It’s curriculum time! Just about now teachers all over, including in the homeschooling community, are creating, updating, tweaking, and generally getting their curriculum ready for next year. In that vein, I have a suggestion that I hope will be helpful to those working on their curriculum.
In college I learned a theory of interpersonal communication called relational dialectics. It was proposed in 1988 by Professors Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery. I hope you’ll find it as interesting as I did because I’m going to take a diversion on the theory before connecting it back to writing curriculum.
The basic idea in relational dialectics is that people have contradictory desires within them that end up causing tension in themselves and in their relationships. One such set of contradictory desires identified in the theory is connection versus autonomy. On the one hand, people want to be connected and close to other people because they want to feel supported and loved. They want people with whom they can be close and on whom they can rely. On the other hand people also want autonomy because they want to feel like they can exercise choice and identity without being checked by the desires of others.
The idea of the theory is that these sorts of tensions exist in every relationship. They exist within people in relationships (because people want contradictory things) and they exist between people in relationships (because people want those same contradictory things in differing proportions). The theory suggests that coming to understand and communicate well regarding these tensions is one of the key skills in successfully navigating interpersonal relationships.
Of particular importance is the skill of reframing. Reframing seeks to think about these contradictory desires in ways that minimize tension by seeing the opposing poles of the tensions not as absolute opposites. For example, imagine a romantic relationship in which one partner wants more connectedness and the other wants more autonomy. In this case a bad approach would be for the first partner to use controlling behaviors to ensure connectedness. Controlling beliefs and behaviors pit connectedness and autonomy against each other. We can be connected because you let me control you. Or you can have autonomy because you refuse to be controlled. But one of us is going to have to lose out on what we want in order for the relationship to continue.
On the other hand, respectful and trust filled beliefs and behaviors can be substituted for controlling ones, reframing and reducing the tension between connectedness and autonomy. Mutual respect and trust makes an act of giving someone needed space an act of both connectedness and autonomy. I give you space because I understand you, because I know your needs, because I care about your needs, because I don’t wish to control you, because I trust that you love me enough to come back when you’ve had your space. In turn, respectful and trusting behaviors can also turn connectedness into an act of autonomy. I voluntarily choose to spend time with you because I understand that you really need that right now and because I trust that you will give me space when I need it. Reframing doesn’t end the tension, but it reduces it to levels manageable enough that the relationship can persist through difficult challenges.
Whew! If you stuck around this far in order to get to the bit about education, thank you for your patience. Now to the point- there is another tension mentioned in relational dialectics and that is predictability versus novelty. On the one hand people want stability and custom in their relationships. On the other hand, they want things to be exciting and new.
Doesn’t that seem to describe what students want from their classrooms as well? On the one hand, students want to know what is coming in their classroom. They want to have a clear idea of expectations, what it will take to succeed, and they want the opportunity to try skills in enough iterations that they can improve and track their improvement. On the other hand, students also want to take on new and exciting challenges and to be exposed to new information. Doing the same thing over and over can be boring and can feel like stagnation. So the student has some contradictory desires, and just as in a relationship, our best option is to reframe the contradiction so that predictability and novelty aren’t seen as absolute opposites. Getting this reframing right really matters, because educational research shows that on the one hand, student boredom is one of the biggest predictors for failure in the classroom. On the other hand, stability and custom in a classroom enables key teaching strategies that drive student success, including consistent feedback loops that allow students to incrementally progress over time and clear goals and expectations for student work.
The best way that I know to reframe the predictability/novelty contradiction in the classroom is rituals. Rituals are pretty simply classroom activities that are repeated enough that they can be called ritual. But, a more in depth way to think about what a ritual is is to imagine that someone asks your students, “What do you do in class?”. The student will answer with the classroom activities that 1) are repeated enough and 2) have produced enough meaning that they seem to the student to be “the things we do”. These are rituals.
Here I would like to suggest two types of rituals that can help reframe the predictability/novelty contradiction.
Rituals As Containers
More or less every week in my classes we will have a class discussion. The discussion always goes in this order
I say, “Students, let us envision the following scenario.” In more or less every class, the students eventually pick up the habit of saying it along with me.
I lay out a scenario that puts forward some legal, ethical, or philosophical controversy.
I ask a question that will make the students take a position.
The students all vote and we’re off to the races.
This is the sort of ritual that I think of as a container. The container (form of the discussion) is the same each week, but the contents (the thing we are discussing) are always different. We’re always doing the same thing, and at the same time, we are always doing a different thing. This type of ritual is valuable because it affords two key benefits. First, it means that students can practice something over and over and over without that thing becoming boring. By having an extensive list of topics to discuss, students always feel like they are doing something different and the discussion is always exciting. But they are incrementally getting better at critical thinking and informal debate as they see what works and what doesn’t in the discussion.
The second benefit is that students can learn new content with relatively little mental effort. In other words, because the students don’t have to focus on learning the form each week, they can really focus their limited intellectual resources on understanding the content. In the case of my classroom discussions, students are, week by week, gaining new philosophical, ethical, and legal frameworks from which to view the world without having to worry about whether or not they are learning them in the way I intend. Every week they know how it goes, so they can just focus on the thing we are discussing.
There are all sorts of rituals-as-containers that a teacher might employ. Shannon Wilkinson (one of our new English teachers), recently shared with me that in a previous classroom she would always have students begin the class by journaling an answer to a question written on the board and then students would have the opportunity to share their entry if they liked. Last year in our constitution classes, students were expected to be prepared to randomly be chosen for “cold calls” in which they would be posed challenging questions based on their homework the previous week. I have a standard set of questions that I ask students after every tournament in which they participate. Students know what I’m going to ask, so they know what to pay attention to during the tournament. And other teachers might frequently examine a case study, have space set aside for individual feedback, have students write a similar paper on different subjects, or engage in any number of other rituals.
Students want both predictability and novelty, and rituals-as-containers go a long way toward meeting both desires.
Rituals As Touchstones
“Did anything interesting happen to anyone this week?”
“It’s time for discussion. Students, let us envision the following scenario!”
“Unfortunately, this is all the time we have for discussion today! And we will (or will not) continue this discussion next week.”
“Moving on, let’s talk about items of business.”
“Ok, it’s time to get to what we are doing today.”
“You are wonderful people and you may go.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said each of those sentences. Actually, I can tell you: basically as many times as I have taught classes. These sentences mark the transitions between the major sections (containers) of my class-
Gather students by asking about their week
Take homework record, review upcoming events, general housekeeping
Lesson and practice
Students go home
Outside of special exceptions (like a simulation week), my class has the same basic sections every week. In between the sections the transitional phrases are touchstones that help students orient themselves in the class. I use the same phrasing each time so that the students can clearly identify the touchstone.
Of course, there could be plenty of different touchstones in a classroom, not just transitions from points of class. A touchstone could be something that the class repeats together, a physical location that students go for a specific activity, a quote that a teacher repeats in given circumstances, etc.
These touchstones end up being a sort of classroom heuristic. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that help us make decisions or understand complex situations. “Leaves of three, let it be.” is a very simple heuristic that helps people decide what plants not to eat. It makes sense out of a complicated array of available plants, thus preserving mental energy for other survival tasks. In the same way, developing the sort of rituals that easily help students know what is going on, remind them of rules or expectations in the class, express classroom values, etc. preserve mental energy for other intellectual tasks. Because touchstones can be expressed and understood quickly, they give students a sense of stability and familiarity without taking away time that can be used to develop new skills and concepts.
As a side note, it’s surprising how meaningful even simple touchstones can become to students. When I started ending every class by saying, “You are wonderful people and you may go.” I didn’t think too much about it. And for the first while that students are in class, maybe it isn’t all that big a deal either. But after students have been in class for a while, it’s interesting to see how they’ll wait around to make sure that I say it before they leave, how they write about it in their semester reflections, and how hard it is for them to hear it for the last time when they graduate. I have to admit that it's just as hard for me to say it for the last time when students graduate. It’s amazing what one little repeated phrase can end up meaning to students.
Up to this point, I’ve developed two types of rituals that help mitigate the tension between predictability and novelty. At this point, I want to talk about one more benefit of rituals that doesn’t have as much to do with reframing predictability and novelty.
Rituals as Layering
My hope is that teachers generally see themselves as more than teachers of content. I hope they see themselves as adults who have an opportunity to positively impact the lives of their students and help them navigate some of the difficulties of being young (to get a better idea of what I mean, my article “More Than Just A Curriculum” goes more in depth). However, expressing the sort of values and ideas that help students deal with poor self image, the imaginary audience, anger, defensiveness, and other belief systems that stymie personal growth can be complex and takes time. Enter rituals!
When you have complex ideas to express to students, especially ideas that take time and experience to process, developing rituals in which you can make the ideas memorable and you can regularly develop the ideas over time can be an excellent vehicle. I’ll offer an example. Seven times per year students have the opportunity to compete in debate tournaments for my class. These provide the perfect opportunity to help students reflect on and process their experiences. The class after each tournament I take an opportunity to add a layer to the idea that success is best defined as a process and not an outcome (also an article if you want to read) and then I give students an opportunity to share what they learned from their experiences. This ritual has been a key component in delivering a pretty complex set of ideas, helping students come to really understand those ideas. The activity becomes an important and meaningful part of class. It becomes part of “what we do”.
So here is a question for you- what sort of rituals would help you express the sort of educational values that you want to express in your class? What complex ideas do you want to promote and how could you use rituals to layer those ideas for students over time?
Whether it is for the purpose of reframing predictability and novelty or because you have serious ideas that you want to develop for students over time, rituals and developing a sense of “what we do” in class can be a powerful tool to accomplish those goals. So this curriculum writing season, I invite you to consider the possibilities of ritual.