What's hidden in your curriculum?

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh reflects on the messages schools send out unconsciously

Most schools have statements of their values - mission statements they're often called. Unsurprisingly, they're remarkably similar to each other.

Here's a real example from a primary: "We believe all children are entitled to develop to their fullest potential - academically, socially, emotionally, physically, morally, spiritually and aesthetically." And another: "Our aim is for all children to achieve their true potential, and to take pride in that achievement, while taking pleasure in the achievement of others."

The obvious expectation is that the curriculum and the chosen styles of teaching and learning will work towards that vision. Stop and think for moment, though, and you realise that if a school is to pay more than lip service to these values, then the avowed mission has to permeate way beyond what's on the timetable. It has to take into account the hidden curriculum of assumptions, judgments and relationships - all of those things taken for granted that a child learns in school every single day.

To illustrate what I mean, let's look at two children - fictional composites, but surely recognisable to most teachers. The girl is six, the boy is ten. They're both bright, popular, loveable and treated with kind understanding by good teachers. Each, though, sees school through very different eyes. The girl is an all-rounder, keen to participate, a good achiever to the point of being downcast if she doesn't meet her own expectations. The boy is laid back, easily distracted, likely to miss what's happening because he's talking about something else. He forgets his stuff, and often emerges from school trailing his baggage like a half-dressed participant in a hotel fire drill. Although he's sharp, with many interests and a mass of general knowledge, after five years of compulsory schooling, he still hasn't quite "got it", whereas the girl was tuned in from day one, by which time she'd already spent a year lining up her dolls in a pretend classroom.

There's a real challenge here for the school. If teachers genuinely want to nurture each individual, they will work hard to seek out, celebrate, learn from and build upon each child's way of looking at the world. That's not easy, because the natural grain of schooling, if we're not careful, runs towards rewarding one approach and stifling the other.

This potential conflict has long been recognised. When I was at college, it was illustrated by the story of the RE teacher discovered standing, angry and red faced, over a child, shouting "Who loves you? Jesus loves you! Right?" And the radical American educator John Taylor Gatto, author of Dumbing us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling*, calls the first chapter of that book "Bianca, you animal, shut up!" which is what he heard an assistant principal yell at a six-year-old in assembly.

Dinosaurs like that, I trust, have now all left the scene, but it's still very easy to fall into a pedagogic style that makes narrow demands on a child, where the one who does best is assertive but not pushy, confident but not cheeky, well organised but not obsessive, eager but not tiresome, attentive but not sycophantic, and is most likely to attract the key word of praise: sensible. ("Well done for being so sensible when the circus clowns came to visit," was a choice one reported to me. I don't know whether the clowns were asked about this. In this context, Bill Oddie's claim that he was told, at the age of nine, not to be childish, is entirely credible.) If I had my time as a head over again, I'd be tempted to give awards in assembly not for sensible behaviour -yes, I was as guilty as other staff in using that word - but for the crazy acts that bring us all some relief from the routine. ("Commendation: for entering assembly in a running forward roll.") In today's thoughtful schools, things are infinitely better than they were in the days when ill-conforming children were beaten and yelled at.

Teachers are better educated, and close attention is paid to the detail of the learning process and how it works for individual children. Importantly, too, schools are now much more inclusive in all sorts of ways. Learning mentors build bridges, teaching assistants bring new dimensions of listening and understanding, mainstream classes accept children whose needs simply don't line up with traditional assumptions. ("Nothing like a few autistic children for removing the pomposity from a teacher," is how one head put it to me.) Gradually creativity is making a comeback, although in the best schools it never went away. I worry, though, about that portmanteau word sensible, still widely used, especially in primary. For some, probably irrational, reason, I always associate it with Margaret Thatcher. And I wonder whether it's really possible for the words sensible and creative to co-exist.


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