Hidden Curriculum: do as we say, not what we do

When talking to education specialists you sometimes get to hear them mention the phenomenon the ‘hidden curriculum’. There is some confusion in how the term is used, but I’m taking it to mean the mostly unintentional curriculum that we teach our children because of the way that we present our learning practices; the way that we give our children assessments; and then the way that we grade those assessments and even reward those grades.

I’ll try and put this into a practical demonstration and that will hopefully make the concept clear. 

Now as most parents know, children on the whole are very smart. They quickly seem to find the hidden location for the birthday present that you ordered ahead of time, and they choose to interpret the instructions to take the rubbish out for the rubbish collection as loosely or literally as they can, whichever makes the least work for them (“oh you meant take it out this Tuesday morning and not next Tuesday?”); and they seem to always find the most dangerous part of a garden, park or compound to play in. However, what this unfortunately works against them when it comes to education and the hidden curriculum. This is because children appear to pay more attention to what parents and teachers actually do, not what they say.

There cannot be many parents or educators that do not want their children to have an curious mind as to how the world works. You certainly cannot invent the steam engine, nor can you conceive of a political system like ‘democracy’, or start a giant computer company in your garage without a curious and inquisitive mind. However, if you are sitting in class and your teacher rigidly tells and enforces you to ‘be quiet’, and ‘show respect’ and ‘speak only when spoken too’, then the hidden curriculum is to not be curious, to not be inquisitive and to not question the way things are done. I want to straight away say that without some rules, without relative quiet and without children keeping their thousand questions a minute tendency under control, the classroom would erupt into mayhem. So really we’re talking about ‘balance’ here rather than one system (open house ‘free for all’ questioning) versus another (inflexible production line subservience by the children, to the teacher).

Here is another place where we can see the hidden curriculum occurring and it is in the examination system. Examinations are of course the culmination of teaching that is used (incorrectly in my opinion) to grade and then subsequently rank children from the best to the worst. Under a ‘norm referenced system’ it does not really matter what the children know, it just matters that we can rank them from highest to lowest. Since this system is still adhered to (although the frequency of examinations in Fiji has mercifully dropped), the hidden curriculum is not what a person knows but rather were they top of their class, or did they have the ‘highest’ score in whatever index one cares to think of. When I left my secondary school for instance many of my friends joined companies that gave them a company car. During reunions or social events, the task appeared to be to rank everyone according to the make and performance (in reality the cost) of each car – needless to say I came bottom because I was idiotic enough to want to carry on with my education. 

Here are some ‘pause for thought’ issues that occur in some and even many schools where there appears to be a hidden curriculum that is counter what we superficially say we would like to teach our children.

  • We celebrate multiculturalism and diversity but our children are supposed to wear uniforms.
  • We preach meritocracy but it is obvious to most children that some prefects are chosen because of their parents (status in society, or donations to the school) rather than these children being capable school leaders.
  • We tell children to wash their hands before they eat, and we tell them to eat healthily, in the meantime some of the teachers eat fast foods, bongos and fizzy drinks (and look overweight and unfit) and they do this without washing their hands.
  • We talk about global warming and environmental pollution, but we don't mind burning rubbish in the school compounds.
  • We talk about ‘justice’ and sense of fair play but often in playground disputes the teachers will not try to sort out the actual story of who did what first, rather they tend to take the easy option of awarding a punishment to all parties involved.
  • We talk about gender equality but we still assign school compound chores on the basis of gender.

Just because education specialists know about the concept of the ‘hidden curriculum’, that does not mean that it can be easily eradicated. In fact there are pragmatic reasons why some actions must be taken that appear to support a hidden curriculum – silence must be enforced sometimes otherwise no information to teach and learn can get out in the subsequent classroom cacophony. I suspect the best course of action in this instance is to simply explain to the children an apparent contradiction in what we want from them and why we sometimes have to contradict ourselves. For the hidden curriculums that are clearly not helpful, that is, in my opinion, a mission for the school boards to perhaps focus on one hidden curriculum issue at a time – probably by taking these in order of priority. For some it might be about considering gender equality, for others it might be to set up a school run tribunal for significant disputes between pupils and some, like us, focus on environmental issues such as recycling. More than half the battle is recognising that there is a ‘hidden’ curriculum. Once that is done, then teachers, parents and of course the children at school will root out the ‘hidden’ so that it becomes visible, and then it can be tackled.

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant