Hidden messages are being delivered by our educational system to our students each and every day. The basic structure of our schools provides students with powerful lessons that don’t appear in the curriculum. These hidden lessons are unconsciously reinforced by the very nature of the system. Exactly what are they?
They are leaning that discovering and creating knowledge is beyond the ability of students and is really none of their business. We have shut students out of virtually every real decision that has an effect on their schools and their learning.
They are learning that the voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent judgment. The hierarchical nature of school puts knowledge in the teacher’s domain.
They are learning that life’s answers lie outside themselves, in others. This lesson results, not only in students who believe others have their answers; but also that others are responsible for their problems. Students who have been taught this lesson take little accountability.
They are learning that feelings are irrelevant in education. This is about the cognitive domain. There is no time to explore that “other” stuff.
They are learning there is always a single unambiguous right answer to a question. If it can’t be measured, it’s not taught.
They are learning that a subject is something you take and when you have taken it you have had it, and when you have had it you need not take it again. We have structured their environment so that their curiosity is drained as they progress from course to course. As a parent how many times have I heard , “I don’t need to know that.”
They are learning that recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement and the collection of unrelated facts is the goal of education. We continue to segregate subjects and state and national exams continue to emphasize multiple-choice, fill in the blank and other easy to score question formats.
They are learning that risk taking is dangerous. Every time we play it safe as educators, we re-enforce this lesson.
They are learning that it’s easier to “play school” than to engage one’s curiosity and thirst to learn. We pretend that this all has relevance to their lives and they pretend to care.
They are learning that one’s own ideas and the ideas of his classmates are inconsequential. Once again, right answers exist in others. Their job is to listen attentively and remember those answers.
They are learning that we should all learn at the same pace and if we don’t keep up, there must be something wrong with us. This is built in to the way we group and test our children.
They are learning that individual achievement is more important than group cooperation. We provide no incentive to cooperate and in many cases discourage it.
They are learning that teaching is talking, learning is listening, and knowledge is in textbooks. I don’t think I need to explain this one.
Students are learning that passive acceptance of the status quo is more desirable than active criticism. We model this every day that we participate in a school model that we feel is not fulfilling the needs of our children.
These are our children. No matter what our rhetoric, no matter how lofty our ideals, the educational system and structure communicates its own powerful messages.
Our challenge is not only to tinker with the curriculum or the tools; but to redesign the system so that it empowers students to think for themselves, to find answers (and questions) wherever they lie, and to nourish the flame of curiosity so it burns throughout their lives.
To be fair, many, many educators have set out to change these “hidden messages” in the privacy of their classrooms, in some cases entire schools have done so; but the structure of school as we know it relentlessly delivers conflicting messages that often drown out our words.
We can do better.