For the past few months I have been engaging in a renewed curriculum development process with the help of our piping-hot Teachers of Kairos. It’s one of the more dry yet more ambitious tasks of Kairos: to articulate a school curriculum ourselves instead of passively importing an existing curriculum, such as the National Curriculum Statements. The work has involved specifying certain expected outcomes in each “learning area” along a child’s progression through our learning journey from Grade 0 to Grade 7.
As you know we are a combination of a variety of curricular influences: Rudolf Steiner and his Waldorf School Curriculum is very influential, although we are explicitly not a Waldorf School. Lev Vygotsky is an important theorist for us, with his emphasis that learning is necessarily a social phenomenon. Our social and emotional curriculum is informed by Marshall Rosenberg, who developed an extraordinary impetus (with a clear methodology) of non-violent communication, as well as Peter Levine who has developed a powerful model of building awareness of one’s own and others’ nervous systems.
And just when this looks too much like too many old white men inspiring us at Kairos (only one of whom is still alive!), Nel Noddings’s emphasis of a student’s intrinsic need for care from his or her teachers is an important principle we follow in Kairos. Lisa Delpit is a relevant educational voice insisting on multicultural awareness from teachers, supporting Margaret Mead’s emphasis that a student’s culture is an integral aspect of the educational process: relevant to our endeavours to be conscious of the impact of cultural differences with which we are blessed in our school. And lastly, Jean Lave’s “Situated Learning Theory” is a valuable extension of Vygotsky’s ideas for us, conceiving learning as an immersion in the social processes of meaning-making in a community.
The risk of a curriculum statement is that it tends to strip the philosophical ideas from the theorists into the appearance of a rigid syllabus. This is not our intention, for we are far too aware of the shortcomings of a syllabus.
The idea that a list of concepts to be taught will automatically mean every child learns the entire list is flawed. A teacher needs to extract the intention of the curriculum developer, to conceive and plan an educational experience for his or her students, to carry it out in the inevitably frenetic social environment of a classroom, while simultaneously managing the emotional complexities and personal circumstances of the individual children, and then to assess whether or not the children have learned what she hopes they have learned, so she can devise the next educational experience accordingly. An ambitious objective indeed, especially because the same applies across diverse areas of a broad curriculum, and also because we’re hoping for deep rather than merely surface understanding.
“Many a slip betwixt cup and lip” goes the cliché, and iterative conversations between teacher and child, orally and via written correspondence, are required to identify the inevitable slips and misunderstandings, and gradually achieve progress in this manifold learning process.
One key for a school to achieve educational success is to be sufficiently structured without being mechanistic. Structured guidelines create the map of the educational landscape within which to explore, but a mechanistic mindset infects the potential for almost any educational project being effective. By a mechanistic mindset I’m thinking of rigidity of instructing teachers what is to be taught, controlled tightly by standardised tests, often along with financial incentives for teachers when their students perform well in such tests. This naturally translates to teachers “teaching to the test”, a global problem that reduces real understanding in students and also even the intention to really understand.
Thus, not only do mechanistic curriculum controls restrict a school’s teachers and students from achieving their full potential, they also distort the educational objectives — potentially to the point of dysfunction where the test itself becomes the goal instead of the aspect of knowledge the test is purporting to measure.
Early American policy documents on schools (on which the global mass schooling project is based) conceive of a child as an “educational product” (horrifying as this seems). These educational products are “manufactured by the school-factory according to the particulars demanded by a modern industrial society.” Social efficiency was the explicit priority rather than any emotional and social well-being of the children. And thus the mass schooling syllabus was born. And the factory bell became a school bell, and the assembly line became a fixed sequence of grades through which a child progresses.
In the book from 2015 which I’m currently reading, “Creative Schools”, Ken Robinson extends the comparison: in a factory, items need to conform to standards, and those who don’t are either discarded or reprocessed. Industrial processes are linear, with raw materials being processed through sequential stages to become products. Industrial production responds to market demand. Factories are organised around strict divisions of labour. The similarities with conventional schools (and in some cases our own school as well as well), are obvious.
It is ironic that our schooling system was largely created so as to protect children from the labour market, but children experience a factory-like environment in their school instead. Consider that, in a 1913 research study, 82% of child labourers expressed preference for their exhausting factory labour to the “monotony, humiliation and even sheer cruelty that they experienced in school.”
A further irony is that standardised school tests and exams — around which so much of school is organised — can only measure skills that are not particularly relevant to a child’s future adulthood. Robinson quotes a 2008 survey that declares two major educational priorities for our 21st century (based on the opinions of 1500 leaders of a variety of organisations in 80 countries): these are (1) adaptability to change and (2) creativity in generating new ideas. Standardised tests are designed to discourage rather than achieve these objectives, and interestingly, the survey also found that these qualities were found lacking in most university graduates.
Robinson calls for shifting our metaphor of School from an industrial mechanism to a humanistic organism. Similar to the principles of organic farming, Robinson recommends we emphasise four values in a schooling system: health (of everyone and in all ways), ecology (with an awareness of the interdependence of all things), fairness (with respect for the needs all), and care (of each other and ourselves).
The journey in founding Kairos has taught me the need for balance between resisting the anti-educational aspects of the mass schooling system sufficiently so that we remain in integrity with our values, while also playing the system sufficiently so that children are empowered to function in other schools adequately. Despite a variety of schooling rituals “out there” being anti-educational, many will nevertheless be relevant to our children in high school. While we insist that certain objectives in the social, emotional and artistic aspects of our curriculum are educationally vital, as is deep understanding beyond the surface tasks that a test can potentially measure, we do intend to “play the system” sufficiently so that our children succeed in both the conventional, mainstream curriculum as well as our deeper curricular objectives. Balance is the key.
Hopefully, the upcoming Kairos Curriculum documents we will share will not be confused with a rigid syllabus to bind and intimidate our children with fearful expectations, but rather serve as a valuable map with which teachers and parents can help their child traverse the adventurous odyssey that is primary school.
Yours, with sincere headmonsterliness,