I would like to preface this post by paying my respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present. I acknowledge the deep understanding of country held by the First Nations peoples of Australia and I am committed to working with them for a brighter future for my country.
When I was completing my teaching degree I remember a discussion about the difference between the terms syllabus and curriculum. According to my lecturer syllabus is the content that is delivered in a classroom. Be it Mathematics, Science, English, whatever. The curriculum is a more general term that refers to the collective things taught at a particular place of learning. This idea can be stretched to include things that are NOT on the syllabus such as how to behave, ways of treating each other, dealing with the system that is our world, etc.
I read a post by Mike at Marriage, Sex and More discussing the idea of teaching about marriage in schools. Mike had heard a podcaster indicating that it would be a good idea to introduce a class on marriage into schools. My first reaction to this idea is one shared by a lot of my colleagues “Really! Let’s just try and fit another life skill into the classroom.” I want to say that I fully support Mike’s rejection of this idea. In this modern world it seems that schools are expected to cover a lot of material that should be covered at home because parents are either incapable of or too lazy to parent their children properly.
In a previous post I described Steve Biddulph’s idea that we subliminally learn about parenting as we grow up. These lessons are not taught directly, they are lessons learned through watching someone over a long period of time and in line with other things that are happening. The teacher is unaware that they are teaching. The learner is unaware that they are learning but in the sponge that is a child’s brain, lessons are being implanted about how to speak to your children, what to do when your child is naughty, how to mould behavior.
The same subliminal process happens with relationships. The child’s sponge brain absorbs how spouses interact. If a woman treats her husband with contempt her daughters are likely to grow up and do the same thing. Of course as I explained, we can identify the behaviors we don’t like and consciously change them. We are not cookie cutter images of our parents. As we grow up other influences come in to play, parents of friends, relatives, other close friends, our ultimate spouses but the first influence of our parents can be hard to shake.
What does this have to do with the classroom? Well learning is not a linear process. We like to think that the education system is linear and like a factory. Put kid in at age 4 – 5 (depending on the country etc), go through a series of steps (various classes), and at the end we spit out an educated fully functioning adult. There are any number of anecdotal and more academic studies that show this is really NOT the way it works despite the billions of dollars spent on and worldwide adoption of this way of educating.
Anyone who has spent time with any Indigenous Elder discussing their culture will know that indigenous elders teach their young people by demonstration and talking. During 2020 and 2019 I had several opportunities to spend a few days with two different elders, a Bundjalung man and a Mununjali man. Both men have extensive knowledge about plants, stories, way of life, and respect for country. Both teach the same way; walking through the bush and discussing what comes along. Or sitting in a yarning circle and discussing whatever comes up.
Neither goes into a situation with a learning intention or a specific set of points to discuss and tick off. Both will talk about topics multiple times in multiple ways as they come across them in their daily activities. As I walked and yarned with these men I could see how generations of First Nations people were taught about their culture, the landscape they lived in, and how to care for it. I could see how this way of learning is gentle, but strong and effective.
This is the way humans learn to live, not in a classroom. Classrooms are for abstract, thought based things like Science, Mathematics and Literature. They can be adapted to teach specific skills like how to bake a cake or how to build a chair but they CANNOT be used to teach life skills like how to discuss money issues with your spouse or how to know a particular person is going to be a good life partner. These things can only be taught over time and with repetition, space to make real life errors and guidance when these early errors happen. This type of learning can only happen with a person who is constantly there, like a parent. Not a teacher who, at best, will be in close contact with a student for a couple of years.
First Nations people defer to Elders as the ‘Educational Authority’. One doesn’t become an Elder by reaching a certain age. They achieve this status by demonstrating an understanding of culture and a level of maturity that befits the status. In western society, probably as a result of our education system, we have lost this concept. Adulthood is conferred on us when we reach a specific age regardless of our maturity. We can have children when our bodies are ready, not when our souls and minds are. We can, and often do, educate our children while we are still children ourselves.
Perhaps the solution to the decline in life skills is not just shoving another class into the syllabus but changing our perspective on who is a good person to deliver the curriculum.