“There is just too much curriculum,” she said and pointed at the folders of curriculum documents on the shelf.
“Do you mean the taught curriculum?” I asked.
“What other kind is there? Look at it all! There isn’t enough time in the school day to get through all of this stuff. And I would need two lifetimes to be able to assess it in the way I am asked to. Sometimes I get the feeling it’s all part of a plan to keep us busy all the time with stuff that…”
“…really doesn’t matter?”
I guess most teachers have had conversations like this. What are curriculum planners playing at when they write these documents that squeeze the joy out of learning and teaching? We are at once drawn in by the promise of so much systematic thought and research, and appalled by its all-encompassing scope. It’s a giant tentacled beast that will suck the living breath out of anything vital or exciting. Anything you ever learn will just be a step upward on a prescribed stairway.
Needless to say, this is not the way we think of the curriculum at MBAT.
Working up from our values
I finished the last post talking about the core values of Body, Mind and Spirit that underpin our work in the school. I said:
Standing for your values means having the firmness of purpose to defend them against external pressures. We are stubborn about this. The practices in our school arise from our shared values. They have to grow in our own hearts where we tend them with careful study, dialogue and compassion.
There are many ways to “buy in” components of a school, the whole curriculum or aspects of it. We are always mindful that whatever we take from the world must be in line with our core values.
We are “mindful that whatever we take must be in line with our values.” This means that we won’t allow any curriculum documents or syllabus materials to distort our vision and mission. Our job as educators is a serious one; we don’t act like curriculum content robots.
Fortunately, curriculum planners are not complete dunces. They know that they have to design the curriculum for everyone- that’s why there is so much of it- but they do not expect us to follow everything they say. The English National Curriculum specifically says that the curriculum is everything that happens in the school, not just what goes on in classrooms. If we confuse the curriculum with what happens in a classroom, we have made a choice to do so.
At MBAT we choose to place our Mission and Values first. We have a small school set in Nature where children learn through freedom and community. This is the foundation of our curriculum. The rest, however important, would not make sense if we did not have this crystal clear.
Let’s make this simpler:
- The curriculum is everything that happens in a school, not just lessons
- Even curriculum planners do not design their documents as programs of study
- Children do not need to be in a classroom to learn
- Children can be in a classroom and not learn.
The Hidden Curriculum
This brings me on to the vital question of the hidden curriculum. The content of a taught scheme of work may be undermined or reinforced by the way the material is presented. There is a huge difference between teaching in an hierarchical, constrained environment and teaching in a natural setting with free choice of action. What you learn from the habitat or environment is the hidden curriculum.
It is impossible to be completely aware of the hidden curriculum. It is hidden because you are not aware of it all the time: it includes our common assumptions and untested biases. We have attempted to guide the hidden curriculum in a certain direction by giving a clear message about freedom in our mission statement, our vision and our core values. We explicitly state that community, family and nature are valuable parts of the “curriculum”. We demand children make choices for themselves.
When children start here, they are immediately faced with decisions about what to do and how to do it. As they grow up through the school, they become increasingly confident in using the resources of the community to help them develop. There are:
- well-designed, age-appropriate spaces for activities or projects (with or without adult involvement)
- a reduced formal curriculum offered in classrooms and online.
- free play. Spaces and resources will be designed to enable them to do this safely and constructively
- social and emotional learning within their communities
Is there “just too much curriculum”? For us the question doesn’t make sense. Since the curriculum includes everything that goes on in the school and we accept that learning is a natural process there is always exactly the right amount of curriculum. How much time we spend in the classroom is another question entirely.
Our curriculum model
Our curriculum model is based on three interconnected circles: the formal curriculum, the informal curriculum and free play.
The formal curriculum includes all teaching in lessons by teachers. Good teachers use a range of strategies, from project work to book work, classes heavy on instruction and others full of interaction. We have no pedagogical preference for one model over another in the classroom though we favor a Constructivist approach in the community.
Free play/activity is the part of the curriculum that is not accompanied, organized or managed by adults. Children have freedom to do what they want to do. Adults do not get involved. They do not measure or observe children’s play. They do not try to improve it.
The informal curriculum lies between the classroom and free play. Children can get on with their own projects, or read quietly by themselves, for example. There are spaces on the timetable for discussion, group reading, cooking or project work, and many other activities that teachers and students devise. In studios such as the Art Room the informal and the formal curriculum can run at the same time in the same space.
MBAT will use the English National Curriculum as a guide. The ENC divides schooling into Core and Foundation subjects.
Children, parents and visitors are instantly aware that English, Mathematics and Science are given importance and priority: materials and resources, the timetable and the design of spaces make this clear. Much of the content in skills, knowledge and understanding can be approached in the informal curriculum. Our Tracking Mechanism is neutral- if children hit relevant targets, it doesn’t matter whether they learnt in a formal classroom or not. However, there are lessons in these subjects and they are given prime position on the timetable. There is respectful silence during lesson times; if not, a case can be brought to a community Meeting. We do not put attractive leisure-style activities on offer during lesson times: excursions are planned in advance, there are set times in the calendar for trips, parties and celebrations.
The school management is aware of the learning that goes on throughout the community and prepared to present this as evidence in the case of inspection or outside interest.