Substantive and Sustainable Digital Pedagogies: The Hidden Curriculum

Substantive and Sustainable Digital Pedagogies: The Hidden Curriculum

post by Troy Hicks, fellow of The Educator Collaborative

Substantive and Sustainable Digital Pedagogies: The Hidden Curriculum

Over the past decade, and especially in the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a number schools as a workshop facilitator, an educational researcher, a parent, and a community member. During these visits I notice lots of aspects about the physical structure of schools, including the building layout as well as individual classroom arrangements. In the past few years, contemporary ideas about flexible seating, standing desks, and small nooks for students to work alone or in groups have begun to pop up. This is all well and good–that educators are recognizing the shifts in our more mobile, more connected lives and the many ways in which learning happens.

Yet, I also notice the tacit aspects of these structures–the hidden curriculum, as it’s been called. I’m also well aware of socio-emotional and socio-political contexts of schooling, which remind me that culturally sustaining pedagogies, appreciative inquiry, and other practices that rely on both the knowledge and expertise of teachers as well as the passions and needs of students are not always in place.

Nowhere are these dichotomies more clear than when I look at the ways in which technology, especially technology that supports substantive literacy practices is — or, more often, is not — welcomed, celebrated, and supported in school. One visit to a high school this year disrupted my thinking about how much I thought the field of education, writ large, had come in terms of offering more progressive policies and substantive and sustainable pedagogies related to digital literacy such as those promoted by the National Writing Project’s Educator Innovator, Edutopia, and Common Sense Education, among others.

At this particular high school, when I had a few moments to myself to walk up and down the academic wing, I began to notice (on door after door) signs that suggested to students that their technologies were not welcome. As I continued to walk around the school, some of the signs repeated themselves, and I began to wonder if various anti-phone campaigns had been launched at the school over many years, considering the multiple incarnations of the signs that were plastered onto classroom doors. Some of the signs featured a flip phone or images of a classic iPod, and I had to wonder if some of them had been in place for years–perhaps even more than a decade.

I also became keenly aware that these signs took on different personalities, in a sense. The tone on the signs ranged from humorous to threatening, with very few words expressing any explicit rule or policy. One was in French, one in Spanish, and one even had a Seuss-like quality to it (though I’m unsure if that was intentional). What was most startling to me was the juxtaposition of one room that featured the classic Apple “Think Different” campaign posters on the walls and windows leading into the classroom and not one, but two copies of the “no phones” poster hung above the door.  In this mid-size high school, these ten signs in the academic wing represented at least half of the doors that students would walk by on any given day. I was unable to see the library, the athletic wing, the arts wing, or other spaces of the school, but the images I did see caused me more than enough concern.

As I walked around, continuing to snap pictures and thinking about the ways in which the adolescents entering these spaces each day were greeted, I began to feel disheartened and, in turn, disillusioned. Though certainly conscious of my own bias in favor of technologies, and also cognizant that technologies have the potential to perpetuate inequality, intolerance, and injustice, I still couldn’t help thinking that the ways in which students’ individual technologies were being represented on these signs demonstrated a very clear message: your literacies are not welcome here.

Considering how Silicon Valley parents may (or may not) be allowing their own children to have access to technology or  how some children may never even be fortunate enough to have access to technology, I was still wrestling with what I saw in this school. I am very much aware of the fact that individual teachers have the right and responsibility to teach in a manner they see most fit. Though these freedoms are often encroached upon due to the pressures of curriculum, standardized testing, or community expectations, I do recognize that individuals may be more or less comfortable with using technology, let alone integrating technology into their teaching, and that sometimes having a device-free day can be useful for students.  

Foregoing a larger debate about the role of technology in education, both historically as well as in contemporary times, I can agree that technology is both promising and problematic.  Much like we can look critically at history of censorship and banned books, we also need to be thinking critically and carefully about the ways in which we allow, invite, or encourage technologies in our classrooms. What I saw on this particular day in this particular school raises serious questions for me about the overall culture of the organization; the ways in which students would then perceive the use of technology as somehow being illicit or illegitimate; that they would somehow have to bring their phones in as contraband and risk the consequences of being caught with it. Rather than seeing the devices in their pockets, purses, and backpacks as potential tools for learning, these outright bans positioned students, as well as their technologies and literacies, in a different light.

As I reflect on my visit to the school, I wonder what I might have said to any of the teachers or administrators about my impressions. Of course, being rushed for time and being too polite for my own good, I said nothing at all. I even debated heavily about whether or not to write this particular post, making these images public and, at least indirectly, calling out the school, the teachers, and the potential negative consequences of these policies in action. Perhaps I will have opportunity to visit with the school or these teachers again, and I can more fully articulate my concern about the ways in which they are positioning the use of technology in their classrooms in relation to their students’ lived lives.

For now, however, I still struggle, wondering what happens in these classrooms on a daily basis, wondering if students are going to be given meaningful opportunities to engage with technology and digital literacies in smart, productive ways. I wonder if they will be able to use the devices in their possession – which are certainly being used before and after school, as well as at lunch and in the hallways – as tools for learning, not just tools for posting, liking, or replying to social media. Much like other work that has informed our understanding of the issues noted above such as the hidden curriculum, culturally sustaining pedagogies, and appreciative inquiry, my hope is that the following questions might provide you or your colleagues with the opportunity to engage in conversation about how technology is represented and how that supports or prohibits substantive and sustainable digital pedagogies within your school:

  • In what ways, implicitly and explicitly, are students welcomed to bring their devices into the school building and individual classrooms?
  • How are devices positioned within the classroom? As tools for learning, exploration, and participation– or as distractions, interruptions, or amusements?
  • How are students encouraged, scaffolded, and celebrated for using their devices in critical and creative manners, rather than just as a means to consume content, perform assessments, or otherwise do the typical work of schooling?
  • Finally, how might you and your colleagues engage in meaningful dialogue about your own device use, both inside and outside of school, and how is your use similar to or different from the students whom you teach?