Spring 2019

Under the Same Northern Lights

How Place-Conscious Pedagogy Connects Students to their Communities and the World.

In October, 2018 the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that by 2030 human activity will likely cause global temperature to increase by 1.5 degrees, resulting in the rise of sea levels, heat extremes, drought, heavy precipitation, flooding, a rise in ocean acidity, and a decrease in ocean oxygen levels. These climate-related risks will impact health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth[i]. Globally, educators and policy makers are grappling with how to prepare students for this uncertain future[ii] and some have shifted priorities towards more global competencies[iii] or “skills for the 21st century”[iv] such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and perseverance[v]. However, while school systems may aspire to these goals, some argue that education continues to be made barren by standards-based decontextualized instruction[vi]. In contrast, learning in context promotes an understanding of human knowing and being and from this grows an enriched understanding of curriculum and the notion that to be human is to live connected to both the world and to one another[vii]. This article outlines an example of such learning and tells a story about how a community event united people across a province, and the world, and turned learning into a rich interdisciplinary lesson on northern life and the value of human relationships.

Snowmobile racer zips over deep snow along Cain’s Quest gruelling 3100km course. Photo credit: Markku Rytinki

Cain’s Quest 2016

Cain’s Quest is a snowmobile race that takes place in Labrador every two years and is one of the most extreme winter endurance competitions on the planet[viii]. Travelling a 3100-kilometre winter course, the riders drive day and night and pass through “fiords and mountains in the north, and bogs, hills and valleys in the south”[ix]. On average, 29 teams with two competitors per team, travel approximately 450 km per day. The race began in 2006 in an effort to attract people to the north, but in a very short time it has ignited a passion for adventure and has helped to connect people along the route and around the world.

Two such adventurers, Sami Päivike and Arto Jauhiainen, were partners in extreme ATV expeditions in Europe.  When they heard about Cain’s Quest they said, “Of course, if someone is saying that this is the ultimate, longest, and toughest race on planet – we are in!” On March 4, their dream became a reality as they started the 2016 Cain’s Quest with 70 other competitors.  

Ms. Ola Andersen’s Grade 3 and 4 students in Cartwright, Labrador welcoming Cain’s Quest – Team 66 to their town. Photo credit: Michael Holwell

As the 2016 teams began to wind their way across Labrador, Ola Andersen was mobilizing her Grade 3 and 4 class at Henry Gordon Academy in Cartwright, Labrador. “Watching through a classroom window would not cut it – the class longed to become part of the excitement,” she noted. Researching the teams involved, Andersen discovered that Team 66, Päivike and Jauhiainen, were the only Europeans in the race so she quickly involved her students in a mini-unit on Finland. They explored where the team members were from, investigated the different types of snowmobiles, and read the biographies of the different team members. When the Finnish riders arrived in Cartwright they were surprised to be greeted by a class of children waving Finnish flags. Päivike recalled, “These kids had a very good knowledge of Finland and just wanted to shake our hands and maybe take few photos, and that really felt good while being a long way from home and tired.”

Team 66 finished in 10th place but the seed was planted for Päivike and Jauhiainen, and Ms Andersen’s students, who were left inspired by the machines, the racers, and people from distant places.

Cartwright, Labrador

In the fall of 2017, knowing the next Cain’s Quest was approaching, Ola Andersen’s new class were already exploring the geography of Labrador, the mechanics of racing, and the effects of cold climate on machinery when she made contact with the Finnish racing team. She found Sami Päivike’s email address and wrote and asked if they would be coming back in 2018. Päivike’s wife is a teacher and she suggested that the local school could write letters as a way to connect and practice their English. The plan was made for Päivike to deliver the letters when the team passed through Cartwright in the 2018 Cain’s Quest.

Mr. Jorma Turunen’s Grade 4 students in Rovaniemi Finland. Photo credit: Jorma Turunen

Rovaniemi, Finland

In the 2017- 2018 school year, Mr. Päivike’s step-son was attending Mr. Jorma Turunen’s grade 4 class in Rovaniemi, a small school with 120 children located above the Arctic Circle, Finland. When they heard about the race and the class in Cartwright they were excited to participate. According to Mr. Turunen, the letter writing program was life changing for the children. His grade 4 students had been learning English for a year and a half but, “This was actually the first time they were really able to communicate using a foreign language.” They wrote as a group, writing on the board, then editing and choosing what they wanted to say together. They built their confidence and they learned how to format letters, dates, greetings, and developed their handwriting skills. They talked about why Canada is a country of so many mixed cultures, and also explored the indigenous and metis heritage. They also arranged to play an interactive web-based game together and, as they got to know their new friends, their learning expanded into different curricular areas such as geography, art, biology, environmental science, and technology.

In Carwright, Ms. Andersen’s class watched videos of Rovaniemi and surrounding area, investigated reindeer herding, and made comparisons to life in Labrador. In the letters, the children told about their community, their families, and their interests and hobbies. They delved into science and technology through the exploration of an innovation that would help them if they were in Cain’s Quest. They invented backpacks with special equipment, nutrition bars, and special clothing to prevent frostbite. According to Andersen, “This little project allowed them to use their imaginations and creativity for design and innovation.”

The 2018 Cain’s Quest

With all teams carrying live tracking devices, the 2018 Cain’s Quest began on March 2. On large screen projection, Mr Turunen’s grade 4 class in Rovaniemi and Ms Andersen’s grade 3/4 class in Cartwright, watched as the racers’ travelled across the frozen landscape, paying particular attention to Team 66.

The excitement grew as the teams came closer to Cartwright. When they arrived at 11:03 a.m. on the 3rd day of the race, Ola Andersen’s class were waiting with banners. The racers presented them with the handwritten letters and gave them toques, candy, and autographed a Finnish flag for them to hang in their classroom. The students were excited about the souvenirs and they especially enjoyed hearing the two Finnish racers converse in their own language.

Unfortunately, after riding 3000 km through the Canadian North in winter, due to a broken part, Team 66 had to end the race 300 km short of the finish line.“You can imagine how that felt but that’s how racing is,” said Päivike. “But,” he announced, “We will be back for the 2020 Cain’s Quest and will be bringing another, separate, female team along.”


Integrating authentic experiences into the classroom enhances learning objectives and changes lives through meaningful connection to local and global communities. The Harvard Graduate School of Education for the Rural Trust[x], concluded that as schools and communities work together to design curricular goals and strategies, students’ academic achievement improves, their interest in their community increases, teachers are more satisfied with their profession, and community members are more connected to the schools and students. This small example demonstrated that place-conscious pedagogy is cross-curricular, builds confidence, and inspires curiosity at a time we need our students to engage with each other, the environment, and their communities.

While another Cain’s Quest has ended, the memories and relationships will live on in the children of the two northern communities. Students in Cartwright have since received a second batch of handwritten letters from Mr Turunen’s class. Ms Andersen still plans lessons based on past Cain’s Quests, and races yet to come. She believes that this experience was the highlight of her students’ year and has has led to students realizing that anything is possible when you put your mind to it.

When asked about the impact of Cain’s Quest on Team 66, Mr Päivike reflected, “The race itself was a way to meet the people, and we surely wanted to give something back too. Unfortunately the only thing we had was some time and few words, but it seemed to be enough. People understood that we were still in the race.” After visiting the classroom in Rovemini, the team noted that it became clear that there are bigger values than winning. It was the participation, meeting people, and sharing and honouring other cultures that mattered.

According to Mr Turunen, the most important lesson involved ethics and cultural interaction, important goals of the Finnish National Core Curriculum[xi]. His class talked about how they saw similarities, not differences, and how that helps to understand each other and live in peace, globally. He reflected on the changes in the children, noting that Finnish kids are usually a bit shy of making contact, but this kind of authentic activity “encouraged them to interact with children that shared similarities and differences, but it was the similarities that were most meaningful to the children.” He said they realized that they share the same values, and interests in nature, activities, and families; and, despite the distance, they share the same Northern sky, even if it is on the other side of the world.

As the year ended for Mr Turunen’s grade 4 class, they decided to celebrate “the North American way”, with a square-dance. The children received their last letters, sent their own farewells, and while the North Star shone above, the children closed out the year in Rovaniemi with a square-dance party, dressed in checkers, doing the do-si-do.

Jennifer Godfrey Anderson is a teacher and researcher in assessment, mathematics education, and place-conscious teaching and learning. Having worked in different education systems around the world, Jennifer is now at home, and at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada.

Ola Andersen has been teaching for approximately 24 years. Always interested in the local knowledge of Labrador and how place-based education can be infused into curriculum, Ola brings the experience of connecting and living on the land to her teaching.

Jorma Turunen is a classroom and ethics teacher in Viirinkangas Primary school in Rovaniemi, Finland. He has a special interest in integrating digital literacy and the new Finnish curriculum focusing on inter-disciplinary phenomenon-based learning.
iIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018). Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Retrieved from: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2018/07/SR15_SPM_High_Res.pdf
iiCouncil of Ministers of Education Canada. (2018). Global Competencies. Retrieved from: https://www.cmec.ca/682/Global_Competencies.html.
iiiAlberta Education. (2018). Competencies. Retrieved from https://new.learnalberta.ca/?x=8915C386.
British Columbia Ministry of Education (2018). British Columbia’s new curriculum: core competencies. Retrieved from https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/competencies.
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viiFasheh, M. (2015). Over 68 years with mathematics: My story of healing from modern superstitions and reclaiming my sense of being and well-being. In S. Mukhopadhyay & B. Greer (Eds.). Proceedings of the Eighth International Mathematics Education and Society Conference. Paper presented at Mathematics Education and Society Eight, Portland, OR. Portland: Oolican Press, Portland State University. Available at: http://mescommunity.info/MES8ProceedingsVol1 .pdf
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viiiCain’s Quest: About (2019) Retrieved from: http://www.cainsquest.com/about/
Emberley, G. (ND). Cain’s Quest: Race Route Map. Retrieved from: http://www.cainsquest.com/event-info/race-route-map/
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