Posted: January 17, 2012
The Joint Legislative Task Force on Theme-Based Education held two meetings, one in Anchorage, another in Barrow, and had its third and final meeting by audio conference.
Testimony was given by a broad variety of organizations and educational entities that have already incorporated "theme-based" teaching or some variation thereof, into learning experiences for young people.
The trip to Barrow to hear the North Slope Borough School District's efforts gave meaningful insight and credibility to all who participated.
- Terms must be defined. Theme-based education, place-based education, and culturally responsive education are different. Researcher Keisha Edwards recommended the term Community Culture Education. Confusion is easy and inevitable without clear definitions and distinctions. However, theme-based education may be a term too deeply embedded in Alaska to change at this point.
- Research shows that materials that relate to a student's frame of reference engage the student's interest and increase student performance. Theme-based education is one mode of relating academics to the local referent.
- Theme/place-based education has been in the mix nationwide for some time. There are modifications and data from communities in the Lower 48.
- There is a strong will in many Alaskan communities to teach using materials relevant to students' frames of reference.
- There are several organizations statewide that are already doing theme/place-based education, like Future Farmers of America (FFA), Northern Susitna Institute and 4H, although not all in the classroom.
- While some themes, like whaling, are specific to some regions, other themes like salmon fishing, have statewide appeal.
- Theme/place-based education seems to hold considerable promise as an alternative form of pedagogy for schools where traditional educational methods are not engaging student interest, and where communities have been insisting on locally relevant curricula for decades.
- The concept of theme/place-based is far from new in Alaska. However, new technology and software have made the model workable where it was overwhelmingly difficult in the past.
- The two districts that are now piloting different approaches, Iditarod Area School District and the North Slope Borough School District, are very new in their implementation. As they are both pilot and early demonstration projects, they are developing data regarding student attendance, engagement, and performance. It is difficult to prescribe a clear pathway until accurate data is available.
- There is hope that theme/place-based education will provide districts with alternative curricula and pedagogy that will reach students who are not responding well to the current paradigm.
- It is very important to observe and assist, in any way possible, these theme/place-based pilot projects to see if they will produce a model that can be replicated in other locations in the state.
- It is the conclusion of those implementing the current pilot projects that considerable professional development is required. This will require cooperation with the teacher training component of the University system. Theme/place-based teaching is not difficult, but requires a considerable shift in the teacher's thought process and approach.
- The final term to be used, whether theme-based, culturally responsive, place- based, or community culture education should be decided upon by the final stakeholders.
The Legislature should be attentive to the success and needs of the existing pilot projects as they mature.
- Organizations in the state (like FFA, Northern Susitna Institute and 4H) are currently doing theme/place-based activities. If mini-grants were made available to format their already existing lessons and projects into the working template, it would jumpstart theme/place-based education and produce a durable product that could be useful for schools in the state for many years to come. These templates could be made available on widely used web resource sites like the Alaska Native Knowledge Network or the Department of Education and Early Development's Digital Sandbox.
- Many school districts have a plethora of hard-copy materials that were developed over the past 30 years with theme/place-based education in mind. In order for those materials to be usable now, they must be digitized. Small mini-grants would make that process possible preparing for future efforts in theme/place-based education in that region. Literally thousands of hours have been spent developing those materials over past decades. Making those materials available to our current classrooms would be a huge step forward.
- The Alaska State Legislature should be attentive to any and all alternative efforts in education. There is a broad awareness that the current educational paradigm needs remodeling.