The Informal Curriculum

Is the education of our children simply a function of what schools try to do?  How  about all the other influences that shape children’s learning?  Children get “education” from everything around them, and, in a sense, from what is not there for them.  You could call it the Informal Curriculum.  Children are full-time learners, and can learn the useless and the harmful as readily as the strengths we’d like them to gain.  Importantly, what they learn, or fail to learn, in the world outside of school, they bring to school and it affects how teachable they are.

Ask any thoughtful senior teacher about today’s pupils and you hear that overall they are more “needy”, less attentive, less disciplined and often less interested.  What’s going on?

Surely it’s time for adults to talk with each other very seriously about that question.  Here are a couple of key topics to consider.

There’s the world of “entertainment”,  and modern digital communication devices.  We know our children are inundated with images and messages from TV and videos and every other medium.  For many children, the “entertainment” world may be a greater influence than their schools and perhaps even their parents.  Three issues come up.

Is “entertainment” like junk food?  A little doesn’t hurt but a lot can cause malnutrition – in this case, malnutrition of mind and spirit.  Simply put, time spent on “entertainment” is time not spent on something nourishing.

Is “entertainment” toxic?  We’ve asked that about violence and the cheapening of sex, but we could ask also about the way many important human values are mocked.  For example, in TV comedies set in schools, study is said to be for nerds, while the real kids go for fun and games.

Is “entertainment” damaging to the human brain?  We’ve seen how films and videos have continuously escalated the speed of images, the pace of stories, the loudness of sounds.  How can a child take his hyperstimulated nervous system to school and not find school work slow and boring?  How can a child not expect her teacher to be as entertaining, at a fast clip, as last night’s video?  Schools can’t do much with kids that lack the required attention span.  Attention-deficit disorder may be partly ascribable to chemicals, but surely it is also a conditioned state of a nervous system flooded with multiple streams of  chaotic “information”.

Another topic: Children used to grow up in closely knit communities with stable values that were supported within and outside the family, but now children encounter change and contradictions everywhere.  They badly need adult help in sorting things out, but, sadly, this is also a time when adults are busier than ever.  Are children suffering a deficit in mentors and models?  If they don’t find them in everyday life, schools are hard pressed to make up the deficit.  It’s difficult to teach children who are insecure and perhaps depressed.

A third topic:  Schools everywhere report too many children arriving at school lacking a basic sense of self-discipline and of the good manners that make a community run smoothly.  In elevating the values of individualism and creativity, have we lost some degree of the self-discipline without which we edge toward anarchy?  We can’t dump this problem on the schools.

If anything is to be done about these aspects of the informal curriculum, it’ll have to be done on a community-wide basis.  It can’t be done sufficiently by parents acting alone.

It will take community-wide initiatives to counter the intrusion of the “entertainment” world on our children’s minds and hearts, and to provide the mentoring they need to achieve life-skills and emotional maturation

That old aphorism “It takes a village to raise a child” is still true.  It’s still the “village” that sets the informal curriculum.  We just have to figure out how to build “village” in the modern era.

One additional note:  There is good research to suggest that among older children (and perhaps ‘older’ starts very early these days) the influence of peer values and preoccupations and behaviors is stronger than that of parents.  And the peer group, once it gets its hands on digital communication devices, is further empowered to exclude other worlds.

Arnold Golodetz, MD