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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Judy Hoeldt

An elementary school that would be ideal for a rural community would use a process-oriented curriculum with a project-centered approach to experiential learning. In this paper, I will describe how a process-oriented curriculum is developed. In addition, I will explain how the project approach and the experiential method of learning can be integrated with the process-oriented curriculum.

Process Oriented

Barnhardt points out in "Culture, Community and Curriculum" (see this publication) that "a process-oriented curriculum recasts content as a means, rather than an end, and it draws on the students' need to learn as the determinant of the educational process". Thus, a process-oriented curriculum builds upon the students' prior knowledge which it seeks to extend or expand. The following two factors are of utmost importance to this process: (1) integration of prior knowledge with new knowledge, and (2) student participation and involvement. A process-oriented curriculum encourages students to seek their own knowledge and to employ their individual learning styles. The process-oriented curriculum involves the students in various levels of thinking such as inquiring, communicating, organizing, interacting, inferring, categorizing, experimenting, observing, decision-making, and problem-solving. With such a curriculum, the students are the "doers" who are in charge of their own learning, and the teacher is the facilitator.

A subject-oriented curriculum, on the other hand, tends to teach fragments of knowledge that are often not related to real-life situations in rural communities. If we want rural schools to become successful in educating their students, we have to involve the students in meaningful learning experiences, not teach them isolated facts in which the students are drilled for the sole purpose of getting work done or pleasing the teacher.

In a process-oriented curriculum, the former subject categories become integrated through the students' experience. Does this mean that we have to throw all our text books away? I believe that text books have their place in a process-oriented curriculum as information resources to be explored by the students and the teacher working together as a team of learners. Curriculum can thus be built by retaining subject matter but emphasizing the underlying structure.

I believe that in a process-oriented curriculum, the teacher's role is very important (and difficult) because it involves integrating subject matter with student experience. As a way of doing this, I see the teacher introducing the students to subject matter that relates to their everyday experience in the community and then letting the students develop and pursue their own interests in regard to this subject matter.

With such an approach, the role of the teacher would shift from that of a dictator of knowledge to that of a facilitator of learning. The teacher and student would explore their physical, cultural, and social environment together. The process-oriented curriculum thus allows for the community to become involved in and be a part of an educational process that builds upon the students' cultural background instead of segmenting it into twenty-minute bilingual lessons. Such a curriculum would contribute to helping the students become informed adults who can relate to their community and culture, adapt to an ever-changing social and cultural environment, and interact with members of different cultural groups.

Project Centered

A process-oriented curriculum becomes most effective when learning takes place under a project-centered approach. Barnhardt quotes Harrison and Hopkins (see this publication) who provide the following definition of the term "project": "In reference to a cross-cultural training program, where 'project' is used to refer to a process-oriented activity requiring a learner to:
  1. Obtain information from the social environment (communication);
  2. Formulate and test hypotheses about forces and processes present in the environment (diagnosis);
  3. Select and describe some part of the situation which is to be changed or altered (problem definition);
  4. Plan action to solve the problem (commitment, risk-taking);
  5. Carry out the action, enlisting the help and cooperation of others (influencing and organizing);
  6. Verbalize attitudes, perceptions and tentative learnings from experiences (cognition and generalization)". 

Corwin, et al, in their article, "Weaving Curriculum Webs" (see this publication), provide an example of a learning project that focused on a spider that a student had brought to school. The project covered many subjects such as math, science, language arts, reading, writing, and art. It involved the students in a variety of activities ranging from building a spider's home to drawing spider webs and writing stories about spiders. This example shows that the project-centered approach is so flexible that it can be anything from a mini-lesson to a year-long unit.

I also heard of two teachers in Ft. Yukon who worked with their students on a year-long travel project that incorporated all subject areas. The class did math calculations on mileage, studied the history of different places, wrote for reservations and tours, kept journals, read about different places they were to visit, studied maps and worked out schedules and budgets, and started different business enterprises to earn money for the trip. Both of these examples show the extent to which the project-centered approach can involve the students in subject learning. A science project on rocks, for example, could cover such academic skills as math (using measurements and weights), language (writing stories), reading (finding information on rocks), science (classifying and identifying), and a variety of process skills such as inference, categorization, classification, observation, organization, theory formulation, and identification.

A learning project requires a lot of advance preparation. The teacher must make sure that materials and resources are available and that the project includes a wide enough variety of tasks to provide each student with an opportunity to learn. Again, the teacher takes the role of the facilitator and learner.

I think the project-centered approach is very valuable because it draws on real-life experiences and includes all academic skills. It's like going from a small seed and watching it grow and spread over a vast area. Yet, the most important implication of this approach is that the students are acquiring skills through applying them to real-life situations. With the project-centered approach, the students learn through solving their own problems. Thus, the students are taking on a new role which is that of a teacher-a seeker of knowledge and explorer. In this way, the students become accountable for their own learning as they learn to take on responsibility and to be proud of their discoveries and achievements.

The project-centered approach fosters the students' positive self-concept. When completing a project, the students are not rewarded with a sticker from the teacher but with their pride in having achieved their goal. The students' pride in their success can only contribute to a positive learning environment. I feel that the project-centered approach gives an independence which contributes to their success and teaches them how to choose between the different life styles they are exposed to.

Eskimo Friends by Eva Hawley

Experiential Learning

A process-oriented curriculum with a project-centered approach involves the students in experiential learning by offering them opportunities to work out problems by themselves through direct participation in their environment. The teacher's role in experiential learning requires that he or she develop personal relationships with individual students. This can be done through dialogue journals. Dialogue journals are a form of correspondence between teacher and student. The students do free-writing, and the teacher reads it and comments on the students' thoughts, not on grammatical aspects of their writing. As time goes on, mutual respect and trust develops.

The experiential method focuses on spontaneous events and real life phenomena. This method brings the community and the school together as the students acquire an understanding of their real-life experiences. Experiential learning contributes to a better education for rural students because it considers the students' cultural background. In addition, it helps the teacher to learn about the students' culture.

Our educational goal is to prepare students for the world they will enter upon graduation. In experiential learning, the student and the teacher are developing skills the students will need to acquire the abilities to cope with their future lives. The ideal rural school needs to help students develop the skills necessary for facing an ever changing society.

How do we evaluate experiential learning? Observations on student conduct are the teacher's data. The students test themselves by evaluating their experiences in dealing with the world around them. The people in the students world are the learners' critics, and the students are their own defense lawyers. If a student tries something and it doesn't work, that student will learn to try something else. Thus, students' lack of success isn't viewed as a failure but as another problem to be resolved. The teacher as a counselor can offer some guidance for the student engaged in solving his or her own problems. This guidance might consist of directing the student into different directions to look for solutions and resources. As the students are thus learning to test themselves by their own standards and through critical involvement in and exploration of their world, they are acquiring knowledge which they will retain for life.

When I was once asked to think of my best learning experience, I came up with a project our teacher had us do. In second grade, we were to explore our world for wood products. This was a real challenge for me, and I was really proud of doing this by myself. I had to become involved in my community and home life to complete this project. Some of the products on my list were not made of wood, but a group of students were our critics with whom we discussed our findings and made the necessary adjustments. This is only a small example of experiential learning, but it shows how students can become involved in experimenting and how they can use their own learning styles to develop skills.

So far, I've described the ideal rural school as one that uses the process-oriented curriculum, the project-centered approach and the experiential learning method. Now I'd like to be more specific and discuss how the school and the local culture interrelate in many villages. First, I'd like to explain how schooling is usually done. It's done with a traditional academic subject-oriented approach where a certain body of knowledge is transmitted at a certain time of day. Upon checking the schedule, you might catch reading at 10:00 a.m., taught with the district's Ginn reading program. The stories the students are reading probably contain little information relevant to their experience. You might see the bilingual teacher at 1:15 p.m. conducting a 20-minute session on vocabulary. You probably won't hear the students using these words after the lesson. At other times, you may see the teacher grading papers during the class period while the students are filling out their workbooks. This is a small illustration of how rural education looks in many village schools that I have seen.

In this environment, certain changes would have to be made to implement a process-oriented curriculum. The curriculum would have to be developed by the school district in a fashion similar to that described by Helen Roberts (see this publication): "In an adequately integrated bilingual and cross-cultural curriculum, the school should reflect the community in every aspect, not just in revised text materials or special ethnic studies programs. Staff readiness, community support, and student motivation are keys to any successful curriculum, regardless of language or culture". Support from the school district, the community, and the school staff are crucial to the development of a process-oriented curriculum. There needs to be clear and precise communication between administrators, teachers, and the community. It is one thing to try and change your curriculum but it is another thing to get the district and community to support you. To reach our goal of educating rural students to their fullest potential, we have to wade through a lot of political, economic, and social barriers.

As a teacher, I often dream of just teaching the children without going through all the regulations and stipulations one must plough through to reach a specific goal. As a teacher, I know where I'm coming from and what I'm bringing to the classroom. I'm aware of my capabilities, my determination, enthusiasm, and positive outlook. I can visualize projects in my classroom. As a teacher, I want to work with a program that uses to the fullest extent what the students bring to the classroom. I want to try to involve the community by participating in community events and by incorporating cultural learning in all areas of the academic curriculum, such as language, writing, reading, math, science, history, social studies, art, etc.

I can see our rural school with the teacher and the student working as a team to explore the surrounding environment. I don't see our school as a structure with a desk, books, individual paper work and tests, but as an environment conducive to a mutual effort of exploring and extending the students' and teachers personal experiences. Such an approach puts into practice a learning theory that is based on the assumption that students learn from experience.



J. Kelly Tonsmiere


Ray Barnhardt

Section I

Some Thoughts on Village Schooling
"Appropriate Schools in Rural Alaska"
Todd Bergman, New Stuyahok

"Learning Through Experience"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"The Medium Is The Message For Village Schools"
Steve Byrd, Wainwright

"Multiple Intelligences: A Community Learning Campaign"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Obstacles To A Community-Based Curriculum"
Jim Vait, Eek

"Building the Dream House"
Mary Moses-Marks, McGrath

"Community Participation in Rural Education"
George Olana, Shishmaref

"Secondary Education in Rural Alaska"
Pennee Reinhart, Kiana

"Reflections on Teaching in the Kuskokwim Delta"
Christine Anderson, Kasigluk

"Some Thoughts on Curriculum"
Marilyn Harmon, Kotzebue

Section II

Some Suggestions for the Curriculum
"Rabbit Snaring and Language Arts"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"A Senior Research Project for Rural High Schools"
Dave Ringle, St. Mary's

"Curriculum Projects for the Pacific Region,"
Roberta Hogue Davis, College

"Resources for Exploring Japan's Cultural Heritage"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Alaskans Experience Japanese Culture Through Music"
Rosemary Branham, Kenai

Section III

Some Alternative Perspectives
"The Axe Handle Academy: A Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities Education"
Ron and Suzanne Scollon

"Culture, Community and the Curriculum"
Ray Barnhardt

"The Development of an Integrated Bilingual and Cross-Cultural Curriculum in an Arctic School District"
Helen Roberts

"Weaving Curriculum Webs: The Structure of Nonlinear Curriculum"
Rebecca Corwin, George E. Hem and Diane Levin

Artists' Credits



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Last modified August 14, 2006