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




Carol Barnhardt
Center for Cross-Cultural Studies
University of Alaska, Fairbanks



Since 1794, when the Russians first established settlements on Kodiak Island, schools have been a permanent fixture in Alaska. With the schools have come a wide variety and large number of teachers who have journeyed far from their own homes to teach in Alaska's schools. Missionary zeal, the lure of high salaries, or a quest for adventure have often been the motivating forces responsible for the steady influx of teachers to Alaska from Outside. Today, nearly 200 years after the first schools opened, the vast majority of teachers in Alaska's rural communities continue to come from places other than Alaska.

The importation of teachers from outside the state has had its advantages and disadvantages. Teachers from somewhere also usually bring with them new perspectives, new ideas, and very often a great deal of enthusiasm. However, these qualities are almost invariably dampened by the reality of long harsh winters and the prolonged isolation from familiar people, places and goods.

Adjustments to the physical environment are minor, however, compared to the complications that are created by the fact that Alaska is composed of diverse groups of people whose cultural backgrounds often differ radically from those of teachers from Outside. It doesn't take teachers long to discover that their own value systems, life styles and ways of teaching and learning are often not shared or even appreciated by the students and families in the communities they are trying to serve. This discovery can quickly lead to feelings of frustration, anger, inadequacy and anxiety for teachers and students, which in turn often leads to dropping out -- by teachers and students. The annual turnover of teachers in Alaska's rural schools is notoriously high, and school attendance and test score statistics indicate that high numbers of rural students continue to tune out, both physically and mentally, long before they graduate.

(Author's note: The author and Wendy Rosen Esmailka gratefully acknowledge support received from the National Institute of Education which awarded funds under Grant No. NIE-G-8O-0064 to make this study possible.)

A question that has been debated for many years by parents, teachers, school officials and teacher training institutions is: "Would some of the problems related to teaching in rural Alaskan schools be relieved if local people were available to teach in their own communities?" Until recently, answers to this question have been purely hypothetical, however, because only a handful of local people were teaching in bush communities. ("Local" people in rural Alaska are primarily Native people: Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians.) Only within the last few years have social, economic, and political forces brought about opportunities for a significant number of Alaskan Natives to receive education degrees and become certified teachers. Today, approximately three percent of the teachers in Alaska are Alaskan Natives.

The small but growing cadre of Native teachers finally makes it possible to begin to examine more directly some of the unanswered questions about the contributions that Native teachers are able to make to the schooling processes in their own communities. The purpose of this paper is to describe the preliminary findings of one study that attempts to address those questions.


An Athabaskan School

At the beginning of the 1979-80 school year, an elementary school in an Interior Alaska Athabaskan community opened its doors for its eleventh year of operation as a state-supported school. (Schools had existed in the community since 1889, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Catholic Church). The three Native teachers, who comprised the faculty of the elementary school, were returning to the same positions they had held for the past four years. They were members of the community -- two Athabaskan women and one Athabaskan man. The school was the only multi-teacher school in Alaska where all of the teachers were Native. This fact alone made the school interesting, but far more intriguing was the fact that schooling in this community appeared to be working. Students were performing well by nearly all traditional standards. Test scores were on or above the national average and were higher than in past years; attendance was good; discipline was not a problem, and students participated eagerly in class activities. Teachers were spending a high proportion of time working with students on academic tasks and only a small amount of time doing classroom management (organizing, disciplining, housekeeping, etc.). Students, likewise, were spending most of their time-on-task doing the kinds of things we expect students to do: math, reading, writing, etc. The general picture was one of a school running smoothly and successfully, but it was not immediately apparent just how this smoothness and success was being achieved. What were these teachers doing to get the students so interested in the schooling process?


Development of the Project

One group of people with a special interest in knowing more about the schooling process in classrooms taught by Alaska Native teachers was the University of Alaska's Cross-Cultural Education Development Program (X-CED). X-CED is a program designed specifically to train Native people to become teachers. Since its beginning in 1970, sixty Alaskan Natives have earned bachelor's degrees in Cross-Cultural Education.

In January of 1979, Wendy Rosen Esmailka (an X-CED Field faculty member) and I (a graduate student at the time) submitted a proposal to the National Institute of Education (NIE) to support a study which would allow us to video tape the interaction of teachers and students and look specifically at the teaching styles of the three Athabaskan teachers in the school described above. The purpose of the study was to gather information that would assist faculty and students in developing guidelines and materials for the X-CED teacher training program. The proposal was funded by NIE, so, with support and encouragement of the community and the teachers, in February of 1980. Esmailka moved temporarily to the community to begin video taping. Since the funding and timeline of this study were limited, there was no attempt to document or formally study activities outside the classroom.

Video taping was done on three different occasions over a time period of two months in each of the three classrooms. Using a portable reel-to-reel black and white video camera; approximately twelve hours of tape were collected from each classroom.

After completing the video taping, Esmailka returned to her X-CED teaching position in another village and began viewing and analyzing the tapes. Assisting her with the project were this author and two consultants, Fred Erickson, from the University of Michigan, and Ron Scollon, from the University of Alaska. The three classroom teachers were not formally involved in the process of viewing and analyzing the tapes, although they were highly supportive and were informally involved and consulted throughout the project. Several other people interested in education in rural Alaska contributed ideas and suggestions that are included in this report. Since many of the observations were done collectively, there has been no attempt to credit any one individual. The interpretations presented here are the responsibility of the author.

This report presents our initital, tentative ideas about teaching and learning in those particular classrooms. We hope that it will generate further work with the same or similar material and will encourage others to use video tape to examine classrooms.


Working with Video Tape

We found that using video tape for examining classroom interaction was especially useful for the following reasons:

  1. Video tape allowed us to work with the same data both individually and as a group. With some members living several hundred miles apart, this was necessary for the project
  2. Video tape provided a way of capturing and preserving the classroom experience in a form that was as close to the original as possible. It offered a sample of classroom experiences that we felt comfortable calling "real," since it is difficult for any teacher or student to role play or "put on a show" for six hours of continuous video taping
  3. Video tapes provided us with a valuable teaching and learning tool because our material can now be used by others to generate more ideas and to verify our results
  4. Video tape allowed us to look "beneath the surface" and observe behavior that would not have otherwise been visible. The video tapes provided us with a real-time picture of activities in the classrooms, and allowed us to go over the same material.

Erickson, Mehan, Van Ness and the Colliers (see bibliography) have all used video tape or film to study classrooms, and each discusses in detail the advantages and disadvantages of the use of the medium in schools.


First Impressions

Our first viewings of the tapes left some of us feeling bewildered and disappointed. Those of us who were novice video-viewers saw nothing that looked particularly exciting, new, or dramatic in the teaching styles of these Native teachers: the classrooms appeared to be relatively routine.

Some situations were obviously different from those usually described in educational literature, but these stemmed from the fact that this was a small, rural school rather than a large, urban one. For example, each teacher’s room was comprised of students from two different grade levels (first/second, third/fourth, fifth/sixth); the total number of students in each room was small (nine, thirteen, ten); and one teacher shared a partitioned room with the kindergarten teacher.

Other than these differences, there was nothing that suggested any radical departure in teaching style from what one would expect to see in most classrooms with non-Native teachers. These three teachers seemed to be doing the regular routines of "school teaching." They were having reading lessons with small groups of students; they were putting math problems on chalkboards for students seated at work tables; they were grading dittoed work sheets as they sat at their desks, and they were working with and around teacher aides. In all of these activities they were using standard curriculum materials.

Even the physical appearance of the classrooms gave no hint of any dramatic differences. The teachers' desks were in the front of the rooms, number and letter charts were in place above the chalkboard, and pencil sharpeners, phonagraphs and bookshelves were easily seen. There were no fancy learning centers, no unusual arrangements of desks and chairs (the students sat at tables) and no large eye-catching posters or bulletin board displays. From our own experiences as teachers, from our associations with other teachers, from knowledge of educational research literature, and from watching other classroom video tapes, we were inclined to think of the teaching styles of these three Native teachers as basically standard or traditional.

With our initial focus of attention on the teachers and the physical appearance of the classrooms, it was easy to overlook the fact that the students in these rooms were also acting very much like students are supposed to, but not like Native students are supposed to, at least according to most of the studies done on Native American students in educational settings. The students in these classrooms did not fit the stereotype of the passive, shy, withdrawn or quiet Native student. Instead, they were eager and anxious to participate. They volunteered answers in math, they talked "loud enough," they raised their hands, they read aloud and read well, and they even asked many questions.

It became apparent to us that it was the superficial similarities in the classrooms that were immediately obvious, but the more significant differences were yet to be discovered. We were seeing Native teachers using what appeared to be very conventional ways of teaching while at the same time we were seeing Native students responding in very non-traditional ways. Students were participating, achieving, laughing and learning. Although we saw nothing particularly novel in our first glimpses of these "Native" teaching styles, we now felt that there were some important subtle differences in these teacher-student interactions.



We began to review and re-review small segments of tape where there appeared to be a considerable amount of teacher-student interaction 1. We focused on the subtle kinds of behavior teachers used as they interacted with students. We examined what they were actually doing on a minute-by-minute and second-by-second basis. During this process we began to sense that these teachers had an uncanny ability to know and understand their students, and we found ourselves repeatedly using the term "tuning-in" to describe several different kinds of teacher-student behaviors. We saw tuning-in as an ability of the teacher to adapt to the world of the students and we began to see evidence of this tuning-in at several levels. We saw teachers tuning-in rhythmically with their speech and body movements, tuning-in by listening, and tuning-in specifically to individual students. Somehow, these teachers were tuning-in in a way that prevented their students from being "turned-off" by the schooling process.

From analyzing the video tapes, we can describe some of the ways the teachers tune-in to their students 2. Of course we cannot prove that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between what we call tuning-in behavior and student success, but we think it likely that the behaviors we've called tuning-in are important to the success of the teacher-student interaction. With this information, It would now be possible to set up more systematic and controlled studies with Native and non-Native teachers to see if some of the identified behaviors correlate with the students' success.

The following examples have been chosen from among several in the tapes. Some describe one teacher whereas others describe all three. There were certainly important variations among the teachers, but the similarities seemed to be more significant than the differences. Since two female teachers and one male teacher were involved in the study, both masculine and feminine pronouns are used throughout the report. They are used arbitrarily, however, in order to avoid identification of any one particular teacher.



The first issue we focused on in each of the three classrooms was "rhythm." We were interested in examining the different rhythms used by the teachers and the students in both their verbal and non-verbal movements. Our interest in the issue of rhythm was prompted by current research in the disciplines of physics, linguistics, music and psychology.

People have long been aware that rhythmic patterns exist at all levels of the natural world, from the vibration of microscopic molecules to the movement of planets. We also know that there are recognizable rhythms in the human body such as the heart beat. Current research now provides evidence to support the notion that definite rhythms also exist in human speech and in human body movement.

In his book, The Turning Point, Fritjof Capra comments:

Rhythmic patterns are a universal phenomenon, but at the same time they allow individuals to express their distinctive personalities. The manifestation of a unique personal identity is an important characteristic of human beings, and it appears that this identity may be, essentially, an identity of rhythm. Human individuals can be recognized by their characteristic speech patterns, body movements, gestures, breathing, all of which represent different kinds of rhythmic patterns . . . As in the process of perception, rhythm plays an important role in the many ways living organisms interact and communicate with one another. Human communication, for example, takes place to a significant extent through the synchronization and interlocking of individual rhythms. . . opposition, antipathy, and disharmony will arise when the rhythms of two individuals are out of synchrony (1982:300,302).

Since we wanted to learn more about the rhythmic patterns in the interactions between the teachers and students, we used methods and information developed by Erickson and Scollon, as they were both consultants for this study. Their previous work helped to illustrate the central role of rhythm in the communication process, and they showed that talk in all contexts is rhythmically timed to a regular underlying meter or tempo.

Erickson had used his work on rhythmicity as a basis for studying teacher-student interaction at both the elementary school and junior college level. He found many situations where people failed to understand one another because they were not rhythmically integrated. They were not in synchrony with one another. In one example of an interaction between a teacher and a kindergarten child, an analysis of a video tape clearly shows the consequences of the use of different rhythmic patterns.

A kindergarten child is being given a screening test to determine if placement for special education is necessary. The test is oral and has a typical question-answer format. (in previous studies Erickson had discovered that routine question-answer sequences in school counseling sessions are performed in a rhythmically regular fashion, with a "sing-song kind of cadence." Part way through the test the teacher asks the child a test question and the child responds with the correct answer, but not at the time that the tester expects the answer. This momentary disruption in the expected rhythm of the question-answer sequence causes the teacher to not "hear" the answer the child has given. The child responds a second time with the correct answer, but again, the timing of her response does not fit into the teacher's expected rhythmic pattern. In a third attempt, the child changes her answer, gives a "wrong" response but gives it at the "right" time. The tester hears this response and marks it down as the official answer to that test question. In these and other situations that Erickson refers to as "conversational traffic jams," he finds that the child and the teacher who do not achieve rhythmic synchrony fall to understand each other to the detriment of the child.

Scollon's work on rhythm was prompted partially by his search for a way to represent Athabaskan oral narratives in a written medium. He found that pausing was a central issue in the interaction between storytellers and their audiences, so he studied the phenomenon of tempo as a way of learning more about the role of pausing and about the role of rhythm in interaction. In his samples of a wide variety of situations he was able to demonstrate that "ordinary talk, from a family breakfast to a play-by-play of a baseball game, from Groucho Marx to the narratives of Athabaskan tradition bearers, is rhythmically integrated in a fairly slow measure in 2/4 time" (198lb: 13).


Tempo, Density and Beat

In order to study the rhythm of the teachers and students we used a method developed by Scollon (1981a) for determining tempo and density. Tempo is a term often used to describe the rate at which something happens. In our study we used tempo to describe the speed of beats per minute. Metronomes are the familiar devices used by musicians to mark or set the speed of beats or the rate at which music is to be played or sung. They can be set to mark any number of beats per minute (usually between 40 and 210). The selected speed is what is called the tempo. When we listened for tempo we listened for patterns of strong beats and weak beats.

Density, on the other hand, is a term used by Scollon to refer to the number of notes or the number of words per measure or per minute. For instance, a piece of music that tells a musician to play sixteen notes per measure is more "dense" than one which calls for playing four notes per measure. Two musical pieces can be played at the same tempo (maybe eighty-eight beats per minute), but the piece that has numerous sixteenth notes will give the impression of being a faster piece of music. People's intuitions that music (or talking) is fast or slow is usually made on the basis of density rather than tempo. The following description helps to further explain these notions.

As in music, the underlying tempo (of talk) is not to be confused with the rhythmic patterns superimposed on it. Some speakers superimpose a pattern of relatively few syllables per beat while others superimpose a pattern of a very high density. It came as a surpise to me to find that Groucho Marx, performing on his radio show, 'You Bet Your Life,' spoke in a very slow tempo (75.9 beats per minute). That gives the impression of rapid speech is the very high density of 4.62 words per measure. To trade on the parallel with music we can say that some speakers speak in quarter notes while others such as Groucho Marx speak in 32nd or even 64th notes. I find it useful to refer to this phenomenon as 'density' and to treat it as quite distinct from tempo (Scollon, 1981b: 7).

We also considered the amount of silence when we were gathering information about rhythm. We noted the silent beats and considered the percentage of silence in each sample. We came to realize that the popular notion of rhythm was not really adequate to allow us to make a detailed description of the rhythm of people's speech. We needed to consider all of the phenomena that constituted our intuitive sense of rhythm. When we talked about rhythm in speech we were not using it as an analogy. We were saying that speech itself is rhythmical.

We made transcriptions of the audio segments we were analyzing and then began to listen for the "beat." Beat is defined in a wide variety of ways. Musicians often refer to it as a regulating time mark or a regulating force, and they describe beats as having strong or weak accents. Linguists usually talk about stress or emphasis instead of accent, and they define stressed syllables as those syllables that are uttered with a higher or lower pitch, a stronger intensity, a slight lengthening, a purer vowel quality or some combination of these. Although we were not trained as professional musicians or linguists we found that we could easily reach agreement on what we heard as "beats" in conversation.

We used a tape recorder that had the capacity to decrease the speed by twenty percent because we found that it allowed us to hear the beats and find the tempo more readily. After "finding" the beats, we counted them and used a stopwatch to check exactly the amount of real time that had elapsed (usually two to five minutes per sample), and then figured out the number of beats per minute. We used our marking of stressed or emphasized syllables to determine measure length and found, as did Scollon, that we consistently heard slow measures in 2/4 time with an accent pattern of strong and weak. He then placed our written transcription into a format that resembled a musical score.


Rhythm in the Classrooms

He examined samples of speech from reading groups in each of the three classrooms. In the first/second grade classroom the tempo of the teacher/student interaction was ninety-six beats per minute; in the third/fourth grade classroom it was ninety-one beats per minute; and in the fifth/sixth grade classroom the tempo was eighty-two beats per minute. Although this seems like a fast tempo the figures in themselves do not tell us anything definitive, since the tempo of any individual's speech varies with the situation. However, some informal research has suggested that the average tempo of children's speech may be faster than that of adults' (just as the average heart beat of a child is faster than that of an adult).

In order to gather information on tempos in other classrooms, we analyzed portions of audio tapes from reading lessons in the KEEP Project in Hawaii (Kamehameha Early Education Project) and from two Fairbanks primary classrooms. In the KEEP classroom the tempo was eighty-nine, and in the Fairbanks classrooms it was seventy-four and seventy-six. Thus, in our sample we found the tempo of the interaction to be faster in the classrooms of the Native Alaskan teachers and the KEEP teacher. At this point, these figures are useful primarily as a basis for comparison for future studies.

The most interesting observation to emerge from our study of tempo and density came from those situations where the conversation between a teacher and a student was disrupted and the tempo consequently became ambiguous or uncertain. When this occurred, some of the teachers resolved the ambiguity by allowing the student to reset the tempo and then adjusting their tempo to "fit," whereas other teachers appeared to use the disruption as an opportunity for establishing a tempo of their own choosing and then requiring the student to make the adjustment. In the Native teachers' classrooms it appears that the resolution of the ambiguity was in favor of the students, whereas in the non-Native teachers’ classrooms, the teachers' perception of the tempo was enforced.


Ensemble and Classroom Rhythms

Several people have used the term "rhythmic ensemble" to describe the state that is achieved when participants in an interaction are communicating with a rhythm or tempo which is comfortable for both or all of them. Participants in ensemble work together as they summit their movements to a common time measure or a common pace as they operate on the same beat. When people achieve ensemble they not only feel more comfortable, but they also are able to communicate more successfully with fewer misunderstandings. Additionally, people who are in synchrony with one another are able to predict more accurately what will happen next.

Speakers time their entrances according to the tempo set by preceding speakers. After entering in that rhythm, speakers often accelerate or retard their tempo to establish what is in effect a new tempo. It is very rare that any speaker will independently and arbitrarily begin speaking without first confirming the established tempo. Children at breakfast bang their spoons in the prevailing tempo and radio emcees make their announcements in the tempo of their theme songs. Conversationalists cough, sneeze, clear their throats, blow their noses, and laugh in rhythmic ensemble. Often after a long silence someone clears his or her throat in a gesture which predicts the following tempo as accurately as a conductor's silent 'one-two' before the orchestra's entrance . . . Ensemble is not just being together, but doing together . . . (Scollon: 1981b: 9)


Other Classroom Rhythms

We found evidence of ensemble not only in the verbal interactions of the teachers and students but also in the physical movements. In one section of the tape we turned off the sound and, using only visual cues, we focused on the non-verbal movements of the teacher and the students. We observed movements such as head nods, changes in arm, torso or head position, walking, and turning of pages. We then used these movements instead of stressed syllables to mark the beat and find the tempo. We discovered that in many situations the teachers were adjusting to tempos obviously set by the students.

In one instance, a teacher is sitting at her desk getting her papers and books ready for a reading lesson. Five children in the reading group are already at the reading table. They are busy reading aloud the words on the board, opening their books, talking with each other and getting up and down in their chairs. The students are in essence doing reading activities without the teacher, and they have a tempo well established before she comes on the scene. When the teacher gets up from her desk (about six feet away from the reading table) and begins to walk over to the students, she does so in exactly the same tempo that the students are using. Her footsteps and arm movements coincide with their beat. She sits down at the table, opens her book, puts her hand toward the board and begins talking using the same rhythm that was established by the children. There is no attempt on the teacher’s part to change the pattern already established by the students. It is a very smooth entrance into the group and there is no time or energy lost in the transition.

When relating this incident to a friend, who is also a Native Alaskan teacher, she expressed surprise that any teacher would want to set the pace for the students. She said that she felt far more comfortable coming into her classroom after the students had been there for a while, and indicated that she would feel frustrated if she didn't have a sense of where the students "heads were at" before she started each day. This is very different from the approach expressed by many non-Native teachers, who perceive that it is their role and responsibility to set the stage for what will happen.

We also noted that students often were allowed to talk and provide answers to questions in time slots chosen by them and not the teacher. A teacher would put a list of vocabulary words on the board and each child would be expected to read these aloud individually. (This was always preceded by a group reading of the words.) In each instance it was the child who set the pace for the oral listing of words; it was not the teacher's pointing stick that determined when the child would respond. Instead, the teacher adjusted to each child's individual tempo. We also observed that children often called out the answers to questions before the formal question was asked, and they were not penalized for doing so. (This answer-question format also occurred in the Odawa classrooms that Erickson and Mohatt studied.) We see these two behaviors as reflecting the teacher's respect for the students' own tempo and timing.


Rhythms and Reasons

What can research on rhythm tell us about teachers, students, classrooms and education? At this early stage, the only thing we know with certainty is that we need to learn more about the role of rhythm in all kinds of communication. In our study we have gathered some specific information on the tempos of interactions between teachers and students in six different classrooms. We have acquired information on different ways that teachers have resolved "out-of-synch" interactions. We also have found that in some situations it appears students are allowed to reset the tempo and resolve the ambiguity, whereas in others teachers determine the tempo.

We can only speculate on the reasons these rhythmic behaviors are occurring. Perhaps the Athabaskan teachers adjusted to the children's rhythms because Athabaskan people as a group have a strong underlying respect for children. Perhaps these Athabaskan teachers (and the KEEP teacher) were able to adjust to the rhythms of the children because they were more familiar with those rhythms. Aaron Copland, a composer, has written about people's discomfort in listening to unconventional rhythms such as those used by Stravinsky. He says "most listeners feel more 'comfortable' in the well-grooved, time-honored rhythms they have always heard" (1957:36). If Native students and teachers are familiar with one another's verbal and non-verbal rhythms, they probably not only feel more "comfortable" but they are able to function in this comfort zone in a way that allows them to actually achieve better academically, as Erickson's studies suggest.

It is possible that it is very difficult for us to hear or perceive unfamiliar rhythms just as it is often difficult to see things that we are not accustomed to seeing. Malcolm Collier’s work with Native students and teachers has led him to suggest that "outside teachers sometimes perceive the rhythms of Native students as undirected random behavior with no internal integrity -- much as an unknown language appears to the ear to be a jumble of sounds with neither order nor meaning" (1981). Our own notions of rhythm are certainly shaped and biased by our Western perceptions, and it is possible that there are meaningful differences in rhythmic style just as there are differences in other aspects of communicative style.

Another possible explanation for the difference in the Athabaskan teachers' tuning-in behavior is that perhaps these Athabaskan teachers view their role as teachers in a fundamentally different way than do many other teachers. If teachers perceive themselves to be primarily listeners, they will interact differently rhythmically in communicative situations. Musicians often say that a listener has to "catch the beat." The interesting questions for classrooms are "who is the listener" and "who is catching the beat from whom?" It appears that some teachers see themselves primarily as listeners whereas others see themselves as the one to be listened to.


Other Ways of Tuning-in

Through further discussions and observations of the video tapes, and with the use of less formal methods of analysis, we were able to see evidence of teachers tuning-in to their students in other ways. The examples provided below are not supported by rigid factual data because time did not permit us to perform that kind of in-depth study.


Tuning-in by Listening

Teachers in all three classrooms were able to tune-in to their students because their classrooms were structured so that there was a high percentage of time in which the teachers were listening instead of talking. By providing quiet time, teachers were able not only to spend time actually listening to their students, but also were able to provide an atmosphere that was conducive to studying. We saw several instances of teachers sitting at their desks for long periods of time and not saying anything to the class as a whole. On these occasions the teachers were available to any student as resource persons and as listeners. (It is just this kind of situation, however, that often leads to accusations by administrators or other teachers, that "those teachers never seem to be teaching -- they spend time just sitting at their desks.")

In addition to providing time for listening and for studying, these teachers did not bombard their students with directions or instructions, and even discipline problems were resolved with very little talking. Other studies have indicated that in the average elementary school, about fifty percent of class time is spent in getting organized (Gump, 1975). We saw no example of the excess verbalization or interrupting that often occurs in classrooms, nor did we see instances of over-elaboration.

We also observed several smooth and rapid transitions from one classroom activity to another with just a minimum amount of talk from the teacher. In fact, there were times when we as observers had trouble determining just when one activity ended and another began. It was obvious to us, though, that the students were not at all confused. Since it was sometimes hard for us to determine where the boundaries were in the classroom transitions, we can speculate that it might also be difficult or frustrating for other outsiders. However, this kind of subtle transition can lead to misinterpretations by supervisors who sometimes describe it as "poor management."

In a separate but related issue we observed that teachers did not dominate the classroom with their talk; neither did they dominate with their physical presence. When we looked at the ways in which the teachers and the children moved around the classrooms, it appeared to us that patterns of movement and use of space were quite different from that in classrooms with non-Native teachers. The teachers did not claim a large amount of space in the room as their own (only their desks), and they did not "wander" around the room but moved directly from student to student. Overall, there was a sense of less movement than one usually sees in elementary classrooms. The teachers did not seem to need to dominate to the same degree that is evident in some classrooms: in some instances, the teachers blended in so completely with the students that it was actually difficult for us to "find" them in the classroom. For example, in one classroom in which a reading lesson was going on around a semicircular table, the teacher sat on the same side of the table with the students instead of across the table in the curved section where teachers are usually found. In addition, he took his turn at reading, along with the students.

These kinds of observations suggest to us that teachers who see part of their role as that of a support person have a very different kind of relationship with students from that of teachers who always see their role as that of a director. A support or resource person allows the students to define their specific needs and then responds to them, whereas a director defines those needs himself.


Fine-Tuning: Tuning-in to Individual Students

The video tapes provided us with numerous examples of what we sometimes called "fine-tuning," the common practice of the teachers to tune-in to their students as individuals in addition to tuning-in to them as a group. The examples described below are representative of the kinds of fine-tuning practices we observed.

At a general level we noted that the majority of each school day was spent in individual or small group activities rather than whole class activities. As the students worked independently, the teachers would move from student to student while they were working at their tables. The teachers would almost always kneel or squat down on the floor as they interacted with each student. These individual visits were not the quick-stop variety we sometimes see in classrooms where teachers give a cursory glance, offer a short comment and move on rapidly to the next student. Instead, they involved lengthy discussions of whatever the student was working on. Incidentally, it was interesting to note that the behavior of the class did not change even when there were long periods where the teacher's back was to the whole group.

During small-group lessons we could see that teachers were clearly tuned-in to individual strengths and weaknesses. In one instance, at the beginning of a math lesson, the teacher indicated to the group, by naming the children, that each of them was having trouble with different parts of the math lesson. She was tuned-in to the needs of the students as individuals. This public listing did not appear to be an embarrassment for any of the children since every child in the group was listed. It appeared to be taken as a simple acknowledgement that these areas needed to be worked on, and the teacher made no value judgments about such needs.

In another scene with a math group, five students were responding collectively and individually to problems that the teacher had on the chalkboard. Although the teacher was facing the board, it was obvious that she was monitoring who was and who was not answering. She was probably getting her cues from the sounds of the students' voices. Realizing that one child was not responding, she turned to her and asked her to come to the board where she began to work with her independently. She lowered her voice as she began to talk with the student; this was apparently a signal to the other students that this was going to be a private interaction.

As the teacher and student conversed quietly, the other students obviously knew well what was acceptable behavior during this private time. Although no rules were ever explicitly stated in this scene, it was evident that this kind of "privatizing" occurred often and the students respected such interactions and cooperated by not interfering. They could move quietly at their table but could not talk aloud. When the teacher raised her voice again it was apparently a signal (the only one we could detect) to the rest of the math group that the individual time was concluded and the larger group was once again part of the audience.

These fine-tuning practices imply an attitude of respect and confidence in the students' abilities as individuals. In this way, the teachers are able to pay close attention to each student without the "hounding" tendency that is so often characteristic of teachers.


The Teacher as Conductor

The concluding remarks for this report are based largely on a musical analogy -- the teacher as conductor. In this study, we found that borrowing concepts and terms from the field of music often allowed us to view teaching from a perspective that was not so heavily influenced by the traditional boundaries of educational thought.

Conductors use a wide range of styles as they direct musical groups. Some conductors stand in one spot on their podium and make only occasional small arm movements; some conductors move quickly from one side of the stage to another with much visible body movement; some conduct with their eyes closed, while others use their hand or nothing at all. A conductor of a jazz band or stage band usually uses a minimum number of signals and a small amount of time to help his group get started, and then he quickly and quietly blends into the group. In a jazz group the conductor is a member of the group who provides direction only when it is necessary. Most people have no problems accepting and appreciating a wide range of styles among conductors as long as the music sounds "good."

Just like conductors, classroom teachers also have a wide range of styles. In this study, our observations and analysis have generated information on the teaching styles of three Athabaskan teachers and expanded our definition of "successful teaching styles." These teachers sometimes "conducted" their classrooms in ways not generally advocated by educators, but these alternate ways of conducting did not interfere or prevent their students from learning. On the contrary, it is highly probable that they helped. This kind of information makes it difficult to support the idea that there is a particular set of competencies that can be identified as prerequisites to being a good teacher. Instead, the study lends credibility to the notion that there are indeed a wide variety of equally valid styles of teaching.


Athabaskan Teachers and Jazz Band Conductors

We would like to propose a parallel between the teaching styles used by the Athabaskan teachers and the conducting styles used for jazz bands. The use of this analogy does not imply that these three teachers taught in exactly the same way. Each teacher did have an individual style but the differences were minor compared to the similarity observed in the way each acted out the role of teacher.

The role of a jazz band conductor is to help his group get started and to then provide the necessary support. From the video tapes, we see that these teachers "conducted" their classrooms only when necessary. They provided direction and information to the students and then served in a supportive or resource role. They felt no obligation to continually perform for their students. Instead, they used subtle and, sometimes, almost imperceptible ways to keep things flowing. They did not occupy a lot of space or use a lot of visible and audible signals to guarantee that their class maintained ensemble. Like the Jazz conductor, they often became a part of the group, providing support and direction with a minimum amount of interference.

Through a variety of ways of tuning-in, these teachers were able to achieve, and then utilize effectively, an impressive sensitivity to the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, and then follow through with a sincere confidence in their ability to perform. Even the formal and informal evaluation of the student's performance was based on the student's ability to actually perform the task itself and not on some alternate ability, such as providing elaborate verbal explanations of the task. A jazz director and an audience judge musicians on their ability to play the music, not on their ability to verbally describe what they are doing.

These video tapes also suggest to us that it is not the musical score, the curriculum, or choice of books that determined the success or failure of the jazz band or the classroom. It is instead the way in which the materials are used that is important. Even the most exciting and relevant piece of music or curriculum is useless unless the relationship between the teacher-conductor and the student-performer is one that will allow them to come together and move in harmony, and thus to achieve ensemble. A well-written curriculum is an asset, but it is not the only ingredient for success. Just as a conductor would not blame the music for a poor performance, we as teachers cannot use standard curriculum as an excuse for the failure of students to achieve success in a classroom.



This report has provided some subsurface views of the teaching styles of three Athabaskan teachers as they teach Athabaskan children at a school in their home community. We have attempted to disclose some of the significant features of the interactions between the teachers and their students. The next step, as we see it, is to ask ourselves the following questions: "What kinds of things do we know now about the teaching styles of Native teachers that we didn't know before?" and "What kinds of things do we still need to know?"

In response to the first question we can state that we do know some things we didn't know before. We can see in these video tapes that the Native teachers are without question "teachers" according to anyone's definition of the term. There are many similarities between the ways in which they teach and in the ways that are described in other educational studies. These teachers' repertoires do include the use of directives, spotlighting, and reprimands, but these are used less frequently, and the rules for using them are different. It is apparently the minor (and usually less apparent) differences in these classrooms that make the major difference for the students.

We can see in the video tapes that it is possible to achieve a high degree of student participation and to have a "smooth" classroom with only a minimum amount of directing by the teacher. However, it is only realistic to note that it might be personally uncomfortable for many teachers to refrain from doing the obvious teacher kinds of things, like moving about the room and talking a lot with students, and it is plausible that this kind of behavior could be a professional risk in some situations and could lead to accusations of "not teaching."

We also know now that the teaching styles used by these teachers do not force them to compromise educational standards in any way. Their personal relationships with the students do not interfere with their expectations that the students do as well academically as they are capable.

In response to the second question, we can state that this study has provided us with information about three Native teachers in one school in one community. Therefore, we cannot generalize from this study but we can use it as a basis for speculating and, more importantly, as a basis for generating and developing comparative studies. We have no way of knowing, for instance, whether we can relate the teaching styles of these three people to the fact that they are Athabaskan. Perhaps there is a sense of "Indianness" intrinsic to their way of relating to the students, but until we have studies of Native teachers with non-Native students and of non-Native teachers with Native students, we will not be able to make those kinds of generalizations. In addition, we don't know to what degree people can consciously alter or modify their own style of teaching. We do know, though, that in the Erickson-Mohatt study of teachers with Odawa Indian students, a non-Native teacher was able to alter his teaching style in ways that allowed him to be more like his Native colleague.

Although schools are sometimes characterized as inflexible and standardized institutions, these video tapes suggest that there are alternate routes to successful schooling experiences and these teachers and students were able to pursue these routes to their advantage. In planning for the future, it will be important for school systems and teacher-training institutions to provide school structures and training programs that will be open enough to allow teachers to conduct their classrooms in the style that is most appropriate for the situation. We need to provide schooling situations that will allow teachers to tune-in so that students don't tune-out.

  1. Since viewing and analyzing video tapes is an extremely time-consuming process, our first task was to limit the number of tapes to work with. There was a wide range in the quality of the tapes (caused by changing lighting in the rooms, malfunctioning equipment, changing positions of teachers and students, etc.), so some of the decisions on which of the thirty-six hours of tape to use were easy. We decided to select samples from each of the three classrooms that would provide a wide range of classroom activities. Written transcriptions were made of some sections of the tapes and a few of these were selected for in-depth study. The information presented in this report is based primarily on the discussions and hypotheses produced by repeated viewings of these few sections of tape, supplemented by the general insights gained from a more superficial review of all of the tapes.
  2. We hope that readers will realize how difficult it is to convey in writing something which can be very powerful and obvious in a visual or audio medium.


Collier, John, Jr. Alaskan Eskimo Education: a film analysis of cultural confrontation in the schools. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

Collier, Malcolm. A Film study of classrooms in Western Alaska. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, 1979.

____________. Personal Communication, 1981.

Copland, Aaron. What to listen for in music. New York: New American Library, 1957.

Erickson, Frederick. "Timing and context in everyday discourse: implications for the study of referential and social meaning." Sociolinguistic Working Paper Number 67. Austin, Texas: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, 1980.

Erickson, Fred and Gerald Mohatt. "Cultural organization of participation structures in two classrooms of Indian students," in George Spindler, ed. Doing the ethnography of schooling. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.

Erickson, Fred and Jeffrey Shultz. The Counselor as Gatekeeper Social and Cultural Organization of Communication in Counseling Interviews. New York: Academic Press, 1982.

Gump, P. "Education as an environmental enterprise," in R. Weinberg and F. Wood (Eds.). Observation of pupils and teachers in mainstream and special education. Reston, Va.: Council for exceptional children, 1975.

Mehan, Hugh. Learning lessons: social organization in the classroom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Scollon, Ron. "Tempo, density, and silence: rhythms in ordinary talk." Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, 1981a.

_____________. "The rhythmic integration of ordinary talk." Paper presented at the Georgetown University Roundtable on languages and linguistics, March 1981, 1981b.

Van Ness, Howard. "Social control and social organization in an Alaskan Athabaskan classroom," in Ray Barnhardt, ed. Cross-cultural Issues in Alaskan education, Vol. II. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, 1982 .



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Last modified August 14, 2006