R.I.P. Jean Anyon

jean anyon

When I started my doctoral work at Teachers College, I was introduced to Jean Anyon in an early class. We were assigned to read, “Social Class and School Knowledge” published in 1981 by The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

This one article, and learning about Jean Anyon’s concept of the hidden curriculum, changed my life.

At this phase in my career (Fall of 2004), I had been teaching middle and high school in Brooklyn for a mere four years and I had my Masters in English Education from Brooklyn College, but I had never before truly analyzed WHAT was happening in my day-to-day practice of creating curriculum, writing lessons, and teaching students who were Black, Hispanic, and Arab, most of whom qualified for free/reduced school lunch because their families lived below the federally designated poverty level.

I truly believe my first 4-5 years of teaching were a combination of desperate survival while figuring out the basics of lesson planning, classroom management, and curriculum development. That’s when–while working on my Masters during year one and year two of teaching–every time a professor introduced a theoretical concept the class would moan, groan, and complain, “Give us something we can use in our classroom tomorrow! Enough of theory!” What we were basically saying was that we were nowhere close to mastering practice, therefore an analysis of our practices, our schools, our classrooms, and our students was futile. We were barely hanging on.

Four years into teaching, I was getting the hang of the daily grind of being a teacher. And additionally, by year four I had seen and experienced a lot in my classroom that I had no words for.

Jean Anyon’s concept of the hidden curriculum gave me words.

As I read her article, I SAW my experience teaching high school in her words. Her research collected data in five elementary schools across New Jersey: two working class schools, one middle class school, one affluent professional school, and one executive elite school. She found that the curriculum used and the teaching methods employed across these schools DRASTICALLY differed. That in the working class school students copied sentences, memorized words, and employed what she called “procedure pedagogy” = read & follow the directions = recall of facts and skills. As the students’ wealth increased, so did the difficulty of the content and skills. For those of your familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy, the upper class students were constantly asked to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate; they were asked bring their lived experiences into the classroom for the transfer of ideas from text to life; they were presented with difficult topics to wrestle with and to problem solve. On the contrary, the working and middle class students focused on understanding basic knowledge and the ability to tell that knowledge back in the form of a test.

Anyon argued that schools practiced what she termed a hidden curriculum that worked to reproduce social class. That the working class kids were taught a limited cadre of knowledge and skills that would track them into jobs that required little creativity, analysis, or synthesis. That this unofficial job training started as early as elementary school via the curriculum and pedagogy employed in the working class schools. Conversely, the affluent professional school and the executive elite school taught the students–beginning at the young age of elementary school–the value of argument, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. The curriculum validated their lived experiences and their voices and opinions were given credit in the classrooms by their teachers.

WOW.

After I read this article, I thought of my job as an 11th grade English teacher in a low-income school of Black and Brown kids and how it was their education very much the rote memorization of essay structure to pass the Regents Exams–and this was in 2004-2005, long before the testing rabidity that exists today! I saw what she said in my own teaching and my own school–comprehension and recall, repeat. Having grown up in a middle class suburb of Northern Virginia, I also saw my own experience mirrored in her research: a focus on memorization of dates and ideas, on recall for exams, on little critical thinking or analysis.

Jean Anyon’s work led me to write a dissertation that looked at curriculum, albeit from a different perspective. She led me to have an affinity for Bloom’s Taxonomy, even when it became all the rage in the reform for rigor, rigor, RIGOR (!!!) as the Common Core Standards were piloted in my high school my last year of teaching, 2010-2011. When I found out she was at the Graduate Center at CUNY in the Urban Education Program, I cursed myself for being at Teachers College. Once I got my job as a professor within CUNY at our community college, located a stone’s throw from the Graduate Center, I planned to finally take take a class with her. After tenure.

I won’t get to take that class. Jean Anyon passed away last week.

When I read about her death my heart selfishly sunk for that missed opportunity. Then it sunk deeper–what an enormous loss for her students, our City, and for the world of educational research. But what a life to have lived and work to have done! She helped shift the conversation in education to one that acknowledged social class as a HUGE variable in both curriculum and teaching. And for any of us who have taught, especially those of us who have spent a significant amount of time serving a low-income student population, we know that you cannot ignore social class when you talk about education.

Thank you for your work, Jean. Your taught me that educational research can make a difference and that there is a world where theory and practice can meet to facilitate change.

Here’s a link if you’d like to read an article very much like the one that rocked my world: Social Class & the Hidden Curriculum of Work. 

[Photo of my Hidden Curriculum folder, ironically housed in what used to be my Task II (the second task on the NY State English Regents) Folder]

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