and strictly regulated with students kept on task via teacher directives and queries. Briana used verbal, vocal and gestural cues to alert students to key lesson content. There appeared to be little need for behaviour management, as students seemed to know and abide by classroom rules. For the most part, the noise level in the room was relatively low; there were very few extraneous student utterances – somewhat unusual for seven- and eight-year-olds. Bulletin boards and walls around the room were predictably filled with programme materials associated with the content being taught.

The atmosphere of close management, relative quiet, and passive learning in this classroom was striking. When exposed to the style of instruction modelled here, students learn that the teacher will distinguish for them the most meaningful information to take away from each lesson. Testing revealed that Briana’s students were high performers.

Not all teachers take the inflexible approach that Briana’s school does. In the second classroom (in a different school), the activity level was far more dynamic. Rather than positioned individually at their desks, Ashley’s fourth-grade students collaborated in small groups, then completed work collectively or individually, given their particular needs. When Ashley addressed the group as a whole, she provided visual stimuli, interjected questions and commentary, and used non-verbal communication and visual cues as directives. Students also had license to use their heritage language at all times and across all lessons.

Through this complex orchestration of meaning making, students learn to think critically, to self-regulate, and to communicate effectively along with using other 21st-century learning skills. In this kind of classroom, students come to understand that their learning goes well beyond locating information that the teacher identifies as important. They learn to discriminate essential knowledge for themselves. Ashley’s students’ test results also revealed high academic proficiency.

Although students in both classrooms showed high levels of progress over the year, Briana reported several observations. She noted that her students scored well on tests administered soon after she had presented her material. Her scripted, iterative teaching methods boosted her students’ understandings in the short term; however, these children did not perform well when tests asked them to apply what they had learned long after the material had been covered. Students in both Briana’s and Ashley’s classrooms scored well on tests and thus appeared to perform comparably; but the skills being developed in each case were quite different. Ashley’s students were learning skills that extended far beyond the particular content of any lesson – skills that will last over time and in multiple contexts. In fact, the judgement and self-regulation learned in Ashley’s class are essential understandings needed for populations who continue to endure consequences of colonisation and the kind of historical cultural trauma described earlier.

There are more reasons why Ashley’s approach supported her students’ academic success. What she brought to her classroom were instructional participation structures that are widely used in Indigenous homes and communities (Lee 2016; Nelson-Barber 2017). These repertoires of practice utilise an expert-apprentice strategy in which adults serve as models and facilitators, guiding children to learn by observing and doing, with an emphasis on collective action, collaboration and cooperation. Concepts are taught in meaningful contexts and serve authentic purposes. Students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning and are allowed to make choices about when and how to display their acquired knowledge. Lessons can be student-initiated, but the expert teacher will always be there to direct.

Although CSR has been widely adopted as a “best practice”, Briana’s methods push her Indigenous students further away from the culturally valued practices of their community. Students subjected to this kind of school environment learn that the personal agency and discernment so important at home are regarded as a distraction or liability in their teacher-regulated class. Test scores may improve, but the distinctive norms and values of Indigenous communities are not coherent with the processes of CSR.

Discussion and conclusion

The Indigenous educators who participated in our study detailed their ongoing efforts to improve educational outcomes for Native students. The processes they used to accomplish this necessarily centred on ensuring adherence to local values that respect and sustain Indigenous ways of knowing. Despite the historical impacts of colonial schooling that continue to undermine strong use of heritage language and cultural practices, tribes and sovereign groups, like the Navajo Nation, are recovering and reinstating their own unique learning processes – leading not only to improved student performance, but also developing young people who are confident in their identity and much healthier emotionally (see e.g., Kanaʻiaupuni et al. 2010; LaFromboise 2006; Lipka et al. 2005).

It is imperative that school districts conduct pilot testing using diverse assessment strategies, and utilise heuristics based on local values and needs, to determine whether a novel research-based intervention is appropriate for their particular communities of learners before formally adopting new practices at scale. In an earlier account (Nelson-Barber and Johnson 2016), we recommended a number of areas that districts and school leaders should consider (ibid., p. 48), which we reiterate here:
  • Build capacity in action research and the recursive use of data.

  • Use data to map relevant relationships and model variables salient in past initiatives.

  • Anticipate impacts of the proposed intervention by thinking through detailed culture-focused questions.

  • Envision and test adaptations.

  • Gather baseline snapshots of performance (for later comparison).

  • Develop a heuristic set of questions around community priorities that can guide and broaden reflection when considering adoption of novel or external practices.

The above list is far from comprehensive; there are many angles of approach to tackle the challenge, all of which begin with reflection and focus on the key features of the context in which an intervention is being considered for use.
We saw in our study that even well-documented effective educational interventions can have negative effects when applied across diverse communities in a monolithic fashion. The leaders of educational programmes in Indigenous communities must acknowledge the reality that

the specific propositions derived from general theories of learning can be viewed only as hypotheses. They may be true, but it is quite possible that they are false. Until they have been subjected to empirical test they must be viewed as unproved (Averch et al. 1972, p. 21).

Indigenous communities are influenced by historical, colonial and modern-day factors in a way that makes them dissimilar from each other, and from communities within the dominant culture of the United States. Given the understandings set forth in this article, we can no longer consider it “reasonable” to propose that the same “best practices” will function similarly in settings that vary so much. Action steps such as the ones listed below will be needed if Local Education Agencies (LEAs), State Education Agencies (SEAs)20 and educational systems are to meet a higher standard for assessing the appropriateness of practices for specific communities:
  • Name the assumptions that the “best practice” or intervention holds as invisible truths; making those assumptions visible is a first step in generating adaptations and/or viable alternatives that are based on what is real within the community context.

  • Focus on the data rather than on expected results; be open to surprises.

  • Engage community members at the early stages of research planning, to better understand key variables, local interpretations and desired performances.

  • Identify key indicators that matter within the context, as indicated in context-sensitive approaches like developmental evaluation and situation awareness (Endsley 1995, 2000; Endsley et al. 2003; Patton 1994, 2011).

  • Employ member checking21 as an ongoing strategy to find out how community members feel about the intervention’s impact – rather than waiting for results at the end of the pilot phase.

  • Share the results of your pilot in ways that can be heard and understood by the community (e.g., using a visual metaphor from the culture; a radio campaign; posters; a family night with food, games and feedback opportunities).

  • Send clear, simple messages about what you tried, what worked/did not work and why you think so; share your experience plainly, so that others (including community members and other researchers) can learn from it, reframe your interpretation if needed, and/or test the intervention for themselves.

If we make a professional habit of testing out interventions with local adaptations and data-gathering on effectiveness, we may find that some of the most functional solutions are utterly obvious if the context is well understood. We may also find that other “best practices” that work extremely well are actually counterintuitive by common logic.

The experience of local testing of interventions may also present us with challenges to accepted research methodology, if, for example, it becomes clear that certain solutions have a timeline that goes beyond the school year and the typical window for assessment (in a case like that, decisions affecting research design and/or changes to the intervention would need to be made based on preliminary analysis of a trend, rather than waiting for negative outcomes to play out in full).

When researchers become aware of the genuine differences between diverse, Indigenous communities, they are able to generate research designs that work around some of the background assumptions of large-scale scientifically based research, and test the “hypotheses” that those offer. We must enhance the practice of testing and assessing the function of research-based “best practice” interventions in Indigenous communities in order to minimise negative outcomes like those described in our study, and to determine the most effective practices for a given locality. This research-based approach to customising and/or replacing “best practices” requires open-mindedness, resource allocation and time to identify appropriate adaptations and alternatives to the research-based practices.

The outcomes we can justly anticipate include the tangible improvements in pedagogy, assessment and achievement for diverse learners of all types that become possible when researchers use responsive, context-sensitive methods for measuring what students know and are able to do. Policy changes that are broad enough to embrace a range of worldviews, lived experiences and locally valued knowledge can support this type of transformative result born of local experimentation. Such an investment in the perpetuation of Indigenous knowledge, which is part of the collective human heritage, can have broad-scale impact on the overall viability of our species, and form a far more resilient and diverse foundation of knowledge for surviving and thriving throughout the biosphere in our era of rapid change.


  1. 1.

    For background information on Oak Flat, visit the dedicated Apache Stronghold website at [accessed 19 September 2018]. In June 2015, The Guardian newspaper reported on Apache activists’ protests in New York’s Times Square (Brait 2015).

  2. 2.

    For “the who, what and why of the Standing Rock protests” which tried to prevent construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016, see Levin (2016). The pipeline was completed anyway, and already leaked several spills before it started operating in June 2017 (Nicholson 2017).

  3. 3.

    Amnesty International USA (AIUSA), conducted a study on this in 2005 and 2006 and published a report in consultation with Native American and Alaska Native organisations and individuals (AIUSA 2007).

  4. 4.

    Idle No More (INM) is an Indigenous activist movement in Canada fighting for Indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection. For more information, see [accessed 20 September 2018]. In Hawaiʻi, a groundswell of supporters organised a protest campaign against the construction of a Thirty Meter Telescope atop the culturally sacred mountain Mauna a Wākea; thousands globally accepted the call to “Kū Kia‘i Mauna,” to stand and guard the mountain, to resist and make their voices heard with aloha, as protectors of Mauna Kea. For more information, see and [both accessed 17 October 2018].

  5. 5.

    The Common Core State Standards Initiative sets forth uniform educational standards across the US intended to support student preparation for college and careers. For more information, see [accessed 19 September 2018].

  6. 6.

    Public Law 107-110 (GoUSA 2002), popularly known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), enacted the 2001 reauthorisation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (GoUSA 1965). Among the reasons for introducing NCLB were mandatory testing of students’ maths and reading skills at several points during their school career, and an increase in federal control over education from kindergarten to the final year of high school (K–12). In 2015, NCLB was replaced by Public Law 114–95 (GoUSA 2015), the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reduced federal control, but retains proficiency testing requirements (Klein 2016).

  7. 7.

    While conventional or vertical thinking “moves forward by sequential steps, each of which must be justified” (DeBono 1970, p. 12), as in logic or mathematics, for example, lateral thinking, a term coined by Edward de Bono in 1967, “is closely related to insight, creativity and humour” (ibid., p. 9) and “uses information not for its own sake but for its effect” (ibid., p. 12).

  8. 8.

    The Latin term Homo sapiens [wise man] refers to our species, specifically modern humans.

  9. 9.

    The Anthropocene is one of several terms used to refer to our current geological age, an era characterised by ubiquitous signs of human influence on climate and the environment.

  10. 10.

    Before Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (GoUSA 1978), “an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families [were] broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies and … an alarmingly high percentage of such children [were] placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions” (ibid., Sec. 2[4]). Moreover, “the States … often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families” (ibid., Sec. 2[5]). For more information, see [accessed 20 September 2018].

  11. 11.

    In Arizona, a Culturally Inclusive Practices Committee was formed in 2015, dedicated to the design and implementation of guidelines (Douglas 2017). In Alaska, the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) developed a Guide to Implementing the Alaska Cultural Standards for Educators (Alaska DEED 2012; SERRC 2015).

  12. 12.

    A number of states have designated English as their official language, and English-only public school instruction is legislated and enforced in a few states. These laws deny children who speak other languages receipt of any formal teaching (including bilingual transition programmes) in their mother tongue.

  13. 13.

    According to its own website, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) “supports rigorous research that addresses the nation's most pressing education needs, from early childhood to adult education.” For more information, see [accessed 16 April 2016].

  14. 14.

    The heritage language of the Navajo Nation is known as Diné bizaad. Many members of the Nation refer to themselves and their people as Diné (also written Dineh), meaning “The People”. The word “Navajo”, a remnant from the period of Spanish colonisation, is commonly used to describe the Diné in the English language. The terms are used interchangeably in this article, though speakers of Diné bizaad often have strong preferences for one or the other, depending on context.

  15. 15.

    According to its own website, the mission of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) “is to provide quality education opportunities from early childhood through life in accordance with the Tribe’s needs for cultural and economic well-being, in keeping with the wide diversity of Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages as distinct cultural and governmental entities. The Bureau is to manifest consideration of the whole person by taking into account the spiritual, mental, physical, and cultural aspects of the person within family and Tribal or Alaska Native village contexts.” For more information, see [accessed 16 October 2018].

  16. 16.

    A grounded theory approach begins with gathering information and generates theory from common issues which become apparent in the data collection as it is accumulated.

  17. 17.

    Colonial education and assimilative schooling refer to aggressive measures structured as formal learning programmes that were intended to diminish and erase the native culture by replacing it with the culture of colonising newcomers. An example of this in the US was the forced removal of Indigenous children who were taken from their homelands and families in the 19th and 20th centuries and required to enrol in boarding schools where many were subjected to extreme physical and sexual abuse, alongside indoctrination with Western cultural ideals and lifeways.

  18. 18.

    A pseudonym.

  19. 19.

    The adoption of Comprehensive School Reform programmes (CSR) became a popular strategy under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, intended to improve student achievement in US public schools by implementing scientifically based research and instructional practices.

  20. 20.

    A Local Education Agency (LEA) is a public authority that administers public education for a designated area (such as a school district or township) within an American state. A State Education Agency (SEA) is a state-level department of education that may oversee multiple LEAs, and the schools within them.

  21. 21.

    Member checking refers to a qualitative research method which involves double-checking with respondents to help improve the validity (and transferability) of a study.



Preparation of this article was supported in part by a grant from the US Department of Education (S283B120006) to WestEd. The findings and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agency. It recounts and elaborates on the earlier article: Nelson-Barber, S. and Johnson. Z. (2016). Acknowledging the perils of “best practices” in an Indigenous community, Contemporary Educational Psychology, Special Issue on Indigenous Issues in Education and Research: Looking forward, 47, 44–50. All references to individuals are anonymous and any similarities reminiscent of known individuals are coincidental.


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Copyright information

© UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning and Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Culture & Language in EducationWestEdRedwood CityUSA
  2. 2.Intrinsic Impact ConsultingStanfordUSA

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