Confronting Inequity / Reimagining the Null Curriculum - ASCD
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November 1, 2017

Confronting Inequity / Reimagining the Null Curriculum

To support true learning, schools must teach difficult issues like Charlottesville.


The curriculum can be defined as what students have the opportunity to learn. Of course, while students are exposed to learning opportunities inside the classroom, learning also occurs in other spaces: in students' homes and communities, on their bus rides and walks to and from school, on the playground, and in the corridors of their schools. But teachers are mostly taught to consider the "formal," explicit curriculum of the classroom. 1 At the same time, schools increasingly tend to be places where many students do not want to be—and yet, rather than changing, schools expect students to change. In so many ways, we have constructed schools as places that (1) attempt to strip students of their identity, culture, and cultural practices (their language, values, customs, dress, preferences for reading and music); (2) build competition (masked through the language of achievement) as students work to out-test their peers, and (3) do not attempt to help students heal and work through difficult situations that result in pain, anxiety, frustration, and confusion.

Elliot Eisner (1994) defined three essential forms of the curriculum. 2 The explicit curriculum concerns learning opportunities that are overtly taught and stated or printed in documents typically drawn from standards, policies, and related guidelines.

The implicit curriculum may be intended or unintended but is not stated or written down and can also be considered a hidden curriculum. (The messages students receive about gender stereotypes such as "hitting like a girl" or boys being "stronger than girls" would fall into this category.)

The null curriculum refers to what students do not have the opportunity to learn. In this case, students are learning something based on the absence of certain experiences, interactions, and discourses in the classroom. For example, if students are not taught and expected to question, critically examine, and call out sexist language in books, they are learning something—that it may not be essential for them to engage in this work of critique and exposure. In other words, what is absent or not included in the curriculum can actually be immensely present in what students are learning.

Complicit in the Status Quo?

In the wake of the hate-fueled violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the killing of Heather Heyer this summer, many students were left confused, frustrated, hurt, and uncertain about their country. And too many educators planned to go about their work just as they have in the past—teaching the null: that is, not teaching the underlying realities of what Charlottesville means for us—not only at this moment but in our understanding of the nation's history.

Due to structures and systems designed to maintain business as usual, many educators will not work to explicitly help students heal and work toward building strategies to pursue justice themselves. They will teach the occurrences of Charlottesville, and consequently the responses and interpretations of students, only through the null curriculum. And yet they will be disappointed and perhaps even surprised when the next Charlottesville occurs. Thus, when we teach through the null, we are complicit in maintaining the status quo, including the continuation of racial injustice.

Supporting Systemic Shifts

Teachers work hard—their hearts tend to be in the right place. They want to be and often are difference-makers in the lives of their students. But teachers need support in building the kinds of lessons and experiences that propel students' healing and understanding. Teachers and students need—and deserve—to be supported by school leaders, parents, families, and community members to move social justice and healing to the fore of their work.

The heinous actions by white supremacists in Charlottesville could serve as an excellent opportunity for school leaders across the United States and world to renegotiate the null curriculum and explicitly guide students into becoming more socially conscious. Teaching justice-centered issues across the curriculum (not just in homeroom or morning meeting or more generally in social studies classes) could send a powerful message to students that we must create the kind of world we want to live in—one that fights against bigotry in all forms and works to support the humanity of all. Doing more to expose students to the work and ideas of individuals, including local community members, who have engaged in the fight for justice would be one place to start.

Systemic, institutional shifts are important to build the kind of citizenry that allows us to take forward steps toward equity. To build organizational and institutional shifts, education leaders must remember that systems depend on individuals (such as policymakers, school leaders, educators, parents, and students) working in concert. Teachers must feel supported to teach in ways that honor all students and that disrupt, challenge, and call out the perpetuation of racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic mindsets and discourses. Administrators have to build a culture of love, anti-hate, and liberation, and not expect teachers to engage in this work inside of their classroom without overt commitment and support from those in positions to make decisions. Depending on teachers alone to create changes is shortsighted and will not result in the real systemic, institutional, and enduring changes needed for sustainability.

Bold Steps Forward

If Charlottesville is addressed once or perhaps over a few days in isolation and then the school environment shifts back to learning institutions as usual—places that in general teach U.S. history through a distorted lens—I suspect we will continue to get nowhere fast. But if we allow Charlottesville to serve as a true anchor to reimagine the null curriculum, we can move toward healing—healing that intersects with the reality of many other issues and events that need addressing and that continue to keep particular groups of students feeling angry, hurt, frustrated, sad, and hopeless. If we reimagine what we teach and place social justice at the center of our work, we have an opportunity to use the real-life events that students care about—and are confused about—as curriculum and to help them think more deeply about our country's meaning and trajectory.

In other words, if Charlottesville is perceived and taught as an isolated incident, we stand to do more harm than good. But if we reimagine the very nature of what the curriculum is and how we think about what students should learn, we have a better chance of changing the world. Helping students to embrace their identity, build transferable skills (such as critical thinking and problem solving), and fall in love with learning should be our central aims in education. Students' skills should allow them to examine society and make decisions that benefit the greater good—not just a select few. In this way, society itself offers a real curriculum that must be taught if we are to have a fighting chance at helping all students deal with and counter the effects of racism and the various manifestations of hate.

Let's reimagine the null.

End Notes

1 Milner, H. R. (2010). Start where you are but don't stay there: Understanding diversity, opportunity gaps, and teaching in today's classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

2 Eisner, E. W. (1994). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs. New York: MacMillan College Publishing Company.

H. Richard Milner IV, the regular author of this column, is a professor of education and Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education at Vanderbilt University. They are a coauthor of These Kids Are Out of Control: Why We Must Reimagine Classroom Management for Equity (Corwin Press, 2018).

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