An Introduction and Discursive Rambling On Why I’m Writing This
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long while, ever since the EWA conference where I met some great fellow educators and education reporters. At dinner after the conference, I was speaking with David Ginsburg, Samuel Reed, and Michael Hicks about the concept of equity and a level playing field in schools and how this critical need so often gets shoveled under the rug in current public discussions of education, and I brought up one of the concepts I’d come up with after my first year of teaching, which is the idea of what I called an “invisible curriculum.” Michael Hicks informed me that this concept has been around for a while and was entitled the “hidden curriculum.”
This was a critical concept to me, so at the behest of Mr. Hicks, I did some “research” (Google questing) and found that the Wikipedia article (BTW, why do people always debunk Wikipedia as a viable source of information? There’s some really well written articles on that sucker!) provides some fairly good background on the subject, tracing the concept of “presumptive teaching” back to Dewey, up through Philip Jackson, Benson Snyder, Paulo Friere, and more recently to John Taylor Gatto. Now that I had a trail, I was determined to do some deeper investigation.
Not to make excuses, but I don’t have allocated time for research, and I’ve thus far been stymied by the craziness of a public school right before state testing, writing graduate school papers, creating IEPs, wedding planning, and other assorted tasks that keep pushing this research aside. I’m currently reading Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (good stuff—he doesn’t even hesitate to discuss love in pedagogy!), but that’s about as far as any of my own research has progressed.
Rather than wait an indeterminate amount of time to gain deeper theoretical background knowledge on the subject, I am electing to post what my thoughts are so far on the subject, and I will elaborate on it further as I learn more.
Curriculum and Equity
There’s a few strands which I will be pulling together around the concept of a curriculum. The first strand I will examine is the concept of a hidden curriculum. The second strand is the concept of a unified core curriculum. The third strand, which I have explored somewhat already, is the concept of open source curriculum development.
These strands are unified under the idea that if we are truly committed to the concept of equity in public education— or the concept of education as a civil rights issue—then we had better take curriculum seriously. What we choose to leave out of our curriculum are often the most critical pieces of knowledge that our students require to succeed in an extremely polarized and socially and economically sick nation.
There are a couple of ways of interpreting the notion of a hidden curriculum. One is from the perspective of class or cultural oppression, as in the biases of a dominant culture are propagated through unwritten but clearly expressed social rules, thus perpetuating inequity. Another is from the perspective of socialization, in which there is an assumption of implicit understanding, as in the “unwritten social rules and behavior that we all seem to know, but were never taught.” In the first interpretation, the deficit lies in the oppressor, who enforces their dominant perspectives either blindly or coercively. In the second, the deficit lies in the student, who fails to recognize implicit social or behavioral rules.
I think there is a middle ground to be found between these two interpretations of hidden curriculum, in that in either case, it is the responsibility and duty of the educator to render explicit what is assumed implicitly. Teaching is all about making tangible what is abstract, dredging up the invisible conceptual and procedural foundations that underly knowledge. If we are going to instill values from a selective standpoint, then we should give voice to those values and make them readily apparent, thus allowing parents and families a choice as to whether they feel that is the right kind of school for their child. If we are going to be addressing social skill or behavioral deficits with our students, then we should be clear about what social norms are and how healthy relationships are fostered and sustained.
We fail our children when we don’t acknowledge the hidden values and rules of our society’s social behaviors. We also fail our children when we pretend that there isn’t much more to succeeding in our society than academic success and intelligence, and ignore the critical need for the development of character. In a recent article in American Educator, The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education, James Heckman makes the case for the dire need for recognition of character development in education.
While important, cognitive abilities alone are not as powerful as a package of cognitive skills and social skills . . . Cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character (personality) development being an important and neglected factor.
I believe that children and families in disadvantaged communities desperately want to understand these rules. They want to become empowered through knowledge. We oppress them when we pretend they already understand or that they should implicitly understand class rules and values. And all of the terrible behavior that you will witness in inner city schools–the fighting, the cursing, the bullying—are calls for understanding. Students need to be taught what these unwritten class expectations and rules are. They already understand the rules of poverty, of the street. They already know how to speak that language. Some educators throw up their hands and say, “But they don’t want to learn! They aren’t motivated! They don’t value education!” That’s not true. It’s just that we aren’t being clear enough about what that learning will do for them. We assume that they understand the implicit value in formal education. We assume that they know how to sit in a chair and behave appropriately in a formal setting and respect formal authority figures. We need to stop making these assumptions. We need to assume, rather, that when a child enters our schools they need to be taught everything about how to succeed in a democratic and capitalistic society. And I mean that just as much for the child in the wealthy suburban enclave as the child in the ghetto. The child who sits in a wealthy classroom is just as much in need of understanding implicit societal rules and values, such that they don’t take their luxury and status for granted, and live a sheltered life unexamined. Inequality is perpetuated most fundamentally by ignorance, not by willful avarice.
Business leaders are telling leaders in education that they are looking for employees with social skills and interpersonal capabilities. Research tells us that self-control is far more important in predicting future success than IQ. Educators keep telling the world that they have kids that don’t know how to sit still for more than one minute, don’t know how to organize their supplies, and don’t know how to interact with each other in a positive way. Is anybody listening? Schools need to do much more than teach academic content. They need to teach—as many educators have been saying over and over again—the whole child.
Not only does our society fail to acknowledge the hidden curriculum, but we furthermore fail to acknowledge the foundations of any curriculum. We have politicized content, such that it has become an issue of nationalizing required content, as opposed to rationalizing the foundations of learning. Anyone who has been a teacher—most especially anyone who has been a teacher of children with exceptional learning needs—knows that all academic concepts have underlying foundations that must be clearly and explicitly taught for students to master the content. Let’s take one mathematical skill as an example: rounding. Rounding is easy, right? All you have to do is round a number up, or round a number down, and bingo! Right?
Wrong. If you think that’s true, then you’ve never tried teaching it. My students struggle with mathematical concepts, especially with procedures that require multiple steps, and most especially with concepts that require any level of abstraction. Let’s break rounding down into the steps required to perform it: 1) You have to decide what place value you are rounding to; 2) starting at that place value, you then must look at the number to the right; 3) you must ask yourself “do I round that number up or down?; 4) you must remember the rounding rule, perhaps taught to you via a rhyme such as “5 or more, let it soar; 4 or less, let it rest”; and 5) finally, you must move back to the original place value you are attempting to round to, then alter it accordingly (add one, or let it remain the same, and change the remaining place values to the right of it to zero).
Those are the steps, which we could easily add more to, as it could be argued that I condensed some mental steps into one. Now think about the foundational concepts needed to perform this operation. First, you must understand your place value and be able to locate the given place value of any number. If you don’t, you can forget about rounding, because you are lacking in the necessary understanding to simply begin the operation independently. Next, you must understand the rather abstract concept that when you round that place value, all the remaining place values after that are changed to zero. Also, they must understand and be clear about the idea that when you rounding “down,” you are not subtracting one from that number, you are simply “letting it rest.”
Try explaining that to a child who struggles with basic numeracy. Suddenly, what was such an easy concept, implicitly, has become an extremely complicated concept when you attempt to render it explicit.
But the point is here that there are concrete steps that can be developed, and we can pinpoint and target exactly where a student is struggling based on the evidence or discussion of their work. Different teachers will have different ways of addressing that struggling student’s needs, but the foundations are there.
Why would we pretend that the foundations underlying concepts don’t exist? Why would we leave it up to the independent exploratory process of a student, a teacher, a school district, or a state to determine these foundations? Why wouldn’t we pool together all of our evidence, from teachers, researchers, and content experts, to create a sequenced map of the foundations to learning?
I recently (randomly) learned about the concept of “learning progressions,” which I found in an article from a publication from the Teacher’s College educational policy program. This concept has been around for several years, and apparently had some influence on the development of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. I’m surprised, frankly, that the concept isn’t wider known and more fully explored.
Another concept aligned with these ideas which has been around literally for decades is E.D. Hirsch‘s notion of cultural literacy. I remember buying Hirsch’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy when I was a kid! I was fascinated by the idea of having a tome that would teach me the secrets to my society. It turned out to be kind of boring, but I thought some of the quotes in it were interesting. I still have the book, and now as a newer teacher, I have discovered that Hirsch’s concepts were developed into a Core Knowledge Sequence, which is available for download.
I can understand the criticism of Hirsch’s concept as an attempt to simply indoctrinate all students with the dominant culture, and the concern that having a unified curriculum would be an impediment to true learning. I share the criticism of the Core Knowledge Sequence from the perspective of it being fixed, in the same way that I would criticize any set of fixed standards by grade level. I teach students with disabilities, and I am angered by how they are made to feel stupid because they are 2-4 years behind grade specific benchmarks. Benchmarks should be based on individual student capability, not by this antiquated concept of grade level (/end diatribe).
When I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence to the teachers at my school at a faculty staff meeting as a tool to guide their curriculum mapping, I expected to hear some of the critiques I just offered above. But on the contrary, teachers were overwhelmingly thrilled by the sequence and gratified to have a copy of it to refer to. Aides and preparatory teachers were snapping the copies up like candy, such that we ran out of copies for core content area teachers! Teachers, just like students, are desperate for guidance.
At some point, we have to come to an agreement about what knowledge is important to the content that we elect to teach. And at some point, we have to come to an agreement about the benchmarks that students must reach to acquire knowledge at the level that will best enable them success in an academic or career setting, whether we elect to do so by grade level or other tracking method. In terms of indoctrinating students with the dominant culture, I will refer you back to the concept of the “hidden curriculum.” It’s not about protecting students from the dominant culture. It’s about handing the keys to that kingdom over to them. And that requires not only academic content knowledge, as I argued earlier, but knowledge of social skills and the self-knowledge that comes from self-control.
And I think that simply because content is “fixed” to some degree does not necessitate that it is dead. No teacher comes into a classroom (at least, not in a self-contained classroom; I would welcome someone who thinks they can fly by the seat of their pants coming into my classroom every day and trying to perform free jazz pedagogy; in a classroom, you have to be able to perform jazz on top of a classical foundation) and begins to conjure the content they are to teach out of thin air. What a good teacher does is to conjure critical thinking and dialogue around the essential content of a subject. The content may be given, but not how we approach it and develop it as a class, with students and teacher exploring the concepts together to recreate them anew. Curriculum must be able to adapt to these explorations and to the creation of new knowledge, but that does not mean that we should not come to a consensus as to what content should be taught. In other words, a unified curriculum does not necessarily mean a dead one, and I think we have move beyond such polarizing notions; I will explore this idea more in the next section on open source curriculum development.
Currently, there is a movement, spearheaded by the Shanker Institute, to reintroduce the idea of a core curriculum of content, which has been cosigned by many different leaders in the education field. Of course, this is making people who are politically right leaning shiver in their boots, because the idea of anything being nationalized gives them nightmares of socialism. But this is a perfect example of how the political grandstanding and petty oversimplication of adults operates to the detriment to children. Knowledge cannot be nationalized—but the underlying concepts necessary to achieve mastery can be outlined and unified.
The process of establishing any sort of national consensus on matters of education, such as through the current establishment of the Common Core Standards, is ridiculously contentious (read Diane Ravitch’s The Life and Death of the Great American School System for more history on the political machinations behind the standards movement) . But that should not stop us from having those conversations. Adopting a voluntary, common set of national standards was a great first step. But in comparison to the actual content, standards are relatively clean of contentious items and specifically applicable items for classroom use. The only item where standards provide direction on the actual content to be learned is in the math standards, as they are fairly clear about what content will be focused upon within each grade. In ELA, social studies, and science, however, the standards are intentionally vague, as these are the areas that can swiftly become politically contentious.
We need to stop being cowards and hold the essential public discussion over core content. Our children are sitting in classrooms that are all too often simply boot camp preps for a lifetime of imprisonment, with none of the essential knowledge that will enable them to succeed in this society. Our teachers are spending hours alone planning their lessons, attempting to dissect concepts in order to teach them effectively to their students. Why are we throwing our children and our teachers’ knowledge and ability to the wolves?
Open Source Curriculum
Reflect for a minute on the last image I just concluded the prior section with: a teacher sitting alone at their desk, planning lessons for their students. It’s after a long day of teaching. That teacher may or may not be a content expert in the lesson that they are crafting, given that most teachers are treated like widgets (as described well in the policy paper, “The Widget Effect”) and are thrown into different grades and different subject areas every year. Why is that teacher alone? Why does that teacher not have the guidance of other experts in that content area to guide their task analysis? Why is that teacher not sitting with other teachers during a scheduled, paid time of their day?
That image is of a dedicated teacher, a teacher who knows that they must reflect and ponder the underlying foundations of content in order to teach effectively. Other teachers are downloading lesson plans of questionable value from the internet, or simply turning to the next lesson in the curriculum that is provided by their district, which was purchased from a contractor who makes a lot of money supplying flashy, colorful textbooks to schools. Meanwhile, people are arguing against providing these teachers with any sort of direction or guidance on content whatsoever. Are you kidding me? When I began teaching, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I was supposed to be teaching my students (http://gothamschools.org/2011/04/01/persistence-through-failure/). I would have loved a sequenced guide to the underlying foundations of the concepts I was expected to teach and that my students were expected to learn.
Now wouldn’t it be better if that teacher was sitting at a table with colleagues, discussing the content of the lesson, performing task analysis through the process of dialogue with other knowledgeable experts of pedagogy and content? In some schools, this sort of collaborative lesson planning does occur. In all too many, however, it doesn’t. In either case, imagine extending that table to include teachers from all sorts of different settings, with all sorts of different students. They can discuss how they alter the delivery of the content to challenge their gifted students, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students with exceptional learning needs, how they alter the delivery of the content to reach their students learning English.
This is what we can do with technology. Why wait for one of the big curriculum companies to develop our curriculum for us? In fact, this is the very problem: how we’ve been developing anything in public education, whether policy or content: everything is developed from the top down, then handed to the teacher. But we need to stop this never-ending cycle of dissociation. A unified core curriculum incorporating social skills and character development should not be developed by some group of distant “experts” and think tanks.
I’ve been thinking about this concept ever since I learned more about open source software development. One of my friends is involved in the open source software industry (yes, people other than Microsoft are making money by developing open source software! Who woulda thunk?), and in conversations with him, I began to think about how the process could be applied to education. He recommended a book for me to read to learn more about the history of open source and how it works, and the more I learned, the more I grew excited about the potential for transferring the fundamental concept of open sourcing into curriculum development.
The revolutionary transformation of open source in software development in the computing industry was that it turned the concept of intellectual property on its head. Intellectual property, under the GNU license, shifted from the right of exclusion to the right of distribution. This allowed software code to be developed outside of a proprietary license and outside of hierarchical business models not always conducive to creativity and collaboration.
This is what the development of curriculum requires. Curriculum development is creative and challenging work, and teachers shouldn’t be doing it by themselves. We should be doing it together, via collaborative networks, not via conventional, hierarchical pathways remote from our classroom work.
I’ve started the process in my school by first creating a file structure within our school Google Docs to store and share our curriculum mapping. Then, I introduced the Core Knowledge Sequence, as described earlier, as a resource to be used in the mapping process. Next, I created a unit plan template, based on a format provided by ASCD, within Google Docs to guide and standardize the development of unit plans across grade levels. Finally, I will create a spreadsheet to synthesize all the unit plans as they develop school-wide, so that different grade levels can examine each other’s work.
My next plan is to open this process to teachers on a national level. I’ve created a wiki for this purpose, but swiftly realized that I had to create an underlying structure to guide the process. So this summer I will be working on building an underlying structure based on those effective in software development.
It’s going to be messy. It’s going to be challenging. But I firmly believe that teachers can create a viable and unified curriculum that will be far superior to anything that will be published by giant textbook corporations. And the best thing about doing it via the open source method will be that it can be a living, breathing curriculum that will adapt to new input and feedback by teachers.
A Summation and Wrap Up of the 3 Strands of Curriculum
In creating a curriculum that can target inequity and enable disadvantaged students to gain access to the middle and upper class tiers of our society, we must address these factors:
- Curriculum must explicitly address the non-academic skills proven necessary by research for life and career success, such as social skills, self-control, perseverance, and character
- Curriculum must be unified to clearly delineate the underlying foundations of content
- Curriculum must be an adaptable, living creation developed collaboratively by actual teachers and content experts via networks operated under a GPL style license
If you believe in any of these precepts, then I encourage you to follow some of these steps:
- Go to www.ashankerinst.org/curriculum.html and sign to support the concept of a core curriculum
- Notify your local representative about the necessity for a core curriculum that incorporates the concept of character development or write a letter to your newspaper
- Go to my website and keep up to date about my progress in developing an open source project for curriculum development, or start your own and let me know!