The Caribou and the Classroom

Everywhere in education we hear the language of standardizing. Standardized tests. Common Core. In my home state of Virginia, Standards of Learning (unfortunately abbreviated SOL). Schooling culture today idealizes a universal and uniform regime of knowledge, the culmination of modern enlightenment.

What if schools took a different track that emphasized the diversity of knowledge rather than its uniformity? What if, instead of superseding local ways of knowing, modern education complemented them? Those are the questions taken up by Alaska’s North Slope Borough School District, profiled by Lauren Markham in Orion.

The North Slope is chiefly populated by the native Iñupiaq people, many of whom still rely on hunting and fishing for their livelihood. The Iñupiaq, like other Native American groups, were pushed into boarding schools in the late nineteenth century, where a program of assimilation contributed to the decimation of their language and culture.

In 2010, a reform effort called the Iñupiaq Learning Framework sought to undo this dark history. The new system, Markham writes, “is designed to couple contemporary, standards-based public schooling with the traditions, skills, and place-based knowledges native to this region.” For example, the unit on Winter Sources of Drinking Water brings together academic and practical considerations:

the class will study the varied nature and scientific makeup of snow; how to turn it into safe drinking water, like their ancestors did and many of their family members still do; the impacts of dehydration; and the physical constitution of living things and their relationship to water.

Once, when a student had to miss weeks of school to join his family’s caribou hunt, the principal worked with him to create an alternative project:

They came up with a question, one that I was curious about myself: What do caribou eat in winter? He created a hypothesis, and, once he and his family killed the caribou, he opened the stomach and tested his idea. Sure enough, the animal was full of lichens that survive in permafrost.

In short, the Iñupiaq Learning Framework tries to integrate schooling more thoughtfully with the rest of students’ lives.

The system is not without problems. Most of the teachers are in fact outsiders — not Iñupiaq and not even from Alaska. For many, the job is a short adventure before moving on to other things. One problem with local knowledge is that relatively few people know it.

Still, these Alaskans have identified a pervasive shortcoming in our obsession with standards.

The one-size-fits-all education system in the United States fails people on the margins of society—whether it is impoverished communities in Appalachia, immigrants in Baltimore, African Americans in Chicago, or First Nations from New Mexico to Alaska. Free and universal education pretends to be our democracy’s great equalizer—but the system was made by and for a certain subset of people decidedly not on the margins. It can perpetuate inequality while intending, or pretending, to do away with it.

The standardization of schooling is increasingly rigging the game against people whose skills have been gained through traditions and communities, the caribou hunters and melted-snow drinkers. Yet the uniform approach is not only damaging to people on the margins. It robs all of us of expertise that we may very well need to cope with a fast-changing, unpredictable future.

Lauren Markham, “Our School”

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