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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


A recurring theme in nearly all discussions of classrooms and teaching in cross-cultural situations is the need to attend to the non-verbal aspects of teacher-student interaction and communication. Malcolm Collier’s use of film to study five classroom situations amongst the Yupik Eskimos in the lower Kuskokwim region of Southwestern Alaska has given us some important insights into the mechanisms by which non-verbal communication enters into the learning process in a cross-cultural classroom setting. Building on the work initially reported by his father, John Collier, Jr., in Alaska Eskimo Education: A Film Analysis of Cultural Confrontation in the Schools, Malcolm has elaborated on two particularly important dimensions to cross-cultural interaction, “pace” and “flow.” The detailed descriptions of how these two factors affected the quality of interaction in the five situations analyzed in this study provide vivid illustrations of how the educational process can be helped or hindered by the way teachers and students come together in the classroom setting.

Anyone who has any role in shaping educational processes in Alaska will find that this study provokes some critical questions about how one goes about structuring the way we do schooling, and who the primary participants in that process should be. Must students and communities adapt to the pace and flow of interaction reflected in the school, or should the school adapt to the pace and flow of interaction in the community? Is it possible for teachers whose background has instilled in them a particular style of patterned interaction to modify their behavior in such a way that is compatible with a different style? What are the educational consequences of placing Native teachers in schools? Is it possible to change the structure of interaction without changing the structure of the setting in which it occurs? These and many other questions are derived from seriously thinking through the implications of this study for our schools. Until we begin attending to such questions we will continue to perpetuate an educational process that is highly inefficient and extremely limited in its potential for productive teaching and learning in cross-cultural contexts.

In addition to the light this study sheds on the way classrooms operate, it breaks some new ground with regard to the research tools and techniques available for studying the complex phenomena associated with cross-cultural interaction. The use of film as a research tool is a relatively recent development, but its potential for adding to our understanding of human behavior is well documented in Malcolm Collier’s work. Anyone interested in using film or video as a data source for microanalytic research is encouraged to review the methodology section of this study for important guidance in the techniques employed in such research.

In addition to the study of Alaskan classrooms reported here, Malcolm Collier has worked with his father on a comparable film study of the Rough Rock School on the Navaho Reservation in Arizona, and he is currently working on several projects using film to analyze interaction in various bilingual/bicultural classroom situations in the San Francisco Bay area.

Ray Barnhardt
June 21, 1979


This text was originally written as a master’s thesis. Except for changes in the section on methodology, only minor revisions have been made. The purpose of this preface is to briefly discuss some considerations which may not be immediately evident in the text.

Most important is the fact that pace and flow are only two of the non-verbal factors which affect and reflect the course of communication in classrooms. Practical use of the ideas discussed in this writing should not be limited to consideration of these two factors alone. Nonverbal behavior includes such variables as the use of space, body posture and expression, eye behavior, facial expression, movement, style, etc. All of these must be considered in looking at what occurs in the classroom, with a constant sensitivity to the fact that all are shaped by cultural and situational variables.

Observers should also be aware of the ways in which the physical environment of schools and surroundings, the structure of curriculum, the content and character of lessons, can all shape or limit human behavior. The fact that these are often built-in factors does not make them any less culturally determined. The very concept of schools and classrooms with the bizarre habit of placing children in rooms for years on end is itself a product of the Western world.

We should also not forget that, while good communication may be a prerequisite for successful education, it does not in itself produce it. Schools remove children from their wider environment in which they would ordinarily learn a variety of things and restricts them to the contrived environment of the classroom. What do they gain from this process? The learning of the skills of writing, reading, and mathematics does not require all of the day, day after day, for twelve years. It does no good to have wonderful communication in this restricted environment if what is communicated is useless, negative, limiting or in other ways destructive to the children’s personal and cultural potential. What. is being communicated? This question should include both the implicit messages as well as the explicit content.

I make these comments because I think that in our explorations of the delicate and important issue of cross-cultural communication in education, it is easy to forget that there are other factors which affect the final outcome of education. In particular, I think we have become too complacent about the content of curriculum, assuming that it is relatively easy to create culturally and situationally relevant materials. I suggest that we all take a very hard look at this assumption and at the materials which are being used in the schools. Just what is the content, message, and quality of the materials which the teachers present to the children?

I point out these other considerations to emphasize that education is a complex process with many variables. The practical importance of non-verbal factors is that they help to shape the circumstances in which education takes place. The value of increased awareness of non-verbal behavior and communication with their cultural variability is that these can provide an additional source of information or understanding concerning the educational process and the individuals involved in it. Sensitivity to non-verbal signals and patterns of behavior can often alert teachers to problems and successes long before these become apparent in more “conventional” forms such as verbal responses and school work. In particular, they can provide the teacher with important insight into those often forgotten children in the middle who do not cause trouble, are not obviously and verbally precocious, who do their school work consistently with neither great success nor great failure. Awareness of the cultural variability of non-verbal behavior should alert people to the need for careful observation and assessment in place of automatic and culturally conditioned reactions.

If there is one clear lesson to be learned from this study, it is the paramount importance of Native participation in and control of education in their communities. That participation has to be in a framework that allows for full use of Native cultural skills and patterns of communication. I have, in this writing, said some harsh things about Anglo teachers. These statements are not intended to question the teachers’ dedication or potential contribution to the education of Native children. Where dedication and potential have not been properly used and developed, however, the teachers’ skills and contributions are going to waste.

Perhaps the ideas presented in this book will help those involved with Alaskan Native education in their consideration of all these issues. I hope that they will be of particular use to those Native teachers and community members whose special skills and experience hold the key to the future.

Malcolm Collier
San Francisco



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified November 12, 2008