I’m a Part of the Curriculum and So Are You: From Tame to Wild Learning

I’m part of the curriculum and so are you. This is an important truth that allows us to journey from tame to wild learning, from contained and constricted to incredible and unexpected journeys of transformational learning.

In a traditional sense, a curriculum consists of the course of study on any educational level. Or, many people today start with defining curriculum by the learning objectives, what students need to know and be able to do at the end of a course or program. Go to a typical school and ask teachers to show you their curriculum, and they will likely show a digital or physical book of lessons and learning experiences, perhaps a textbook, and other related learning experiences. Others will explain that the curriculum consists of standards, courses, units, learning objectives, content and learning resources, along with assessments and other graded assignments or activities. Yet, I’d like to suggest that all of these definitions miss an important part of the curriculum.

I value the definition used by AV Kelly in The Curriculum: Theory and Practice (p.13). “The curriculum is the totality of the experiences the pupil has as a result of the provision made.” I appreciate such a broad definition based upon the way that I represent the “essentials” of a learning experience. The only two critical elements for a learning experience would be a learner and an experience.

As such, as much as people today focus upon the content, the standards, the objectives, and the assessments as critical elements of a curriculum, perhaps we are wise to not forget yet another important part of the curriculum, the learner. While most people don’t think of the students themselves as part of the curriculum, they are critical to understanding what is learned and why it is learned. In that way, it is impossible to separate the learner from the rest of the curriculum.

If I am part of a learning experience, then I am part of the curriculum. The latin for curriculum refers to the idea of a course, as in a race course, a road, or a pathway. It comes from the metaphor of learning as a race, but I like to think of it even more as a journey. We all know that you don’t have much of a journey without a person going on it. Also, even if you have ten people on the same journey but at different times, we all know that it will be a qualitatively different journey because of the people involved. Each person brings different goals, values, beliefs, and experiences. Each person will learn something slightly different from the same journey. Each person will add something new to the experience of fellow sojourners.

There are certainly shared experiences and common lessons, but in the wilds of real life, you can’t control or manipulate a course or journey so that everyone has the same experience and there is the exact same outcome. In fact, if you achieve that, you probably do so by taming the journey, by making it something less real, less wonderful, less like a journey. We risk doing that when we only think of curriculum in terms of the controllables, the objectives, the assessments, the carefully considered plans.

I’ve never seen a lion in the wild, but I’m told that it is a completely different experience than seeing it in a cage or in a circus. One is distant, controlled, and incapable of displaying its full potential. It is beautiful, even majestic. It might not be tame, but it is contained, and that changes the experience for the viewer, but so much more for the lion. The same thing is true with our curricula.

This is not just some esoteric musing about how we are all part of the curriculum. It is a hard fact that has important implications for how we imagine the nature of education and schooling in the modern world. Yet, it is a largely foreign concept for many of us in education today. At the same time, it is wonderfully familiar if we only take a moment to reflect on the best and most valuable parts of our own learning journeys over the years. Now, what would it look like if our classrooms and school reconsidered the ways in which we went about education in view of this fact?

AP Courses Are a Symptom & Not the Problem in Schools

Kate Haas touched on a critical issue in our modern education system when she wrote the Washington Post article entitled, “Why I Regret Letting My Teen Sign Up for an AP Course.” In this article, she tells the story of her son staying up late at night studying his AP course. It is all about preparing for the test, with no time for exploring the great ideas of history or learning to think deeply and critically. On parent night, when she and her husband asked the teacher what she most wanted the students to get out of the class, it was all about test preparation. Yet, it seems to me that AP courses are not the main issue. They are just a symptom of a greater problem.

AP courses are one of many places where such a test-taking mindset dominates in modern education. We’ve lost sight of what really matters. We consider an exploration of great ideas to be out of touch with the realities of the modern education system and the world. Since when did meaning and an exploration of the human experience become secondary to tests and credentials? We focus on scores, tests, credentials, and measures more than a deep, lasting, transformational learning experience. Yet, there is a strong argument to be made that our world is in desperate need of deep thinkers.

As I’ve visited a variety of project-based learning schools and other innovative models for education, I’ve seen AP courses in particular draw students back into the traditional sit and get desks and rows of their past course experiences. Their projects lose depth as more of their day is drawn back into the model of AP test preparation. They are curious and have cultivated a love of learning in these new models of education, but they also have their eye on building the record needed to get into the colleges of choice, and they see AP courses are part of that. Or, they take AP courses to get a head start on college, maybe even entering a state college with one or two full courses of college credit complete. That saves money on college, not to mention time to graduation.

There isn’t anything inherently wrote with the idea of AP courses. There are certainly some AP teachers who are about more than test preparation, but that is usually front and center in these courses. The test too often takes over the classroom, shapes the culture, and leaves less and less room for students to go deep into the essential questions in the discipline, the enduring understandings, the perplexing and provocative questions and dilemmas, the real world significance, and the deep meaning and purpose behind the content.

It is as if someone has tapped into revisionist history with the famous quote so often associated with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Instead of understanding this as a challenge for deep, deliberate, rigorous thought and discourse, we’ve turned to a different understanding of un-exam-ined. We measure the value of the learning by the score on an exam instead of the extent to which one embraces the challenge of the examined life within a given domain or discipline.

This is not just hyperbole. A colleague recently asked his college students how they defined success in the class. The students replied that it is measured by the grade earned in the class. Then he asked them to define how they know what they have learned. Again, they pointed to their grade in the class. Then he asked them to explain what motivated them in a course. Once more, it was about earning the desired grade (or avoiding the undesired one). Finally, he asked them about their top priority in the class. Yet again, students pointed to getting a good grade or not getting a bad one. It was all about tests and grades, nothing about exploring the wonders of great ideas, problems, and questions. It wasn’t even about competence or job preparation. The focus was almost entirely on these abstractions of grades and test scores.

This is a core problem in modern education, not AP courses. It is just that AP courses, as they are run in som many places, have become places where the larger problem is especially evident. We all lose when we accept or welcome an approach to school that is about little more than earning grades, getting more credits, and getting high scores on tests.

Do Schools Teach How to Live in a Dictatorship?

Do schools teach how to live in a dictatorship? Grace Llewellyn, a longtime champion of unschooling and empowering young people one stated, “All the time you are in school, you learn through experience how to live in a dictatorship.” This is obviously a strong statement and many champions and leaders in education may well be turned off by it. Yet, for those who are willing to take the time to consider what she means, there are some important insights and lessons for those in K-12 schools, higher education, and various homeschooling settings.

The Hidden Curriculum

To appreciate the quote, we might benefit from pausing and reminding ourselves about the idea of the hidden curriculum. The curriculum, as most people think of it, consists of the planned pathways for learning. It might involve standards, learning goals and/or objectives, learning resources, learning activities, assessments and more. In fact, some would say that the teacher and student are also part of the curriculum. Regardless of the details, the common understanding is that it is what we directly seek to teach and learn.

Yet, in every learning context, there is also a hidden curriculum. This consists of everything that we learn but it is not necessarily intended. We learn lessons and are shaped by the nature of the community and the culture. For example, if I wanted to teach my children that I loved them, I could create a carefully planned lesson where they read letters from me about my love for them. I could tell them directly. I could quiz them on what I told them. Yet, if while I’m doing all of this, I am behaving in a way that contradicts what they are reading, watching and hearing, then they are likely to learn something more than what was explicitly taught or planned.

The same sort of thing happens in schools each day. Students learn about love and community from how other students treat them. They learn from how the teachers behave. They learn from the structure of the school day. They learn from the rules and power structures. They learn from the grading policies and practices. They learn from how we manage classes. They learn from what we celebrate and what we do not. They learn from so much more than what formally shows up in the curriculum as we usually think of it.

Dictatorship?

This brings us back to the opening quote. I’ve not seen a single school in the United States where there are explicitly lessons on how to behave in a dictatorship. Yet, how is the school structured? What voice to students have in the community? How much say do they have in how the community fuctions? What are the consequencies for disagreeing or civil disobediene in a school context? These are the sorts of questions evoked by Llewellyn’s quote.

For her, the best solution is to look beyond the formal schooling system. The system is flawed and teaches lessons that are harmful to indivdual agency and democracy as a whole. I celebrate the many good things happening in unschooling contexts, but I’m also not ready to let go of formal schooling as well. However, I do think that every school that values democratic education is wise to heed the warning evident in her quote. What do students learn from the hidden curriculum and culture in our schools, and how do we nurture communities that celebrate democracy over dictatorship? That strikes me as an important question for any learning community that is serious about empowering people for life and learning in a free world.

A Tale of Boredom Disrupted: From Sleeping to Dreaming

It didn’t matter whether she had ten hours or ten minutes of sleep, Brenda always dozed off in her first-hour class. She arrived on time each day, took her assigned seat in 9th grade literature, and proceeded to gradually, albeit sometimes abruptly, fall asleep. It was a class of thirty-five so the teacher usually didn’t notice. In fact, Mr. Baxter only noticed twice in the entire first quarter despite the fact that Brenda slept through at least ten to fifteen minutes of every class in the first seven weeks of the school year. Little did she know that she was soon to experience boredom disrupted.

She didn’t mean to be rude or disrespectful. If you asked her why she fell asleep in class, she would just explain that she was always so tired during that first hour. She couldn’t explain it. She didn’t try to sleep. It just happened. Of course, she didn’t try to avoid it either. She sat down, class started, and before she knew it her head was bobbing.

When it came to grades in the class, Brenda did okay. She stayed awake long enough to figure out what she needed to do for homework and she borrowed notes from a friend to study for the test. Fortunately, Mr. Baxter provided a study guide for every test that listed each item that needed to be studied. If you knew what was on the study guide, you would at least pass every test, if not get a “B” or higher.

As the first semester ended and the second semester started, Mr. Baxter assigned the students a short personal position paper. It was a simple, three to five page position paper on a single statement. “Literature can save and destroy people’s lives.” He walked around the room with a hat, and each student had to pull a small piece of paper out of it. Each paper simply said “true” or “false.” The paper that you picked determined the position that you had to take on the paper.

Brenda pulled out her piece of paper and opened it. It said “true.” She glanced down at the instructions for the paper again and was a little confused. Literature can save and destroy people’s lives? How could that possibly be true? These are just stories. How can a story save or destroy a life? She didn’t sleep the entire class, but she also didn’t pay much attention for the rest of the session. Instead, she was mulling over this assignment, struggling to figure out how she would write a paper on something that was the complete opposite of her lived experience. Literature had little meaning to her and she couldn’t imagine how it can be influential enough to save or destroy a life.

As such, she did something for the first time in the school year. She stayed after class and had a one-on-one conversation with her teacher. She explained her dilemma. Mr. Baxter just smiled. “It sounds like you have your work cut out for you. Maybe you could start by trying to search for examples of influential pieces of literature from the past or present. See if you can find any novels or stories that had a large impact people or communities.”

That evening Brenda experienced another first. It was the first time the entire year that she devoted any thought to literature class that was not focused on passing a test or just doing enough to complete an assignment and get a passing grade. She wasn’t really thinking about the class at all. She was consumed and a little annoyed about this haunting question. Can literature really save or destropy a life?

So, she took out her phone and decided to ask Siri a question, “Siri, are there books that changed the world?” Siri didn’t understand the question. She misunderstood and opened the iBooks app on her phone. As such, Brenda has to try to search the old-fashioned way by Googling it. This time she came up with a few interesting prospects. As she browsed the first page of results, she noticed several references to a vaguely familiar book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. As she did more research, she read that many considered this book to be a key to raising awareness about the wrongs of slavery in America. One source even claimed that it was a key factor in leading up to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

This fascinated Brenda. In a time where women had less voice than today, this single woman writer wrote a book that contributed to changing a nation and undoubtedly saving many lives. It influenced people’s views about the human worth and value regardless of the color of a person’s skin.

This was just the beginning for Brenda. It led to more searches and a growing list of books that changed the world. By bedtime, Brenda had a list of over thirty such books with notes about the authors and how their books influenced people, saved lives, and also spread negative ideas that very likely led to the death of people. She even ordered a couple of the books through the local library and found a free copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin online. She started reading it that very night.

It was hard to read, using less familiar English, but she persisted. She wanted to know what was so special about it. As she kept reading, it didn’t take long for her to get to the section where there was talk about buying and selling people. It was a painful read and for the first time in her life, Brenda felt something when she read. She felt sadness and anger. She’d felt from movies before, but never from a book. The more she read, the more she could imagine how a book like this could influence people, how it could serve as a mirror for the conscience of people. She fell asleep reading the book, this time not because of boredom or disinterest. She didn’t realize it but she had bee reading for hours, and she fell asleep in the early hours of the morning.

Needless to say, something changed for Brenda that day. It started with a simple question and assignment in class that, for one reason or another, conjured a deep interest and curiosity. Now Brenda was consumed with this question. There were times when she remained disinterested in what was happening in class on a daily basis, but each new story or book had renewed interests for her. Each time there was a new reading, she had to wonder if it too had saved a life, destroyed a life, or changed a person in some sort of important way. In fact, while she was not quite ready to do the work, Brenda even found herself wondering about what it would take for her to write a book that changed the world.