1988* - ESSAY - THE INSIDIOUS CURRICULUM
by David Boulton
Only the curious will learn and only the resolute overcome the obstacles to learning. The quest quotient has always excited me more than the intelligence quotient. - Eugene S. Wilson"
It's not what we are intentionally teaching children that most concerns me. Beneath the various subject, technology, classroom and teacher issues, I am concerned with what the learner is learning in relation to the entire system. In other words, if we were to look at the first 8-10 years of a child's educational experience as if he or she were moving through a corridor with windows and doors that represents the intentional curriculum, I am concerned with what the child is learning from the corridor itself.
"Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so." — Douglas Adams
Over the educational span which begins in Kindergarten and ends in the 8th grade, our educational system is converting millions of highly energized, curious, eager and alive children, into comparatively tired, disinterested, uneasy and curiosity dampened students. This appears to be true regardless of the socio-economic family context. What I am proposing is that while many complex issues play a part in this transformation, the major player is the "corridor" itself, the insidious curriculum. But, in order to understand how this transformation unfolds we have to establish some shared understanding of the human learning process that is guiding the unfoldment.
Before children enter the formal educational environment, their primary learning environment is their own bio-energetic, intrinsic fluctuations. In learning to walk, for example, a child is learning to balance his or her own instinctual impulses with the real-time-intrinsic feedback (proprioception) of their movements in the terrain they are in. Should they lean a little too forward or backward, they immediately feel their misalignment with gravity and they either compensate or fall. But, gravity and the terrain do not change or send feedback messages. The human body generates the inclination to walk and, through an inside-out sensing of the feedback originating from within itself, develops the balance necessary to walk. The outside environment is a comparative constant to the myriad of high frequency, multi-sensory, inner variations which are the real in-vironments the child learns to walk in. (I think this description of learning to walk is a metaphor through which we may better understand the central dynamics of learning throughout life.)
For the young child, learning is a process of tactile sensations, sounds, sights, smells, tastes, muscle tensions - the activities going on throughout their whole being. At some really basic level, these inner variations co-emerge and cohere into inclinations, such as desire, curiosity and intention; they can oscillate through tentativeness and uncertainty, and /or they can become dis/inclinations such as fear or shame.
Because of my blindness, I had developed a new faculty. Strictly speaking, all men have it, but almost all forget to use it. That faculty is attention. In order to live without eyes it is necessary to be very attentive, to remain hour after hour in a state of wakefulness, of receptiveness and activity. Indeed, attention is not simply a virtue of intelligence or the result of education, and something one can easily do without. It is a state of being. It is a state without which we shall never be able to perfect ourselves. In its truest sense it is the listening post of the universe. - Jacques Lusseyran, "The Blind in Society"
Affecting the amplitude, shape and content of what is happening in the child's attention, these spontaneously emerging, implicate feelings are the child's inner learning guides (no personalization intended). Happening in the now, emerging between the child's attention and what is being attended, these guides dynamically and responsively orient the child through the miracles of early learning. By becoming more and more sensitive and internally responsive to the inclinations of these guides, children develop the inner compass of their natural learning process.
Now let's revisit formal education.
How many thousands of hours do children sit in classrooms experiencing a presentation or formal activity which, by its nature, circumstantially prohibits their spontaneously emerging impulses from getting attention? Their own or the teacher's? One teacher, fifteen to thirty children? If during a class lecture, a movie or exercise, the child experiences curiosity or uncertainty about details in the flow, what happens? What can they do?
For really young children, the capacity to be uncertain or curious is in marked contrast to the capacity to articulate what it's about. Meanings can be moving by at a pace so foreign that the child can't even consciously know, let alone articulate, what it is that caused them to "need more." Some older children do stand up or raise their hands and say "Excuse me - stop - I am curious about your use of the word (x)" or "What do you mean by (y)"? But it isn't the rule. Even for those not intimidated or those able to stay in sync with the class, thousands of minor uncertainties and curiosities (voices) are ignored for every one acted upon.
How many hundreds, if not thousands, of hours do children spend with a book in their hands? Again, what can a child do when they encounter a word, term, phrase, concept, method of presentation, etc., that either evokes curiosity or uncertainty - that causes them to need more? Put the book down, break engagement with the flow, and seek help from the teacher or reference library? Skip along hoping the meaning of the word will emerge in context? I suspect - and know from my own early experience as well as watching children today - that most children just learn to ignore all but their most powerful urges. Slowly but surely their experiences mount up to deadening their inner sensitivity.
Unlike the way children learn informally on their own, or one-on-one in relationships, the entire educational system discourages them (untold thousands to millions of times) from "listening" to their own inner learning processes.
Add it all up.
Before formal education, children learn optimally by becoming more discerning and sensitive to their, inside-out, participation, in whatever it is they are doing. This is their second to second, day to day experience for years. When they get to formal education, while in the course of being taught about various 'subjects', their second-to-second, day-to-day, year after year experience tacitly teaches them: YOUR INSIDE-OUT EXPERIENCE ISN'T IMPORTANT! PAY ATTENTION! (OUT HERE)!
It hasn't anything to do with our intentions - it's a fact. The issue isn't what we are explicitly teaching or even explicitly teaching about how to learn. It's how the whole corridor, the insidious curriculum, continually discourages children from remaining sensitive to their own inside-out participation in their learning. The reasons may vary, but the fact remains that children learn to ignore their own inner "meaning needs" by the very processes intended to help them be learners.
The insidious curriculum is the corridor, the pervasive tone of the whole experience. It is the consequences of a system which has so far evolved with an orientation towards subject-matter and "what works" in presenting it.
The arts, literature and sciences: Fling garlands of flowers over the chains which weigh them down. They stifle in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty, for which they seem to have been born; cause them to love their own slavery, and so make of them what is called a civilized people.” - Rousseau
* 1988- this document is largely as written in 1988 but has had subsequent edits.
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