pulling back the curtains of the hidden curriculum


Students' schooling experiences are some of the strongest forces in their development.  These experiences result not only in the learning of explicit subject matter associated with formal curricula, but also in a great deal of informal or tacit learning (Goodlad, 2004; Snyder, 1970).  This tacit learning is more a function of cultivation or socialization than teaching in the colloquial sense, and has been described as a hidden curriculum (Jackson, 1968).  While such learning is seldom mentioned in explicit goals (Apple, 1990), it has a profound and lasting impact on students (Ghosh, 2008; Posner, 2003), as it helps to conditions students to certain patterns of behavior, manners of thinking, deeply held beliefs, and dispositions (Burbules, 2008; Snyder, 1970), and even their underlying assumptions about the world (Apple, 1990; Bowers, 1993).  In short, “Children learn what they live” (Nolte, 1972).

While most of the literature on the hidden curriculum is focused on identifying hidden lessons and their role in social reproduction (Anderson, 2002), many of the factors which are associated with "teaching" the hidden curriculum (see Goodlad, 2004; Martin, 1983) are things which are under the teacher's control, or at least their influence.  However, because of its ineffible nature, the hidden curriculum is often determined by default hegemonic influences, rather than being designed and constructed with intentionality by teachers themselves.

Key Concepts and Underpinnings

The Hidden Curriculum.

The term “hidden curriculum” refers to the tacit, indirect, and often unintended learning which takes place in the school setting (Anderson, 2002).  While the term itself was coined by Jackson (1968), the sentiment that non-explicit aspects of children's educational experiences result in their own learning outcomes can be found in the ideas of educational innovators dating back at least as far as Pestalozzi (Biber & Pestalozzi, 2007) and Froebel (1887).

In popular usage, the term hidden curriculum tends to be used in a critical sense, focusing on its role in the social reproduction and the maintenance of social injustices (see Apple, 1990).  The notion of hegemony implies that fundamental patterns and power relations in society are maintained in large part by tacit ideological assumptions that are not usually conscious (Apple, 1990; Kellner, Lewis, Pierce, & Cho, 2009).  These tacit assumptions serve to organize and legitimate our activities and interactions, and as they relate to our constitutive frameworks and preferences, they are difficult to bring to our level of conscious awareness (Apple, 1990; Kellner, Lewis, Pierce, & Cho, 2009).  It is at this level, being incorporated into the deep architecture of our thoughts, that the hidden curriculum gains its potency (Apple, 1990; Burbules, 2008).  The incidental learning associated with the hidden curriculum, "contributes more to the political socialization of a student than do, say, civics classes or other forms of deliberate teaching of specific value orientations" (Apple, 1990, p.84).

Recognizing the powerful role of the hidden curriculum provokes the question of how it is taught and learned.  While most of the related literature has focused on un-hiding the hidden curriculum (Anderson, 2001), or its various effects (Apple, 1990; Giroux & Purpel, 1983; Margolis, 2001), the discussion occasionally points to some of the potentially potent “sources” of the hidden curriculum.  These sources include a wide array of contextual factors which impact students’ experiences (Martin, 1983), ranging from generalities like role modeling (Kolhberg, Levine, & Hewer, 1983) to more tangible factors such as grading procedures (Gatto, 2005; Ollman, 2001; Snyder, 1970), and language use (Crew, 1998).  

Tacit Teaching.

One way of thinking about the teacher's role in imparting the hidden curriculum is through the idea of tacit teaching.  The tacit quality refers to the ineffable or indirect means by which the hidden content is taught, and to the fact that both teachers and students may be unaware of the process (Burbules, 2008).  Foundational work on the concept of tacit knowledge is attributed to Polanyi (1966), who demonstrated that much of what we know—particularly within a field of procedural knowledge—is tacit in nature.  Tacit learning refers to that which is "not taught directly or intentionally; or, even, the things that are learned which are not in any simple or direct way 'taught' at all” (Burbules, 2008, para. 9).  This idea relates to Bourdieu's concept of 'habitus', the collection experientially grounded capacities, perspectives, and dispositions that allow us to navigate the choices and activities of everyday life (Bourdieu, 1977).  While the emphasis of “habitus” on social adaptation gives it a different usage than the term “tacit knowledge”, the former has also been used to explain social reproduction (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990), thus bringing discussion back around to the hidden curriculum.

The idea of "tacit or hidden teaching" has been used in discussion about the hidden curriculum at least as far back as 1990 (see Apple, 1990, p. 84); however, Burbules (2008) provided the first elaboration of the idea in a reflection on Wittgenstein's practices as a teacher of philosophy.  His essay relates a number of idiosyncrasies in Wittgenstein's teaching style to the practice of philosophy, and demonstrates their pedagogic value in helping students to take up the task of 'doing' philosophy themselves.  He defines tacit teaching as, "the many forms of informal instruction—some intentional, some unintentional, and some difficult to categorize simply as one or the other—by which skills, capacities, and dispositions are passed along within a domain of practice” (Burbules, 2008, para. 9).

In his analysis, Burbules (2008) focuses on tacit knowledge in relation to a domain of practice, which restricts the scope of usage.  The hidden curriculum, on the other hand, goes well beyond tacit know-how (technical tacit knowledge) to include deeply held values, assumptions, and dispositions (cognitive architecture).  While Burbules acknowledges the breadth and depth of the hidden curriculum, his discussion of tacit teaching focuses solely on teacher behaviors during instruction.  This is illuminating, but does not approach the broad range of contextual factors already associated elsewhere with the “teaching” of the hidden curriculum (see Goodlad, 2004; Martin, 1983).  A more powerful usage of the term would bridge this gap by expanding the idea of tacit teaching to include environmental design--any of the ways a teacher may adjust or prepare the learning environment for their students--an aspect of instructional practice already accounted for in, for instance, Montessori’s (1967b) concept of the teacher’s role.

School Climate.

The concept of school climate is related to discussion of the hidden curriculum because of an overlapping view that students’ immersion in the school context is important.  The idea of the hidden curriculum posits that this immersion results in learning of its own, whereas the idea of school climate focuses on how this immersive experience may impact other learning, and the child’s experience in general.

School climate refers to the feelings and attitudes elicited by the school environment (National School Climate Center, 2012).  It is a multidimensional construct covering physical, social, and academic dimensions (Loukas, 2007), but is typically associated with affective domains of students' schooling experiences (Freiberg & Stein, 1999), or experiential aspects such an academic or athletic focus in the school (Loukas, 2007).  While many of the factors involved in school climate may also be involved in the hidden curriculum, the former’s emphasis on affective and behavioral domains (rather than original learning) has restricted its usage, and the scope of factors associated with it (see Creemers & Reezigt, 1999; Freiberg, 1999) to a narrower band than those associated with the hidden curriculum (see Goodlad, 2004; Martin, 1983).  As such, while school climate is of relevance to the hidden curriculum, the construct is not an appropriate entry point for discussion of how to reorient the hidden curriculum.

The Educative Context.

The idea of an "educative context" is presented in lieu of school climate as a way of looking at the role of contextual factors in student learning.  The term implies that the context is not just a backdrop to education, but that this context is itself educative.  As the idea of habitus was used in relation to the notion of tacit learning (Burbules, 2008), Bourdieu’s complementary concept of “field” (Bourdieu, 1977) relates to the idea of educative context.  However, whereas the notion of field arose in the context of a broad sociological theory, educative context is intended much more pedagogically, as the basic source of students’ tacit learning, and as an explanation for the hidden curriculum more generally. 

There are two main ways in which the schooling context can be considered educative.  The first is in the sense of a contextual backdrop against which students understand and interpret explicit content from their teachers or textbooks.  This backdrop may or may not frame explicit content as relevant or important, or may even undermine explicit content by providing mixed messages (Jickling & Wals, 2007; Kahn, 2010).  Following McLuhan (1964) and Postman & Weingartner (1969) we cannot overlook the irony of learning about democracy in an autocratic classroom or learning about conservation in a wasteful school.  The second way in which the schooling context can be educative is on its own, apart from explicit content.  Aspects of students' schooling experience, such as the school discipline, classroom routines, and types of assessment practices may have no direct relationship to the explicit content of instruction, but serve to habituate students to patterns of behaviour, and values, that are gradually internalized as part of the hidden curriculum (Ollman, 2001; Snyder, 1970).  


Dewey (1938) wrote, "A primary responsibility of educators is that they … be aware of the general principle of shaping of actual experience by environing conditions….  Above all, they should know how to utilize the surroundings, physical and social, that exist so as to extract from them all that they have to contribute to building up experiences that are worth while" (Dewey, 1938, p. 40).  We are not accustomed to thinking about teaching in this way.  The idea of tacit teaching positions the teacher in an active role in relation to the educative context, and in so doing, reframes the hidden curriculum as something which teachers have substantial influence over.  There is a strong possibility that by expanding the concept of teaching to include the management of factors contributing to tacit learning, hidden curricula can be reoriented to support, rather than subvert, progressive educational goals such as those related to active citizenship, democratization, gender equality, social justice, and environmental sustainability.


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