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.

Student Voice in the Curriculum: Schools as Propaganda Factories

The argument goes like this. Students often don’t know what is good for them. If we left it up to students what we would learn and study, they might never discover a topic that is currently hidden to them. Their world would be smaller because they never got to explore beyond their existing familiarity. They may never have the joy of developing an acquired taste for that which didn’t capture their interest or curiosity at first. Giving students voice in the curriculum might sound like a good idea, but their voice could become a prison instead of some paradise of free will and expression. At least that is how the common argument goes.

I’ve heard such rebuttals quite often when we start to talk about the role of student voice in the curriculum, and there is indeed wisdom in the perspective. It is true that many of us are brought kicking and screaming into our callings. Students do develop acquired tastes for areas of learning that were undesirable at first. Students (or rather people) don’t always know what is best for them. I’ll add to all of this that students preparing for specific jobs might not have the insight to know which topics are more important than others to do the work well. They are not yet experts, so they don’t have the insight of the expert.

All of this has a good and important role in the conversation, but such statements can also be a way of creating a strawman out of the student voice argument. Or, people take an idea and represent it in its most radical expression in order to diminish its perceived value. I see that happening, albeit seemingly unintentionally, when it comes to talking about the role of student voice.

Student Voice Defined

Dennis Harper, in Students as Change Agents, gives a good working definition of student voice. “Student voice is giving students the ability to influence learning to include policies, programs, contexts and principles.” Notice the definition says nothing about silencing teacher voice, parent voice, or the voice of any other number of stakeholders. Instead, it is looking at students as key stakeholders in the educational enterprise. Education is not just something done to them or for them. It is something that they are invited to join in helping to shape. The extent to which students have a voice from one context to another can vary significantly. As such, this conversation doesn’t need to be about whether or not students should have a voice. It is a matter of how much voice in a given context, and how we are equipping them to have a voice for the rest of their lives.

Going Deeper

To answer questions about how much voice, we can look at the core values and convictions of a given learning organization, along with the goals and desired outcomes. Yet, too often, we don’t take conversations down to that level. We jump into the what and how without clarifying the why, and I contend that this is why people talk past each other so much in the debate. There will indeed still be important differences of opinion, but we are likely to have a far more fruitful conversation if we change the focus to the role and extent of student voice, rooted in an understanding of the why in an organization.

Agency

Advocates for increased student voice often point to the desire to nurture agency and to prepare students for life in democratic society. They argue that students must learn to use their voice, to take a stand, to see themselves as agents of change in their lives, families, communities, and the world at large. They express concern that we don’t do that if we don’t invite them into having some sort of voice in the what, how and why of their learning. If they are only trained to “sit and get”, to be “seen but not heard”, to be “compliant and complacent”, to be “submissive and subservient to those in leadership”; how does that prepare them to have a voice in their greater world? They might learn the material more efficiently, but what else will they learn?

How to Give Voice

This perspective argues that, at minimum, we are wise to find ways, even if they are small, to help student discover the importance of their voice in education. In a democracy, it is a dangerous idea to suggest that citizens just don’t know what it good for themselves, so they should just compliantly submit to what the government tells them to do. The citizens are treated like the children and the government is the parent. “Be seen but not heard.” If that is the description of a good citizen and that is what we seek to shape in our schools, then I fear that we no longer have a democratic education system. We have instead turned our schools into propaganda and indoctrination factories.

Again, and I write this to myself as much as others, this need not be a battle of the extremes. There are times when others will have more voice than students. Yet, when that happens, we must do it in light of the fact that our greater responsibility is to give students a voice, not to silence them.