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”?

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

  1. Hello Heather, and thank you!

    I just viewed the RSA animate version of Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on shifting paradigm. Wow. Wonderful. You have introduced me to RSA animate. I look forward to exploring more RSA graphics and sharing with my teenage sons as well as with my students. I happened to be clicking and surfing yesterday and came across this link from Gallup, which corresponds beautifully to the Robinson RSA piece. Here it is:
    http://thegallupblog.gallup.com/2013/01/the-school-cliff-student-engagement.html
    Scroll down just a bit for a graph on “The School Cliff” (as opposed to “The Fiscal Cliff”). All of these pieces are coming together for me: our TE 818 reading this week, your writing and the Gallup findings. Perhaps our public schools are harming us as human beings. It bends and warps us into seemingly functional citizens, all the while huge parts of our brains, talents and essence are trained to be dormant.

    As an illustration of the hidden curriculum, you shared the idea of using a dance class as a springboard into thought and discussion on social topics such as body issues and gender roles. Bear with me as I form a comparison. When teaching college accounting courses, many students think that the last thing that will happen in our classroom is a research paper or discussion on social issues, but that is exactly what does happen from time to time. When analyzing oil corporation financial statements, our analysis turned to discussion on corporate responsibilities to the greater community at large. I agree with your concept of hidden curriculum. It can be the most improvisational and enlivening part of the class experience.

    Your concept of the direct curriculum is true if unfortunate. No matter the teaching area, we all have our list of required course outcomes and “to do’s”. I agree that one challenge of being an engaging modern teacher is to continually stretch and experiment in finding ways to make the direct curriculum fun, active and interesting to today’s students. Sir Ken Robinson might say that the issue is not in coming up with an ever widening array of teaching techniques and tricks to make the boring direct curriculum come alive, but instead to find a way to shift the whole thing and make the curriculum itself alive.

    Your comments on indirect or innate curriculum left me puzzled. I’m not quite sure what you are trying to convey in this section, what you mean as a definite of innate curriculum, and why it keeps you up at night as you say. If we were chatting away in person, this is the point in the conversation where I would stop and say, “What?…wait a minute…what do you mean?….can you tell me a little more?…” I don’t understand the deep disconnect that bothers you so. Let’s say that in a dance class, one aspect of the innate curriculum is physical conditioning. As long as you continue to plan and allow for plenty of dance time, those bodies will become conditioned bit by bit. In my accounting class, the innate curriculum may take the form of ample time creating and manipulating financial data in Microsoft Excel. Similarly, as long as my assignments and our projects require students to spend lots of time with Excel, students’ Excel skills will be enhanced. Maybe you could tell me more…

    This morning I participated in a vigorous Zumba dance workout class down here in Jackson, MI. As much as I try to let go and not think, my analytical teacher brain sometimes gets going. I think of what the teacher is trying to accomplish with our workout sessions, which songs were selected and in which order played, which muscles to feature in each song and regular aspects such as warm-up and cool-down segments. I think of your curriculum features: direct and indirect and hidden. The direct aspect hit by body in all places. Every inch of me was utilized and challenged in a beautifully ordered flow from warm-up to all degrees of aerobic intensity back to a cool-down. The indirect aspect was present in that my coordination and musicality was enhanced. I am getting better and better at following her visual cues and linking the choreography to the music. The hidden aspect was especially powerful today. I marveled at over 100 people all working out together and kicking off the weekend with a cheerful sweaty groove. For a few overwhelming moments, I felt that intense personal connection between my actions and my convictions. I am taking care of myself. I am taking action to reach my weight loss goal. My body is strong and capable and happy. And, it was fun to experience curriculum on the receiving end.

    Suzanne Kiess

    1. Wow, Suzanne. I love your energy in your writing and I love the way you have prompted me to think. Thank you!

      1. I love the gallup link you provided; thank you! I have shared it with a friend who outraged teachers in her building by stating that she thinks the conversation about college readiness (she teaches in an elementary building but it was part of a larger discussion) include the kids that don’t want to go to college and what, as educators, are they doing for them. I tend to agree with her- with all of the academic inflation (to borrow Sir Ken Robinson’s term)- we can’t predict with absolute accuracy what higher education is going to look like when this group of early elementary is ready to enter college.

      I tend to feel we put the cart in front of the horse and are so distracted by outcomes that we are totally missing process when it comes to education- and well, life in general.

      I do believe in public education. And I don’t think private education doesn’t have the same demons, they just present differently.

      2. I agree that Sir Ken Robinson would perhaps create a systemic shift that enlivens the curriculum. If I were to imagine what that might look like, for me I would think less about subject areas and rather group ideas. Such as teaching patterns- they exist in reading, writing, math, science, arts, …..everywhere. If we broadened our ideas to find connections rather than creating divisions (this is math. this is science. this is language arts.) we would be a more versatile society and kids may not enjoy learning more, they might do better. And in an age where isolation is trending (most of us have online communities before neighborhood communities), it would foster partnership and collaboration.

      3. Thanks for your comments on the “innate curriculum” portion. I am realizing that this may not translate well outside of an arts experience.

      My personal frustration, and why it keeps me up, is that most of my practice is philosophically rooted in the experiential connection of ideas through dance (technique or composition or history, etc.). Yet, when I deviate from those methods to teach the discipline of dance “traditionally”- again, in frustration over a situation and not in a planned way- I feel disappointed in myself.

      You are right to point out that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing nor one to be worried about. Good things are still happening when that occurs but I get caught up in the feeling that I “phoned it in.”

      I think some of this feeling comes from the notions I have battled as a dance educator- those that dance offers little more than “expression”, “conditioning” and that it should be “fun”. In other words, dance is entertaining and isn’t a serious or respectable subject.

      But your description, (and appreciation!) rings true and reminds me to value the credibility in those things as I provide them even in what I view as a moment of weakness. The movement I create for my students is rigorous and complex and presents dance in ways that are challenging physically without tapping into the blind athleticism often taught in competition studios. So, yes, even without providing the intended experience in the way I had planned, the students still receive a rich and meaningful experience. (Read: I need to lighten up).

      I doubt any of what I just wrote clarifies my post, but it does in my mind. I look forward to reading your blog and commentary. I responded to your post this morning.
      Thanks again,
      Heather

  2. Hi Heather,

    Thank you for your work!

    This was just an excellent post. Highly reflective, masterful in tone and substance. There was a moment, where I was reading your first shaded grey area of text, and I was asking myself–is she quoting Dewey? Is she quoting some piece of curriculum theory from a writer I admire? No! It was of course you. I guess I am saying there is something really impressive about the way you have entered into curriculum discourses so thoroughly already!

    Curriculum theorists seemingly love to divide things into three, so your own three categories are suggestive. I find them very interesting. I am fascinated, in fact, by your notion of an innate curriculum.

    I agree with Suzanne that it was a bit hard to follow. And I agree with you that it may be something specific to the arts.

    I remember in graduate school, when I had taken all the French classes I could, I was ready to find another way to blow off steam. So I took up violin! I was so fascinated with the pedagogy. It was very demanding, very technical. No room for interpretation! I really felt like my fine motor skills were being completely broken down, only to be re-ordered in new ways.

    I wonder if this is what you mean, in some way?

    Because I didn’t necessarily enjoy that experience, and I didn’t feel like I was getting to know music in any creative way. It felt too technical. Yet it helped me learn to play music, and of course it would be silly to think I could engage the more enriching parts of music without some grasp of technique. However, I had motivation to learn–and many students in public schools are required to be there. This type of pedagogy might not work in this setting. You are right to embrace, conditionally, the innate curriculum–but to keep an eye on it.

    What you call “hidden curriculum” Elliot Eisner famously called the “implicit curriculum.” I totally agree with you it is the basis of most of the good things that happen in school!

    Thank you for your work!!

    Kyle

    PS: You seemed to have omitted your colons in your web links, so they were not work (http://)

    1. Kyle,
      Thank you for your feedback; I am flattered. And thank you for alerting me to the fact that the links don’t work. I will correct those now.

      You also have such interesting experiences and perspectives. Thanks for sharing about your study of the violin. I think you are right on the mark- people seem to expect certain things from training in the arts and the specific demands of building technique in order to get to the creative work. I strive to demonstrate that that is not *all* the arts are able to do (add for example, the discussion of history as they relate to specific compositions and the application of lenses such as gender studies, economics,…). Therefore, when I do rely on the purely technical, it can feel like defeat. In the public schools, I simply must teach to the breadth of the discipline and forge as many connections to as many subjects, ideas, and experiences as possible.

      Anyway, thanks for the feedback and the notes on the writing. I will remedy the links and double check before posting next time.
      Heather

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