Broad Definitions of the Curriculum

Democratic Education has a bad reputation for chucking out the whole curriculum. It is time to get over this. The option is to forever be at the mercy of charismatics leading children up the garden path.

I’d like to start by proposing three principles.

  1. Let’s make a curriculum appropriate to the developmental stage of the individual child.
  2. Let’s keep the curriculum as open as possible: if you believe in children’s ability to make their own decisions you do not need to get your knickers in a twist about “indoctrinating” them.
  3. Let’s identify a core curriculum that, from our adult perspective, seems essential learning. Same deal about the knickers.

FAQs-threeSome people believe that everything you do to educate a child is essentially a form of misguidance and that the child will turn out much better with no direct adult interference whatsoever. I can’t argue with this idea, just as I can’t argue with ideas of heaven and hell: it is a belief.

There are a couple of very good reasons to reject this belief.

  • The first is that getting rid of structured curriculum does not mean that you do not have one. The curriculum is just what you teach, so if you have an unstructured mess of time, chaotic spaces and unfair allocations of time, that ends up being your curriculum.
  • The second is that ignoring the curriculum just puts all of the power in the hands of outside agents: examination boards, inspection authorities and textbook publishers. It is ridiculous to assert your credentials as a free-thinking democratic educator only to succumb to a base servility when it comes to public examinations.

Democratic teachers need to think about these issues carefully before plumping too blithely for an education where the children are left alone to develop as they please. They need to unbunch their panties and de-knot their knickers, settle down in their seats and give a little rational attention to what can reasonably done with the curriculum.

I agree that the curriculum we receive from the state is repellent. It does not recognise developmental stages but ages. This means that children cannot wait until they are ready to learn something. They are forced into a bureaucratic system that tells them when they need to learn what. If they do not learn it they are failed. If they do, they are given baubles and badges.

In a democratic school we need to be sensitive to the indicators that tell us when someone is ready to learn. This does not mean following children around with a clipboard ready to pounce whenever they show the signs of readiness. It does mean creating environments that are congenial to be in with a range of different activities that can be self-directed as well as taught.

Learning when you are ready to learn can mean better quality learning. This means commitment- saying that you will do something and following through; having your word mean something- and determination- sticking with something even after it has lost its first appeal. This will be a part of the hidden or cultural curriculum of a good democratic school.

If you apply commitment and determination to an open curriculum the possibilities are limitless. I want to keep the curriculum open at both ends: let teachers use the breadth and depth of their experience to teach from; let children bring the full wealth of their interest and curiosity to bear. This means that fly-fishing, skateboarding, cake-making and break dancing can all make it into the curriculum, to name just a sample of off-beat examples that pop into my head.

There is a difference between school learning and picking something up by yourself. First, there is normally a teacher who can help to structure the learning into classes so that students can make better progress. Second, more people can participate than would be the case if you were just learning from an aunt or uncle, for example. This means that an open curriculum is not quite the same as learning something cool from your favourite uncle, although it may seem like that.

The open curriculum is different from the closed curriculum that comes down from curriculum authorities, however. In an open curriculum you state what you are going to learn. If you are going to study Ancient Egypt, that is the name of the class; you do not have a subject called History, with a curriculum unit called Ancient Egypt. This is no trivial difference: why study Art in all its broad and diverse possibilities, if what you want to do is paint?

Since the open curriculum can lead to accusations of a piece-meal approach to learning, the core curriculum needs to be strong and flexible, like a cat’s backbone. Mathematics, reading and writing, basic IT and an understanding of science are the principle vertebrae on that backbone. In a boarding school I would add physical exercise and nutrition.

In my next post I will look at ways of articulating this backbone.