The ‘null’ curriuclum

I first met the ‘null’ curriculum on – Lesley Wilson’s web page identifying and describing eleven different types of curricula.

Perhaps readers have encountered the concept of the ‘hidden’ curriculum sometime after first meeting the notion of a curriculum as that which is written about what is to be taught/learned in formal contexts. But the list of eleven curricula was an entirely new one for me, and this was the most valuable of all.

According to Lesley Wilson the ‘null’ curriculum is

  • That which we do not teach, thus giving students the message that these elements are not important in their educational experiences or in our society.
  • The major point I have been trying to make is that schools have consequences not only by virtue of what they do not teach, but also by virtue of what they neglect to teach. What students cannot consider, what they don’t processes they are unable to use, have consequences for the kinds of lives they lead.

And it does not take long to develop quite a long list of things that are ‘not taught’ in university classes and workplace courses. My experientially based approach to teaching and learning – using simulation games – has often been challenged as being ‘other than what is being taught’ elsewhere in an academic program for example. And since it is not taught elsewhere in the course, I also should not be teaching that way! In academic settings, what is NOT TAUGHT can have a compelling impact on learners’ expectations, and my teaching – which uses play and simulation to create engaging, unsettling, challenging and supportive environments – is often quite unlike what is being encountered in elsewhere.

Encountering the concept of the ‘null’ curriculum was a delightful ‘ah! ha!’ experience, as I immediately understood it as a means of explaining the resistance and disdain I sometimes encounter from peers and students. Over the years I have collected critical incidents about the ‘clash’ that occurs when a particularly strong-minded learner feels that their expectations of ‘how to be a student’ are apparently violated. But until now have not had a satisfactory conceptual framework to explore these incidents. The ‘null’ curriculum provides that.

One incident concerned a student in a degree leading to graduation as an adult education professional. When she left class early one night I followed her out into the corridor to ask about her actions.

“I came to University to be taught,” was her terse reply when I insisted on knowing her reasons for leaving. “ I did not come here for this ‘learning’ stuff. I hate this!”

When I asked why she had not approached me earlier for an alternative assessment her response was equally startling. “My intention is to suffer this for 13 weeks, and when it’s over I’m going to make the biggest complaint! This is not what I’m getting in any other class and it’s not right.”

My response was enough to startle her into re-thinking her strategy, and I was able to help her complete the subject is amore positive frame of mind –

“So your strategy is to be a masochist for 13 weeks, and then become a sadist?”

As she did not think of herself as either sadistic or masochistic she was forced to review her choices, and after some further discussion she agreed to give the process a chance, completing the final assignment with good grace. With the null curriculum in hand, I now have a useful tool with which to uncover assumptions being made about ‘what should be taught’ and the viability of alternative modes of teaching and learning.

Check out Lesley Wilson’s web site for all eleven types of curriculum – perhaps a different one will strike a chord for you.


About gamestolearn

Games designer, and teacher of games design.
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