The Moral Path of Curriculum:
Fulfillment Or Judgment?
by Don Berg, Founder
I take the literal core meaning of curriculum to be the systematic organization of educational experiences.
But, as with the literal core meaning of many concepts we use, there are divergent ways to metaphorically flesh out this skeletal foundation to properly understand how it actually exists in the world and expresses different values.
While the systematic organization of educational experiences is the literal core of curriculum from there you have to discern what moral direction the curriculum intends to follow.
Every curriculum ultimately travels along one of two fundamental moral paths that go in opposite directions in order to organize educational experiences.
I am assuming that you are reading about the idea of curricula so that you can create them and use them in your own teaching practice.
Therefore when I refer to “you” I am addressing a curriculum creator in the process of creating a curriculum.
If you choose to serve the purpose of judgment then you will set forth the “objective” criteria of the experiences that are expected to occur and hold teachers accountable for the delivery for those “units” to their students.
You will have set the teacher to the task of reigning in the negative forces that threaten to keep children ignorant (although teachers can presumably take comfort that if children fail they must have deserved that fate anyway.)
If you choose to serve the purpose of fulfillment then you will set forth the proper kinds of authority and control that teachers and students should expect of each other, what they will exchange and account for with each other to meet their own and other people’s needs (knowledge, skills, information, money, goods, services, attention, energy, etc.), and what states of mind they can expect to achieve by relating to each other in these ways.
You will have asked the teacher to facilitate the learning process as they mutually embark on an exploratory journey with the student who will map the routes of access to optimal states of mind that they discover.
The two keys to understanding the moral divergence of curriculum are
- knowing what counts as being “educational” and
- what counts as “systematic organization” of those experiences presumed to be “educational.”
These two issues lead us to explore how we conceive of the world and to the systems of metaphors that we use to understand our influence in the kind of world we think we occupy.
Metaphoric Extensions of Curriculum
Metaphors take the meaning of one idea as a means to organize our thoughts about other ideas that are less familiar.
If I say that an audience gave thunderous applause then it is understood to have been very loud and had qualities similar to the sound that accompanies lightning.
Making metaphoric connections enables us to borrow some of the familiar features of common experiences and apply them to the concept that is being explained.
I can say, “he was out of his mind” and in a few words you know that I am saying that his behavior was unusual and I question whether or not he should be held responsible for the consequences of his actions.
Here are a couple of sources that explain the metaphors that influence how we understand “curriculum.”
The first shows the Latin root meanings and the second is from a book that explored how the metaphors we use to talk about education shapes our educational practices.
Curriculum comes from the Latin meaning the action of running, a course of action, a race or a chariot
Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc.
(accessed: August 20, 2007).
Teaching In Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education
The curriculum is often perceived as a race or journey over a prescribed course. Educators use many orientational metaphors referring to that course, such as going over, covering, and going back. Some students fall behind. Getting off the track often means the class will have to really move to catch up.
Another common way of speaking about curriculum arises from the conduit metaphor. Curriculum content (information) is perceived as objects to be broken down into simpler parts, given, tossed around, thrown in, or touched on. These objects must be gotten out to the kids who may catch them, miss them, or pick them apart.
Curriculum topics can also be placed in a vertical orientation. Some information is fundamental (lower as in a foundation) while other ideas are above or over their heads. Teachers get down to basics and work up to more advanced topics. This metaphor includes top students and lower-ability groups. Because many people share the primary metaphor the more is up and less is down, top grades and low scores are consistent with the vertical curriculum.” [Italics in original to designate metaphors.]
by Judith Lloyd Yero (p.72 MindFlight Publishing, 2002)
The metaphors for curriculum are varied and many can be usefully applied by people who have either of the moral viewpoints I mentioned.
What is important is to see is how the metaphors are fitted together into mutually reinforcing meaning structures that support one moral viewpoint to the exclusion of the other.
Morality is fundamentally about well-being, therefore both systems of morality are intended to achieve well-being.
They vary according to their separate ways of understanding the world and how we can influence it to achieve and maintain collective wellness.
What kinds of experiences are ‘educational’?
In normal conversation we would only consider two possible categories of experience, the “subjective” that consists of our direct internal sensations, thoughts and ideas and the “objective” that consists of our shared understandings of things that we can verify are true through social processes such as science, courts of law, and general consensus.
These categories were once thought to be an inclusive description of how we experience the world, but recent findings in a variety of sciences has shown that the world is more complex than we thought.
The idea of a unified “objective” world that we happen to directly experience as a diversity of individual “subjects” has been shown to be inadequate.
A more convincing picture of how we exist in the world is as an emergent phenomenon, a part embedded within a whole that are mutually influencing each other.
This is basically an ecological view.
The subjective aspects of experiences are often dismissed as unreliable indicators of educational quality because of the potential for being mislead.
The behavior of criminal drug addicts is the extreme prototype of the problem with subjective evaluation.
Addiction to hard drugs causes the judgment of addicts to be severely distorted and their subjective desire for drugs outweighs all objective concerns for the consequences of criminal behavior.
In subtler ways we all have times when our subjective sense of experiences may mislead us because our minds generate expectations, which are illusions (though often useful illusions) about the world based on our extraordinary powers for pattern recognition.
There is a widespread assumption that some things are inherently "educational." This assumption affects the moral path of educational practice because if some objective quality of an experience makes it educational then it is obviously the responsibility of educators to make sure that children receive those kinds of experiences.
If that is true then it also makes sense to hold teachers accountable for delivering those kinds of experiences.
Of course, once you have a whole system of accounting then you also have the basis for a variety of judgments that can be made about the people who are participating at every level.
If you assume there are objective features of experiences that make them educational then you will automatically look for objective concrete expressions of curricula; books, activities to do, materials to use, and information to transfer from teacher to student and test for later.
If an appropriate "educational" authority declares something educational then it must be so and teachers should ignore other things based on those "expert" opinions.
This view makes perfect sense for those who live along the moral path of judgment.
The idea that there must be some objective features of an experience that makes it "educational" is a position that has been taken for granted for hundreds of years.
It seems to be based largely on a suite of assertions from Western philosophy which have recently been discovered to be mistaken according to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Philosophy in the Flesh (Basic Books, 1999).
But, why are the activities that schools organize for children in classrooms considered "educational" as distinct from the same or similar activities done outside the classroom?
For that matter why are there whole categories of T.V. programming, toys and games that are labeled "educational" and how are they distinct from their non-educational brethren?
As far as I can tell there is nothing significant to distinguish these things that share the label "educational" from those comparable things that lack it.
There are minor surface features to distinguish some of them, but nothing fundamentally, objectively different.
I am using the term "emergent" to formulate a middle ground between the subjective and objective possibilities from the ideas developed in a number of books including, Emergence by Steven Johnson, Order Out of Chaos by Ilya Prigogine, Hidden Order by John H. Holland, Complexification by John L. Casti, The Biology of Business edited by John Henry Clippinger, and Harnessing Complexity by Robert Axelrod and Michael D. Cohen.
What I have found in my examination of what makes any experience truly educational is that the state of mind of the leaner, their attitude towards the experience, is what makes it educational or not.
When a person approaches or recalls an experience by being fully engaged with it, then any experience can be educational, regardless of either it's subjective or objective features.
What distinguishes the experiences I call "educational" from those that are not is the degree of engagement or investment of attention of the learner.
Literally any experience can be or become educational.
And at the same time, literally any experience can be non-educational.
The question is whether or not the person having the experience is in a state of mind that allows them to connect the present experience in meaningful ways to other experiences they have had.
John Dewey was talking about how education emerges out of our relationship to our experiences in 1938 when he said, "We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything." (from the book Experience and Education)
If educational value is an emergent quality of any experience then we have to look at how we influence each other's experiences.
We must look at how we manage our own and other people's behaviors (power/ politics); what we are expected to exchange to meet our needs and express our values and how those transactions occur (exchange/ economics); and what qualities of mind result from those ways of being together (consciousness/ states of mind).
In the work of Sharif Abdullah and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne with Sarvodaya, the Sri Lankan NGO, these three elements are what make up society itself.
What we experience at our normal everyday personal level of consciousness and behavior is, in this way of thinking, intimately related to what emerges as the collective expression of our society.
What kind of "Systems" are Educational?
Based on the kind of world we think that we live in we have to make decisions about how best to ensure our well-being.
We have, as a species, learned that we can make the biggest difference in the world by creating systems to achieve our ends.
The systems we create reflect our judgments about the world in which we live.
Educational systems for judgment are designed to make sure students get what they deserve so they will be able to deal with the harsh realities of the "real" world beyond school.
Educational systems for fulfillment are designed to provide students with a fulfilling learning opportunity that will prepare them for more learning and fulfillment.
Systems for Judgment
The judgment function of schools is a by-product of the industrial world view that designed the school system over a hundred years ago.
What distinguishes industrial classrooms are the combined application of certain metaphors and assumptions.
Society is a vast machine and education is how we manufacture appropriate parts in order to maintain a smoothly functioning mechanism.
Ignorance is the primary factor that interferes with smooth function.
Ignorance is, therefore, a material defect, a disease, or an enemy.
The scientific industrial world view (which prevailed during the time when our existing school system was conceived) was epitomized by the idea that the universe can be understood as an immense clockwork made by God.
Society was the ultimate clockwork within the grasp of man's influence.
The universal key to unlocking the secrets of our social mechanism was science.
The industrial revolution was an outgrowth of the scientific revolutions occurring in the same era.
The emerging scientific/ industrial point-of-view was built on the ability to measure and control the material world.
Competent industrial engineers make sure that the nature of the parts of the machine will not interfere with the smooth functioning of the machine and it's intended purpose.
For instance, if the machine will produce prodigious amounts of heat, then building it out of wax would indicate an incompetent designer.
In education this means that the design has to be impervious to the random opinions, thoughts and emotions of the students, teachers, parents, politicians and administrators involved in schools.
The designers of the industrial education system were not only competent, they were ingenious.
As with any product of the scientific/ industrial perspective the education machine has been designed to have component parts that can be mass produced and manufactured using a variation on the theme of the assembly line concept.
Industrial analysis of the academic traditions inherited by the industrial school designers identified knowledge, skills, and information as critically important components and also the only objective measurable evidence of education.
On the other hand, free will was an inherent property of the raw material that must be modified, or at least managed, in order for the production process to succeed.
The feelings and thoughts of the components were merely by-products of the process, like the heat of an engine, that must be logically anticipated in the design process and, if absolutely necessary, managed, but otherwise regarded as totally irrelevant to the primary purpose of the machine itself.
Schools are factories, hospitals, or battlefields
Objectively, then, the challenge of industrial education is the effective and efficient transfer of knowledge, skills, and information in spite of the tendency of the raw stock and most of the components of the machine to behave unpredictably based on factors (i.e. free will) that are outside the manufacturing process.
Education is considered an unqualified good in the interests of both the individual and the society, therefore ignorance and anything that prevents education must be removed or neutralized.
There are three main metaphors that seem to have guided the development of the classroom as we know it today: ignorance as a material defect, a disease, and/or an enemy.
These metaphors, informed by the assumption of knowledge, skills, and information as supreme goods that must be transferred, provided the framework for an ingenious combination of practices that have become institutionalized in our elementary schools (the primary production facility.)
A Hierarchy-of-Fathers-Who-Know-Best System
Since the basis of authority in our direct experiences of family life have traditionally been with fathers, then it is not surprising that we have inherited authoritarian parenting as a model for how to relate to, and relate as, an authority.
Our school system also inherits the classic industrial-age hierarchical structure of power and authority.
Each level of the organization wields the manipulative powers of reward and punishment over those below them.
Each level of the hierarchy is ideally supposed to be accountable to an "objective" system of performance standards, like standardized tests, that provide evidence or proof of what rewards and punishments are deserved.
This way of organizing power also happens to provide a very robust method of subtly reinforcing the entrenched interests of those who "deserve" the privilege of making judgments about who should inherit the privileges of our society.
A curriculum in this way of thinking about schools is first about accountability, having objective units that can be delivered from teacher to student and then validated on a test.
The term "curriculum" is thought to indicate "objective" things, like materials, activities, or places, that are inherently educational and are expected to produce measurable results in student behaviors, particularly on tests.
The Logic Of Negative Definitions
The moral path of a judgmental curricula is based on assuming that a teacher's duty is to build moral strength in students so they will be able to withstand the trials and tribulations of a harsh and dangerous world (where those who prove their strength obviously deserve to survive and prosper, those who are weak deserve whatever fate they get.)
This moral path is concerned with controlling negative qualities in people and stopping evil forces in the world.
The educational value of the curricula is assumed to be a result of how well the teacher is able to deliver objectively "educational" units to students and assess (judge) what they subsequently deserve.
The moral vision of a curriculum of judgment is focused on preventing the detrimental effects of negative forces.
This moral vision is more commonly referred to as 'conservative' because the concern is with conserving what already exists from the detrimental effects of evil forces in the world.
All the industrial metaphors for ignorance share an emphasis on being negative; stopping movement of negative forces, eliminating threats, protection via isolation, dominating others, avoiding risk, and self-fulfilling assumptions of apathy, disinterest, and resistance.
The industrial assumptions, metaphors, and practices are not wrong, just woefully inadequate for developmentally appropriate nurturance of the capabilities of children from 6 to 12 years old for passionate life-long learning. (They might be quite adequate for adult learners, for instance.)
Systems for Fulfillment
The fulfillment function of education is a by-product of the ecological point of view that has been illuminating the shadow side of scientific-industrialism.
This new view is based on the premise that we are complex living beings embedded in and consisting of other living things.
The industrial distinction between "objective" and "subjective" information has been brought into question and there is now an emerging sense that what was once considered "objective" is not necessarily so.
There are some things that are objectively and absolutely true, but they are the very simplest things that are confirmed by our common everyday experiences, not the complex abstract ideas that comprise the advanced levels of mathematics, science, religion, education, and just about every complex field of human endeavor.
Complex Living Systems
From the fulfillment perspective schools are cooperative communities that nurture and cultivate people so they will have fulfilling lives.
Ignorance is simply a starting point or a seed, but what is truly important is the potential capabilities of the young people for being of service in their community and learning to improve the world by bringing their unique contributions to joy, truth, beauty, goodness, and unity.
The moral vision of fulfillment is accentuating positive forces and reinforcing possibilities for improvement.
This moral vision is more commonly referred to as 'progressive' because it is about progressing towards what can and should be from what currently is.
A curriculum for fulfillment is first about a healthy way of living, having nurturing relationships between all the different components of the system that will ensure on-going growth and positive development.
The truth of the matter is that both education and the social systems that we create to support it are complex.
All the metaphors are accurate descriptions of what is really happening some times in some places.
What is most important in understanding education is what values you want to express then designing your curriculum and implementing it according to your values.
It would also be helpful if you could use metaphors that are consistent with your values rather than subtly contradicting them.
For instance, it is unfortunate that educators who hold progressive values will inadvertently undermine their own values by talking about issues of standardized testing as if that conservative practice had actual relevance and value to the learning and teaching processes when they don't.
Standardized testing that does not give the students and teachers timely feedback are worthless for learning and only serve as tools of judgment for distant authorities.
There may be valuable reasons to support those distant authorities to make judgments, but it is detrimental to the expression of progressive values to pretend that standardized testing serves the needs of teachers and students.
The important components of a fulfilling educational system are the people, the quality of their relationships, and the states of mind that they experience.
In order to assess these factors we have to look at the ways that we govern our own and other people's behavior, what and how we exchange with each other to get our needs and wants met, and what qualities of consciousness result from having our relationships structured by those processes and patterns of behavior.
The "objective" content (knowledge, skills, information, materials, activities and places) is only useful as a clue to what really matters; the qualities of the relationships and the minds that are relating to each other.
Testing is of limited value except to the degree that teachers and students are able to make immediate use of the results to gauge specific learning in the particular context shared by student and teacher.
Testing that is generic and does not provide immediately useful results is a waste for teaching and learning (although it is admittedly useful for systematic judgment.)
School is a garden, goat ranch, stock market, travel agency, library, AND arcade/ sporting arena
In my teaching practice I thought about our daily activities as investments, journeys, stories, and games depending on what was going on.
What I did was to create certain kinds of spaces in which we, my students and I, imaginatively engaged with the world around us; a stock market of attention, a travel agency, a library, or an arcade or sporting arena.
Of course, I was also herding kids (literally baby goats but metaphorically children) and cultivating their enthusiasm, passion and joy (a garden of virtues).
I believe that the most important professional skill I brought to my teaching practice was the development of deeply trusting relationships with my students.
We were in daily communion with each other, with the world we were exploring and with everyone we met.
The metaphor that is most important for me in explaining my teaching practice is cognitive cartography.
Both my students and I were striving to create maps of our experiences as we sought to find access to optimal states of mind so that we would periodically have those kinds of days when we were fully and passionately engaged with whatever challenges we met.
We were not always happy nor did we always get along, but we always knew that we could resolve or work around our difficulties, both individually and collectively.
The Logic of Positive Definitions
The moral path of a fulfilling curricula is based on assuming that a teacher's duty is to nurture student's talents and inclinations as they develop into morally caring and responsible people.
This moral path is concerned with instilling, promoting and reinforcing positive qualities in people as they work toward understanding the complexity of the world.
The educational value of the curricula is assumed to be a result of how behavior emerges from the interactions between teachers and students as they regulate their own and each others behavior, what and how they exchange with each other to meet their mutual needs and the states of mind, or consciousness, that result from those ways of being with each other in the world.
The metaphors used to support the fulfillment purpose for schools share an emphasis on being positive; enhancing positive forces, trusting people, cooperating with others, promoting community interactions, protection via the strength of the whole web of living communities, and self-fulfilling assumptions of interest, participation, and empowerment.
My teaching practice and the teaching of great teachers everywhere are (even if unconsciously) about growth and development.
There may be great teachers who hold and express conservative values but I believe that their success is based on the positive forces they inadvertently unleash from their students, not the protection of the status quo that they consciously value.
My Problem With Judgmental Curricula
Judgment implies that there are things that people deserve and other things that they don't deserve.
The problem I have with deserving is that it requires divine judgment.
We can never know all the factors that caused anything to happen, therefore we can never attain the omniscience necessary to properly judge who deserves what.
We all have what we have and we do not deserve it.
No one has ever deserved anything not privilege, not squalor, not pain, not ecstasy.
I Choose Fulfillment: A 3R's Teaching Practice
I am a progressive educator, I teach the way of fulfilling engagement with Life in the everyday mystery of living.
The metaphor I prefer most often for learning and teaching is cognitive cartography.
Ignorance is a starting point we all share, no matter how much we think we know, or how much anyone else thinks we know.
The eternal human challenge is to explore the vastness of time and space with a mindful practice of mapping our access to optimal states of mind within a community of life that provides us with our existence.
I am always learning, teaching and providing the context for other teachers and learners (which is everyone else.)
I practice the 3R's that really matter; respect, responsibility and resourcefulness.
And I have complete faith in the world to call forth from me and my students exactly what is most needed for the fulfillment of Life, so long as I am diligent in my practice of those 3R's.
School Reform: Trans-Partisan School Reform: End the Neglect of Psychological Needs in Schools
School reform is too important to entrust to political parties, so let's organize a trans-partisan plan for creating great schools.