The Axe Handle Academy:
Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities
Ron Scollon (deceased January 1, 2009)
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
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
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
50s and 60s, 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?
Wed 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
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
11. Name five resident and any migratory birds in your
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
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
19. Were the stars out last night?
20. Name some other beings (nonhuman) which share your
21. How many people live next door to you? What are their
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
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
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
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
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
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
How Well Do You Know Your
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
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
8. Discuss the difference between pride in your own culture
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
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
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
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
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
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
4. Name three films which have pioneered significant new
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
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
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
17. Describe the configuration of expectations and behaviors
that will allow you to present yourself best in a job
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
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.
The Curriculum of the Axe Handle
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
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
In the same way, whether ones 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 ones 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
The curriculum is the substance of the Axe Handle Academy. It
would give each student a firm understanding in
Cultural Studies, and
The Teacher is the Focus of the Axe Handle
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
How do you shape an axe handle?
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
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,
Without an axe it cant be done.
How do you take a wife?
Without a go-between you cant get one.
Shape a handle, shape a handle,
the pattern is not far off.
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
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
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
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 childs
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
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
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.