Cycle 1: How much of what we teach is “curriculum”?

Let’s face it, I am fortunate in that my subject area- dance- is not included in the standardized tests that my students take each year. That doesn’t mean, however, that I am not careful and intentional in how and what I teach. As I see it, there are three main types of teaching/learning relationships in every classroom and how we choose to acknowledge those relationships goes along way in determining our success in teaching people.

When posed with the question of “what is curriculum?”, my mind begins to flood with complex and conflicting thoughts. At the outset, I would describe curriculum as the intended content a teacher strives to share with their students; information and skills that are developed to reflect state benchmarks. Concepts that will be assessed in formal ways and will result in deciding how money is spent, jobs are allocated, and experiences lived.

When asked “what is curriculum for?” I think it is an attempt to create a common foundation- a common language if you will,  for teachers within a state, a grade level, and subject areas to agree. In theory, this might ensure that students moving from one school to another may not miss essential concepts that help them advance to the next grade. In theory, this might ensure that all graduating high school students might be equipped for their vocations or for college with the skills appropriate for those paths. In theory, curriculum would evolve to draw from big ideas maintained in “the Classics” but also include methods for preparing students to adapt to ever-changing demands of daily and professional life.

And yet,…..

I am distracted by what I have come to know and understand as I have developed, time and time again according to varied teaching environments, my own “curriculum”. I am conscious of how my ability to authentically help  students has shifted with experience and how this has in turn shifted how I choose content and methods for delivering information through experiences. I am embracing my “ways of knowing” to realize that I approach all of life as a dancer and translate every situation and interaction through my mastery and analysis of movement, body language, and non-verbal cues. And I am acknowledging truly, that as an educator my views of the world provide the fabric for my practice- even as I gaze on what I do through the lenses of intentional, innate, and hidden curriculum.

Here we arrive at another question. “What does that mean?” Well, here is what these things have come to mean in my life up to this point.

Direct or Intentional

I would describe direct or intentional curriculum as the stuff teachers set out to teach. This is the material that will be tested. This is the material that has been deemed most important. This is the material that fills books. This is what you write on your lesson plans. I would dare say that in most classrooms, this is boring.

As a dance educator, the direct curriculum is what I check the state standards for- terminology, definitions, age appropriate skill development. Boring. Until….I think of interesting ways to connect these things to non-boring things- images, textures, feelings, forces of motion, patterns as they exist in the world, cycles of ideas/relationships, current events, and more.

I find that when I apply context and guided experience to the programmed “curriculum”, the content comes to life. It isn’t necessary the stuff that is exciting but the discovery of how it is exciting.

Indirect or Innate

Innate curriculum helps me sleep at night when I have reached the tipping point with a challenging class and I stop pushing engagement and allow myself to “lead” class rather than “teach” it. I am not proud of these moments- I have just admitted they keep me up at night. But the innate curriculum is what my arts discipline “does” when I do little more than teach in the traditions of how dance has been taught (follow the leader, do what you are told, do it better, and don’t ask any questions.) This is when I rely on what the arts are credited as doing even when little thought has gone into the “how” of how these things are  achieved- things like providing self- discipline, conditioning bodies, building coordination, self-esteem, and being “fun”.

Innate curriculum is the material we assume is being learned simply because kids are in classrooms. These are the lessons that kids are not being explicitly taught but are using cultural inference to figure out and practice. And it leads to my third teaching/learning relationship category. This is the work that depends on the environment to be conveyed rather than the direct acknowledgment. An example might be: “you should behave in school better than you do at home, because well, you are at school. ” It is a standard expectation that is often assumed and not necessarily uttered out loud.

Hidden Curriculum

This is what kids notice about you and your classroom. This is how kids determine what your real expectations are. This is how kids decide if they will allow you to teach them. There is only one guarantee.

Kids. Notice. Everything.

If you don’t think so then they are your mirror image. They know you don’t think they care or don’t think they can do it and they will show you exactly that.

Hidden curriculum is varied and comprehensive:

  • Why should they turn assignments on time if you are late to school every day?
  • Why should they organize their ideas if you can’t organize your classroom?
  • Why should they be prepared to start the assignment when you say so if they know you will say it three more times ?
  • Why should they like math if they know you don’t like math and are uncomfortable teaching it?

Do you see the pattern?

Many educators, I think, place the power and importance in the order I listed: direct, indirect, and don’t consider the hidden messages in the class. I, however, place the value and therefore power in the exact opposite order.

There is a lot about the field of dance that challenges perceptions of people and of the world. I use hidden curriculum to encourage awareness and even conversations among kids that I don’t necessarily have time to conduct. And truly, kids are smarter than we give them credit for. They are capable of having important and discerning conversations when there is something worthwhile to talk about.  Want them to stop gossiping? Give them something juicy to think about and discuss.

In my classes, one way I do this is in the pictures I hang up. In recent months, I decided one challenging topic is the body and expected gender roles.

Dance challenges our acceptance of the body as something to see, watch, move, and touch. Gender roles in dance challenge our perceptions of relationships in many different ways.

Now, in my teaching I have limited time (30 minutes per week for each elementary classroom, 45 minutes per day for each middle school dance elective class) and we all know class discussion- especially about fascinating topics- can eat up those blocks of time easily.

I have found simply posting pictures of bodies in different kinds of shapes, costumes, and relationships have raised discussions of bodies and people in safe and constructive ways that carry over into the hallway before lunch or on their way to their next class.

While I listen to the conversations as they peruse the pictures, I often say very little until there is a direct connection to our classwork or if they have any questions they want to ask. Or until there is room for me to make a very brief but powerful statement.

I have been impressed at how their imaginations have anticipated movement that came before or after the image they actually see. At how they discuss weight or partnering- often delicate matters- in mature ways. I have noticed that they sometimes will make an accusation and then look at me to see what I think. And that is when I can address how their word choice might be offensive and why. I am not mad at them. I am seeking the opportunity to change their perception and be mindful of others. But I don’t necessarily need to do this in front of the whole class at the same time. Word spreads in other ways and the lesson is shared.

It is also not something that is necessarily in my “curriculum” but serves them in life. Isn’t that what education should do?

So when I think about “curriculum”, I agree with Sir Ken Robinson when he says schools are killing creativity and the paradigm is shifting. Kids are expected to ingest the information and not contextualize or develop a sense of themselves as it relates to the information.

Yet I also wonder what determines college “readiness” or another measures of success. Is it the memorization of a map and ability to identify states based on sight? Or is the ability to find an app on your smartphone that shows you the state as well as the ability to understand what the geography means in terms of what to wear and what you should eat if you visit those locations.

What leads to a fulfilled, productive, contributing life?

Thinking and problem-solving. Willingness to take risks, change assumptions, hazard a guess, and use mistakes to advance your thinking.To reflect on your own existence and make a positive impact on your community and the world at large. This is what fulfills my life and what I hope to inspire my students to do.

Shouldn’t that be goal of education?

What is in your “curriculum”?