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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Pennee Reinhart
No culture will give popular nourishment and support to images or patterns which are alien to its dominant impulses and aspirations.

Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride


We need our curriculum planners to deliver an apologetic suited to the realities of our times. We must accept the fact that many of our traditional instructional forms have died of exhaustion. Misguided but undaunted, we continue to embalm them with sterile enthusiasm, paint them in gaudy colors and dress them in the latest pedagogical finery. We have become trained morticians of the mind who make pitiful attempts to give our corpses the illusion of life. We would serve our students far better if we would prop up our tired symbols and rituals and dance them one last jig over their graves. Then we should bury them with the one room schoolhouse and Dick and Jane readers.

Peter McLaren, Schooling as Ritual Performance 

Any discussion of current trends in secondary education must address the effect of the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

The publication of A Nation at Risk in April 1983 has profoundly influenced decisions about education in rural Alaska. The commission recommends a curriculum that includes 4 years of English, 3 years of social studies, math, and science, and 1/2 year of computer science, as well as standardized testing of all students in these subjects. The report also calls for devoting significantly more to the "new basics," for using the existing school day more effectively, and for lengthening the school day or the school year. Another contention is that educational reforms, particularly those focusing on math, science, and computers, are essential to restoring the American economic position in the world.

Many school districts in Alaska are adopting these recommendations, making school administrators and teachers responsible for the education of students within the parameters of "excellence." Some of the issues raised by this trend will be discussed in this paper, especially curriculum, standardized tests, time devoted to education, and education as it relates to employment. 


The reliance on the subject-oriented curriculum as it is currently implemented in rural Alaskan schools has been increased with the quest for "excellence." In all subjects, "the emphasis is on transmitting a predetermined body of knowledge or a particular set of skills from those who possess such knowledge or skills to those who do not. Thus, to a large extent in a subject-oriented curriculum, the learning process becomes subordinate to, or is determined by the nature of the content" (Barnhardt, this publication). Reducing the learning process to the acquisition of subject-matter skills contributes to maintaining a fragmented pattern of learning which frustrates the students needs for integration.

Success in school continues to consist largely of mastering skills and procedures that have little intrinsic meaning to the student. Teachers become both the diagnosticians and the surgeons, no matter how trivial, misconceived, and ultimately damaging the treatment might be, and the students remain the passive recipients of that treatment. If the bleeding does not seem to be restoring the patient to life, bleed some more. "The subject-oriented curriculum appears to be inadequate, in both content and process of, for the educational needs and circumstances of cultural minority students. The content is often divorced from the experiential and situational framework for the student, and the resultant process is usually culturally biased" (Barnhardt, this publication). 

Standardized Tests

Students' scores on standardized tests have become the measurement of excellence in most rural Alaskan schools. According to the National Commission, educational excellence involves the teaching of higher-order intellectual skills, such as the ability to analyze facts, draw inferences, solve problems, and create concepts. Standardized tests do not measure creativity or problem-solving ability. What they do assess is the capacity to locate answers to predetermined questions. Rather than indicating what students know, test items serve to catalyze what is taught. The more decisions are based on test scores, the more teachers teach to the test. The more educators design curricula around standardized tests, the less teachers devote time or energy to the processes by which students acquire knowledge. This policy stifles many competent teachers with homogenized scope and sequence and monotonous instruction. As a result, mediocrity instead of excellence is promoted in our schools.

Time Devoted to Education

The National Commission on Excellence in Education has recommended that students in high school be assigned more homework, that the school day be increased to 7 hours, and that the school year be extended to at least 200 days, and possibly 220 days. The commission also advocates that learning time should be increased through better classroom management and more efficient organization of the school day and that additional time should be found to meet the special needs of slow learners, the gifted, and others who need more instructional diversity.

One of the presumptions of the commission has been that more time in school is the crucial factor in the apparently better academic performance of students in foreign countries, particularly Japan. Japan has a longer school day and school year than the United States. However, the performance patterns of Japanese students are divergent, suggesting that factors other than time are significant. Cultural differences influence school performance. The Japanese have extensive school solidarity, built upon student responsibility for cleaning buildings, serving meals, and attending school assemblies, which include inspirational songs and messages. Art and music are considered basic skills in Japan. Students work for the honor of their class, school, and family and endeavor to do well on the rigorous high school and university entrance examinations. There is a direct correlation between high scores on examinations and the attainment of high-paying jobs. The ends justify the means. This is clearly not the case in rural Alaska, nor for that matter in the rest of the United States. Doing well in school does not guarantee employment. Because of these cultural differences, emulating the Japanese system of education would be unrealistic.

It seems to be a trend in this country, including Alaska, to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources on the gifted and talented students and students who qualify for other special help and to ignore the average students who make up the majority of the population in schools. These students have no advocates and are virtually excluded from academic expectations. We have heeded the Commission's cry for devoting increased time to the exceptional, but in the process we are breaking the backbone of society by failing to educate the students who happen to fall in between.

Successful Hunters by Anita Swan
We have been led to believe that obtaining a good education will insure a rewarding occupation. That this is an erroneous assumption becomes evident in the following examination of labor statistics by Gross and Gross (1985): "In 1982 the Department of Labor ranked the number of actual job openings by category. These openings reflect turnover as well as net job growth. The top fifteen job categories, with a single exception, are ones that middle class parents hope their children will avoid... The economy will generate some 19 million new jobs between 1980 and 1990, about 3.5 million of which will be professional and technical. Low-wage, service and clerical work will account for almost 7 million new jobs. Far from a high-tech future demanding skilled labor, the new technologies seem to be reducing the skills needed for most kinds of work. For most, the future rests at the counter of McDonald's or K-Mart; or if one is interested in computers directly, as a $4/hour key punch operator, not a $25,000/year programmer or repair person" (p. 367).

Education and Employment

There is no clear evidence of a shortage of qualified engineers or computer scientists. Perhaps the United States is experiencing high unemployment and low productivity, not because of a lack of a technically skilled work force, but because of a failure to modernize our industrial plants and a failure to educate the majority of our youth who previously have provided the impetus which has kept this country at the forefront of nations high in technology. We are speaking of that "average" student who is being by-passed on that long, arduous road to excellence.


"If an educational program is to become integrated with the cultural patterns of the surrounding community, then the goals, content, and structure of that program should reflect some form of experiential learning. Experiential learning goes beyond the scope of discovery or inquiry methods, by emphasizing direct involvement in real-life experiences, rather than simply 'learning by doing' in the context of a classroom" (Barnhardt, this publication). We are immersed in a time of change. We are leaving an age of industrialization and entering an age of information. Our concepts of what constitutes basic education need to be adjusted. Learning to deal with the ever changing world mandates that coping skills become basic. These include skills in health, nutrition, drug and alcohol education, and physical and psychological education. Decision making, a key to our development as individuals, should be the most important basic skill taught in school. For students to be able to solve problems and make decisions, it is essential that they learn how to predict and check the results of their actions, monitor their activities, and test reality. These abilities are crucial for effective thinking in any kind of learning situation, be it in the school or in the community.

American culture has been criticized for excessive individualism in lieu of collective commitment, cooperative behavior, and social responsibility. This philosophy is contrary to the world views of many minority cultures in Alaska. Eskimo children, for instance, are taught "never to make judgments that ignore others, that are not, really, part of a community's judgment. The emphasis is on 'us', as opposed to 'I'. It is dangerous, they learn, to cultivate oneself; true, one learns to distinguish one's own life from those of others, but with none of the intense psychological assertiveness, even imperialism, that some other American children generate" (Coles, 1977, p. 215). Schools in rural Alaska increasingly pressure students to prove their self-worth as measured by performance on standardized tests and competence in subject-oriented curriculum. With success becoming more and more dependent on these criteria, a growing portion of our school population will find themselves defined as failures. If the competencies taught in school were directed toward human sharing and collaborative work, and if individual achievement was viewed as serving collective interests and the welfare of the community, then experiential learning, rather than transmitting predigested content, could become a viable approach to education.

If excellence in Alaskan schools is to become an attainable reality, quality education for all students needs to be made into a priority. Since it is a slow process to raise overall achievement scores, many Alaskan educators have opted to select those students who are at the upper echelons of the achievement range and place a higher emphasis on their education at the expense of the other students.

When Peters and Waterman (1984) set out to look for excellence in corporate America, they found that excellent companies turned the average person into winners by designing systems to support and reinforce winning attitudes. The investigators also observed that less-than-excellent organizations viewed their workers negatively and designed systems that seemed to tear down their workers' self-image. Recognizing winners is a lot easier than creating them; however, to create winners should be the purpose of education. It is not the recognition of quality but the creation of quality that breeds excellence.

It is our responsibility as teachers in Alaska to bridge the gap between education in the classroom and the requirements for employment in society and to create a learning environment which prepares the majority of students for their roles as productive adults.


Coles, R. (1977). Children of Crisis (Vol. IV). Boston: Little Brown and Company.

Gross, B. & Gross, R. (Eds.). (1985). The Great School Debate. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

McLaren, P. (1986). Schooling as Ritual Performance. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Peters, T. & Waterman, R. (1984). In Search of Excellence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.



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