Yes, you have one. Everyone does. Rarely is it anything overt, but behind every design hides a moral doctrine. Every interaction we have in our day to day lives teaches us some form of behaviour. Doors teach us systems of entrance protocol, books demand adherence to conventions of linear narrative, even a simple knife and fork influence the way we eat. The way things are designed shows us how to use them; it determines what kind of relationship we have with them and ultimately is an expression of our values.
This article intends to challenge anyone who has designed a curriculum to ask themselves:
What is the doctrine in my design?
And most importantly:
Is this doctrine consistent with the values I embrace?
As teachers, we have been charged with a great responsibility. Students have little choice but to enter our world and the environment we create matters to them. Without trying to be cynical, as far as kids are concerned, they are forced to go to school. If they are not willing, they are persuaded or even coerced. We call it a fact of life, tough luck and compare it to cookies crumbling, but this fact remains. We put it somewhere in the back of our minds, de-prioritize it in favour of conveniences and responsibilities. But to our far more astute and far less jaded kids, it is life.
They are there to learn. We decide both collectively as a society and individually as teachers what they will learn. We are concerned with content, how students learn it, and how well they learn it. Kids are concerned with getting through with minimum hassle and maximum fun so they can get on with being kids. In the process, they learn something important. They develop beliefs about the world and what has value. All based on the experience they have in school.
Let’s go back to the door. In our lives we go through a lot of doors. We encounter dozens of them daily. Each one tells us about the place we are about to enter. Just think about the message an automatic sliding door sends out that the loud metallic fire door at the back of the building doesn’t. They are both doors. Both enter the same building. Each one provides its own entrance experience. Each one treats its user in a certain way. Each one teaches a moral lesson. Marketers are well aware that our behaviour inside is affected by the door we enter.
Let’s try an example less deliberately manipulated by private interests; a simple innocuous device like the fork. No hidden agenda here, you say. All forks are pretty much the same, right? What about those special silver forks in the dining room drawer? How come certain forks are for certain types of food? They all do the job just as well. Why hold them in this hand and not that? Why do we use them at all? Hands are good for sandwiches, fries and chicken. Why not Cannelloni? Like everything else, forks have an agenda. They are both an expression and an enforcement of our values. Our compliance with the principals of fork use is equal to the social consequences of not using one. This moral decision is succinctly expressed in the watchful eyes of your parents at Sunday dinner, and then again when you are over at your girlfriend’s house for dinner.
So how does this relate to teaching? When we put forth a curriculum to our students, we make them an offer they can’t refuse. They need doors to get into buildings, and they need forks to eat. They also need education. Their voluntary compliance with school is directly proportionate to the consequences of not complying. Whatever their reasons for being there, they are put through a designed experience for the purposes of education. Our designed classroom experience holds a moral code. Often teachers openly assert their moral codes. It’s usually something about believing in a system of meritocracy or open communication or even balance of power. All to often, the design is not congruent with the dogma.
Let’s look at a simple, familiar constructed experience. Commercial video games are similar in design to academic curriculum. They both create a virtual experience complete with challenges, rewards and assessments. They also both carry a moral lesson, and it is not always as innocuous as the packaging. Pacman, for example, seems relatively harmless. A cute little head roams around eating pills while escaping baddies. A closer examination says otherwise. Through a system of motivation and deterrents, certain values are disproportionately championed:
- Consumption without consequence
- Evasion of authority
- Point accumulation without relative value
- Hopeless gladiatorial incarceration as entertainment
Consumption without consequence refers to Pacman’s compulsion to steal pills from their owners. These pills have no real purpose but their exhaustion as a goal. They lead to arbitrary point accumulation. Points have no redeeming quality but their value in comparison to others. This creates a competitive environment where players work against one another. The only way to outplay an opponent is to undermine them. Pacman himself dwells in a dungeon–like environment. His only reward for successfully implementing his scorched-Earth policy is to be given the same task again. His opponents become faster, yet his abilities stay the same. Through gradual attrition, Pacman hopelessly follows through in desperation while the ghosts attain unreasonable abilities. Pacman can neither negotiate a cessation of hostilities, nor deal a final blow. The game invariably results in an unceremonious loss for the player. There is no possibility of success. Ever.
Imagine the hours spent on such a game and the negative effect it has had on the moral formation of its players. Not that all video games are bad. There are some games that have very positive moral lessons.
An example that may surprise some is Grand Theft Auto. For those unfamiliar, it is a highly detailed point of view game where a human character roams an extensive urban environment performing acts of violence consistent with pop-culture criminal mythology in order to attain power and wealth. While the theme comes across as downright offensive, the game yields a healthy moral learning environment. Some positive skills needed to succeed in this game are:
- Problem solving ability
- Asset management
- Logistical coordination
The player does “jobs” to gain the tools and means to move forward in the game. Each successful task is rewarded with more difficult challenges and access to better tools requiring higher proficiency. The game is played with or against other players. Participants play in their own interest obliging them to forge alliances and negotiating terms of cooperation in order to progress. Such teamwork is preferable to cooperative environments that favour the group over the interests of the individual. To assure this delicate peace, resources need to be exploited in moderation. These tangible assets are currency in the game and are to be managed accordingly, providing opportunities for players to cultivate a strong business sense. When this game ends it does so due to the player’s actions and decisions. Continued survival depends squarely on strategy and not overwhelming conditions beyond the player’s control. Despite the game’s clearly inappropriate themes (albeit largely based on our own folklore), this game is a highly effective learning platform.
Back in the classroom. What kind of game are your students playing? Are they locked in gladiatorial combat with no control over increasingly unreasonable conditions? Are they competing against each other for favour or are they forging alliances to sustain their own growth? Are they being rewarded with interesting challenges, higher proficiency and better means? Or is each task independent from, yet identical to, the next? These are the indicators of moral climate in your classroom.
Using the examples above, ask yourself if the values and morals that you embrace are the same ones you promote in your class. If they are not the same, then either you need to change your methods or you need to change your morals. Maybe you don’t notice it, but your students do.
You may not care. But as leaders we teach by example. You may rightfully believe that your students should “do as I say not as I do” or even “shut up and listen”. But while moral education is not our responsibility per se, we cannot help but teach it. It may not be on the final exam, but it’s being learned. In fact, it may be the only thing they learn all year.