Making something out of nothing: A response to Flinders, Noddings and Thornton’s (1986) article on the null curriculum by Christina Sguazzin for EDU 5101 Perspectives in Education

Making something out of nothing: A response to Flinders, Noddings and Thornton’s (1986) article on the null curriculum by Christina Sguazzin for EDU 5101 Perspectives in Education

Making Something Out of Nothing

Is there value in investigating what is not taught in the school curriculum? What do I feel was missing from my own educational experience? These are some of the questions I asked myself as I began reading Flinders, Noddings and Thornton’s (1986) article on the null curriculum. The null curriculum is defined broadly as “what schools do not teach,” (Flinders et al., 1986, p. 34). However, we can only accurately define the null curriculum in relation to the “curricular universe” (Flinders et al., 1986, p. 37) we are examining; the meaning of the null curriculum will change depending on differing educative values and perspectives. Additionally, the authors propose that the null curriculum is not a research object, but rather a means of interpretation and inquiry (Flinders et al., 1986). This was certainly confusing for me. However, after thoroughly reading the article, I feel I better understand my educational experience with the null curriculum, how different educational perspectives generate alternative null curriculums, and future implications of null curriculum analysis.

Eisner (1985) suggests school curricula may be divided into three types: the explicit, the implicit and the null (as cited in Flinders et al., 1986). The explicit curriculum encompasses the actual subject matter taught (ie. mathematics and science), while the implicit curriculum includes values and attitudes that students learn through their school experience (Eisner, 1985, as cited in Flinders et al., 1986). The null curriculum encompasses all other concepts and skills that students do not learn or experience in an educational context (Flinders et al., 1986). This includes actual content, as well as intellectual processes (nonverbal and alogical modes of thought, attitudes, values and emotions) (Eisner, 1985, as cited in Flinders et al., 1986). This is a significant issue, as omitting material or educative experiences may impact the future success, experiences and perspectives of a student. I certainly relate to this issue, as I remember thinking on many occasions, “I wish I was taught this in school!” I have felt that I was lacking critical skills or knowledge that would have been beneficial to my understanding of, and engagement with, the world.

I realized when I reflected on my past experiences that I was viewing them through a “traditional” educational perspective, and I defined my null curriculum by the specific content I did not learn, such as finances, social issues and general life skills. I felt I was financially illiterate and largely ignorant of the current economic trends until I attended university. Flinders and colleagues (1986) elucidate my past experiences through a liberal education perspective, where an emphasis is placed on traditional, academic subject matter, while “non-academic” subjects such as career training and life experiences are omitted. The traditional approach to education fails to account for individual differences in learning and experience, and the null curriculum from a traditional perspective is comprised of all the individualized experiences, hands-on skill development and social learning students are not afforded (Dewey, 1938; Egan 2003). My perceived null curriculum has influenced my current educational values and perspectives, which are focused on the material that I feel students should learn in order to be contributing members of society (Apple & King, 1977). Different conceptions of curriculum and different educational perspectives influence how the null curriculum is defined; we may identify a different null curriculum in relation to what we “valu[e] as educationally significant,” (Flinders et al., 1986, p. 33). If I consider my past educational experiences through a “progressive” approach to education, my perceived experienced null curriculum would change; it would be comprised of individualized learning, culturally relevant teachings, and opportunities to develop my skills in real-world settings. Similarly, Bruner’s (1960) progressive program Man: A Course of Study (M.A.C.O.S) stressed how students learn and student inquiry – the null curriculum from this “new” perspective would include all the subject matter traditionally taught in school (cited in Flinders et al., 1986). Although a limitation of the null curriculum is that it is “subjectively established,” (Flinders et al., 1986, p. 37), it serves a purpose in identifying personal educative values and preferences, and more importantly, those of curriculum makers and potential stakeholders.

Null curriculum analysis serves practical purposes and generates important educational considerations. First, null curriculum analysis encourages openness and innovation in curriculum deliberations, and offers an “alternative perspective from which to view decisions of content inclusion and exclusion” (Flinders et al., 1986, p. 40), as well as alternative perspectives on different instructional strategies. I feel educators, either from a traditional or progressive perspective, can benefit from considering alternative content, as well as different instructional strategies, to include in their classrooms. If teachers contemplate their own experienced null curriculum, and what may be perceived as “not taught” in their own classrooms, they may raise moral questions and attempt different approaches to teaching (Kanu & Glor, 2006). Second, analyzing current null curriculum “may help establish […] a dialectic between content and goals,” (Flinders et al., 1986, p. 40). In other words, why is certain content excluded from the curriculum, and who decides what is included? In my experience, I feel I was not accurately informed about different cultural perspectives in my education, such as Indigenous thought and experiences. This was ultimately due to liberal democratic logics in curriculum deliberation, which focus on teaching approved Euro-Western forms of knowledge, and not evoking certain feelings in the classroom (Apple & King, 1977). Certainly “treaty education” is a difficult topic; however it impacts the historical consciousness of students and allows them to reflect on present societal conditions (Tupper, 2012). Additionally, there are capitalist and economic imperatives in curriculum decision-making, which include conformity to social standards, preservation of existing social privilege, and “preparing” students for future productivity (Apple & King, 1977; Dewey, 1938; Pinto & Coulson, 2011).

There is indeed value in investigating what is not taught in schools. I have realized I considered the null curriculum through a traditional educational perspective, in that I considered what content was missing from my intellectual repertoire, and this content is based on what I value. Moving forward, I believe curriculum decision-makers must conduct null curriculum analysis using both a traditional (i.e. what content to include/exclude) and new educational perspectives (i.e. how students learn and what experiences to address), and the consequences of excluding material in each approach. The new sexual education curriculum in Ontario is perhaps a key example of the positive implications of null curriculum analysis (Government of Ontario, 2015). It is my hope that future null curriculum analysis will promote a more comprehensive curriculum, and a better-rounded and ethically conscious society.

References

Apple, M., & King, N. (1977). What do schools teach? Curriculum Inquiry, 6(4), 341-358.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Free Press.

Egan, K. (2003). What is curriculum? Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 1(1), 9-16.

Flinders, D., Noddings, N., Thornton, S. (1986). The null curriculum: Its theoretical basis and practical implications. Curriculum Inquiry, 16(1), 33-42.

Government of Ontario. (2015, August 4). Sex education in Ontario. Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/page/sex-education-ontario.

Kanu, Y., & Glor, M. (2006). ‘Currere’ to the rescue? Teachers as ‘amateur intellectuals’ in a knowledge society. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 4(2), 101-122.

Pinto, L., & Coulson, E. (2011). Social justice and the gender politics of financial literacy education. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 9(2), 54-85.

Tupper, K. (2012). Treaty education for ethically engaged citizenship: Settler identities, historical consciousness and the need for reconciliation. Citizenship Teaching & Learning, 7(2), 143-156.