When we think about what we learnt at school we usually think about what was taught in the curriculum. But the deepest lessons we learn are the ones embodied in the structure of school and the way in which we were taught, known as the hidden curriculum. These are often the most enduring lessons of school, but is what we learnt about learning from school true?
When children come out of conventional schooling to learn in a self-directed setting like EKS or at home they embark on a process known as deschooling, which depending how long they were at school and how it affected them may take weeks, months or years. Now that most of the children in the world are out of school for the foreseeable future, we all have an opportunity to deschool a little and let go of the lessons of the hidden curriculum.
#1. Learning happens in classrooms.
Education takes place at school – that’s why you go. If you didn’t how would you learn all the right things and be prepared for adulthood? And when learning happens at school, it takes place in classrooms. The bits in between (breaktime) are to take a break from learning (because it’s such hard work). Learning doesn’t happen in conversation over lunch, whilst playing football with mates or hanging out in the playground. Or does it?
Separating learning time from non-learning time not only devalues what we choose to do when we’re not in classrooms, it creates the mindset that you also shouldn’t use your free time to learn things – because what’s the point of doing school stuff outside of school? That would be a waste of your freetime, just as not paying attention in class wastes learning time. It can take years for some adults to shake off that attitude after leaving school and rediscover their natural curiosity and ability to learn new things.
If you were to think about the most meaningful learning experiences of your life, I doubt very many of them took place in a classroom. And if they did – quite likely they weren’t related to the topic being taught. Meeting an inspirational person, a moment of connection with a relative, a favourite role play game with friends, a eureka moment when lying under a tree contemplating life. When we think about it, we all know that we learn things all the time in so many different ways. Yet it can be hard to shake off the idea that to learn something new we need to take a class.
#2. Education is something you receive.
School teaches us the metaphor for learning that we are like empty vessels receiving knowledge from our superior wiser teachers who pour information into us. We talk about ‘getting an education’ as though it were a thing you can buy at a shop. Or that after 12 years of turning up, going to classes, completing homework, hey presto you have ‘an education’ as signified by the grades on your exam certificates.
But education is all the things you do to learn the skills and knowledge you need to live the life you choose. It doesn’t start in reception class and finish at university. You are educating yourself all the time. Everytime you ask a question, try something out or read something – you are learning. And learning is active – it is something you do, not something that is done to you. Even with the best teachers in the world, if you don’t want to learn something you probably won’t. The only person responsible for your education is yourself.
Peter Gray discusses how children take responsibility for their education here: https://vimeo.com/113619765
#3. You won’t learn anything unless you do as you’re told.
This isn’t how educators or the government talks about education. We like to think about education as opening people’s minds up to new possibilities, equipping for the future, inspiring a generation and so on. But the structure and daily experience of school tells another story, as discipline comes first and learning second. Why does it matter what clothes you wear to school, whether you are wearing nail varnish or how you have your hair? Why do we call teachers Miss and Sir, stand up when they enter a room and say in unison “Good morning Mr Jones”? Of course schools vary in some of these rules but they all have them. These rules perform a practical purpose – they enable a teacher to manage a large group of students. If everyone did just what they wanted the teacher wouldn’t be in control anymore.
But what about the no-doodling in class. No day dreaming. Eyes front. No going off topic. Put that book away this is science not english. Learning starts with motivation, curiosity, a desire to acquire a new skill or know something. Yet in school learning starts with what the curriculum says we have to learn today. And whilst talented, dedicated teachers work hard to answer questions and inspire their students they are often forced to move things along as the curriculum doesn’t have time for detours.
Schools are complex organisational systems carefully designed to deliver a high standard of education to a large group of children, the targets and stakes are high there isn’t time for disruption. Through this system school teaches us to know our place. Do as you are told, don’t ask questions like, “but what does it matter if I have grey or white socks?” It doesn’t matter, but it matters that you conform because that’s what the system of school is built on.
Ken Robinson discusses how school is based on systems from the Industrial Revolution here: https://youtu.be/ySvbePkjEJo
#4. All the things that can be learnt can be neatly divided up into subjects.
At school we learn from a pretty young age that the things worth learning can be lumped together into bodies of knowledge we call subjects. Humans like to categorise and group and this makes perfect sense to us and makes it easier to study. We quickly decide which subjects we like and which we are good or bad at. Our relationship to these labels can have a lasting impact. But are they even valid?
Educational theory recognises the cross over and many schools now work on multi-disciplinary projects or topics that are touched upon in multiple subject classes. But this is still missing the point. When learning flows from curiosity and enquiry it follows a path that no one designing a curriculum would ever conceive because it jumps and twists and doubles back on itself.
When my daughter was younger she wanted to learn an instrument. We bought her a recorder and she asked me to play something so she could hear what it sounded like. I managed to remember the tune to London’s Burning. “What’s that song,” she asked, I sang her the lyrics and explained it’s about a great fire that happened in London. She wanted to know more so we turned to Youtube and watched some video clips about it, one of which showed that the fire jumped from house to house because of the construction materials and design. She didn’t believe fire could jump but wanted to find out and set about building a simulation in minecraft, copying the style of building seen on Youtube and then set one alight and incredibly the fire did jump and the neighbouring house was also set alight. She then wanted to see which materials in minecraft would burn and which wouldn’t and wondered why. I never predicted we’d be making combustion simulation experiments when I bought a recorder.
When we divide the world up into subjects we make it harder to see the connections between things. Yet it is when we make these connections for ourselves that we experience deep, meaningful and long lasting learning.
More about subjects here: https://www.self-directed.org/tp/ways-of-thinking/
#5. Some subjects are more important than others.
I’ve already discussed why I don’t think it’s helpful to divide the world into subjects in the first place, but having done that school then goes a step further and tells us that some subjects are the most important and must be mastered by everyone, regardless of that person’s natural disposition. Often with a devastating effect on the young person’s self-image and self-esteem.
I’m not disputing that every culture has certain skill sets that are almost essential for successful living. In our culture I would say right now these skills include verbal communication, reading, writing, basic numeracy, the ability to maintain successful relationships and to use computers. But the exact skills each person will need will vary. For many driving a car or being a good parent will also be on that list. For others computer literacy will be less important whereas others may get through their lives almost never putting pen to paper but will primarily communicate through technology. So the degree of mastery needed for each individual will also be different. For most people practical numeracy will be sufficient but for an accountant or computer programmer a much deeper understanding of mathematics will be essential.
So it’s clear that essential knowledge for all probably doesn’t include advanced algebra or perfect cursive handwriting, but still we make all children learn these things in school as though it does. But even if we compile a list of the absolute essential skills and knowledge, that doesn’t mean all children need to learn them at the same time or that they need to be forced to learn them. If something is so essential to a successful life your child will work that out pretty quickly and be highly motivated to master it. Children have a deep inner motivation to become independent and they quickly realise that skills like reading, writing and searching the web are key to that.
Most importantly, when we take away the traditional hierarchy of maths & sciences, languages, humanities, arts and at the bottom of the pile vocational skills – we allow our children to discover what is essential for them. Without judgement or shame they can become an incredible dancer or an amazing gymnast without being a wiz at countdown.
Another view on subject hierarchies: https://www.self-directed.org/tp/stop-subject-hierarchies/
To read more about the hidden lessons of school. I highly recommend these two books:
New York City’s teacher of the year, John Taylor-Gatto used his time in the spotlight to highlight what he saw as the failings of the public school system.
During his time teaching maths, John Holt kept a journal of observations about his class and his students progress which later became this book.