Hidden curriculum refers to the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school. While the “formal” curriculum consists of the courses, lessons, and learning activities students participate in, as well as the knowledge and skills educators intentionally teach to students, the hidden curriculum consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.
The hidden-curriculum concept is based on the recognition that students absorb lessons in school that may or may not be part of the formal course of study—for example, how they should interact with peers, teachers, and other adults; how they should perceive different races, groups, or classes of people; or what ideas and behaviors are considered acceptable or unacceptable. The hidden curriculum is described as “hidden” because it is usually unacknowledged or unexamined by students, educators, and the wider community. And because the values and lessons reinforced by the hidden curriculum are often the accepted status quo, it may be assumed that these “hidden” practices and messages don’t need to change—even if they are contributing to undesirable behaviors and results, whether it’s bullying, conflicts, or low graduation and college-enrollment rates, for example.
It should be noted that a hidden curriculum can reinforce the lessons of the formal curriculum, or it can contradict the formal curriculum, revealing hypocrisies or inconsistencies between a school’s stated mission, values, and convictions and what students actually experience and learn while they are in school. For example, a school may publicly claim in its mission or vision statement that it’s committed to ensuring that all students succeed academically, but a review of its performance data may reveal significant racial or socioeconomic discrepancies when it comes to test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success. And because what is not taught in school can sometimes be as influential or formative as what is taught, the hidden curriculum also extends to subject areas, values, and messages that are omitted from the formal curriculum and ignored, overlooked, or disparaged by educators.
While the hidden curriculum in any given school encompasses an enormous variety of potential intellectual, social, cultural, and environmental factors—far too many to extensively catalog here—the following examples will help to illustrate the concept and how it might play out in schools:
- Cultural expectations: The academic, social, and behavioral expectations established by schools and educators communicate messages to students. For example, one teacher may give tough assignments and expect all students to do well on those assignments, while another teacher may give comparatively easy assignments and habitually award all students passing grades even when their work quality is low. In the high-expectations class, students may learn much more and experience a greater sense of accomplishment, whereas students in the low-expectations class may do just enough work to get by and be comparatively uninterested in the lessons they are being taught. Similarly, schools may unconsciously hold students from different cultural backgrounds—for example, minorities, recently arrived immigrant students, or students with disabilities—to lower academic expectations, which may have unintended or negative effects on their academic achievement, educational aspirations, or feelings of self-worth.
- Cultural values: The values promoted by schools, educators, and peer groups, such as cliques, may also convey hidden messages. For example, some schools may expect and reward conformity while punishing nonconformity, whereas other schools might celebrate and even encourage nonconformity. In one school, students may learn that behaviors such as following the rules, acting in expected ways, and not questioning adults are rewarded, while in other schools students learn that personal expression, taking initiative, or questioning authority are valued and rewarded behaviors. Similarly, if biased or prejudicial behaviors and statements are tolerated in a school, students may embrace the values that are accepted or modeled—either explicitly or implicitly—by adults and other students.
- Cultural perspectives: How schools recognize, integrate, or honor diversity and multicultural perspectives may convey both intentional and unintended messages. For example, some schools may expect recently arrived immigrant students and their families to “assimilate” into American culture—for example, by requiring the students to speak English in school at all times or by not providing translated informational materials or other specialized assistance. Other schools, however, may actively integrate or celebrate the multicultural diversity of the student body by inviting students and parents to share stories about their home country, for example, or by posting and publishing informational materials in multiple languages. In one school, non-American cultures may be entirely ignored, while in another they may be actively celebrated, with students and their families experiencing feelings of either isolation or inclusion as a result.
- Curricular topics: The subjects that teachers choose for courses and lessons may convey different ideological, cultural, or ethical messages. For example, the history of the United States may be taught in a wide variety of ways using different historical examples, themes, and perspectives. A teacher may choose to present the history of the world or the United States from the perspective of the European settlers and explorers, or she may choose to present it from the perspective of displaced Native Americans or colonized African and Asian peoples. In the first case, teaching American history from a strictly Eurocentric perspective would likely minimize or ignore the history and suffering of Native Americans (a common educational practice in past decades). Curricular topics may also often intersect with, or be influenced by, political, ideological, and moral differences that are broadly contentious in American society—e.g., teaching evolution in science courses, multiculturalism in social studies, or sex education in health courses.
- Teaching strategies: The way that schools and teachers choose to educate students can convey both intentional and unintended messages. For example, if students earn good grades or extra credit for turning in homework on time, listening attentively, participating during class, raising their hands, and generally doing things they are told to do, the students may learn that compliance is important and that certain behaviors will be academically rewarded and allowed to compensate for learning deficiencies. On the other hand, instructional strategies such as project-based learning or community-based learning, to name just two of many possible options, may communicate specific messages—for example, that skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, and attributes such as persistence, resourcefulness, and self-motivation, are valued and important (in the case of project-based learning) or that being informed about and involved in local issues are valued and important (in the case of community-based learning).
- School structures: The way that a school or academic program is organized and operated can convey messages to students. For example, if non-English-speaking students are largely separated from their peers for most of the school day, or students with physical or learning disabilities are enrolled in specialized programs that are relegated to windowless classrooms in the basement, these organizational decisions may have unintended effects on the students’ sense of cultural belonging, self-worth, or academic potential. In addition, the structure of a school program can also mirror or reinforce cultural biases or prejudices. For example, students of color and students from lower-income households are often disproportionately represented in lower-level courses, and special-education programs may inadvertently reinforce some of the social stigmas that children and adults with disabilities experience outside of school.
- Institutional rules: The formal rules in a school may communicate a wide variety of intentional and unintentional messages to students. For example, some schools require students to wear school uniforms, some ban certain types of attire (short skirts, clothing with images and language considered to be inappropriate), and others have very liberal or permissive clothing policies. While the intent of formal school rules and policies is to tell students how they are expected to behave, the degree to which they are enforced or unenforced, or the ways in which they are enforced, may communicate messages the undermine or contradict their stated intent. In this case, stricter dress-code policies may communicate that students will be judged on appearances both inside and outside of school, while looser policies might communicate that they will be judged on other qualities.
Generally speaking, the concept of a hidden curriculum in schools has become more widely recognized, discussed, and addressed by school leaders and educators in recent decades. Ideas such as “white privilege,” equity, voice, and multicultural education—to name just a few—have arguably led to greater tolerance, understanding, and even celebration of racial,cultural. physical, and cognitive differences in public schools. In addition, school communities, educators, and students are more likely than in past decades to actively and openly reflect on or question their own assumptions, biases, and tendencies, either individually or as a part of a formal school policy, program, or instructional activity. For example, topics such a bullying and diversity are now regularly discussed in public schools, and academic lessons, assignments, readings, and materials are now more likely to include multicultural perspectives, topics, and examples. Political and social pressures, including factors such as the increased scrutiny that has resulted from online media and social networking, may also contribute to greater awareness of unintended lessons and messages in schools. For example, harmful, hurtful, or unhealthy student behaviors are now regularly surfaced on social-networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, which often leads to greater awareness of student behaviors or social trends.
That said, a “hidden curriculum” is, by nature, obscured or unacknowledged, which means that many of its lessons and messages are difficult to perceive or measure for any number of reasons. For example, long-standing policies may become so deeply embedded in a school culture that people simply forget to question them, or a school faculty that prides itself on celebrating multicultural diversity may find it emotionally difficult to acknowledge and openly discuss behaviors that might contradict that self-perceived identity. For this reason, every school will always have some form of hidden curriculum.