Normal. What is it and how does it affect society and curriculum? by David Dalton

Normal. What is it and how does it affect society and curriculum? by David Dalton

Normal is a concept that I have always had some difficulty with. This difficulty stems from my younger years, as I recall always trying to “be” normal. I never really felt “normal”; I always felt very different from others. Most of these feelings were imposed upon me from a very young age, and a very major event that occurred in my young life. When I was 18 months old, my mother died. To make matters worse, my father was then (wrongfully) convicted of murdering her (he was acquitted 12 years after the fact). My brother, sister and I moved in with our aunt and uncle, and their 3 kids in a small town in PEI. This small town was also the hometown of both my mother and father, and both sides still had family living there. To make things worse, there was a custody battle for me, my brother, and my sister between my father’s side and my mother’s side. This just caused tensions and animosity to build and fester. The result of the battle ended up being my Aunt and Uncle kept custody, and my Mother’s side got visitation rights. This animosity between my families, and the fact that I could only visit my mother’s parents (my grandparents) on certain, scheduled time, made me feel like I did not fully belong in either family. I can honestly say, I never felt like I had a “normal” family.

I recall seeing everyone of my peers with a “normal” family, and “normal” lives. I felt like the odd one out, I was the only one in my class that was in that situation. Everyone else had 2 parents, growing up with normal family lives. What made things worse, was everyone knew about my situation, and I always felt they and their families looked at me differently due to my situation. This feeling made me feel like I did not fit in, like I was an outsider. I never felt like I belonged in the community. With this feeling that I did not belong, it made me try very hard to fit in. No matter how hard I tried though, I was unable to ever feel normal. I struggled to try and be a “normal” kid.

When I reached the age of 13, my father was finally fully acquitted. This meant I moved to Newfoundland to live with him. This brought on new challenges, as I was now heading into grade 9 without knowing anyone there. I moved from a small town of about 2000 people to a city of over 250,000 people. Everybody there knew my father’s name before I ever arrived (his case was a pretty high profile case at the time). Feeling normal became much more difficult, as now everyone knew of me and my family, and they knew the situation. Everywhere we went people would stop us and make comment about the case, everyone recognized us. Everyone around me knew so much, and I stood out from the normal no matter where I went. I had to struggle to attempt to feel normal, but I never really did feel normal. I spent many years trying to fit in and be “normal”. I spent many waking hours worrying about not being normal. Looking back on it now, I feel like I missed out on many important opportunities I could have had to do things I would have liked, but missed out on them because I was afraid of not being “normal”.

I have some very strong feelings around the term “normal”. This single term contains a lot of confusing, and very contradictory implications on society, school, and our students. The term normal might seem very simple, but when you think about it, the term becomes something far more than a simple term. It becomes an entire idea, at the center of our society. We try to be more normal, but we never really know for sure what we are heading for – normal is always changing. Normal is a potentially damaging term. We want our students to become individuals, critical thinkers, and the future of our planet. If we do not make an effort to change the focus away from being normal in our school systems, and step away from standardized testing, we cannot expect our students to become critical thinking individuals. We need to adjust the focus of our school system and society to developing individuals capable of critically thinking and developing their own ideas rather than perpetuate society by regurgitating information. We must make the difficult decision to change how we do things, for the betterment of our students.

What is Normal?

This question has bothered me for quite a while. Being of a Mathematical mind, I like to think there should be a definition for this term, a solid, understood definition. I have given this concept some great thought, and the question remains “What is normal?”. The answer to this question depends on what situation we are talking about. For instance, in mathematics (and physics) the definition of normal is “perpendicular; especially perpendicular to a tangent at a point of tangency” and in psychology it can mean “free from mental disorder” (Merriam-Websters Dictionary). In these contexts, the term is clearly defined.

In a “society” context, the definition is a little more in depth. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, normal is “according with, constituting, or not deviating from a norm, rule, or principle”, “conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern”, or “occurring naturally.” Each of these definitions can lead to different (and contradictory) interpretations of what normal could really mean.

The first two of those definitions imply conformity to a set guidelines established by individuals who set the rules/principles. In our society, the individuals who make the rules are those in power or in control of the direction of society. This means we have a group of people who set the direction of what is “normal.” Just for a moment here, think about what would be “normal” if different people were in power. It might be “normal” to have blue hair or to walk on all fours or for children to pilot space ships . From this definition, “normal” is something that can be dictated by a group of individuals, and is set to change as the people in charge change. This leads to the definition of “normal” to alter as situations change. This also implies that “normal” means different things to different groups of people, depending on the rules of the group. I will discuss this a bit more later in this project.

The third of the definitions from above is different from the others, and in some ways contradictory. The definition in question states that normal means to “occur naturally” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). This implies a number of things, such that anything that occurs naturally is normal. Normal in this definition is much less restrictive, indicating the only thing that is not normal is something that is unnatural. Normal behaviour is simply behaviour that we feel is natural. This could be something as simple as saying “breathing is normal because it is natural” or “living in a house is normal because it feels natural”. These things are pretty straight forward. It means our nature defines what is normal. This can, however, become misinterpreted as people could argue a number of things, including that it is human nature to kill those who oppose us (as animals often fight to the death when in conflict, and humans are really just animals). It could also be argued that the use of computers is not normal as computers are not natural. Therefore, this definition is a dangerous definition, as the interpretation of what is natural depends on who is doing the interpretation.

The definitions contradict each other, as the first definitions state that “normal” is conforming to a set of rules, where the third states it is something occurring naturally. These definitions are fine if the rules state things that occur naturally, like gravity. The problem comes into place when people set rules that are not considered as occurring naturally. Consider the following situation: A rule that states doing something natural is wrong. Following the rule is normal, by the first definition, but not following the rule is also normal by the third definition. Both actions are contradictory, so both actions are “against the normal”, but yet both actions can be considered normal by the definitions above. This is at the center of the confusion surrounding the term “normal.” If we cannot define what it is, without contradicting ourselves, can we possibly know what it means to “be” normal?

Normal has a very different meaning for everyone. Consider this extreme scenario: A single-parent is not able to afford the rent, loses their home, ends up living on the street raising their child. They have no money, and no food, so the parent goes into the local grocery store and steals some food too feed their child. Is this a normal action for a parent to take? To the parent (and any parent) it is normal to do anything to provide food for your child. To society is it not normal to steal, no matter what for. This parent has violated the rules set by society, but by following the rules they would have violated the moral belief of themselves. In this way, the parent acted how they felt was normal, but society felt was not normal. In real life, if this happened, society would probably charge the parent with theft (and possibly child abuse/neglect) and take the child from the parent. Is this a normal thing to do? This relates to hidden curriculum as well, as what society sees as normal behaviour might be very different from what students feel is normal. If the students feel like this, then while in the school they might feel different, act different, and ultimately feel like they are on the “outside” of curriculum. What is to say that society, or the school, has the right to say what is and what is not “normal”?

I do not think we can truly know what it means to be normal, or for that matter what normal truly is. For that matter, what implications does this have on society? How does the definition of normal effect society? How does this effect schools? Should we be concerned with making our students “normal”?

Affect on society

The concept of “normal”, and more importantly what normal is, truly depends on the rulers of society, and the standards they set. In the article titled “What is Normal in Our Society”, the author explains that “being normal means to do things that are exceptionally dominant in a common society” (2012, 11, What is Normal in Our Society). This ties in quite closely to the definition of normal which involves conforming to rules or principles, in that the dominant things in a society are considered principles of a society. What this ultimately means is that whoever is in power truly dictates what it means to be “normal.” Those in power impose this concept of normal through the influence of hegemony, which “explains how other groups or individuals maintain their dominance over other groups of individuals in a society via coercion, rather than violence” and through the use of “mechanisms such as the media and school curriculum” (Tooms and English, 2010). Once a society has established what normal is, there becomes a division between individuals. You are either “normal”, and fit in, or are “not normal” and do not fit in. From my personal perspective, however, there is no one that is fully normal, but more-so individuals that are perceived “more normal” than others.  To me, society is more accepting of those individuals they conceive as having more “normal tendencies” than those with less. If that is how society sees “normal”, the next question becomes “How does this effect individuals, and hence society?”

I cannot speak for every single individual, I can only truly answer this question as it relates to me directly. Growing up, I was always on the outside of “normal.” I was always seen as the odd one out,  the one who did not fit very well with what society called “normal.” I recall a massive amount of fear that I would not belong. For the longest time, this made me put a great deal of effort into doing things that I thought would make me seem more normal, to be accepted. I would disassociate myself with individuals that seemed  odd (even though they were very interesting) so I would be accepted. I would not do some of the things I enjoyed because the “normal” people had no interest in it, and I would do some things I did not really enjoy because they thought it was “cool.” I wanted nothing more then to fit in and be normal. For many years I did not do things I truly enjoyed, I ignored my nature. Ultimately, all of this effort was for nought, I never did feel very “normal.” In fact, I believe it made me feel less comfortable, and less like an individual. I recall feeling very afraid to be myself, full of fear of what people would think and do.

The video “This is me, This is Harlesden” states how the idea of social norms and pressures for what is “normal” affects the clothes people wear and the way they see themselves and others. How well the students conform to these “normal” ideas really influences how people see them. I also think the video states the importance for not judging people based on appearances. All of these students (and all students really) just want to be taken seriously, and treated with equality. Too much of our perceptions of society and influences from society are put on appearances. After all, First Impressions are the strongest, and (in my personal experience) very often incorrect.

Tooms and English (2010) talk about the feeling of fit. They discuss their issues starting out in their careers, and how they felt the pressures to fit in to the normals of their institutions. They discuss their fears for achieving acceptance in their professions. This strive for acceptance tends to cause individuals to take less chances, and therefore question less of the social norms. People tend to make choices to perpetuate what they know and accept, just to feel like they belong and fit in. Those who do not “fit in” tend to feel a lot of pressure from their peers, and from society, to change to become more “in tune” with the societal norms. These pressures can cause many individuals to question their belief systems, and question everything about themselves. One major issue with this concept is they question themselves, and they question themselves because they perceive others (and society) as normal, and see themselves as something other than normal. Society has imprinted their vision of normal onto the individuals who they govern. The question becomes: How does society perpetuate their vision of normal?

School and Curricular effects

The concept of “normal” has a multitude of effects on the school system and curriculum. These effects range from how society controls the curriculum, how students respond to pressures, and the students need to feel perfect. I will discuss each of these separately.

With society truly controlling the concept of what is normal, the curriculum we teach becomes an effort to create “normal” individuals. This is a powerful statement, and comes from the notion that the rulers of society, those in power, create curriculum to satisfy their desires and perpetuate  their vision of “normal”. The creation of these curricula is a manner in which society practices hegemony to manipulate individuals to help maintain their dominance over other people. This manipulation is often accomplished by setting the standard of what people need to know, rather than setting the standard of how people should develop and learn. Society keeps these pressures on by ranking people and determining which people have more of the desired knowledge. Society will use things like standardized testing to determine who “knows” more of the knowledge, and (in my opinion) who is better able to perpetuate the visions of society. Society has a goal to continue on as it is, to maintain a homoeostatic existence, and it does this by teaching students the knowledge which will keep them aiming towards a “normal” society. The curriculum sets to teach rules and principles, and conforming to them is “normal”. Society incorporates principles into accepted standards. In fact, we punish those who do not abide by these rules/principles/standards, both at the school level and at the society level. Those who break the rules at school tend to be disciplined, and those who do not obtain the “minimum standard” do not successfully complete school. As a society, we restrict what those who do not succeed are “able” (or allowed) to do. By this I simply mean society puts those who are better in line with their viewpoints and standards in positions of power, thus perpetually defining what is “normal” in society.

“Through the hidden curriculum, students get the message that middle and upper class cultural values, norms, and attitudes are the standard by which all else is measured” (Ritzer, 2007) and schools reward those who conform to these standards. The hidden (informal) curriculum in high schools includes teacher expectations, peer social networks, and other variables that include academic and social lessons for all students (Nichols, 1999). Through use of a hidden curriculum, society controls what students learn as the “proper” way to behave, believe, and think. Students learn how society wants things to function, and learn what happens when we break the preset “rules”. Students also learn what is considered “normal” in society, and schools help perpetuate this idea of “normal”.

“The presumption that it is best to be the same as the dominant, able group” is a line directly from the article “Discourses of Risk” by Rachel M. Heydon. This is a very powerful line, and one that really bothers me. It states the dominant individuals, or the ones who decide what it means to be normal, is the best way to be. This is a thought the article discusses in a negative manner when discussing the deficit curriculum. In my experience, I find a great amount of truth in this statement about what society feels is best, but I strongly disagree with this presumption. As educators I think we should be working to change the presumption into something more along the lines of “it is best to be who you are, regardless of what other people think is best.” We should be encouraging and supporting our students to become who they want to be, and to be happy with themselves, rather than trying to mold them into what society wants them to be. We should not be limiting individuals, or separating them based on what society thinks is best, we should be fostering an environment of care and acceptance.

Ultimately, the major effect society has on curriculum is felt by the students, whether they realize it or not. Students feel the blunt of the pressures of society, being influenced to learn things that someone else decides is important. Through the use of and increased importance on standardized testing, the pressures to “know” and “recall” arbitrary information becomes much more stressful. Teachers often feel the pressure to make their students score as best as they can, which often leads to the practice of teaching to the test, and making them memorize facts. This causes many students to just learn how to recall and regurgitate the facts, rather than learn how to think critically and develop necessary skills. The stress on students to achieve “perfect” scores is becoming more important than having students be able to think critically and develop the skills they need to survive in today’s world. I recently asked my computer class what would happen if we (as a society) had a major computer based issue, rending them unusable. What would happen? The responses I got were truly shocking. They stated that life as we know it would be over, we would not be able to do much of anything. We would be relying on what little we know about survival, and we would be relying on those individuals who had more experience living without computers. This is just one small example of what could happen, and I know this is a little extreme of a situation, but what if it really did happen? If our students are unable to think critically, what will become of the world? The pressures of standardized testing are slowly taking away the critical thinking  of our students.

I would like to tell you about one of my students. This student in particular often gets very  frustrated when people just tell him a fact without answering his next question (which is often “Why?” or “What if this (insert situation) was the case?” or “How do we know that?”). He becomes so frustrated he often shuts down and does nothing after that. I encountered this issue with him my very first year teaching, but all I had to do was answer his question. I will admit that not every question I could answer, but I always helped him get an answer. This student would come to me (and still does some days) and ask the questions “Why am I so stupid?”, to which I respond “I cannot answer that question because you are not stupid.” What usually happens next is a discussion over why he feels “stupid” (I should point out I do not like that term, but it is the word he uses), and how he really is not. He has a learning disability, and has a different view of the world from other people. Because he does not experience things, and learn things, the same ways other people do, he feels like there is something wrong with himself. He feels that he is not normal. As a student in our society, and our curricula, this student has great difficulty in school stemming from his inability to regurgitate information on a piece of paper, resulting in lower grades. If you ask him the question, he has no difficulty recalling the information, nor does he have any issue formulating and defending his opinions. On a critical thinking scale, he is one of the most critical thinkers in any of my classes, yet his scores on paper tests is low. This is one of the failures of the pressures of the concept of “normal.”

Another student comes to mind when looking into “normal” within the school. She is a sexual minority in a community where being a sexuality minority is not considered acceptable. She is a very smart student, but has always been shy and quiet. When I first met her (on my first day of my teaching career) she was clearly smart, but had no confidence in her abilities whatsoever. She quickly warmed up to me, and she would stay in my classroom and hang out with her friends and work on homework for hours after school. I always had a feeling she was a sexual minority, but never really pushed the issue. I saw my classroom as a safe place for her (and anyone else who stayed after) to hang out and do some school work. It was 6 or 7 months before she told me she was in a relationship with a female (or confirmed my already held belief), and I was the first person she ever told that she was not heterosexual. It never made a difference to me, because no matter what she was my student, and is a wonderful young woman. I was happy to be able to provide her with her “safe place” to be herself, and I was pleased she trusted me to tell me.  I must say, she has really kept things quiet surrounding this (in fact I am the only adult she has ever told). What makes me sad is the fact that she feels the need to keep things hidden, but I understand why. The community where I teach is not very accepting of non-heterosexuals. In fact, many of the individuals openly discriminate and openly call down the idea.  This is one reason I am very pleased I ended up teaching here, so this amazing student can have a place where she feels safe. Some of the students call her names, some of them treat her like she is diseased. It really bothers me, and any time I see these things I am the first to come to her defence and provide discipline to the offending students. I can see the tough road she is travelling. I feel terrible because the only thing I can do is talk with her, and let her vent. This is a part of the hidden curriculum, and how the hidden curriculum dominates what “normal” is, and how the community and outside knowledge affects the school environment. This student feels one of the very negative effects of the hidden curriculum. This student feels she cannot be herself because she is not what the community feels is “normal”. In fact, this student feels so alienated in this community, she cannot wait until she graduates so she can leave this community for a more accepting area, an area with more diversity, where being a sexual minority is considered more of a “normal” thing.

Combating the effects of Normal

The question now becomes “can we counter the effects of “normal”, and should we?” From my personal experience, the term “normal” has very little place in schools. Every classroom is different, every student is different, and every teacher is different, and yet we try to make everyone the same, make them “normal.” Herein lies the issue, as I do not believe we can make everyone “normal”, but I think that is a good thing. From my perspective, we need to be encouraging everyone to be themselves, not to “fit” to what others think they should be. From that, I think the goal of education and schooling should change. The goal should not be creating students that achieve high test scores and are considered “normal” by society. Instead, the goal should be creating critically thinking individuals, we should be developing students into what they want to be, not what we want them to be. This argument dwells within me on a number of different levels.

First, on a personal level, I always felt like I did not fit in and was not accepted by society, simply because I did not want to learn certain things and regurgitate the information. I wanted to know far more than just the facts. I wanted to know why they were the facts, and I often questioned things. When those questions were not logically argued, and were not backed up by proof, I lost respect for those who were teaching those things. When the questions were answered, however, my interest went up, and I would look more into things. I recall spending time throughout my first University degree having some very interesting discussions with my fellow students and our professors about many things, related to the courses and not. The time that was spent by the professors discussing these things (and the acceptance to question these things) lead to some of the most powerful learning I have ever been a part of. We should be encouraging students to ask questions, to go off on tangents and to explore their thoughts.

Second, on a professional level, I see students asking questions, showing some true interest, and their teachers not going down that road with them. I observe the students responses to this, they seem to just lose hope and feel unaccepted by the teacher. I make a point to answer questions my students ask, no matter how off topic they may be, but not all teachers do. Some teachers are just there to teach the students what society demands the student know, and rarely answer the more in-depth questions. I previously mentioned one of my students who has difficulty because many individuals do not answer his questions. This student is one of the main reasons we really need to focus our school system away from “normal”, to focus our school system on developing students to meet their potential, rather than what society wants.

The question of “should we counter the effects of “normal”?”, in my opinion, has the simple answer of yes. This is not to say that we should ignore and counter “normal”, but we should reduce the emphasis and focus on normal, and we should encourage individuals to be who and what they want to be, rather than who and what other people want them to be. The question now becomes “how can we counter the effects of “normal”?”

There is no easy answer to this question. We must listen to and include everyone, ranging from the individuals who control society to those on the outside (or on the fringe). We must take into account and discuss things that might make us uncomfortable, and we must make some hard choices. The most important thing, however, is we need to make decisions as a democratic society. We need to make the decisions after the input from everyone, and we need to incorporate everybody’s ideas. We also need to move away from standardized testing and ranking of individuals based on how much information they know. We need to focus on developing students into critical thinkers, and providing the world with individuals who are capable of running the world. I would like to think we will leave the world in the hands of well developed individuals, rather than a lot of individuals who can just recall information.

Conclusion

At many points in my life, the pressures to be “normal” have dictated what I have done. As I look back I feel these pressures forced me to take the longer path to get to where I am now. I got to the point where I am today by eventually forgetting about and ignoring the pressures to feel normal. As I grew up, I reached a point in my life where it became much less important to fit in and be normal, and much more about being myself. I realized it was much more important to become who I wanted to be, not what society wanted me to be, and not what was “normal”. I am now at the point in my life that I accept and encourage that “normal” is not always best for people. As a teacher I live my life and teach my students that it is alright to not fit in with what society’s “normal”. I like to show my students that it is much more important to be doing something that you enjoy and being who you want to be rather than doing and being who society (and other people) would prefer. It is perfectly acceptable (and encouraged in my mind) for students to live and be “not normal”. I encourage my students to take the road less travelled, to not give into the pressures of society, and to become who they want to become, not who society wants them to become.

References

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