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

A Film Study of Classrooms

in Western Alaska


Scope and Purpose

Communication is the thread that makes culture possible. An understanding of communication and the behavior and circumstances which surround it is essential to understanding cultural processes. Through an analysis of selected Super 8 movie footage, this text explores certain aspects of non-verbal communication and attempts to more clearly define their nature and significance. The importance of non-verbal communication lies in the fact that it is a part of the process of human interaction to which we generally give little thought.

In the United States we tend to think of communication primarily as a verbal process in which meaning is derived from the content of the words used. As a result, we are fairly conscious of our use of words and our culture provides deliberate, if not always successful, training in the use of words. On the other hand, we think little of the nonverbal aspects of communication; practically no formal recognition is made of them. Consequently, we learn our non-verbal system informally and on a low level of awareness.

This low level of non-verbal awareness causes us little difficulty as long as we operate within the non-verbal system we have learned; when we step outside it, we are in trouble. Our emphasis on verbal content and on spoken language has led to intensive study of other verbal systems. We are sensitive to the potential for misunderstanding when we cross language lines. However, we are unprepared for the additional difficulties we may find in the non-verbal arena. These difficulties may occur even when, strictly speaking, there is no language difficulty. Our low awareness of non-verbal signals and behavior related to communication makes us ill-equipped to deal with differences of this sort. Indeed, we are often unaware that the differences exist. In these circumstances, communication can become a frustrating maze of misunderstandings of unknown origin. This study looks at some of these aspects of non-verbal behavior which may cause us difficulty.

In the descriptions and discussion that follow, two common words are used with particular meanings which need definition. The words are “pace” and “flow.” They are used to name the aspects of non-verbal communication which are the central focus of this study.

Pace refers to the rate of movements, actions and events in communications and interactions. It is concerned with change over time. In the study of communication and culture, its importance lies in the fact that it varies from culture to culture and affects the meaning and course of communication, both directly and indirectly. People’s use of time is one aspect of pace, as is how fast people move. While pace is related to the quantity and quality of communication, the precise interrelationship will vary depending on the specific circumstances.

Flow is a more complex and qualitative aspect of non-verbal communication. It refers to the interrelatedness of the movements of people who are interacting or attempting to interact. The development of synchronization of movements by participants in an interaction creates a sensation of a flowing current of motion without discontinuity. High flow would then refer to situations in which the movements of the people interacting are interrelated and not occurring at random without relationship to each other’s movements. Low flow would be the reverse.

The possible significance of these aspects of non-verbal behavior in the communication process is a major subject of this study. In general, I believe that their primary purpose lies in facilitating the process and defining the nature of a given interaction among people. They both reflect and affect all other aspects of the process as well, supporting it and on occasion, as will be described, destroying it. In particular, study of flow may be a significant source of qualitative statements about the nature of communications and interactions.

A Brief Discussion of Related Work

In the field of non-verbal aspects of communication and culture, previous work has touched somewhat on these aspects of human interactions. Of particular relevance to this study is the work of Edward T. Hall. In working on the problem of training American governmental and business personnel for jobs in other cultural settings, he found a differing conception of time, its significance and its organization, to be one of the critical sources of difficulties in cross-cultural circumstances. Social processes, such as business transactions or meetings, had regular patterns with regard to time allocated to waiting, preliminaries, immediate business and so on. These patterns were distinctly different in different cultural settings and misunderstandings often resulted when people of differing patterns attempted to interact with each other. In some cases, the meaning of communications could be totally altered by differences in the timing of social processes that were part of the context of interactions (Hall, 1967).

Similarly, he found distinct cultural patterns in the use of space, particularly in social interactions. In studying the way people use space (which Hall called “proxemics”) he found that, as in the case of the use of time, alterations in space relationships among people could often alter the nature of interactions and the meaning derived from those interactions by the participants. As with the organization of time, these patterns of space usage were culturally specific. Conflict and misunderstanding in cross-cultural interactions resulting from differing uses of space were quite common (Hall, 1967, 1969).

While these finding are quite interesting in themselves, they are important to this study because they have led Hall to look at what people did relative to each other as they organized the timing of activities and their use of space in interactions. As before, he found distinct, culturally specific patterns in the way that people moved. These movements tended to be coordinated among people who were involved in some kind of social interaction with each other. Film taken by Hall at a fiesta in New Mexico showed mixed crowds of Indians, Anglos, and Spanish Americans, each group with its own characteristic pacing of iiovements and smooth interrelationships of movements within groups. The Anglos moved briskly, with linear movements directed ahead and well spaced from each other. A group of Pueblo Indians, probably a family, moved down the street in a more compact mass. Their softer and more rounded movements were synchronized through the group, not directed ahead but all around. Two girls talked to each other while they moved around a post. Their movements were so carefully timed and synchronized that when the sequence was projected in slow motion, their actions gave the appearance of a dance (Hall, 1968, private communication and viewing).

Hall’s work stimulated the film study on which this study draws and also led to further related work by Hall. In a recent publication, he suggested that the meaning of communication or interaction is produced by an interrelationship of information and context. The relative significance of either information or context in determining meaning is a culturally defined pattern that varied from culture to culture. Nonverbal systems tended to be highly contextual in nature. Symbolic systems such as spoken language, and even more so written language, tended to be highly informational and low in context. Some cultures heavily emphasized context while others stressed information. When people with these different emphases tried to communicate with each other, they often experienced great difficulty (Hall, 1974: 18-20). In effect, this suggested that some cultures placed more emphasis on non-verbal aspects of interactions than others. Hall suggested that modern Western cultures, particularly the academic subcultures, tended to be low in context and high in information in their orientation (Hall, 1974: 18). This model of context, information, and meaning is used in a somewhat altered form in this study.

While Hall’s work is the most closely related to the concerns of this study, there have been others whose works have touched on related phenomena. While studying their photographs during the production of their work on Balinese character, Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson noted that movements of participants in various activities involved complementary movements, mirrored movements, and parallel movements (Bateson and Mead, 1942). Similarly, in a study of small group conferences that Mead made together with Paul Byers, a distinct interrelationship of movements among interacting people was evident in the still photographs on which the study was based (Mead and Byers, 1968: 70-105). In a film study of a kindergarten class, Byers later discovered dramatic differences in the pace of Black children compared to Caucasian children as well as to the Caucasian teacher. Significantly, these differences clearly made communication between the Caucasian teacher and the Black children very difficult. Neither was able to adjust their pace to the other. Their motions were oppositional and out of sync. Frustration on the part of teacher and child was evident in the footage. On the other hand, although the White children had somewhat different pace and movement patterns from the teacher, they both modified their movements when they got together so that motions became interrelated and smooth, with no obvious frustration (Byers, private film viewing and communication).

In discussing types of non-verbal behavior related to the communication process, Ray L. Birdwhistell mentions what he calls “interactional behavior,” referring to the movements of whole bodies or parts of bodies among participants in an interaction. In addition to briefly discussing the work of Hall, Mead, and Bateson already mentioned, Birdwhistell reports a private communication from William Condon with regard to “synchrony and dissynchrony” in interactions. This refers to a very close coordination of movements of people who are conversing. Birdwhistell suggests that it may supply a measure of “interactional communicative signals,” by which I assume he means the general quality of communication (Birdwhistell, 1970: 232-233). In his own studies of kinesics, Birdwhistell emphasizes the important function of context in the total meaning of communication and includes in his discussion of communication the idea that it is a continuous process that takes place on several levels or channels. These are the olfactory channel, the auditory channel, the kinesthetic-visual channel, and the tactile channel. In an interaction, one or more of the channels is always in operation, and communication in general can only be understood by examining all the channels (Birdwhistell, 2970: 69-71).

The phenomena of interrelated movements on the part of people in social interactions has shown up in several ethnographic films, including a very interesting sequence in a portion of film made by John Marshall in the Kalahari Desert. In this particular case, the film shows two men conversing with each other. The listener’s motions are closely timed and coordinated with the speaker’s. When one man stops talking, the person who was listening precisely mirrors the last portion of movements made by the first speaker while the listener begins to speak (John Marshall, 1971).

All the anthropologists and film makers mentioned have peripherally touched on certain aspects of what I call pace and flow; they have developed viewpoints on communication which are used in this study. None focused directly on these phenomena which remain “crudely understood” (Birdwhistell, 1970: 232). In any case, pace and flow were chosen as focal points for this study because my own experience in visual research has shown them to perhaps be the key to understanding communications and interactions as fluid processes. At the same time, they remain difficult and elusive concepts which are particularly difficult to communicate to people unfamiliar with the film or with the circumstances to which the concepts were applied. It seemed time to try to define the significance of pace and flow and to develop some procedures for obtaining information about them. I know that any discussion of such non-verbal phenomena would be impossible without specific case examples and descriptions. For this reason, a large portion of this study is devoted to a specific case study which provides a context for more general discussion.

The Data and Procedure Used in Analysis

The film used for analysis was made by John Collier, Jr., as part of a study of Native American education in Alaska in 1969. However, the more general statements of this study are based on both the analysis of that film and also on a variety of additional sources. The primary sources of this study include my own experience in cross-cultural situations and work with film and video tape studies of cross-cultural education. In addition to present and earlier analytic work with the Alaskan footage, the experience includes video taping and analysis for a teacher training program at a Navajo-run community school in Arizona, a yet-to-be-finished film study of a bilingual program in San Francisco, and film which I have made of several ESL (English as a Second Language) and elementary classes in the Bay Area.

These involvements resulted from and led to discussions with other people in the same general field of interest. These interchanges, particularly with Edward T. Hall and, of course, with my father, John Collier, Jr., have been an important source of information and ideas. Whenever possible, I have attempted to provide appropriate published references; however, since most of these contacts have been informal conversations, this has not always been possible.

Discussion of non-verbal phenomena in a verbal format is at best difficult. Without specific examples, reference points or shared experience, discussion becomes almost impossible. This fact is one of the reasons for devoting a portion of this study to the analysis and discussion of a specific body of film. I hope that the analysis of the Alaska footage will serve as a reference point for my more general discussion. In addition, the analysis of the Alaska footage serves several other purposes. It represents the first time I have tried to research a body of film specifically in terms of pace and flow. The film provides an opportunity to discover the kinds of information that can result from such an approach. Finally, the film and the analysis provide illustrations and examples with which to communicate more precisely what pace and flow are and what their significance may be in human interactions.

The Alaska film footage was chosen for a variety of reasons. I was already familiar with it from previous work. I knew it had usable material for exploration of the pace and flow concepts. Since the film had already been studied for other reasons and with different concerns, I had supplementary material to draw on which might serve to qualify findings I made. However, the main reason for using the Alaska footage was that it was available. Some of my own film and video material, which was shot with a growing awareness of pace, flow and related matters may well have been richer and more readable; however, the circumstances under which they were shot made their usage, for the time being, impossible.

As mentioned previously, the film used for analysis is part of a larger body of film shot in 1969 by John Collier, Jr., in Alaska. The film was made in support of the National Study of American Indian Education for the U.S. Office of Education. The hope was that the film study would provide insight and information that the more standardized methods of evaluation could not. The bulk of the film was shot in the Kuskokwim River region of West Central Alaska, covering two isolated villages, a Christian mission, and a regional center of some 2,000 people. Additional film was shot in the schools of Anchorage and in an Indian fishing village in southern Alaska, although this last footage was not used in the report to Washington. The major portion of the footage is of classrooms with supplementary coverage of village and family scenes. Audio tapes were made in the classrooms but the films themselves are silent. The total film file amounted to some twenty hours of film. I did not analyze all the footage for this study, but instead selected portions of it. The manner in which I made these selections is described shortly.

The original film was shot with the goal of obtaining a sample of grade levels, school situations and communities. In the villages, this meant that the whole school was filmed. In the regional center of Bethel and in Anchorage, only a sample of classes from kindergarten through high school was filmed with selection dependent largely on the willingness of the teachers to be filmed. The goal was to “chart the human and educational behavior of Eskimo children on three curves: an ecological-geographic curve, a cultural-ethnic distribution curve and an age cycle curve” (Collier, 1973: 50). The village schools were 100 percent Native. The regional center had a small percentage of non-Native students. The city of Anchorage had an overwhelmingly non-Native student population, with the Native students accounting for less than eight per cent of the school enrollment. With three exceptions, all teachers in the film sample were Anglo, although two Eskimo aides and an Eskimo mother were filmed working in the classrooms (Collier, 1973).

I started my analysis of the film with the advantage that I had taken part in the earlier analysis of the footage which led to a report to the U.S. Office of Education and to the publication referred to above. However, the earlier work was involved with somewhat different issues than the present analysis. The question at that time was, “What can these films tell us about the education provided Native children in Alaska”? Pace and flow received only passing attention. These concepts were only shadows in the background. The present analysis also includes material from film footage of home and village studies which were not used to any large degree in the earlier work.

I decided to concentrate on a core portion of the footage rather than attempt analysis of the full twenty hours of film. Several considerations were involved: time, wide variation in the readability of the footage in terms of pace and flow, and above all, a belief that concentration on portions of the footage that were interrelated would produce qualitatively better results. The rest of the footage would always be there if it were needed.

The main criteria used in selecting a core of film for analysis were that the footage be interrelated in terms of content and locale and that it contain a high proportion of material believed to be readable. Since I wanted to include material from non-school settings, I decided to use all the footage from the villages and several rolls of film from the regional center. This core footage included film of twelve classrooms, three church services, four family studies, daily life at the Moravian Mission Home, an advisory school board meeting and assorted footage of scenes around the villages and the regional center. The total running time of this footage was approximately 5 1/2 hours.

I had at my disposal audio tapes made in conjunction with the filming in Alaska. The primary use of these was to define the content of curriculum in the classroom situation. This analysis is concerned with what can be seen, and I did not attempt to analyze the audio records nor to examine, to any significant degree, the relationship of verbal behavior to the non-verbal behavior seen in the films. Neither would have been possible with the available data. There remains the question of the relationship of verbalizations to non-verbal behavior--a relationship about which very little is known. In this study, I operated on the assumption that, generally, people’s non-verbal behavior both reflects and affects verbal behavior as well as other aspects of the interaction. These interrelationships are discussed in somewhat more detail in the main body of the text.

It might be mentioned in this context that photographic records in general and movie film in particular are qualitatively and quantitatively different from other forms of data. The amount of information to be found in even a very short segment of film is immense, and its quality, though subject to the way it was gathered, is often very good (Collier, private communication).

The analysis fell into several stages: early survey and searching, detailed viewing and description, selection of significant sections for illustration, and an attempt at an over-all conclusion, both descriptive and theoretical. The basic procedure in this analysis was to look at the film again and again. The main difference between one stage of analysis and another was in the focus of the observation process and the manner of recording these observations. The first stage involved survey and logging. It was a process of becoming acquainted with the footage in terms of pace and flow without attempting detail or depth. Each reel of film was viewed from the beginning to the end without stopping, while a rough log of it was made. This log was concerned primarily with two things: (1) the rough content of the film organized by minutes, and (2) the rough notation of pace and flow patterns with focus on identifying the sections of footage which might be profitably examined in more detail and depth. This information was reduced to both sides of a sheet of typing paper, generally one sheet for each reel. Several classes and reels had two sheets because of significant content changes which occurred within the reel.

The information was used to plan more detailed viewing of the footage. A small portion was set aside as containing little usable data and the remaining footage was reexamined. This detailed reexamination was focused around questions which an overview of the survey results suggested. These questions were:

  1. Does the pace of the Native children and adults vary in school compared with outside of school?
  2. Is pace coordinated group-wide in all situations?
  3. What are the flow characteristics of interactions in the various situations in the footage?
  4. What produced the sensation of group disunity reported in the survey for most of the classrooms?
  5. What produced the sensation of group unity reported by the survey in the non-school situations and in a minority of school situations?
  6. In general, are patterns of pace, flow and related usage of space in home and village scenes different from those in school situations?
  7. What visible factors provide the answers to these questions?
  8. Do the answers to these questions help explain the general characteristics of education found in the course of this and earlier analysis of this footage?

The film was projected onto a rear projection screen, stopped, reversed, viewed repeatedly and sometimes in slow motion, as required to understand what was occurring in terms of these questions. I typed out detailed descriptions of each reel as I watched the film. Descriptions contained both simple descriptions such as “the teacher hands out papers” and more qualitative descriptions or observations such as “the pace of the classroom is more coordinated than the last one.” Simple descriptions come directly from the film and require no special explanation. tried to tie the more qualitative observations and descriptions to concrete evidence from the film by asking and trying to answer the question, “What told me that?”

Following this stage of the analysis, I went through the films and made still photographs of those scenes and sequences which the detailed viewing had indicated to be significant. Using these photographs, the survey sheets, and the detailed observations and descriptions of the last stage of analysis, I was able to make general and specific statements about pace, flow and related aspects of the circumstances recorded in the films. I returned to the film record as necessary to refine these statements and used the still photographs to help illustrate and communicate the patterns seen in the study.



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Last modified November 12, 2008