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The Axe Handle Academy:

A Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities Education

Ron Scollon (deceased January 1, 2009)
Suzanne Scollon
Go to this web site to learn more about the Axe Handle Academy

This article was origianlly written under contract to the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, Juneau, Alaska,1986.

When one of our parents entered kindergarten a goad education was thought to be knowing the classics, the ability to read and write at least one classical language, the ability to write clear prose, the ability to give a good, clear, and persuasive public speech. and conscientious citizenship. The technology in the home and the school was very little different from the technology in the homes and schools of Socrates, Pythagoras, and Confucius.

By the time the oldest of us entered kindergarten the world had gone through one world war and was entering the second. His home and school had hot and cold water, electricity, central heating, radios, and movies. While he was in elementary school he saw his first jet plane overhead. In junior high school he first saw television. The year he graduated from high school Sputnik I first orbited the earth.

In school he had read parts of some classics, he had dropped Latin and gotten away with it, he was still expected to write clear prose, but there was no public speaking taught, and good citizenship had been transformed by World War II into patriotism first and then by the Korean War into a deep fear of others.

By the time our son began kindergarten micro-computers were part of daily life, the majority of children in our country were spending more time watching television than attending school. the classics and classical languages were no longer a part of schooling, children were expected to be able to fill in blanks in worksheets and multiple choice tests, and multinational corporations had become more significant political and economic entities than all but a few nations of the earth.

It is safe to say that no one can predict what kind of a world our son will graduate into from high school. In these three generations the world has experienced greater and more widespread shocks of change than at any time in the past. The cultural and technological gulf between our parents and our son is greater than the gulf of thousands of years between Socrates or Confucius and our parents.

As we see this gulf widening each day we parents and teachers ask ourselves: What is an appropriate education for our children? How can we prepare them for a world that is unknown to all of us?

In the four decades since World War II we have tried to compensate for the pace of change by making many incremental adjustments in our curriculum. We have continued to add items to the curriculum in order to keep up with the times. But, of course, with each item added something had to be dropped because our days and hours are limited. Education in American has now become a collage of confetti. It is a confusing aggregate of so many separate pieces that it does not add up to a coherent picture.

The Axe Handle Academy is a proposal for a kind of education that we think would make sense in this world, not the world of the 50’s and 60’s, a kind of education that we could bring about in Alaska over a period of a few years because it builds on ideas and practices that some teachers and schools are already using now, a kind of education that would genuinely give our children a sense of confidence and ability in facing the unknown world they will meet upon graduation.


How Well Do You Know Your Place?

We’d like to start with an example. Here is a final exam that students would be asked to take and pass:
1. Define the limits of your bioregion. Be able to justify the boundaries you choose.

2. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap and from tap to ultimate disposal.

3. How many days until the moon is full (plus or minus a couple of days)?

4. Describe the soil around your home.

5. What are the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that live in your area?

6. Name five native edible plants in your bioregion and their season(s) of availability.

7. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?

8. Where does your garbage go:

9. How long is the growing season where you live?

10. Name five trees in your area. Which of them are native?

11. Name five resident and any migratory birds in your area.

12. What is the land use history by humans in your bioregion during the past century?

13. What primary geological events/processes influenced the land forms where you live?

14. What species have become extinct in your area?

15. What are the major plant associations in your region?

16. From where you are reading this, point north.

17. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

18. What kinds of rocks and minerals are found in your bioregion?

19. Were the stars out last night?

20. Name some other beings (nonhuman) which share your bioregion.

21. How many people live next door to you? What are their names?

22. How much gasoline and other fossil fuels do you use a week, on the average?

23. What kind of energy costs you the most money? What kind of energy is it? What portion of your use of energy does it account for?

24. What plans are there for development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?

25. What people are indigenous to your region?

26. Distinguish between inhabitory and transient populations of people in your region.

27. What languages are spoken in your region? Which are indigenous and which are immigrant languages?

28. Name 7 prominent land forms in your region. Whose language is used for those names?

29. Identify the political/governmental boundaries that divide your bioregion.

30. Evaluate the effects of these divisions on the life of your region.

31. Identify one other bioregion and compare and contrast it with your own.

32. Give five aspects of your life that are independent of your bioregion. Are xany of them supported by the earth elsewhere?

To do well on a test like this a student will have to integrate knowledge from many fields such as biology, meteorology, earth science, and geography. But the student will also need to integrate that scientific knowledge with history, anthropology. language arts, Indian studies, and social studies. But even that is not enough. The student will have to apply that knowledge to his own day-to-day life. He or she will have to think about such things as plumbing, the city water and sewer system, the daily weather, and resource use in his or her own home, school and community.

In our present curriculum a student can possibly become well versed in each of these separate subject areas but would still not be able to answer most of the questions on this test. Of course this is only an example of what we mean by a bioregional perspective in the Axe Handle Academy. We propose that virtually all of the studies in the sciences, mathematics, and social studies will be organized around bioregional questions without losing any of the essential knowledge we now require of our students.

What we would gain by a bioregional approach would be students who have learned to think about the consequences of their actions on the earth, its resources and its other living inhabitants. This bioregional component of the curriculum of the Axe Handle Academy we would call Bioregional Studies.


How Well Do You Know Your Culture?

Another component of the curriculum of the Axe Handle Academy we want to call Cultural Studies. Here is an example of a final exam that students would be asked to take and pass:
1. Define the boundaries of your culture. Be able to justify the boundaries you choose. How do you identify a member, by language, by place of residence, by appearance, by food, by other means?

2. In what bioregion did your culture originate and does it reside there now?

3. What are the primary sources from which you can learn your culture?

4. What languages do you need to know to study the significant teachings of your culture?

5. What people do you need to know to study the significant teachings of your culture?

6. Define a myth and give one example from each of three cultures, include your own as one culture.

7. Define the difference between a classic book and a sacred book.

8. Discuss the difference between pride in your own culture and arrogance.

9. Discuss the ways in which different cultural traditions deal with pride and arrogance.

10. How has the language used by members of your culture been affected by laws, religion, education, and social identity?

11. How does your culture deal with outsiders. misfits, handicapped, or exiles?

12. Does your culture use isolation or alienation as a punishment, and if so, for what offenses?

13. Name three works in your literature that deal with self-concept and alienation.

14. Is it possible to be an independent thinker without being alienated? Give several examples from world literature to support your position.

15. Is alienation a good or a bad condition? Give at least three works from world literature to support your position.

16. How is pride displayed in your culture? Show how that is different from at least one other culture.

17. How does education contribute to alienation?

18. What is the effect of alienation on the children of alienated individuals?

19. What reasons do you have to be proud of your culture? Of your country? Of your family? What other groups are you proud to be a part of?

20. To whom or what do you owe your main duty?

21.. Give three places you might encounter conflict in your loyalties and discuss how you might resolve those conflicts.

22. How has the history of our country been influenced by the ideas of philosophers? Give two or three examples.

23. Which aspects of the Constitution of the United States of America would Confucius or Mencius have agreed with and which aspects would they have disagreed with?

24. Draw up a hierarchy of your loyalties from among such categories as friends, parents, siblings, extended family members, local governments, state government, federal government, your culture, your clan, the people of the earth, an ideal, or any other categories you wish. Justify your hierarchy by reference to your culture and show how your hierarchy differs from at least one other culture.

25. Which is the most durable medium for the preservation of culture, the spoken word, print, or electronic storage (tape or computer)? Justify your choice.

To do well on this test a student will have to integrate knowledge from many areas of the humanities. He or she will also have had to study significant selections from the classics of his or her own culture as well as other cultures. The student will also need to study anthropology to be able to think comparatively about culture. More than that, however, the student will have to have thought deeply about his or her own place in the cultural world.

Again, this is just an example of what we mean by the thematic, humanities approach of the Axe Handle Academy. By organizing around significant themes such as Alienation and Self-Concept, Pride and Arrogance, or Conflict of Loyalty students will learn significant portions of world literature, history, and philosophy without losing any of the essential knowledge we are now requiring.

What we would gain would be students who have learned to think about their own culture. They will have come to think about their own identity as members of their own culture and also to think about ways in which their culture differs from other contemporary cultures and the cultures of the past. We can think of no better preparation for a world in which steadily increasing cultural contact is becoming the norm than this component which would be called Cultural Studies.

How Well Do You Communicate?

The third component of the curriculum of the Axe Handle Academy we would call Communication Studies, Here again, is a sample exam which could be given:
1. Give three factors that you can control which will slow down your response time while speeding up the response time of those you talk with.

2. Describe the pathway of an electronic mail message from sender to receiver. Name the major agencies involved.

3. How many minutes of the evening news broadcast on television are devoted to news, how many to advertising and other activities?

4. Name three films which have pioneered significant new film technologies.

5. Write a short letter in three formats; 1) as a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, 2) as a letter to your Congressman in Washington. 3) as a letter to a personal friend.

6. Describe the differences between chain and network communication and hub and wheel communication. Indicate the main advantages and disadvantages of each.

7. You are planning an event in your community. How would you publicize it? Which media are most effective in terms of getting the desired results for the time and money spent?

8. What percent of the words you hear or read in a day are generated within your community?

9. What percent of the words you speak or write in a week are generated within your community?

10. What percent of the words you speak, write, hear, or read are in a language other than English?

11. If you have something you want your grandchildren to know and pass on to their grandchildren, how would you communicate it to them?

12. Describe the path of a news story from its origin to your home.

13. Describe the path of a story you originate to its publication in a magazine.

14. You need to find out about something from an elder. What pattern would you use to facilitate communication?

15. Identify five stages of the writing process.

16. Trace the pathway of a book from research to reading. Identify the major institutions or agencies involved along the way.

17. Describe the configuration of expectations and behaviors that will allow you to present yourself best in a job interview.

18. Give three strategies you can use to slow down someone who is speaking to you without generating a sense of hostility in the process.

19. You are organizing a meeting of parents, teachers, and students. Discuss five factors that you would alter to make it easier for all to listen to the point of view of the students. Now do the same thing to make it easier for all to listen to the point of view of the teacher? Do the same for parents.

As in Bioregional Studies and Cultural Studies, in Communication Studies a student would need to command a much wider range of knowledge and skills to do well at this test. Not only would he or she need to be an effective writer who could direct his or her style to a particular audience, the student would need to be adept at determining the audience, the appropriate medium for approaching that audience, and ways to evaluate the effects of his or her communication. The student would be required to develop a critical understanding of not only literacy but spoken and electronic communications as well.

We believe that though in Communication Studies the student would not lose any of the skills now required of students, he or she would gain considerably in the ability to relate these skills to significant communication requirements in his or her life.


Ice fishing 

The Curriculum of the Axe Handle Academy

The substance of any educational program is its curriculum. The substance of the Axe Handle Academy has these three components: Bioregional Studies, Cultural Studies, and Communication Studies. The present hodge-podge of subjects, disciplines, and skills would be integrated into these three components.

The present practice of tracking students into academic or vocational programs is not recognized by the Axe Handle Academy. We believe that it is equally important for the professional academic researcher and the manager of the local hardware store to understand the effects of his or her work on the bioregions of the earth. To be informed citizens each must be able to understand and evaluate the impact resource and other development decisions will have on the earth in his or her bioregion. They must be able to weigh those impacts against social and economic impacts. In other words, whatever our work in life may be we all must have a home to which we are committed and we need to know how to think about human activities and decisions in terms of their impacts on our homes.

In the same way, whether one’s career in life is as a widely traveled account executive or as a worker in a local sawmill, each of us is a member of a culture. Nowadays many of us are on the boundaries between cultures. A solid sense of identity is essential for a healthy adult life as well as for productive contribution to the society. The study of culture cannot be restricted to a privileged group of academic track students.

Again, whatever one’s place in life, communication is at the heart of nearly all of our activities. Whether one is a negotiator in international business or a commercial fisherman, his or her goals will only be achieved with others through effective communication skills. In addition, our society is founded on the informed, educated decisions of our voting citizens. We all must be able to read, listen, and view the positions of others and to evaluate the information we are receiving from a constant barrage of print, spoken, and electronic media.

The curriculum is the substance of the Axe Handle Academy. It would give each student a firm understanding in Bioregional Studies, Cultural Studies, and Communication Studies.


The Teacher is the Focus of the Axe Handle Academy

Teachers in American education are normally called professionals but are rarely treated as if they were professionals. One of the most important qualities of a true professional is his or her ability to learn. In a real sense a professional education is not an accumulation of knowledge, it is an education in learning to learn. Doctors, lawyers, and other professionals are expected to deal with extremely diverse kinds of problems covering many fields of knowledge and life. They are expected to work through the complexity, learn whatever needs to be learned, and then to exercise their judgment in arriving at a decision which can be the basis for action. A person who does not deal constantly with new learning is a technician, not a professional.

Yet many people expect teachers to be more like technicians. They are expected to know everything required of them when they graduate as certified teachers. They are expected to remain within their certified body of knowledge throughout their careers. In our current system teachers are expected to take further course work to "upgrade" their education as technicians would be expected to return to school before being allowed to work in a new area.

The curriculum of the Axe Handle Academy is as varied, complex, and problematical as anything to be found by any professional. There are no courses at present that a teacher could take in a bioregional perspective. There is no course or even degree program that would prepare a teacher to teach in our cultural studies program. Our communication studies component would try the intelligence, knowledge, and learning ability of many communications specialists.

Theodore Roethke, the poet, once said. "A teacher is one who carries on his education in public." The curriculum of the Axe Handle Academy is a curriculum for both students and teachers. Our teachers are expected to exercise their professional abilities as learners of new and complex materials as they work together with students in developing their understanding and knowledge.

But this is more than just an attempt to raise teachers to their truly professional status. Our history tells us that the best teachers have always carried on their learning in the company and in dialogue with their students. This was the practice of Socrates, Pythagoras, and Confucius.

And when you come down to it, this is really the only way to teach someone how to learn. You have to show them by your own action. The Ancient Chinese poem says,

How do you shape an axe handle?
Without an axe it can’t be done.
How do you take a wife?
Without a go-between you can’t get one.
Shape a handle, shape a handle,
the pattern is not far off.
-Shi Jing

Confucius used this poem which was already old in his time to teach his students how to teach. When you make an axe handle you use the axe in your hand as the pattern. It is the model. When you teach a student, you yourself are the model of teaching and learning that the student studies.

If a student sees a teacher who is absorbed in the problems and questions of our curriculum and actively learning, the student comes to be absorbed in that curriculum as well. On the other hand if the student sees a teacher who is concerned primarily with classroom management and the transmission of a static body of knowledge, the student becomes manipulative on the model of the teacher and considers learning as something that is static, rigid, and of little relevance to his or her life.

By placing the focus of the Axe Handle Curriculum on the learning of the teacher we want to provide a model of skills in inquiry, discovery, and synthesis. We believe that the professional teacher who is actually learning together with his or her students is the only means of teaching this attitude toward life-long learning. This is why we have called our model for education the Axe Handle Academy.


Communication is the Heart of Educational Method

By placing the focus of the Axe Handle Academy on the learning of the teacher we have merged the teacher and the students into a collaborative learning team. Now for this collaboration to work effectively the teacher must be able to model for students the communication skills and knowledge required by our Communication Studies component. The teacher/student learning team is now engaged in a joint task of observation, experimentation, analysis, and reflection. The essence of the scientific method, like all good learning consists of listening much and speaking little, of observing much but manipulating little, of remaining open to new information and avoiding premature conclusions.

In the Axe Handle Academy good teaching emphasizes modeling good communication for students. Good communication emphasizes the communication skills needed for learning which are listening, observing, and reflection.


Cooperative Competence is the Measure of Education

With the teacher and students forming a collaborative learning team, everyone is gaining skills and concepts not part of a graded curriculum. Students are learning how to learn by cooperating with others. Their learning can be measured by the achievement of the group of which they are a functioning part.

In any learning task, there is a time when a student has no conception of the task, a time when with the help of a more competent person he or she can complete the task,and a time when he or she can perform the task independently. Learning takes place during the second stage, termed by psychologists the "Zone of Proximal Development". Before this, the student cannot even pretend to perform the task. When the student can complete the task, no learning is taking place. Therefore, it is in this middle zone that instruction should concentrate.

Educational psychologists can tell more about a child’s mental development by seeing what he or she can do with a little coaching than by seeing what the child can do without help. Cooperation is not only be best means of teaching and learning, it is the best way to evaluate what a student is learning.

Cooperative competence gives each child a feeling of achievement. This feeling comes not only from being able to do something but in being able to help someone else to do it. Thus it is important for each student to work with others more competent as well as those less competent. It is easiest to accomplish this with groups made up of students of different ages.

In working toward cooperative competence, the teacher need not teach each student individually. As long as one student learns the lesson, it can be taught to everyone through chain or peer teaching. The teacher can then work independently with other students who are ready to move on.

If the team is learning meaningful things, they will want to pass on their knowledge to others in the community. Their success in doing this serves as a measure not only of their collective competence but also of their communication skills. In interacting with members of the community they will uncover new problems to investigate.

Cooperative competence thus prepares students to take on useful roles in the community and in the wider society. As adults they will be able to use their skills in cooperation and communication to solve real problems.


Enlarging the Future is the Purpose of the Axe Handle Academy

Nearly everyone would say that the purpose of education is to prepare students for the world they will enter upon graduation. We all want students to have the knowledge and skills they will need to be mature, competent adults who have a range of options in employment or careers and who will be responsible, productive citizens. Over the years, however, we have slowly drifted from preparation to planning.

Planning is our most frequent defense against the unknown future. It gives us a sense of security and a sense that we are doing the best we can to be ready for what comes. Unfortunately, planning is really a way of limiting our imagination of the future. A plan limits our responses to predicted outcomes. With a plan we seek to control outcomes, to eliminate change, to eliminate the random and the wild. Our plans for the future dictate our current choices. A plan exercises an abstract power on the present by limiting our imagination of the options to those considered by our plan.

Preparing is different. In preparing we always expect diversity of outcomes. In preparing we assume we do not know or cannot predict what future conditions will be. In preparing we enlarge the future in our own imagination.

Both in planning and in preparing we look to the future, but in planning we seek to restrict the future, in preparing we seek to make ourselves ready. In planning we express our belief in our reason and our ability to control outcomes, people, technology. In preparing we express our belief in our adaptability, our responsiveness, our willingness to accept what comes.

In the Axe Handle Academy we emphasize preparation of our students for a future that we cannot know by giving them a solid understanding of their place on the earth, their place and identity in society, and the ability to listen, observe, reflect and then communicate effectively with others.



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Last modified January 18, 2009