By Blynne Froke, Finalist for Target’s ® 2012 Teacher on the Iditarod Trail ™
The real purpose of education in the United States, when it became compulsory in the early 1900s was to produce workers for the growing number of factories that the Industrial Revolution had created. They needed workers that could be counted on to be on time, complete tasks as they were assigned and use basic math and language skills to complete these tasks correctly. Since then we have moved on to a slightly more sophisticated view of education, but the core purpose is still the same. We aim to produce graduates with the knowledge and skills useful in today’s more technologically and scientifically oriented jobs. We need graduates that are comfortable with the world-view and the interconnectedness of operations across the planet. We need graduates that can put into use the knowledge and skills they have learned.
The ability to put into use the skills that are taught in school is apparently not as obvious a concept as it would seem. Students are drilled with facts and basic math operations without real application. The “No Child Left Behind” movement has fueled an emphasis on test scores seldom goes beyond facts, basic knowledge and operations done in isolation, yet our universities and employers are looking for graduates that can turn the knowledge and skills they have been taught into real applications and envision real possibilities and innovations.
One of the best answers to this apparent absence of skills application is found in thematic teaching, especially when the theme is real and compelling. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is about as compelling as any theme could be. When you bring dogs into the classroom in any form and watch children’s focus and involvement skyrocket. The challenge, that is completing a thousand plus mile dog sled race on one’s own with only a team of dogs, is about as daunting as anything you could imagine and now you have the children’s imaginations engaged. One of my favorite quotes is one from Albert Einstein – “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” At first glance that may seem ridiculous, but upon examination we realize that without imagination nothing could be accomplished, no advancements in technology or process could ever be realized. But just saying this is not enough.
Students must be engaged in the real life drama of work and accomplishment to employ the knowledge and skills they have learned and envision possibilities not yet being used. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is just such a real life drama loaded with applications of the skills students are learning and suggestive of innovations galore.
Incorporating the Iditarod into daily lessons confronts students with a set of logistics on the scale of mounting a world war. The planning, organization and execution of operations gives real life context to the otherwise isolated rote skills. If you need the dogs to consume ten to twelve thousand calories per day and you expect to have sixteen dogs over a thousand mile journey how much of what will you need to deposit at which given points along the way and how much will it weigh and consequently how much will it cost? And then the great question of “what if “ can come into play and students will employ their imaginations to a set of problems that need a better solution. In these engaging activities students have encountered the facts and skills that they have been taught in life science, earth science, mathematics, written and oral communication and stewardship which is seldom addressed in our schools. They have had the opportunity to examine competition, ever present in daily life, and seen it in a context that puts human choices into the equation. The individual human challenge of this accomplishment is daunting enough to rival the superheroes in the movies, but this is real. Students become acquainted with individuals that really do conquer this challenge as they face difficult questions and unbelievable hardship suggesting that great things truly can be accomplished with enough planning, coordination, hard work and vision.The ever necessary experience of understanding, tolerance and assimilation is demonstrated in a real life context once again as study a history and culture quite different from their own.
In teacher’s college we are taught that students learn in a variety of ways and engaging them on more than one level in any particular pursuit is more effective than a single delivery approach. The old adage that “if we see something, we might remember it, but if we then say it to someone else the retention of that knowledge is even more likely and if we then take the practical step of engaging in the actual application of that knowledge or skill the expectation that we have learned it and will retain it are close to 100%” is never so obvious as when we teach skills within a real life contextual theme like the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. We caught their hearts with the dogs, then engaged their minds in the practical, ever-evolving logistics of the race. Our ability as educators is amplified a hundred fold with this compelling tool.