A school is a set of intentional and unintentional learning experiences for students.
We have come almost half way through this exercise before getting around to academics, you might say. But I am not even thinking specifically about academic learnoing here, although I am thinking very much about curricula.
Many years ago the school where I now work began to think about curriculum, and many of us read an extraordinarily little monograph by my now-friends Steve Clem and Vance Wilson called Paths to a New Curriculum (NAIS, 1991—you’ll have to look for this one at Alibris or the like). Along with offering a very useful and still, I think, very timely process for curriculum review, Steve and Vance also suggest a set of distinctions in thinking about a school’s program that I still find compelling. They lay out three kinds of learning experiences–curricula–that students experience:
The explicit, intentional curriculum. This is the breadth of what is intentionally planned and taught within the totality of the school’s programs, including not just classroom learning but the designed, guided (and in the best of all worlds, clearly mission-connected) experiences had by students in all areas of endeavor—from athletics to recess to extracurricular clubs and publications to “character education” to residential life. These are the things that schools tend to work hardest on, although the most proactive attention tends to fall on the academic side, while in many schools the other matters are largely allowed to take their own course within the broad framework of mission, values, and often custom and school culture.
The hidden curriculum. Where “custom and school culture”—sometimes involving an intentional blind eye—mostly outweigh proactive planning and control, we find the hidden curriculum; these are the lessons students learn largely from their own experiences, things that “are what they are” rather than products of anyone’s intent or planful, strategic instruction or guidance. Sometimes the hidden curriculum is literally so—a world of student traditions and attitudes unseen or ignored by adults—while sometimes it is an aggregation of reactive decisions and policies that operates in parallel to and sometimes at cross-purposes with the intentional curriculum.
The null curriculum. This is the sum of what NOT taught, but might be—academically, ethically, spiritually, behaviorally. Educators have tended to decry the null curriculum as a kind of giant escape clause that tells students, “This stuff isn’t important to us, so it needn’t be to you, either.” While this may overstate the case, it is worth considering those things that are omitted from a school’s intentional curriculum and why the omission. Of course, attempting to fill these holes can turn program planning into a giant game of whack-a-mole and poses the danger of piling on program after program, ad infinitum.
(Incidentally, in doing my homework for this section I ran across Professor Leslie Owen Wilson’s page from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point describing different types of curriculum. The prof breaks it all down even further, perhaps going beyond usefulness, but the distinctions and her commentary are instructive.)
The point, of course, is that kids learn a whole slew of lessons in school, and it’s a very good idea for schools to maximize what is intentional—and to base intent on consistent and thoroughgoing principles, like the mission—and be alert to the desirability of minimizing what is hidden and “null.”