Is the Informal Drowning out the Formal Curriculum?
"The church teaches in everything that it does" was a frequently quoted phrase by one of my professors of Christian education. I was reminded of the importance of this advice when I met with the children’s council of a church that I know well and love deeply. As we discussed the plans for the coming year, I questioned why the Easter egg hunt was scheduled for Palm Sunday. There were several responses, including, "We have always done it on Palm Sunday"; "We get a better attendance that day"; and "It is easier to handle logistically."
The tradition for many years in that church has been a luncheon after church followed by an egg hunt on the church grounds. The egg hunt has always been well-attended, and it provides a wonderful multigenerational event. The youth help hide the eggs, and the luncheon draws people of all ages. I wondered, however, what scheduling an Easter event on one of the most significant days of Lent teaches people about the Christian story. In a little over an hour, we move from waving palms to hunting eggs. I couldn’t help but wonder: “Are we helping children and their families experience Holy Week, or are we confusing the message?”
When we think about teaching in the church, the first question that is frequently asked is, "What curriculum resources are we going to use?" While what we are going to teach formally is a very important question and deserves careful consideration, it is just as important to consider what we are teaching informally. Educational theorists use the terms null curriculum and hidden curriculum to describe this informal teaching.
The null curriculum is what is taught by intentionally or unintentionally not teaching something. For example, by moving directly from the symbols of Palm Sunday to the symbols of Easter, we may be unintentionally minimizing the significance of Good Friday and the other days in Holy Week.
The hidden curriculum includes what we teach through our actions and attitudes. It is often experienced as the unwritten rules that define our congregation. In the egg hunt example, part of the hidden curriculum may be that success is equated with attendance numbers.
Often, the values taught through the null and hidden curriculum are more powerful than what is taught through the formal curriculum. As you examine your formational ministries, you may discover areas where the informal is actually contradicting what you intend to teach formally.
Here are a few questions to get you started in identifying the null and hidden curriculum that is operational in your congregation:
- What does the way we schedule events teach about what we value?
- What does the way we use space teach about what we believe is important?
- What are the unwritten congregational rules that "everyone" knows?
- What does our church budget indicate are priorities for the church?
- What are the important rituals and traditions in our congregation? What values do they teach?
For Further Consideration
- Start Here: Teaching and Learning with Adults
- Foundations: Shaping the Ministry of Christian Education in your Congregation
- Comprehensive Plan for Teacher Development for United Methodist Congregations [PDF]
(Adapted from a February 2012 iTeach article from Deb Smith.)