Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Hidden Curriculum

When I put my small children to sleep I sing to them, always the same song: Frank Sinatra's "In the wee small hours of the morning".  It wasn't a conscious decision or anything but the lullaby I sing to my children on a daily basis is all about "Lying awake and thinking 'bout the girl". For the first few months of their life this went how you might expect - me leaning against their bedroom door crooning at 2am in the morning while they wailed. But now, after long practice and at least one call to the Tresilian 24 Hour Help My Baby Won't Sleep! Hotline (highly recommended by the way), they hear that song, yawn and drop out for 12 hours or so without a peep.

So how does this connect to schools? My point today is that we teach other things besides the content of our subjects. Sure I'm singing a song about staying awake, but if it's associated for long enough with going to sleep it'll have that effect. How I teach - how my classroom is run - is probably having a far greater influence on my students than my fine-grained exegisis of Macbeth's "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow..." (The other link here is that both make children fall asleep)

Classrooms are set up in a certain way, in a tradition that we learnt at school ourselves. As teachers we maintain some of the elements of this tradition because they help us to teach, some because they help us to survive and others just out of habit. Things like asking kids to put their hands up we can reexamine and hack our teaching strategies to get a better outcome.  But what can we do about the 55 minute period? Rows of desks and chairs? The tie I wear to school? The way I speak and carry myself? Are these all working towards helping my students learn?

Some time ago I was teaching both maths and English to Year 9 classes - about eight of them were lucky enough to have me for both and with English followed by Maths in the timetable they effectively had doubles with me three times a week. I remember one English lesson I had taken the class out onto the lawn to do some creative writing. One of my students, lets call her Andrea, was crying and leaning on her friend. Something had happened at recess - as it so often does. I crouched down beside her and asked: "Having a bad day"


"Feeling a bit miserable?"


"OK. Well, you're not working on your assignment. And your friend here isn't working on hers either so how about this. Spend 5 minutes feeling horrible and talking about it. But only 5 minutes. Then you've got to spend the rest of the period writing OK?"

I'm a bastard clearly, but that's my job.

Surprisingly enough Andrea said "OK". Five minutes later she was writing silently with the rest of the class and she did that for about the next 20 minutes. Then the bell goes. We all get up, I'm rising from my gentle semi-slumber. The kids are all finishing off their paragraph and tottering off the maths.

I start my next class and find myself telling Andrea to plot linear equations on a number plane. Five minutes later I'm wandering around the class and find her not working again. I ask her if she's still upset:

"No, I was just starting to get into my story and I wanted to keep writing."

But she can't, this is maths now.

Another example happened to me this week. I took a class for a field trip in the period before lunch. We walked out from the school to the venue and they had what I would guess was a valuable learning experience. On the way back of got twenty students all chattering at once about what they saw, what they heard, what they learnt. We're going to get back to school with about 5 minutes to spare.  Waiting to cross the road I turn to them and say:

"Right, when we get back I don't want to stop the conversation just because the lunch bell goes, lets chat for a few minutes and share what we got from this."

Seems like a good idea to me and the students seem happy enough. They chatter throught he corridors, some of them to me, mostly to each other, but all about the excursion and what they are supposed to be learning.

Then I unlock the classroom door. They file in, in silence, sit at their desks and wait for me to start. I ask them a few questions and get a few closed answers. None of them responds to anything the others say. They wait for me to run things. When the bell goes, I can't keep them in - it would be a punishment.

My classroom has somehow taught these students to be silent and wary. I don't know how to stop this.

This is all kind of depressing, but if you'd like to read something along the same lines and far worse try John Taylor Gatto's speech on receiving the New York State Teacher of the Year Award for the second time. He calls it "The Six Lesson School Teacher".

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