Learning Styles and Culture


The notion that people from different cultural backgrounds have different styles of learning seems so reasonable, so intuitively sensible, that it is hard to believe that it is just not true. But after more than 25 years of research on cultural differences in learning styles, psychologists have been unable to show that one method of teaching works better for children of one cultural group while a different method of teaching works better for children of a different cultural group.

Children from different cultural background as a group seem to have distinctive patterns of intellectual abilities. Native American children, for example, appear to have especially high levels of visual and spatial skills and do less well on tests of verbal ability in English. This does not mean that every Native American child will have this ability pattern, just that this pattern is more common among this cultural group than among certain other cultural groups, such as Caucasian or African-American children.

But just because different cultural groups have different cognitive strengths does not mean that teachers should narrowly match their teaching styles to these patterns of abilities. Such an approach to education would be destructive.

Consider how foolish it would be for a teacher to say, "Since Native American children have high visual memory and spatial abilities, I'm going to teach all the Native American children in my class with a lot of pictures and movies and de-emphasize reading and discussion." Can you spot the logical errors in such a statement? First, Native American children as a group may have high levels of visual-spatial abilities, but the children in this teacher's class are individuals, and some Native American children in this class may have highly developed verbal, not visual, skills. Second, Native American children, like other children, need to learn to read and speak well---these areas of their education should not be neglected.

But we can look at the notion of "learning styles" in a very different way, and this other way leads to better teaching. We all know that individuals are complicated, and we each learn differently. That's why the idea of reaming styles makes such intuitive sense to us. Some people do their best work early in the morning, for example, while others can't get going until late at night. Some people like to work in groups while others prefer to work independently.

Many teachers find the notion of learning styles helpful because it reminds them to create rich and diverse classroom environments which offer many different ways to learn‹films and books, independent study and group work, discussion in the classroom, and projects in the community. Teachers who instruct children in culturally distinctive communities, like schools in remote Alaskan villages, also find the notion of reaming styles attractive because it reminds them to pay attention to life in the community and develop lessons which take into account the cultural setting. Teachers need to think about such matters as people's style of speaking, children's background knowledge, and what people in this community find interesting and important.

Learning styles, in short, is a two-edged sword. The idea is helpful when it reminds teachers to expand the ways in which they teach. to pay attention to individual children and to the ways life is lived in different communities. But the idea is destructive when it is used to stereotype children of a particular cultural group and limit their education.


When I arrived in Alaska in 1969, I was eager to do research that mattered, to find ways of improving education for children who were not doing well in school. Eskimo communities were bearing the onslaught of rapid cultural change, and many children, especially those living in small isolated villages, had low achievement test scores.

I became intrigued with the idea of learning styles partly because it offered a way to stress the intellectual strengths of Eskimo children rather than focusing on academic problems. Many teachers in village schools mentioned that their students seemed to have unusually high visual memory. They might, for example, recall details of movies shown a year or more before. The students also seemed to have unusual strength in spelling, and teachers wondered if they were memorizing the visual form of unfamiliar English words. Standardized achievement test results supported the teachers' observations. For many Eskimo children, English was a second language and reading comprehension scores were low. But spelling scores were relatively high.

When I turned to the research literature, I found an exciting paper that seemed to explain why the teachers' observations about their students' cognitive strengths might well be right. John W. Berry, a Canadian psychologist, had developed a theory that predicted high visual and spatial skills among hunting and gathering groups, like the Eskimo, and low visual and spatial skills among agricultural groups, like the Temne in Sierra Leone. Berry (1966) argued that the ecological demands made by a particular environment, combined with the group's cultural adaptations to these demands, developed specific types of cognitive abilities.

For thousands of years, Eskimos had survived in an extraordinarily difficult Arctic environment, where food supplies walrus, caribou, seal, moose were scarce and starvation was episodic. They had survived because of their hunting prowess and their ability to travel long distances across the Arctic terrain. In contrast to urban areas or farmland, the Arctic is a setting of extreme visual uniformity. The tundra stretches without trees or obvious landmarks, a vast expanse where the sky and land merge.

To adapt successfully to this environment, hunters need to notice and remember small visual cues. In his study of Eskimo hunting, Nelson (1969) observes, "On the net and monotonous tundra or the jumbled piles of sea ice, the smallest unique features become important landmarks‹an upturned rock, a cut in the river bank, an unusually large or strangely shaped ice pile. The Eskimos are extraordinarily skillful at observing such landmarks and remembering their spatial relationships" (p. 102).

Agricultural groups, like the Temne of Sierra Leone, live in a complex visual environment and do not need to travel long distances in search of food. "The Temne land is covered with bush and other vegetation providing a wealth of varied visual stimulation," Berry (1966) points out. "The Ternne are farmers who work land near their villages and rarely have to leave the numerous paths through the bush" (p. 211).

To help them accomplish the tasks necessary for survival and expansion, cultural groups develop intellectual tools and technological devices. The United States in the late twentieth century, for example, is a specialized society where people coordinate their activities through careful attention to time. The English language has complex verb tenses to describe time and a rich vocabulary of time concepts. An array of technological devices, from wristwatches to computer clocks, help people keep track of time.

Similarly, Eskimos appear to have developed sophisticated cultural tools which help them attend to spatial patterns. The language of Eskimo peoples, Berry points out, contains a vocabulary which makes far more elaborate spatial and geometrical distinctions than the language of the Temne. The Eskimo also use a linguistic system of "localizers," integral parts of words, which require speakers to note the spatial locations of objects they are speaking about.

Cultural groups also develop child-rearing practices adapted to the demands of their environments. When parents in the United States urge their children to do well in school, when they worry about children who are shy, they are responding to beliefs that success comes easier to people who have acquired academic skills and who are sociable. In hunting and gathering societies, like the Eskimo, successful hunters must be independent and venturesome, with the courage to travel alone or in small groups over great distances. In agricultural societies, like the Temne, members of the group need to conform to social demands, to follow seasonal styles which require everyone to plant and harvest at particular times.

When Berry (1966) examined the research on Eskimo and Temne patterns of childrearing, he found great differences in the extent to which each culture emphasized independence versus conformity. Eskimo parents tended to be highly indulgent toward children and allow them to make their own decisions, even at young ages. Temne parents tended to treat children with great affection until weaning but afterwards demanded strict obedience. Child-rearing styles that emphasize independence, psychologists find, are linked to higher levels of spatial skills.

In short, Berry predicted that the Eskimo would have higher levels of perceptual and spatial abilities than the Temne because such skills were more adaptive in an Arctic hunting culture. To test his ideas, Berry gave a series of spatial and visual tests to Canadian Eskimo, Temne in Sierra Leone, and, for a comparison group, Scots. In one test, for example, berry projected onto a screen a series of triangles, squares, and rectangles, and asked people to draw what they saw. Each geometric form had a tiny gap on one side which gradually got bigger.

How big did the gap have to get before a person noticed it? The Eskimo, far more quickly than the Temne and indeed more quickly than the Scots, noticed and drew the tiny gaps. On a series of visual and spatial tests like this one, Berry found the same basic pattern: Eskimos far exceeded the Temne in spatial and visual skills. On many tests, the Eskimos' performance matched or came close to the Scots' performance, even though the Eskimo did not have as much education and were not familiar with western psychological tests.

Intrigued with Berry's clever research design and his striking findings, I decided to do a study of spatial and visual abilities among Alaska Eskimo children to see if they had similar strengths. On a test requiring children to reproduce from memory a series of difficult designs, first put on a chalkboard and then quickly erased, Alaska Eskimo children from 9 to 16 years of age did significantly better than urban Caucasian children (Kleinfeld, 1971).

When I looked at other research and at the writings of people who had lived and traveled with Eskimo, the evidence for strong visual and spatial abilities seemed overwhelming. Many studies had come up with the same results as Berry's research and my own. Compared to English verbal abilities, Eskimos appeared to have far greater strength in perceptual and spatial skills.

Anecdotal descriptions supported the research findings. People traveling with Eskimos remarked on their extraordinary ability to notice and recall visual detail, for example, drawing from memory a map later found to be about as accurate as one made from aerial photographs. Eskimos' mechanical and inventive abilities had become legendary‹ constructing a sled from pieces of frozen meat.

While psychologists were pointing out the high levels of perceptual and spatial abilities of Eskimos, anthropologists were making a similar point but from a different angle. Anthropologists who studied Eskimo and other Native American communities described a traditional system of education based on observation. Children watched carefully what adults did‹such as repairing a fishing net or setting a trap‹and then imitated their skills. They did not learn by asking and answering a lot of questions. Summarizing the ethnographic research on children's learning styles, Kaulback (1984) says:

Although far from conclusive, there is a growing body of research to suggest that distinctively different child-rearing practices‹one stressing observational learning and another emphasizing learning through verbalization‹ has fostered the development of very different styles of learning among Native and white children. Whereas many white children, by virtue of their upbringing and their linguistic exposure, are oriented towards using language as a vehicle for learning, Native children have developed a learning style characterized by observation and imitation (p. 34).

The implications for education seemed immense. Spatial and visual abilities were important in such fields as physics and mathematics. Einstein, after all described his thinking processes as "visual and motion" with words not playing a part until the basic ideas had formed. Perhaps Eskimo people could make important contributions in these advanced fields.

Most teachers taught through methods that emphasized verbal skills lectures, reading, and class discussion. Why not use visual methods which would build on Eskimo children's intellectual strengths and learning styles? The idea seemed to make so much sense. I just couldn't believe it wouldn't work.

Adapting Instruction to Native American Learning Styles

"Learning styles', does not have a clear and precise definition. It is a catch-all phrase used to refer to a wide array of abilities, ways of processing information, and personal preferences. Some people use learning style to refer to reaming through visual, verbal, or kinesthetic channels. Others use the words to refer to ways of processing information, for example, preferring information presented in small, linear steps or large patterns. The most influential educator arguing that we should adapt instruction to learning styles, Rita Dunn, is referring to a lot more than cognitive abilities. By "learning styles," she and her colleagues mean adapting instruction to many individual preferences, such as whether children study better in the morning or afternoon, alone or in groups, in a quiet or noisy setting, or with bright or soft lights (Dunn dc Griggs, 1988).

Dunn's viewpoint makes sense. We all try to arrange for ourselves the kinds of environments where we learn best and we resent being forced to learn in situations we find irritating. I do my best work in the morning, for example, and need quiet

in order to concentrate. My husband gets in high gear in late afternoon and works best with music in the background. Children, too, would learn better, most of us believe, if teachers adapted instruction to their learning styles rather than insisting that everyone study in exactly the same way.

But notice that we have shifted the argument here. We are no longer talking about matching instruction to the reaming style of a cultural group. We are now talking about matching instruction to all the complicated preferences and abilities of people as individuals. These are not the same thing. When we talk about matching instruction to a cultural group, we are recommending that teachers make assumptions about individuals because they are Native American or African American or members of some other cultural group and teach members of these groups in the same way. When we talk about matching instruction to individuals, we are recommending that teachers find out about individual preferences and organize classrooms so that a variety of individual reaming styles can be accommodated.

Teachers influenced by Dunn's conception of reaming styles create rich and diverse classroom environments where some students sit at desks and others lounge on bean bags, where some students study from films and tapes while others do a lot of reading, where much learning is carried out through individual contracts and learning projects fine-tuned to students' interests and ways of doing things.

While I recognized that the term learning styles had very different meanings and very different classroom implications, depending on what definition you used, I had one particular meaning in mind. Psychologists had found high visual and spatial abilities among Eskimo and other Native American groups. Anthropologists emphasized that Native American children reamed by watching. By adapting instruction to Native American reaming styles, I meant teaching through visual ways of presenting information rather than only verbal ways. I wanted to see if Native American children indeed learned better when teachers pre sensed information with the aid of films, pictures, and diagrams.

But consider what I would actually need to show to support the viewpoint that instruction should be adapted to the learning styles of different cultural groups. Suppose I did find that Native students reamed better when teachers used films, pictures, and diagrams. Maybe all students, no matter what their cultural group, also reamed better when teachers used films, pictures, and diagrams. Maybe using such visuals was simply better instruction. To show that teachers should adapt instruction to cultural differences, researchers needed to show that children from one cultural group learned better with one method of instruction while children from a different cultural group reamed better with a different method of instruction. I couldn't show this.... and neither has anyone else.

My efforts to show that visuals were more helpful to Native children than to non-Native children fumed out to be failures. Disappointed, I never even bothered to publish the results. But a colleague who worked with me, Don Erickson, did write up the work. He was a teacher on St. Lawrence Island, a traditional Eskimo community, and had to write the paper to meet his degree requirements at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We developed a lesson on the classification of animals (herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores) and on the place of these animals in the food chain. In the verbal lesson, the instructor just talked about these concepts without using any pictures. In the visual lesson, the instructor not only talked about the concepts but also drew diagrams which highlighted the logical relationships and the cause and effect sequences. The instructor put a diagram of the food chain on the board, for example, to show students the links between plants, herbivores, and carnivores. By visually wiping out the links in the chain, the instructor showed children what happened when certain plants or animals were destroyed. After they had been taught with either the visual or verbal-only lesson, students answered such questions as, "if all the plants died, would herbivores be able to live?"

We gave this lesson both to Eskimo children living in a traditional village with a strong hunting culture and to Caucasian children living in an urban town. The Eskimo students, we found, did learn more with the visual lesson . . . but the Caucasian children benefited the same or more! We had not shown that visually based instruction was better adapted to Eskimo students' cultural reaming style. All we had shown was that Eskimo ant Caucasian children both reamed better when diagrams were used to emphasize logical relationships.

Since I wasn't getting anywhere in trying to adapt instruction to cultural differences, I decided to turn my own attention to other educational is" sues which I hopes would make more of a difference to the well-being of Native American child. Twenty years later, I examined the research on learning styles to see if others had been more successful than I had been. Perhaps other researchers, using a different way of teaching, would have demonstrated the benefits of adapting instruction to cultural differences in reaming styles.

But I found no such studies. Only two other studies on visual versus verbal instruction with Native American children had been published, and neither study showed that visual materials were more effective (Kleinfeld & Nelson, 1991). People were still writing about Native Americans' observational reaming styles and the learning styles of African-American and other cultural groups. Teachers were still being urged to adapt their instruction to cultural differences in learning styles. But so far no one had been able to demonstrate with controlled research that teaching one cultural group in one way and another cultural group in an entirely different way had educational benefits.

Just because we do not now have research studies showing that one style of instruction is more effective for Native American children does not mean that we will never have such research evidence. Possibly other studies will be done showing that visually-based instruction indeed makes more of a difference to Native American child. Possibly the concept of "learning style" will be redefined, and this new concept of appropriate instruction will prove to be more effective. Some experienced teachers, for example, say that what works with Alaska village children is not so much a "visual" curriculum as a "kinesthetic" curriculum based on hands-on activities and projects.

Other educators argue that educational programs for Native American children are far more successful when they are based on the "cooperative" style of work characteristic of the traditional culture rather than the "competitive" style of American mainstream culture. Native American children, they believe, achieve more when teachers put children in cooperative groups. Such cooperative learning has been shown to be effective with children generally. Thus, the basic question remains: Are cooperative groups more effective for Native American children than children of other cultures? Furthermore, we must also consider whether we need to prepare Native American children for different contexts, competitive as well as cooperative.

The Value of Learning Styles

If we have no scientific evidence that we should teach children of different cultural groups in different ways, why is the concept of "cultural differences in reaming styles" still so popular?

The concept of reaming styles is useful when it reminds teachers to create rich and interesting classrooms where children can learn in many different ways. "Don't always sit children down in rows of desks and teach them through lectures, textbooks, and worksheets," advocates of reaming styles are saying, "What about cozy reading comers where students can lounge on bean bags? What about getting students out into the community to work at a soup kitchen?" Expanding reaming opportunities makes good sense.

The concept of cultural reaming styles is also helpful when it reminds teachers to pay attention to the ways of life in the communities in which they teach, especially when these are culturally distinctive communities. One of my teacher education students, for example, first prepared a demonstration science lesson for children in a remote Eskimo village which consisted of a boring lecture on calories and energy transformation. He talked too fast for children whose first language was not English and referred to many concepts outside the children's experience. After he had spent a few months teaching in an Eskimo village, he changed his teaching scale dramatically. In a second demonstration science lesson, he asked Eskimo children to attend a steam bath, an important social event in many Eskimo communities, and to observe carefully when water was a liquid, solid, or gas. The children came back to class and talked about what they had seen and the principles behind it. They asked new questions, like what happened to the steam when the door of the steambath was opened. My student was now teaching science in ways adapted to the cultural setting. He would probably say he had adapted his teaching to students' reaming styles.

Used in these ways, reaming styles can be a fruitful idea. But the concept is dangerous when it amounts to an invitation to racial stereotyping. Assuming that all children of a particular group learn in one distinctive way, rather than considering them as individuals, limits children and reduces their opportunities.


'The choice of designator for a cultural group is always a sensitive matter. As John Active, a Yup'ik journalist, points out, non-Natives often use the term "Eskimo" but it is not what people of these cultural groups call themselves. In Southwest Alaska, the preferred term is "Yuliit" and in northern and northwest Alaska, "lnupiat." The research literature on which this paper is based, however, uses the term "Eskimo" and does not always make distinctions as to which group is designated. For this reason, I have used the term "Eskimo" in this paper. The term "Native American" is currently used by Native groups throughout the United States to emphasize cultural and political uniqueness. I use this term in reviewing ethnographic research in learning styles since the reference is usually inclusive of various Native American groups. I have endeavored to be sensitive to current preferences, but the reader should keep in mind that the research literature is not always specific and group preferences change over time.


Berry, J.W. (1966). Temne and Eskimo perceptual skills International Journal of Psychology, 1, 207-199.

Dunn, R ~k Griggs, S. tl988). Learning styles: Quiet Revolution in American Secondary Schools. Reston, Vlrginia: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Kaulbach, B. (1984). Styles of learning among native children: A review of the research. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 11(3),27-37.

Kleinfeld, JS. (1971). Visual memory in village Eskimo and urban Caucasian Children. Arctic, 24,132-138.

lOeinfeld, J.S. ~ Nelson, P. (1991). Adapting instruction to Native Americans' learning styles: An iconoclastic view. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 22(2),273282.

Nelson RK. (1969). Hunters of thc northern ice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.