Lead Consultant, The Paper City Project
Geoffrey has been a teacher and leader in urban schools for 15 years. He is the Engagement Director for Opportunity Academy, Holyoke Public Schools, where he will lead a team designing an innovative new high school model for the city.
A Shift to the Dark Side
Over the course of the past few years I have witnessed a remarkable shift in educators’ priorities. It’s a shift away from instruction to the seemingly different realm of school culture (or as it had been lovingly called, in my role as Director of School Culture in a previous network: “The Dark Side.”)
Some of this attitude, sadly, is a knee-jerk reaction to the realities of the times. We live in a world where, increasingly, schools’ disciplinary policies, safety procedures and drills, and trauma-informed practices are under a microscope. This has somehow come to be referred to as the “hidden” curriculum.
They look at their school, see teachers who are professionally trained, teaching a curriculum that is rigorous, and yet somehow see student outcomes data that does not compute. A frequent reflexive response is to look for advice on how to change the culture.
During this time, educators have been inundated with every opinion imaginable regarding alternative discipline, restorative justice, and “classroom management toolkits” with approaches like trauma-informed teaching. Recently, I hear about these hot-button issues far more often than I hear about teachers and leaders auditing curriculum to see if what they are teaching in their classrooms is culturally relevant or prepares students for post-secondary success in an ever-changing 21st century world.
I will cast aside for a moment my opinion on whether the latter ought to be sacrificed in order to make room for the former (my entire premise, you will see, is that one cannot be done without the other.)
Why the call for a cultural change?
I do still understand the frustration of teachers and administrators. They look at their school, see teachers who are professionally trained, teaching a curriculum that is rigorous, and yet somehow see student outcomes data that does not compute. A frequent reflexive response is to look for advice on how to change the culture. I empathize with that, too. Because I know how the thinking goes:
Clearly the problem must be that we don’t have a culture of learning and achievement right now. We aren’t doing enough to manage our classrooms to be fully engaging learning spaces. Perhaps we are actively decreasing student learning time with policies that push too many of our students out of classrooms, or out of school. Thus, our students (and many teachers) don’t feel safe enough to learn (and teach).
This is an inevitable result of a social, political and policy landscape that is best left for a different and lengthier post. That landscape paints a bleak future in which schools must adapt to an increasingly turbulent and violent society, where structures of inequity mushroom, rather than shrivel.
Effecting change in the fabric of society, it seems, would simply be too much. It leaves our schools, as history so often demonstrates, with a very heavy burden: teach the kids to clean up the messes of their parents.
This line of thinking supposes that if we cannot fix the cultural structures which beget inequity, violence, and rifts of cultural understanding, we can always ask the schools to do so. And we ask this despite schools’ lack of funding, teacher turnover, and shifting targets of assessment and “success” all existing within an educational context of that which we say cannot be fixed. This begs the point: is all of this focus on (fill in the next school culture initiative) working towards a real solution to such a baffling problem?
Curriculum and the Cave Allegory
Historically, when we have been troubled as educators to find a solution for our students to gain access into, and be best prepared for a changing world, we have looked to the realm of curriculum to do so. This has been true since Plato’s allegory of the cave.
If society would have our students see only the shadows of what is real out there, it is up to us as educators to determine what they need to know and what tools will most assure freedom from the “bondage” of blissful ignorance that is youth, that they may ascend from the cave to see what is “true.”
Then, they may bring it back down, in order to educate the future generations. And so we march on. Curriculum, to synthesize the best of definitions I have come across, is simply “all that which we adults say is important for the students to know.” That’s it. Isn’t this incredibly similar to how we define culture?
Curriculum is Culture
Curriculum, being that which a school’s educators have deemed important for students to know is not just a sequence of assessed standards for each class, and the activities to complete in order to master these standards. It is everything.
Many years ago I was a first year teacher in Brooklyn. I thought that “curriculum” meant something much less complex and layered than I see it now. I thought curriculum meant that teachers, working independently (or maybe with other members of their department) determined what their students needed to know by the end of the school year.
Years later, I know it is infinitely more nuanced. Curriculum, being that which a school’s educators have deemed important for students to know is not just a sequence of assessed standards for each class, and the activities to complete in order to master these standards. It is everything.
Literally everything that teachers and school leaders do in a school emanates from that which we say is important for students to know. All of it — from how we deal with conflict, to how we structure our learning environments, to whether or not our curriculum is culturally relevant to the content we are assessing on a midterm — combines to create the school’s curriculum.
In this way, curriculum is culture, in that it is a reflection of what we value for our students to know–and to be able to do–not only to survive this “real world” for which we prepare them, but to change it.
Some might siphon off everything listed above, with the sole exception of the midterm, as “hidden curriculum.”
I would submit that among increasingly savvy youth, with an arguably decreasing need for ‘the core curriculum’ as the key to post-secondary readiness, these other elements are not so hidden at all. Indeed it is most apparent to students if a school does not value diversity of its staff, nor place adults in power who reflect the demographics of the community within which they teach.
Do as I say, not as I do…
It is apparent to students when a school is teaching them that their voices are inconsequential. Likewise it is crystal clear to students how effectively the adults in their community transform (or actively choose not to transform) conflict. How we value each other, how we expect them to value one another, is taught in the classroom, and beyond.
If curriculum and culture are more closely aligned than most account for — and this author argues, they are entirely inseparable — what can schools do to foster a stronger culture through deeper analysis of what is taught by the curriculum of their schools?
A student learns a whole lot of the wrong stuff, for example, every time one of the adults in their school says to them anything along the lines of, “It may not seem fair, but it’s policy,” or “I didn’t fail you, you failed yourself,” or “That may be what Mr. X does in his classroom, but you won’t get away with that here.” The values of the lesson taught in such interactions are layered with gravity.
And then when students re-enact some of these very same values (perhaps in much more adolescent ways) we punish them, or may have them sit in a circle and listen to one another–something we rarely do ourselves. Or, we ask our teachers to be more tolerant, and do more to understand the iceberg of trauma which lies beneath the surface of a student’s undesirable behavior.
We define the problem as one of a broken culture, for which we are trying out yet another solution. And we run the leg of the chair through whatever we have, even if it is a meat grinder, simply because we didn’t buy the lathe.
If curriculum and culture are more closely aligned than most account for–and this author argues, they are entirely inseparable — what can schools do to foster a stronger culture through deeper analysis of what is taught by the curriculum of their schools?
How to Foster a Stronger Culture Through Curriculum
- Consider the Positive Youth Development (PYD) Model. This framework is the most effective approaches to this blended curriculum-culture approach I have encountered. PYD holds consistency at the center of four other elements of successful school design: engaging curriculum, opportunities for student agency, caring and trusting relationships, and clear expectations for all members of the community. Examine in staff circles where you are hitting the mark on these elements with consistency, and which of these needs to be addressed or fortified. In schools that are not meeting their targets despite having strong, engaging curriculum, and caring and trusting relationships, you often find students feel a sense that their education is foisted upon them, rather than a byproduct of their interest and needs; and adults who do not believe the expectations are clear or consistent for all, especially for all of the adults.
- Do a few things well, not everything okay. This sounds obvious, but even so, many schools are initiative minefields, where teachers and staff are constantly asked to change course. The parallel process of this confusion is that student targets and learning experiences are also dangerously inconsistent. The most effective learning environments I have worked in or visited all identify (with input from all stakeholders!) a small number of instructional strategies, and culture touchstone practices. They set goals to measure the efficacy of these practices. And then they make sure that all their work serves these goals. They do not get distracted by shifting targets, or trendy new initiatives. If you are going to be a school that perfects the Socratic Method as an instructional tool, and employs conflict circles to develop healthy relationships, don’t spread yourself thin midway through the year, trying to focus on project-based learning.
- Take Culture/Curriculum walks as a team. Leadership teams: ask yourselves regularly, When we walk around the school, what is explicit and implicit about what we say is important for students to be able to know and to do? Is this true to our mission and vision? If not, what do we need to do to change it? Take culture/curriculum walks together, where you can normalize on what you see.
- Share what works in your school with other educators from other schools. After all, we are the best resources for one another. You can start by sharing your ideas and best practices that your schools employ to ensure that curriculum is culture, in the comments below.
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