Thursday, October 28, 2010

The "hidden curriculum": What my kids learn in the classroom beyond the academic

On Parents’ Night last month, Holly’s teacher brought up a subtle point that I had never heard a teacher address before when he briefly touched on the subject of how public school is different from home-schooling. Beyond the obvious facts that public school follows a more prescribed curriculum than homeschooling usually does and proceeds at a more standardized pace, he used the term “hidden curriculum” to describe the skills kids develop when they are compelled to learn in a context of 19 other kids.

According to my notes, the “hidden curriculum” he referred to includes the following skills:

* Learning to question peers

* Developing respect for other people’s learning styles

* Thinking before speaking

* Learning to compromise

In a way, none of this is surprising. Those of us who enthusiastically support public education (and I concede that in a town like Carlisle that’s easy to do; we spend a lot of money on our schools and the results are magnificent in terms of teachers, resources and curriculum) are already convinced of the value of learning in a non-selective group of twenty or more kids. But the way Holly’s teacher laid it out was particularly eye-opening to me.

For example, “developing respect for other people’s learning styles.” In the simplest sense, this may mean realizing some kids learn better when they read instructions to themselves and some when they hear instructions read aloud. But Holly is already becoming more sensitive to the nuances of how other children learn – and what the ramifications of a variety of learning styles can be. She has had a classmate for several years who can be very high-energy and not infrequently ends up in the principal’s office as a result. In past years, she would just shrug when telling me stories about this classmate, as if his behavior was a pure mystery to her, but a few weeks ago she said to me, “I think it’s just that he’s so smart, and he gets bored waiting for everyone else to understand what he’s already figured out, so he gets kind of wild while he’s waiting.” Not a bad assessment for an eight-year-old.

"Thinking before speaking"? That may be a challenge for young children, but it's unavoidable in a setting in which the odds are that 19 times out of 20, when you have something to say, it's someone else's turn to talk.

“Learning to compromise” is another one that seems to happen all the time in the public school setting: when they work in small groups on a project or a challenge; when the class votes on a reward such as extra recess versus extra reading time; on the playground. Just yesterday, Holly told me each child in her class was asked to write down his or her top four choices for a role in the Thanksgiving play. Gracefully accepting the teacher’s decision will require plenty of compromise on the kids’ parts. (For the record, Holly told me her choices for roles were child, turkey, Native American and grandfather, in that order. I guess I’d better hold off on costume-making for now.)

Both Tim and Holly’s teachers throughout the years have done a great job at reinforcing all the skills Holly’s teacher outlined as the “hidden curriculum.” Just as with academics, these are skills that will last them all the way through school and into whatever follows: professional environments, teams, even family life. I’m still working on those skills myself. But seeing them laid out so clearly gave me a new appreciation for their importance.

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