Learning from the “Shadow Curriculum” – Message from the Director

The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 2 : May – August 1996  [Feature]

Environmental literacy is an ambitious educational objective requiring that students integrate and internalize a broad range of values, principles, theories, facts, and skills. One of the richest educational resources we have in higher education to support this is our immediate surroundings–the campus.

While the link between campus operations and curricula exists in principle, as in the Talloires Declaration, they are often treated as separate and unrelated. This separation reflects the traditional boundary between faculty and students on the one hand, and staff and administrators on the other. In addition, linking curricula and campus operations often requires using nontraditional pedagogy, which presents a challenge for faculty who must employ novel methods of teaching and student assessment as well as successful coordination across administrative boundaries.

However, when these obstacles are overcome, a powerful educational symbiosis results that enhances both environmental literacy and institutional environmental performance.

When discussing the role of campus environmental management at the 1995 South American Environmental Literacy Institute, a group of Colombian faculty referred to it as the “shadow curriculum.” This is a powerful image worth reflection.

While our attention focuses on the formal curriculum (course content and program structure) and abstract concepts and categories surrounding sustainability, our students are learning a great deal from the way our institutions are structured, their patterns of consumption and production of waste, and the relationships they have with the local, regional, and international community. This shadow curriculum is a constant, repetitive, and often unconscious educational force.

In many cases, it is a potent force working against the very principles of environmental literacy that we seek to engender in our students. Think what students are learning from the shadow curriculum: thousands of unnecessary memos and forms teach that paper is an inexhaustible resource; windowless classrooms with excessive and inefficient lighting that is left on throughout the day teach that electricity is inexhaustible and benign; dining facilities teach that food is abundant, cheap, and indifferent to seasonal changes in climate. The structure of departments and the requirements of disciplinary majors teach that other academic fields have less value. Isolation from local community problems teaches students to ignore those who are not directly relevant to their professional advancement.

Reflecting on the values, principles, and skills taught by the shadow curriculum exposes the contradiction between theories and concepts of sustainable development and institutional realities. Clearly, environmental literacy must encompass ethical norms of responsibility as well as an understanding of the socioeconomic and ecological consequences of individual and collective behavior. But in many cases our institutional norms are reinforcing narrowly bounded responsibility, limited to individual academic success and advancement. In terms of campus ecology, students are learning that the consequences of their behavior, such as purchasing and waste management, are someone else’s responsibility.

Without an understanding of the consequences of their behavior, what will drive students to take responsibility for those consequences? And beyond that, where will they acquire the skills to change institutional norms, policies, and practices? This is the point where we can take advantage of the campus as a learning laboratory.

Our campuses are overflowing with examples of ecologically irrational practices that are often economically and socially unsound as well. By identifying and analyzing those examples, formulating responses, and participating in their implementation, students are empowered and emboldened to take on issues of institutional change.

While the idea of the shadow curriculum is not new (educators have been referring to the “hidden curriculum” for some time), its relevance to environmental literacy adds greater impetus to institutional ecology and other components of the Talloires Declaration.

By calling our attention to the pedagogical influence of our institutional structures and operations, we link our core educational mission to the daily life of our institutions and truly engender responsible citizenship in our graduates.

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