When I taught second grade many moons ago in a small yet wonderful school in Sanford, ME, I had the students participate in a bit of a social activity based upon an experiment completed several years ago on discrimination based upon physical traits. When the students entered the classroom that morning, I gave them all a sticker to place upon their shirt. Half of the students had a blue dot on their sticker while the other half had a red dot on their sticker. For the first portion of the academic day, I favored the students wearing stickers with a red dot on them and ignored the students wearing stickers with the blue dot on them. I called on the red dot students, allowed them to sit in the front of the classroom, and allowed them to get drinks from the water fountain every thirty minutes. During this time, I ignored the blue dot students. I could see that some of the students were getting frustrated and angry. Then, after lunch, I switched and began favoring the blue dot students and ignored the red dot students. By the end of the day, several students were so upset that they were in tears. Mission accomplished, I thought. At the close of the day, I debriefed the activity and explained what I was doing and why we did it. I wanted the students to see how people who are discriminated against based on physical characteristics feel. The students seemed to fully understand the goal of this activity and were outraged when I shared information on the civil rights movement in our country. They couldn’t understand why someone would want to make another person feel the way some of them had felt today. So, while I was only trying to teach the students about why we recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement in our country, the students learned so much more than just that. The hidden curriculum taught in classrooms is often more important than the actual academic curriculum we try to cover by the end of each year. Skills outweigh information and facts tenfold.
Today in my Humanities class, I covered our first of several mini-lessons on regions and countries within Africa. Today, I focused on Malawi. I had the students locate the country on a map and discuss characteristics of the country based on its physical features. However, this was only part of the lesson. The second portion of the lesson focused on the people and adversity facing them. I talked to the students about William Kamkwamba, the boys who wrote the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. I then had them watch the short TED Talk he gave back in 2009. We discussed the message and theme of the video before I had them think about the problem William was trying to solve. This then lead into an activity in which the students had to brainstorm a problem facing the small villages of Malawi, devise a solution to the problem making use of only materials readily available to the villagers, and then create a presentation that students will use when they pitch their idea to me in class on Saturday. I explained how our classroom will be transformed into the sixth grade Shark Tank, much like the television show of the same name, as they try to convince me that their idea is the best solution to a problem facing the country of Malawi. The students got right to work as they chose the problem they wanted to solve. Many of the groups chose to tackle the issue of access to clean water; however, each solution was so unique and different. I was impressed. The objective for this lesson, as the students saw it based on what I revealed to them, was to learn about the physical and cultural geography of Malawi. However, I had many other objectives and goals for the lesson that I did not share with the students. I wanted the students to practice effectively collaborating with a partner to accomplish a task, communicating in meaningful ways with a peer, delegating tasks and responsibilities in appropriate and relevant ways, and thinking critically about problems to generate unique solutions. As the boys worked on this activity, I heard them communicating effectively and watched them constructing unique solutions to problems, sharing the burden of the work, and working together to accomplish a common goal. I was amazed. They worked together so well in class today.
While the students didn’t realize this hidden curriculum as they worked, I was sure to point it out at the end of the class. I shared my insight and observations with the students. I wanted them to realize that along with learning about Malawi, they were also learning vital social skills that will allow them to develop into hard working and effective global citizens. Although, on the surface, today’s lesson seemed like a content driven experience about a small landlocked country in Africa, the crucial, meaningful heart of the lesson was all about helping the students learn how to work with others in relevant, effective, and meaningful ways. No matter how many facts my students learn or memorize, if they don’t know how to appropriately work with others, they will be unable to live meaningful lives in our global society. The social skills students need to learn and master are so much more important than the content. The content serves as the vehicle through which we help the students gain these vital life skills. Like my second graders learned after participating in that social experiment many years ago, judging people and ideas based on a single perspective or story is detrimental to all involved. Lessons in the classroom are about far more than what they appear on the outside to our students. It’s everything underneath the surface that matters.