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This is the first of three blog posts about the Reduced Curriculum responding to the anxieties of many people we have talked to regarding this important subject.  There will be an accompanying PDF, which is free to our subscribers.

Here is a link to the accompanying podcast.

What is the Curriculum?

I am writing this post to clear my own mind.  When we talk about the reduced curriculum Leonard and I have a clear idea what we mean by that, but it is by no means self-evident.  Neither the definition of what the curriculum includes or how it should be reduced are easy.  I want to examine notions of the curriculum, explain why both the overt and hidden curriculum need to be considered, and work my way back to thinking about how the curriculum can work in a democratic school.

First we need to define what the curriculum is.  The English National Curriculum, for example, only covers a part of what goes on in schools, by its own admission.  It says that everything in a school is a part of the curriculum.  This may be true if you think that most activity in most schools takes place in classrooms ruled by teachers.  In this sense the curriculum could be defined as a core curriculum, moving out towards foundation subjects, options and extra-curricular activities, which are still a part of the full curriculum under the government’s definition.  Certainly, when it comes to inspection, all these components of a school’s provision will be taken into account.  From our perspective, as democratic school teachers, they are symptoms of the same disorder.

Leonard says that our society suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Curriculum Disorder.  What he means is that we reduce everything to curriculum in our schools and then grow more and more subjects along the same model.  He likes the street understanding of curriculum as “what teachers offer in classes”.  Strictly speaking this is not right, but it makes sense because the common notion of what constitutes learning in schools is tied to what teachers do.  Even though the English National Curriculum, for example, says that it does not cover everything that happens in a school, most of the extra value that schools add on is more of the same: more classes built on the same model; more teaching; more structured learning.

Let’s examine the common-sense definition of curriculum.  Free compulsory schooling is a feature of modern democracies.  Schools provide opportunities for children to learn, which for the most part are provided by teachers in classes.  The content of the curriculum is agreed upon by political processes, designed by experts and delivered by teachers.  These teachers may have different methods, ranging from the inclusive to the didactic, but their role is to structure the learning of children in schools.  The curriculum represents a structure of knowledge:

  • Content is divided into subject areas.
  • Within each subject area the content is further divided into packets of knowledge and skills.
  • These packets are spaced through the academic year: so many hours of lessons, so much content divided amongst them.
  • This allows planned repetition year after year to reinforce learning objectives: the spiral curriculum.
  • Regular testing allows teachers to measure progress towards attainment targets.
  • Extra help is given to those who do not reach the level for their age.
  • Extension activities are provided for those who surpass them.

When we talk about a reduced curriculum, we have in mind this image.  However, we believe that the division of knowledge and understanding into little packets evenly distributed over time is only one model for how learning can take place.

If you want to learn to ride a bike you would be crazy to hire a curriculum designer.  He would have you studying the history and mechanics of the bike before you were allowed on the seat; you would have to do a compulsory unit on safety; you would learn about pedals one day and gears the following week.  No: if you want to ride a bike there is nothing like getting onto one and devoting hours of uninterrupted practice to achieve mastery.  You don’t need the curriculum method.

This method is crystalline in its bureaucratic perfection and appears to have no ideological taint: you simply ask yourself what it is desirable to learn and go about the process of dividing that subject up, delivering the packets of knowledge and testing to ensure that learning has taken place.  Unfortunately, this method of designing the curriculum can be applied to almost any content with relative ease, regardless of its practical use (think of language learning in most schools).  Its ease results in a proliferation of curriculum initiatives, hence Leonard’s observation about Compulsive Curriculum Disorder.   It is the logic of the factory and, as in industry, the underlying assumption is that “more is better”:  the more you learn, the better educated you will be, surely?

Dissenters have always felt a threat in this manner of approaching learning.  From Wordsworth onwards the glorification of learning objectives has been seen as an insufficient reward for depriving children of their freedom and individual choices.  More is not necessarily better.  Curriculum reduction does not aspire to make a better curriculum at all.  This is where Summerhill parts company with some of the more touchy-feely brain science schools which claim that their methods improve learning.  We say you can cut back the all-embracing curriculum and you do not need to replace it with another one.  Teachers and schools can let go and trust the child to grow up.  We keep in the front of our mind the benefits to a child, and the adult that child will become, of freedom: freedom to play; freedom to decide when to go to lessons; freedom in an equal community to participate in making decisions that affect everyone.

The Hidden Curriculum

Democratic educators since Dewey have acknowledged the inherent contradictions in the school curriculum.  If you aspire to create a better democratic state, with freedom of expression, freedom of speech and the right to pursue happiness as key components, how can you teach those values in a hierarchical system in which children are deprived of their liberty?  It is paradoxical to teach about freedom in the penitentiary.  This has given rise to the notion that there is a hidden curriculum beyond what is explicitly taught in schools.  You do not need to be a sophisticated reader to detect the ironies and injustices in our supposedly free societies.  Schools, unfortunately, pay little attention to the hidden curriculum.

Consider the curriculum planner’s dream of an endless stream of packets of learning that lead all the way from primary school to post-doctoral work.  There are many elements to this vision that are troubling: it implies that there is always someone there to supervise your work; that the system has attained a perfection that is unquestionable; that learning is always best undertaken in measured and structured time packets.  Furthermore, exceptions who question the foundations of this rule are either misfits or geniuses.  The hidden side of this curriculum is that it is better for everyone to submit to the bureaucratization of knowledge.

In response to the inner contradictions of a curriculum model that shepherds learners along like so many sheep, dynamic educators such as the Emilia Reggia schools promote what they call socially-constructed meaning.  The idea is that meaning does not come in neat little packets and to divide knowledge and skills up like this comes from administrators with ill-concealed authoritarian tendencies.  They tackle the hidden curriculum head on and attempt to create an environment in which learning is negotiated and the role of the teacher is continually questioned.  Sudbury schools go even further by asserting that children are capable of learning entirely independently.  Although the adults in Sudbury schools will inevitably end up teaching from their areas of expertise, and material resource requirements lead logically towards groupings- a science room, an art room, a computer lab- the aspiration is for children to follow the impulse of their own interests towards learning.  At the extreme edge of the spectrum there are philosophers who reject the notion of school outright.  Any kind of school deprives children of their liberty, they say, and a nice school is just that much worse because it co-opts children into approving the mechanism that deprives them of their freedom.

Teacher, teacher

Mortarboards are not commonly worn by teachers at Summerhill

At different times at Summerhill School there have been hints of all these positions, but there has always been a core of teachers.  This administrative decision- to have Math, English and Science teachers- is a de facto decision about the curriculum regardless of the merits of the individual teachers at any one period, their idiosyncratic ideas about pedagogy or their preferences for one teaching style above another.  Children have the absolute right to go or not go to lessons but the school explicitly shows them that Math, English and Science are worth attending to.  It is no mere coincidence that these three subjects make up the core of the English National Curriculum.  Children are not precious little bubbles of innocence floating through a world of daisies and dandelion cocks.  They know that at some point they will have to engage with the business of becoming an adult, they are aware of what is going on in the broader world and they can make responsible decisions about their future when the time comes.

Summerhill School is at once revolutionary and conventional.  The revolutionary idea is that children can have freedom to grow up without being measured and assessed by improving adults.  The curriculum, however, is derived from the English National Curriculum.  Not all the content of the National Curriculum is delivered.  Teachers reduce the curriculum; they do not cover it all.  They also adapt themselves to the needs of the child as they find him.  There is no big mystery to this reduction.  It is the result in practice of valuing children’s freedoms and providing them with the most efficient means to get the qualifications they might need to go on in life.  I will talk in more detail about how this affected my own practice as the English teacher in another post.

In summary, we can say that what a child experiences at school can be defined as the curriculum.  Everything the school does influences that curriculum, both overtly and through the hidden curriculum.  If you decide, like Summerhill School, that English, Math and Science are essential, you are making a curriculum choice.  Lots of other subjects are taught and a lot of learning goes on outside the classroom and in activity areas and workshops.  Common usage links the word curriculum with teaching in classrooms, even though this is just one aspect of the curriculum.  When you offer children freedom, you must accept that the time available for covering curriculum content, whether it is in a national curriculum document or a well-structured series of textbooks, will be limited.  Curriculum reduction starts with selecting the essentials for individual students in direct response to their prior learning and capabilities.  Teachers adapt their teaching to the needs of the child.  Sometimes this can be frustrating as we all have a natural tendency to want to improve things and, if a child is not attending classes, the teacher can be conscious of the lost opportunities.  However, in a dissenting school such as Summerhill, teachers resist the temptation to become skilful in the usury of time: the time is not theirs; it belongs to the children.

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