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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

A Film Study of Classrooms

in Western Alaska


General Findings of the Analysis

These sections of film have been described to give the reader some conception of the data on which the general conclusions of this study are based. These conclusions are based on more than the cases described and draw on film not only of other classroom situations but also on film records of village life.

This study is concerned with patterns of pace and flow in human interactions as seen in the film record from western Alaska. The analysis found that there were distinct differences between Anglo and Native patterns of pace and movement. It also found that there were essentially three patterns of pace and flow in interactions seen in the films:

  1. The first pattern is one of great discrepancies in the pace of participants, combined with low levels of flow
  2. The second pattern was one of little difference in pace among participants, combined with generally high levels of flow
  3. The third pattern is an intermediate one in which differences in pace are somewhat less severe and flow is intermittently high and low.

These findings and their possible significance are the subject of this section of the study.

The characteristic pace of Native children and adults was, relative to the Anglos, slow. While there was some variation in pace with changes in activity, it was essentially the same in all circumstances: in school, around the villages, at home and in church. This slow pace was accompanied by a style of movement best described as soft and rounded. By this I mean that motions tended to be circular in direction and rarely abrupt. The consistency of this pace style and the fact that it was shared by both adults and children suggests that it is the characteristic pace of Eskimos in this section of Alaska.

The Anglos seen in the footage came from a less homogenous cultural background and experience than the Eskimos. Correspondingly, there was more variation in their pace and movement styles. Within the range of variation, with two exceptions, they did form a clearly definable group with regard to pace and movement style. Characteristically, their pace was fast to moderate and movements were linear and often abrupt. On an individual level, these patterns were quite consistent, although there was a suggestion in the footage that Anglos in stressful situations tended to speed up their pace. (Eskimos, on the other hand, appeared to slow down in stressful situations.) I assume that pace and movement patterns are reflective of people’s cultural background. Assuming this, the individual consistency and relatively similar patterns of Anglos seen in the films at least suggest that these are patterns of pace and movement characteristic to Anglos in general. This suggestion is reinforced by the fact that the pace and movement patterns of Anglos in footage taken by Edward Hall in New Mexico was quite similar to that which I have just described. Interestingly, the two non-Native teachers who did not fit into this general Anglo pattern are known to come from different backgrounds than the other Anglos. One was raised in the Kuskokwim region and the other was of Eastern European background (Collier, private communication).

The pace of each group appeared to be independent of the other when they were together. The pace of Anglo teachers did not seem to be affected by the pace of the Eskimo children or adults with whom they dealt. Likewise, the pace of Eskimo children seemed to operate independently of the pace of their teachers. There were few cases of mutual adjustments in pace between individuals of the two groups.

These differences in the pace of movements carried over into the pace of activities. These differences were clearest in the classroom activities. Anglo teachers generally ran their classes on a schedule that gave relatively short periods of time to each activity. Transition points are clearly defined and sharp. Eskimos handling similar processes structured the processes differently. Things took longer and the transitions between activities were less sudden and distinct. Anglo teachers were generally brisk in helping individual students, making corrections, pointing things out and leaving. The two Eskimo aides seen in the footage took a different approach: helping, waiting, watching, helping again, waiting some more for long periods of time, even to the extent in one case of remaining with two students well into the next period of activities.

The significance of these differences between Anglos and Eskimos is not that they show Anglos and Eskimos to be different from each other. That is already known. What is more important is the effect that these differences have on interactions between people. The three patterns of pace and flow in interactions which I listed at the beginning of this discussion begin to suggest the effect of differences in pace and movement styles on communication. I shall now discuss these three patterns in more detail.

The first pattern was one of great differences in pace and low levels of flow. This was the characteristic pattern of Anglo-taught classes. Three of the classes described earlier exemplify this pattern: Mr. Principal’s, Miss Kinderbelle’s and Mr. Music’s. In all these cases the teachers move in abrupt, linear movements, considerably faster than the children. They are usually several feet away from the children. Visually, the children and the teachers often appear to be operating in different rooms from each other because their movements are so unrelated. The children are not clued into the movements of the teachers; they do not follow them, repeat them or make adjustments for them. They rarely focus on the teachers for more than short periods of time. There is no flow; the movements of the children are unrelated to those of the teachers. The teachers, on the other hand, appear equally oblivious to the children. They do not respond to the movements of the children, make no adjustments for them. Again, there is no flow; the teachers’ movements are unrelated to those of the children.

Is this lack of flow a function of distance? Are the teachers too far away? While proxemic factors appear to be important in communication in Alaska, they do not seem to be the significant factor causing low flow in these particular cases. There are times when the teachers move close to the children. Rather than improving the level of interrelationship of movements, the differences and difficulties are only dramatized. The children go one way and the teachers go another. Their movements are totally unsynchronized; they throw each other off balance. The children freeze up, practically tripping over their own feet. The teachers move quickly and drag the children after them; mutual frustration becomes evident. The proximity of the teacher and the children does not improve flow. It serves only to define its absence.

A particularly striking aspect of interactions that fall into this first pattern is the effect of Anglo/Native relationships on interactions between the Native children. The lack of flow in interactions between Anglo teachers and the Eskimo children in these circumstances appears to undercut interactions among the children. While they move at the same pace, their motions are not synchronized. They have a low level of awareness of each other as well as a low level of awareness of the teacher. Heads turn aimlessly, bodies rock back and forth, posture is often limp. Most of this behavior is discordant: one person is rocking one way while another is rocking in a different direction; eye focus drifts in different directions; postures and arm motions are unrelated. This uncoordinated behavior gave many classes an air of loneliness and waiting with no purpose. This kind of behavior is most uncharacteristic of a group which is supposed to be together for a purpose (Mead and Byers 1968: 66-105). In effect, there is no group, but only a collection of isolated individuals.

What caused this isolation with its chaotic movements and behavior? One factor is the lack of flow between teachers and children. The teachers do not provide a focus or direction for the group because their pace and movement styles serve to isolate them from the children and disrupt communication on all levels. The teachers are in control of the physical space of the room. Not only do they intrude upon the flow of movements of the children by their own actions, they also arrange rooms and activities in such a way that isolation is encouraged. Most teachers depend heavily on workbooks and worksheets which children are expected to do alone with no help from other students. These individual activities cut across group-wide currents of interaction and made teacher/student interactions brief, one-way communications regarding the contents of the assignments. The same curriculum, indeed the same worksheets, could have been handled in different ways. In several classes this isolation was further emphasized by taped boundaries on the tables to separate the children from each other, usually by three or four feet. These factors served only to exacerbate problems caused by the lack of flow between children and teachers. Had these teachers been aware of what was happening, could they have taken actions to avoid or soften the consequences?

The second pattern of pace and flow in interactions was one of shared pace and high levels of flow. This was the pattern characteristic of interactions in the villages and in the Head Start class. Movements, even apparently random movements, were often highly synchronized. While children in many classes rocked in different directions, the children in Head Start rocked together, in and out, in and out, like a pulsating unit. While other teachers dragged children along, throwing them off balance, even disciplinary movements in Head Start were so well coordinated between child and teacher that they almost took on the appearance of a dance when they were viewed in slow motion. The hook-up between children and teachers was so close that a slight rise of the teachers’ head would be mirrored by a slight rise of all of the children’s heads.

In home scenes, this unity and synchrony made it possible for diverse activities to take place in small quarters with little visible sense of congestion. Both in homes and in Head Start, relationships were characterized by a certain air of restraint or, perhaps more accurately, a sense of carefulness and delicacy. The effect of this synchrony and care was a level of intensity that was totally lacking in most Anglo-taught classes.

The initial key to the high level of flow was certainly the fact that pace was shared; people operated at the same pace. This made it possible for them to coordinate their motion and activities. Movement styles were also similar, so that motions could be easily meshed. People usually operated in close proximity to each other. This was possible because they moved together but it also made it easier to be aware of each other.

The first pattern was characterized by the isolation of individuals; the second pattern was characterized by the unity of the group. People were close together: they moved together; they worked together on the same things; and there were few individual activities. In prefirst the children sat isolated from each other when coloring and looked sleepy and bored. In Head Start, they crowded close together and appeared animated and excited.

It is significant that an Anglo teacher was able to create a class with these characteristics. That class was Mr. Scout’s class, already described in detail. He was obviously highly sensitive to non-verbal signals and perhaps inadvertently had created a class structure which did not cut across the currents of interaction among the children. Many activities were group activities in which he was only marginally involved. The pacing of these activities was largely in the hands of the children. Many of Mr. Scout’s interactions with students then became relatively low-pressured, one-to-one communications. They often took the form of the extended help, watch, wait, help again process described for the aides. By placing many interactions on this level, Mr. Scout created circumstances in which he and the children could make adjustments to each other. The result was that the level of flow between him and the children was quite high.

In both Head Start and Mr. Scout’s class, the instructors had not cut across the thread of interrelationships. Consequently, they were able to get high intensity involvement from the children because they had only to gain the interest of a few for that interest to be conveyed to the whole group. They tied into the current that held the children together. For this reason their presence was not needed for student involvement to develop and continue. The remarkable aspect of these two classes is the degree to which children were involved and focused in the absence of the teachers.

Comparable levels of teacher/student flow were seen in the upper grades class at the Moravian Mission near Kwethluk. The class was taught by a young Anglo woman who had been raised in the area and she appeared to have picked up a pace and style of movement little different from that of the Eskimo students in her class. This made possible the high level of flow seen in the class which was quite conventionally structured. For some reason not evident in the film, the level of intensity did not match that of Head Start or Mr. Scout’s class although student involvement in activities was more than adequate.

The effect of this high level of flow in interactions and the sense of unity of groups was that both in school situations and in village scenes there was a clear sense of direction. A portion of the footage recorded the preparation of fishing boats for use on the rivers as soon as the ice broke up. Men are busy patching boats, moving them down to the river, and overhauling motors while the children play along the shore, poking at the breaking ice. In these activities, the people all move at the same pace and move among each other with only subtle adjustments in their movements as they pass. Each is intent and simultaneously aware of the others. Another group, sitting in the sun, play with, the children and watch the activities. A small number of people scattered over several hundred feet of riverfront, have more unified focus and intensity than Mr. Principal’s classroom of twenty students. This focus and unity culminates with the men taking their families, in their boats, up and down the barely ice-free river. On the banks the onlookers’ heads turn, almost simultaneously, as each boat passes.

The third pattern of pace and flow found in the footage was an intermediate one. Differences in pace were not as extreme as in the first pattern but were still evident. The level of flow was on occasion relatively high but inconsistent; there were periods of low levels of flow. There were only two cases that fall into this pattern, both Anglo-taught classes at Kwethluk. In one case, an upper grade class taught by Mr. Kweth, a degree of unity and flow was generated by an imaginative lecture on mental health which drew heavily on comparisons of life in the village to life in the “Lower 48.” The comparisons were highly favorable to the village. Mr. Kweth’s pace was moderate and movements restrained. At the end of each portion of the lecture, he would wait and look around rather than pushing on immediately. When asking questions he did not pressure for immediate answers but waited until there were responses. These patterns were visible on the film and confirmed by checking the audio record of the class. The students had a rough degree of synchrony of motion, heads bobbing and turning with some degree of intergroup unity. There were low key interactions between individual students which appeared related to the lecture, and eye focus on the instructor was fairly consistent. There were periods, however, when the unity seemed to slip somewhat, particularly as the lecture drew to a close. The film record does not show the class engaged in other activities with the teacher, so the overall pattern of the class is not clear.

The second example was an intermediate grades class taught by Mr. Luk. The film shows the class engaged in a number of workbook-related activities. Mr. Luk has a moderate pace and an expressive linear manner of gesturing which was relatively unabrupt. He generally worked in close proximity to students in small group situations. When he was with a group, there was unity of focus and motion among the students and a moderate level of intensity. Like Mr. Kweth, Mr. Luk moved somewhat faster than the students, but waited at regular intervals for them to catch up. He also did not push for quick answers but waited for responses. However, once he left a group of students, the unity and intensity fell fairly rapidly. For this reason, there were little circles of activity and interest in the room wherever he went, surrounded by relatively uninvolved students. He could interest students when he was immediately involved but was unable to hook into the currents of the class to involve large portions of the class. His structuring of the use of the workbooks also served to interrupt interactions among the students and break up the unity of the class.

In both these cases, teachers who were somewhat different from the children in pace and movement patterns were able to obtain interest and unity when they related directly to the children. These teachers made adjustments in their behavior to allow the students to “catch up” and appeared to have some awareness of differences in pace. The content of Mr. Kweth’s lesson may have stimulated the involvement of the students. The problems and conflicts common in many other Anglo-taught classes had been modified but not eliminated as interest and involvement was dependent on the immediate presence of the instructor.

In general, the Native pattern was one of slowly paced activities and movements, carried on with a great deal of interpersonal awareness and adjustments. This interplay of movements created a sensation of unity of people and purpose, a current moving slowly but steadily toward some distant destination. Most of the Anglo teachers, with their quick pace and abrupt, impersonal style, cut across this current and left the students stranded in the classrooms like so many pieces of driftwood on the shore waiting for different waves and tides to take each person away. Mr. Scout and the teachers in Head Start demonstrated what could be achieved when this current was used and not disrupted.

What possible significance is there to these patterns? How can they help explain the difficulties and successes of cross-cultural education?

Human communication is a complex subject that occurs on many levels that are both interrelated and independent. The process of schooling in Alaska, primarily a process of attempted communication, is an illustration of the complexity of the process. The non-verbal patterns discussed here are but one set of factors in many that decide the course of events in these classes. Success or difficulties on the non-verbal level reflect as much as they decide the course of interactions on other levels. They sometimes reflect difficulties on the verbal level as well as cause difficulties on that level. Factors beyond the confines of the schools, or the villages, or even the state of Alaska influence the course of non-verbal interactions in the classes. Likewise, the course of non-verbal events may at times serve to compensate or cancel out difficulties caused by other factors.

An example of outside factors influencing the course of non-verbal interactions can be illustrated by the two Head Start teachers. Their smooth interactions with the children reflected the fact that they were members of the same village: they were known to the children, no doubt related to many of them and were part of the same world. Their style of relating to the children confirmed and continued these relationships. They could have been self-conscious about their roles and taken stereotypical teacher positions and destroyed the creative and dynamic class that they had created.

Likewise, the Anglo teachers arrived with handicaps: strangers in an intimate community, representatives of an alien and generally hostile culture, a type of people known to be difficult and incomprehensible. Their non-verbal behavior reflected these negative factors and served to confirm them. A few broke away from the standard Anglo pattern, thereby not only improving the immediate process of communication with the students, but also to a greater or lesser degree negating some of the handicaps that they arrived with.

On a specific level, the film analysis showed that the fast pace and aggressive, linear style of movement of many teachers was deadly. In every case, the students responded with confused behavior indicative of the failure of the communication process. In extreme examples, the students froze up; the harder the teachers tried, the worse it got. This situation was aggravated by school assignments and class structures which isolated the students from each other and from the teacher. The fast pace of the teachers’ movements, together with the form of those movements, made it difficult for any real communication to take place between students and teachers about anything, let alone the school work. The teacher’s role became impersonal and distant. Significantly, communication among students became equally distant in these cases. Apparently, the tone of teacher-to-student interactions can set the tone of student-to-student relationships as well.

In contrast, Anglo teachers who made some form of adjustment for the difference in pace by waiting and not pressuring the students got significantly more response from the students and more interest in the school process. One teacher, Mr. Scout, who structured his class in a fashion that allowed many activities to proceed at student pace and style was rewarded with an intensity of involvement equalled only by the Native-taught Head Start. Related and equally important, his structuring of the class and relationships in it allowed him to spend extended periods of time with individual children, giving him and them time to adjust to each other and communicate. Over the period of the school year, this individual interaction would carry over into group-wide relationships with the teacher, as was evident in the film.

The patterns of Mr. Scout’s class and Head Start suggest that Native children responded best to classes that were slow to moderately paced with a great deal of close, low key, unpressured interaction with the teacher and other students. This pattern was also the pattern of activities and interactions outside the schools in homes and village. It should be noted that “unpressured” does not imply low expectations. Mr. Scout clearly had high expectations for his students and traditionally, the environment of Alaska itself set high standards of performance.

Another study of teachers in Alaska found that students responded best to teachers who combined close, warm relationships with high expectations and standards. On the other hand, teachers who had warm relationships with the children without setting high expectations got poor results as did teachers who operated at impersonal distances and set high standards. One of the most common complaints of students was that Anglo teachers and children were cold, distant and “unfriendly.’ This complaint was often traced to the fact that the Anglos operated at a greater distance from people (Kleinfeld, 1974: 11-34).

The findings of the analysis serve to confirm the importance of Native teachers for educational success in Alaska with the critical factor being the nature of their training. Trained to take advantage of their communication patterns and skills, Native teachers with average ability would have higher potential as teachers than all but a few exceptional Anglo teachers. This last point is important because no school program can plan on success based primarily on the employment of miracle teachers. The training of teachers in general and Native teachers in particular is a complex issue, but both the analysis of this film and other work with film suggests that the communication process between teachers and students is the key to good classes. The absence of reasonably good communication in the classroom will negate any curriculum or program; conversely, the development of comfortable and successful interactions may do much to override bad curriculum and programs.

Could Anglo teachers be trained to behave and present themselves in a Native style? Quite probably not, as communication and behavior styles, particularly on a non-verbal level, appear to be fairly automatic; conscious manipulation of these styles is difficult over extended periods of time. The analysis of the film showed the persistence of Anglo pace and movement, styles in situations in which they were obviously not working as well as the persistence of Native patterns of pace and individual movements, regardless of teacher activities. However, a teacher properly sensitized to the existence of differences might be able to structure classroom relationships and processes to allow some mutual adjustments of differences.

In any case, the analysis suggests that the discrepancy between Anglo teachers and Native children in pace and movement styles, with concurrent absences of flow, served to destroy the communication processes in the classrooms. Even minor accommodations on the part of teachers often served to improve somewhat on the unfortunate pattern. In one class the Anglo teacher’s role in setting the pace of activities and interactions was minimized, and the classroom program created many circumstances where he could meet at close quarters with the children. This teacher was rewarded with high levels of flow, communication, and student involvement in the learning process. There is certainly room for improvement with regard to non-Native teachers. But the potential of Native teachers must be regarded as generally much higher. How that potential can be achieved is another question.

Both this study and the earlier study of film raise some question about the content of curriculum. How important is it to the creation of a successful class? The content of the Head Start curriculum was in many respects little different from that of prefirst. Mr. Scout taught a class with a conventional curriculum. Mr. Kweth altered the content of his class to fit more closely the village situation and was rewarded with a great deal of interest, while in another case, very modest attempts at “relevant” subjects got response only when the material was presented by Native adults. There is no doubt that irrelevant, incomprehensible content makes bad situations worse, as in sections of prefirst and kindergarten, but to what extent can changes in the content of curriculum compensate for poor teaching? Does the creation of good communication networks in the class totally make up for curriculum content that is essentially negative? The answer cannot be found in this film record, but common sense suggests that the content of any school program has a cumulative effect. In this context, an exciting and successful class such as Mr. Scout’s has to be viewed with some reservations, as would any Native-taught class that presented a totally Anglo curriculum. The cumulative effect of classes like these might be children well educated in Anglo terms, and even reasonably confident and secure as individuals; however, the very success of the classes might well serve to reduce their competence in Native circumstances. Issues such as these will become more crucial if political pressures and teacher training programs put more Native teachers in the classrooms.

These matters are beyond the scope of this film study. The main significance of this study is that it emphasizes the persistence of cultural patterns of interpersonal interactions in classroom circumstances and the decisive effect of those patterns on the educational process. Regardless of educational paraphernalia, curriculum content, or even teacher dedication, education cannot occur if there is poor communication in the classroom. It appears that non-verbal patterns of pace movements in interactions may make, and certainly can break, the communication process in the classroom.



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Last modified November 12, 2008