the confinement of curriculum

For the past several weeks I have spent an afternoon in a fifth grade classroom with 30 students, aged 11-12 years old. My wife is artist-in-residence for this class and I, along with a few other adults, am her helper. The students are making ‘trash art’, recycling everyday items into new creations. It has been a pleasure watching the students envision,  problem-solve, and create. The class time passes in the blink of an eye. But there is one aspect of public school that I find extremely frustrating — the one hour class.

The fact that the teacher, who is outstanding, can get 30 kids to focus after arriving from a completely different class, is incredible. However, at the end of the class almost every student wants to keep on working. They are immersed in their creations. But the system will not allow it. Popular science [fiction] states that we now have the attention span of a goldfish. Our schools have not helped with this at all. Instead, they have taught generations the lesson of the bells.

“Indeed, the lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything? Years of bells will condition all but the strongest to a world that can no longer offer important work to do. Bells are the secret logic of schooltime; their logic is inexorable. Bells destroy the past and future, converting every interval into a sameness, as the abstraction of a map renders every living mountain and river the same, even though they are not. Bells inoculate each undertaking with indifference.” —John Taylor Gatto 1935-2018

The best curriculum, with the best teachers, and great resources cannot detract from the lesson of the bells. The ‘class hour’ combined with the confinement of curriculum ensures either a passive student, or one who rebels. So the teacher is forced to deal with the latter for much of the day. Learning happens in spite of the system. The ‘average’ student is ignored. Society gets passive learners.

Curriculum is the confinement of the human experience. The bells reinforce this confinement. Curriculum is an outdated broadcast model for knowledge-sharing, based on the presumption of a shortage of information, limited social connections, and finite knowledge boundaries. It fits the one-hour class perfectly.

One of the effects of curriculum design of any kind is confinement. And the confinement of human experience is an act of violence. A common example of this confinement via curriculum leading to violence is bullying …

Challenging the validity of curriculum in any form means to challenge people’s jobs whether they are political officials, school administrators, consultants, teachers, students or parents. Part of the immense control and authority that curriculum has is that it provides careers and therefore sources of income. This, in my own experience, is where I have found the most significant roadblock to change and innovation. —Brian Alger

This confinement, over time, may shape how teachers behave. Gary Stager discussed the well-known Milgram Experiments, conducted in the 1960’s to see how far people would go in administering electric shocks to learners [some of the methods are now in question]. These experiments were replicated by ABC News and Stager picked up the direct link to public education [please read the whole article]:

‘One of the subjects in the television program was a 7th grade teacher who explained that she didn’t stop shocking the learner because as a teacher she had learned when a student’s complaints were phoney. I thought to myself, “Has she electrocuted many students?”

The teacher asked the researcher, “There isn’t going to be any lawsuit from this medical facility, right?” When told that the teacher was not liable, she replied, “That’s what I needed to know.” It is however worth noting that this was after she induced the maximum shock and the learner demanded that the experiment be terminated.’

This is why we need to change the entire education system — constraining curriculum, compulsory testing, useless homework, irrelevant subjects, classrooms cut off from the world, systemic bullying, etc. More or better teachers won’t help — the system must change. But I don’t see it happening here anytime soon because it challenges too many jobs.

Our one-room school in Albert Canyon BC c. 1960’s

3 Responses to “the confinement of curriculum”

  1. Clark Quinn

    Indeed. My wife was part of the team that led the change to a block schedule – bigger blocks of time for classes – at the local school. Which doesn’t fix the curriculum; it’s still broken. The pedagogy at the school sounds good (at least, your wife’s class), but in general it’s broken too (“only two things wrong with education today, the curriculum and the pedagogy, otherwise it’s fine”). We need new both. Next ‘man on the moon’ shot should be two things: an entire new K12 curriculum online, and a viral ‘train the trainer for teachers’ program. Good stuff as always, Harold. Wishing you all the best, — Clark

  2. Harold Jarche

    Thanks, Joel. I am not on Facebook, so I cannot read the responses.


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