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Hide and seek: teachers alone cannot plan for what students’ learn at school

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored Arnold’s idea that teachers should be moral educators – apt timing given the confessions of Lance Armstrong. The discussion around the blog focused on whose responsibility it is to plan a curriculum that might be capable of teaching morals and values through physical education – the school, the department or the individual teacher? This paper builds upon the previous blog suggesting that planning a curriculum is not enough and that multiple curricula – decided by different groups within the school – all operate in parallel to create a hybrid or ‘functional curriculum’ that privileges certain learning around such things as ability, gender, race, disability etc.  

Paper 4:

Dodds, P. (2012). Are hunters of the functional curriculum seeking quarks or snarks? In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 55-64) London: Routledge.

My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

Despite our best efforts as teachers (regardless of the level we teach at) students do not learn what we spent hours planning and conceptualising. Despite our schemes of work, course outlines, and learning outcomes our planned learning is not what leaves with the students at the end of the lesson or unit. Dodds argues that this – the explicit curriculum (i.e. the curriculum that is laid out on paper) – is just one of a number of curricula that act independently, and yet almost simultaneously, on students. Consequently, it is the combination of these curricula that create the package of learning that each individual student leaves with.

Students enter a lesson and meet their teacher who has planned for certain learning to occur. This might be the set shot in basketball or an understanding of restarts in football (be it American football, Australian Rules football, or soccer) but they learn much more. They learn that in doing games for the fifth time this year that this is the most important aspect of physical education while dance, which hasn’t been covered once (in any form) is unimportant. They learn that although the teacher wants them to learn about the set shot, he or she also wants them to behave in certain ways and that more is expected of certain students. They also learn that the register that occurs at the start of every lesson is more important that game play which often comes last and which is the first thing to go should the lesson overrun (rather than the register). Students learn that girls are girly and not sporty and that ‘not breaking a nail’ is more important than engagement. Boys need to ‘man up’ and not be a ‘big girl’s blouse’ and all of these curricula operate together and, in many cases, under the radar of the teacher and the students - although in some cases it could be argue that this is an explicit part of some teachers’ practice.

In her title and her conclusion Dodds’ asks if people are even aware of this functional curriculum and the impact that it has on student learning not just about physical education but also their place within it and within the larger society. Yet she also hopes that, like the physicist, educators can identify the functional curriculum and then begin to understand it. She uses the hunt for invisible bits of matter like Quarks (an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter) - but in the current age the Higgs Boson or Higgs Particle might be a better analogy – to highlight that it takes careful study to find the hidden or invisible and then study it. Only by understanding the functional curriculum can we, as educators, begin to change our practices and the actions of students to change the functional curriculum (and all its component parts) and what our students are learning. Indeed, it seems prudent to ask if we even acknowledge the existence of this functional curriculum? If we do, what have we done about it? If we don’t, is ignorance a defence? I wonder now how many times I ignored or even reinforced these different curricula by prioritising rugby over football, and games over dance (never taught it…not ever) or the more able over the disenchanted?

The Paper

Educators have named a whole swathe of “shadow curricula that lurk, unseen, behind or beyond the content of daily lessons”. These hidden curricula do a lot to teach students about social roles and social relationships through a series of structures that are found in schools but which mimic larger society and how it operates. Political and economic influences, and social forces all influence and shape the nature of school and in turn teach the values, norms, rules and routines of social behaviour. Students learn how to be good workers i.e. obedient, prompt, adaptable, enthusiastic and persevering, and they learn these alongside their letters, words and numbers. They learn, in other words to be “busy, happy and good” participants – or not.

However while many of these aspects are desirable, many undesirable aspects are also taught as students learn more than their teachers intended. Often younger siblings are expected to mirror the behaviour of older brothers or sisters. Teachers have different expectations based on gender, race, ability and somatotype, and these subgroups are impelled to learn differently. Some students learn to love games while other learn not to enjoy movement activities and instead find humiliation and embarrassment. However, this learning is not only school or teacher ‘driven’. Students also support this learning through their own curricula and they often afford different status to different subgroups. Socio-economic background, skills levels and other characteristics play a part in defining the expectations of both the student themselves, and their peers, around physical education. In others words students learn all sorts of things in addition to what teachers intend to teach. Dodds’ suggests that there is a multi-level curriculum at play and it is the combined effect of these curricula result in the functional curriculum that students actually experience. In this way curriculum are not sterile and lifeless artefacts that sit in department files or on noticeboards, but are living and lived cultures.

Learning begins in the explicit curriculum that the teacher publically states, and in which learning is mapped out across lessons, units and years. This is what teachers want students to learn. However the covert curriculum also exists and is unspoken and non-public. This is based on teachers’ expectations of behaviour and how students can and cannot work collaboratively. The null curriculum is what is not taught and what, therefore, cannot have an impact on students or allow them to show aptitude or inability. It is important to consider that ignorance is not a neutral in education but that it has a part to play in positioning something as important or not. Finally, the hidden curriculum, impacts on learning. This is the unexamined or unexplained patterns or routines that teach students about importance i.e. registers, tests, picking teams (with the most able frequently chosen as captains and the least able being picked last) etc. The functional curriculum comes at the intersection of these other curriculum. This is the real curriculum. For example:

When a group of students stand at a station but never actual take a turn the teacher might inquire as to the cause of their in action. After all he or she had ask the students to take as many goes as they can in the allotted time (explicit) and expects them to help one another to succeed (covert). A higher ability pupil pushes to the front, takes a turn and puts down the standing students, asking why they don’t want to get better like her (hidden). A group of boys call across that their peers are standing at the ‘sissy’ station (hidden) but the teacher doesn’t stop the putdowns nor does he or she intervene to encourage them to take part (null).

The teacher in this example could have moved to influence any of these curricula in an effort to change student behaviour but many of them would have passed unnoticed. Yet it is this functional curriculum that needs to be acknowledged (or at least the traces of its invisible influence) and it is the student’s perspective that serves as the starting point for understanding its impact. It is the learning that occurs as a consequence of this hybrid curriculum, and not the explicit curriculum devised and publicised by the teacher and the department, that has the strongest influence over learning – I wonder, have we been implicit in the stereotypes that blight our subject? If we can see the learning outcomes that come from the hidden or under the surface parts of our practice (i.e. the rules, routines and behaviour expectations) then we have the chance to see that these are the learning outcomes of our lessons rather than the intended objectives we have for our teaching. This is what our students are actually learning in PE.

What’s next??
As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).??

about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the associated discussion board (same title) on PEPRN to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?
on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be.
what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

comment avatar
About me
On Saturday 26 January at 05:41 Brendan Jones said
Hi Ash. Thanks for another thought provoking post about something that we as practitioners often see the end result of without sometimes having a clue as to how to stop it. (By stopping it, the assumption I'm making is that the hidden curriculum in PE by and large stifles engagement and participation for the kids that really could benefit from it) The "hidden curriculum" in PE can make or break engagement for some kids. One I see often is the "power kid" - usually a physically adept student successful at sport that dominates the teacher's decision making so that the majority of activities suit them, thus marginalising the less proficient. I can honestly say I have no cure all for this - each "power kid" is an individual and will respond to different strategies to reduce their influence. Use their powers for good (leadership, mentoring, coaching, for example) not evil and you're on the way to allowing them and the rest of the kids to shine. I really like how your posts are targeting things that are within our control for change - I'm not saying it's easy, but at least it's only us in our way, not someone or something else! :-)
Ashley Casey
About me
On Monday 28 January at 10:31 Ashley Casey said
"The power kid" - I wonder if, I had a little more about me at school, if I would't have been one of those. I was so comfortable in Sport lessons (I use this term deliberately as we played sport, lots of sport and I barely remember my PE lessons at school) that it didn't matter what we did - I thrived. I may have been that kid but I can see how teachers fall in with their 'demands'. I remember these kids (still do) - the ones who remind you so much of yourself. They are often the great kids, who show their love of your lessons and who - I used assume - were a gauge of how you were doing as a teacher. They talked to you, and asked about the rugby at the weekend, while the others avoid you a little. Yet, in reading this response I wonder how much influence they had and how much I bent my teaching to suit their needs? The null curriculum was created as much for them as it was for me (Casey, doesn't teach FOOTBALL) and as for the the other curriculum mentioned in this blog it does concern me now how complicit I was in their prosperity. Thanks for the comment Jonesy...always appreciated.
Vicky Goodyear
About me
On Monday 28 January at 12:01 Vicky Goodyear said
THINK: This paper was of real interest to me. One of the things I have come across recently is that despite teachers changing their practice, features of the traditional approach are clung onto by their students. This is in particular reference to the hidden curriculum and students having pre-defined expectations for the way they act in lessons and the way they are taught. ACT: For example, a group of teachers changed from having ability groupings (where the more able would be brought to the front of the class or the teacher would demonstrate) to mixed ability groupings. Yet in these mixed ability teams the more able or the ‘power kids’ assumed they had been put in these groups to lead, to demonstrate and teach the others how to do it – so they took over and responsibility wasn’t shared. Another example is that students, and mainly boys, saw the freedom and responsibility given to them through a student-centred approach as a ‘roll out the ball’ lesson. Considering this further, some of the boys in their small mixed teams adopted the roll of the competent bystander yet the boys did not confront this team member on their lack of engagement, it was just accepted (i.e. null curriculum of the roll out the ball lessons). CHANGE: I am still getting my head around these ideas, but I would say that in one’s attempt to change some of the features of their hidden curriculum it takes time for the students to respond to the changes in the rules, routines and simply ways of doing things too.

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