Participant Structures and Communicative Competence

In her article, “Participant Structures and Communicative Competence: Warm Springs Children in Community and Classroom” Susan Philips described the disjuncture between verbal encounters in classrooms where young North American Indians get formally educated and in their native communities where they learn the particular skills their people deem necessary in their roles as members of the community. This disjuncture represents one of the major challenges being encountered in the primary and secondary education of North American Indians which have been widely reported in previous research and are well-known phenomena in the national education sector.

Specifically, Philips focused her study on the learning dynamics in Warm Springs Indian Reservation where some 1,500 descendants of the Warm Springs Sahaptin, Wasco, Chinook, and Paiute Indians who have began settling there in 1855, live. While originally from distinct tribes, these groups evolved into an almost homogenous community and came to share almost identical cultural backgrounds after more than a hundred years of sharing the same geographical home. Presently, these groups collectively call themselves the “tribe.”

In their efforts to improve the educational system in the reservation, the tribe encouraged the establishment of schools and scholarship programs. However, after many years of teaching Indian children using the standard methods implemented in US public schools, a clear trend has emerged, indicating that Indian students consistently perform poorly compared with non-Indian learners. Thoroughly examining this phenomenon, Philips demonstrates that there are pronounced differences between the social conditions that govern verbal discourses in classrooms and the conditions that allow Indian children to participate verbally in community activities, and that these differences in participant structures account for the poor educational performance of young Indian learners in Warm Springs.

Philips provided a comparative context for her study by making observations of all-Indian and non-Indian or white grammar school classes at first and sixth grade levels. Philips also considered Indian social conditions to determine how Indian children verbally participate during community gatherings. These are some of the participant structures Philips probed to show the disconnect between standard verbal communication dynamics in the classroom and the culturally charged verbal opportunities allowed or encouraged by the community. As demonstrated, this disconnect causes the communicative competence issues being reported on Indian learners.

The four participant structures Philips discussed in her article are 1) the teacher speaking to the group of students; 2) a student who has volunteered or has been asked by the teacher to speak in front of the class; 3) students working independently but each having access to the teacher for a one-on-one verbal engagement; and, 4) student groups controlled by the students themselves. Young Indian learners exhibit unusually high hesitance to participate in the first two participant structures while they strongly engage in verbal encounters in the third and fourth participant structures. Notably in all participant structures, Indian children refuse to assume leadership roles in verbal encounters.

Meantime, participant structures at home and in the community are radically different from those in schools. First, in Warm Springs community activities where children are allowed to participate, any member my verbally communicate in various ways. There are no distinctions between performer and audience because everyone can participate. Each community member is also allowed to decide how much she wants to participate. In these community activities, there is no single leader that controls the engagements unlike in classrooms where the teacher pretty much controls all the learning processes. On the other hand, community activities like dancing, singing, and drumming, require no soloists. This strongly reflects on speaking roles allowed by the community. Indian children also required or encouraged to observe adult interactions. Moreover, there is a marked absence of skill testing similar to quizzes, graded recitations, and exams being done in classrooms. In Warm Springs, learners conduct private self- tests to gauge their own proficiency with a given skill. Only when they are certain that they have developed sufficient skill will they publicly demonstrate what they have learned. Often, the demonstration is also nonverbal, such as a shot deer or a properly prepared dinner on the table. Lastly, use of speech is minimal in most participant structures in Indian communities.

These contextual differences account for the inappropriateness of western teaching models as applied in Native American contexts and will likely prolong historical inequalities if left unchanged and unresponsive to the cultural preferences of Native American learners.

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