Have you ever thought what you were being asked to learn was stupid, and when you complained, you were simply told, it was a required part of the curriculum? So who makes these "curriculums" anyway? And why do we have to learn this stuff? For that matter, why can't what we learn be made more interesting? Does it have to be so boring at times? This week, we explore What Dictates Our Curriculums? as our weekly ongoing series on education and learning continues.
"Conformity" as the "Curriculum"
Over the past six weeks, we've talked at length about the idea that the way our current educational systems are designed more encourages children to parrot than learn. Last week, I went on a tirade saying that the way we grade children is how this gets reinforced, by encouraging children, and teachers, to be good little, academically correct, statistically insignificant parrots, rather than being statistically significant trouble makers, like Einstein, Gandhi, Galileo or Lincoln.
This week, I plan on being less intense. And more gentle. I also promise to indulge in no tirades this week. How? By coming more from a Layer 2 perspective; meaning, by presenting a new Emergence diagram. I call this diagram, the "Bell Shaped Curve of Conformity." So what exactly does this drawing represent?
To begin with, this drawing, like all emergence diagrams, is a "visual fractal." By this, I mean, it uses geometric shapes, and color gradients, to visually represent a multi-scalar pattern of human experience, wherein sensitive dependence on initial conditions is often the case. Which pattern? The pattern which roughly describes the degree to which we do, and do not, conform to the educational norms of our society. Which just so happens to be roughly analogous to the degree to which we hide who we really are. What I'm saying is, this diagram reveals the pattern beneath much of our unhappiness, by revealing a connection between conformity and our need to disguise both our human uniqueness and our human frailty.
How We Treat Nonconformists
What does all this have to do with how we design our curriculums? Let's start with how we usually treat nonconformists.
How do we usually treat nonconformists? Obviously, not too well, that's for sure. So whether this nonconformist is the teacher who dares to bend the curriculum, or the student who dares question the teacher who doesn't; either way, we usually see this person as anything from a difficult person who is hard to get along with to a purposely disruptive trouble maker who is, in some regard, a defective human being. In other words, most of us see teachers and students who are different as "bad" teachers and "poor" students.
And the person whom we generally see as being a "good" teacher and student? What is he or she like?
The person we generally see as a "good" teacher or student is one who can, in a clear, concise, and socially admirable way, parrot the curriculum and at the same time, get people to both enjoy and appreciate what has been just been parroted. No "aha's" here, folks. No sorry's either. Just good old fashioned, logically sound, "standardization" repackaged with fast food tastiness. (Oops. Am I breaking my promise to stay in Layer 2 already? Sorry.)
So OK. I've complained about parroting many times before. Good parrot; good teacher or student. Bad parrot; bad teacher or student. The thing to notice here though is the degree to which conformity plays a role in how we judge folks as being "good" or "bad." What I'm saying is, it appears that conformity, to a great extent, is a major factor in how we judge the good and bad in our teachers and students. As well as in our curriculums.
Some would now challenge me and ask, "So are you saying we shouldn't have standards? Some might even add, "And what would education be like without standards?" The truth? These folks are right to question me. In fact, I have to admit, I have many standards to which I feel inspired to live up to, things like blamelessness, and self honesty, and making connecting more important than information, to name a few.
The difference, though, is that these are MY standards and not merely standards which society has imposed on me. And yes, I do feel better when I choose to fit in with society's standards. In other words, I feel better when I choose not to make a big stink about how things really are. However, at the same time, I also feel pretty bad whenever I am in a situation wherein I cannot choose to be myself despite my being different.
Most kids feel the same way. Certainly, at home, they do. And they especially feel this way in school, where they and their peers are constantly having to navigate between these two things; between fitting in and being themselves.
In some ways, then, kids, and adults, both feel the pressure to conform. "Yes, that's right Susie, don't waste time questioning the experts. And please do stop correcting your teachers. After all, they have all that alphabet soup after their names, and you aren't even an adult yet." (Oops. Did I just venture out of Layer 2 again? Sorry.) At the same time, most kids feel pretty bad when they cannot choose to be themselves. Can't dress differently. Can't speak differently. Can't think differently. In fact, the most common complaint I've heard kids tell adults is that no one listens to them. Duh! Shouldn't this apply to how we teach them to be themselves?
Teaching Kids to Be Themselves
OK. Sarcasm aside. Yes, I admit. We do need to teach kids social limits and standardized goals. But we also need to encourage them to find their genius and be creative. So what's the answer? How can we do both?
I think the answer is to teach kids how to consciously choose how to be themselves, even when this means conforming. By this, I mean, I think we should amend our curriculums so that we teach kids how to consciously choose when to challenge and when to conform, with the emphasis on kids learning to be themselves, no matter which choice they make.
Isn't what I'm saying an oxymoron though? How can a kid simultaneously choose to conform and to be themselves? How? Simple. By choosing when and how to wear a mask. And lest you hear what I've just said as pejorative, let me say this. While most people interpret the phrase, "wear a mask," as a negative act, I see it as potentially holding the key to improving our curriculums. How? By seeing it more like choosing which mask I'll wear on Halloween than choosing to be a phony who hides behind a mask in order to get good grades.
For example, say we are teaching kids about prejudice. In 1968, teacher Jane Elliot bravely exposed herself as being different when she taught her third graders about prejudice, by having them personally experience being judged based on their eye colors. Her remarkable story is documented in the book, "A Class Divided." As well as what happened sixteen years later, when these kids met for a reunion. One of the students remarked, "All of us have a special feeling out of this experience, and sometimes, we can share it with other people."
"Sometimes we can share it ..." Isn't this sad. This has to be one of the best things I've ever heard of being taught in a school. Yet because it doesn't fit in with what everyone approves of, it mostly gets forgotten.
Now consider this for a moment. Can you imagine being a third grade teacher in today's world and trying to get this lesson put into your curriculum?
Where is all this leading, you ask? I'll tell you. It appears we design our curriculums largely based on fitting into the heart of the bell shaped curve, at least as far as conformity. Translation. We train our little boys and girls to conform to our standards, all the while telling them, and ourselves, that we are preparing them for life. Yet preparing children for life requires we teach them how to make their own mistakes. And be themselves while they do this.
It also requires that we, as teachers, make this exploratory process safe for them. In other words, kids need to learn by reinventing the wheel rather than by imitating other wheel makers. Even when it comes to fitting in. Otherwise, we promote and create an entire society whose education more resembles an "Emperor's New Clothes" curriculum than anything Newton or Da Vinci would have taught. At the same time, we need to protect them from the conformists' barbs and arrows.
Can we do this? I believe, we can. But only if we can learn to see the good in masks.
So much for me trying to stay in Layer 2.
Somehow, I find myself having written seven weeks of columns on education and learning. I never set out to do this. So what happened?
What happened was, I pictured my friends, Ed and Netta, and their son, Hawken, happily exploring his little world. Then I imagined him in kindergarten having this wonder killed. I pictured my friends, Jen and John, and their newborn son S still wearing his newly born face. Then I imagined him, still days old, already feeling the pressure to be "good," just like his big brother, Jack.
I pictured my friends, Colleen and David, with their daughter Grace saying, "I'm sad mommy." Then I imagined her being ridiculed in school for being this open. And I pictured the faces in my third grade class picture, a room full of kids grinning with childish innocence. Then I remembered how our third grade teacher ridiculed the whole rest of the class for not being as smart as I was.
We all felt the sting. Me included. You see, I was being smart to fit in.
Now I'm being smart to be me.
Until next week then. I hope you're all well,