Curriculum, Part II: The Hidden Curriculum

This is the second post in a series exploring the concept and role of curriculum. Read Part I here.

In my first year of teaching, I was presented with a group of students with challenging behaviors. I had been notified of the students’ patterns of behavior during my interview for the position, and warned of their difficulty (I heard later that a teacher or two had come and gone as a result of this group). I willingly took up the challenge, because this is what I had become a teacher for. As a newly inducted member into the ranks of urban education in a self-contained classroom in a high needs school, though I’d had an inkling of what I was getting into, I really didn’t have a clue until I was immersed in the everyday reality. Every morning I was greeted with a student who told me he hated me and wanted to punch me in the face (this was just how he greeted me: imagine the rest of our day together); I and other students were cursed at daily and threatened both verbally and physically (think fifth-grade students are small? Think again); negotiated with chairs thrown and desks kicked, absolute refusals to do anything I asked, in addition to a whole wonderful slew of behaviors that I don’t really recall much anymore, as it recedes into a fog of traumatic amnesia.

I came into that classroom every day prepared to teach academic content to my students, but frequently found myself halting my prepared curriculum (most especially after lunch) to teach lessons on social skills, the differences between the rules of the street and the classroom, and self-control (as I discussed more in one of my last posts). As I reflected on this need to teach my students how to interact positively and methods of gaining self-control, I was amazed at how dire and obvious this need was, yet there was little inclusion of this material in any formally recognized curriculum or standards. I have since come to recognize that there is a name for this dearth in the unspoken skills requisite to navigating life, academics, and larger society: the “hidden curriculum.”

There are a couple of ways that the idea of a hidden curriculum has been interpreted. One is from the perspective of class or cultural oppression, in which inequity is perpetuated by the biases of a dominant culture through unwritten but clearly expressed social rules in schools. For example, a teacher may convey inadvertent stereotypical assumptions about the students she is teaching by reducing coursework or expectations. Another interpretation of hidden curriculum is from the perspective of developmental socialization, as in the “unwritten or implicit rules we were never taught but just seem to know.” In the first interpretation, the deficit lies in the adult, who enforces the biases of the dominant culture either blindly or coercively, while in the second interpretation, the deficit lies in the student, who fails to recognize implicit social or behavioral rules, whether due to disability or lack of early childhood exposure.

In either case, I think there is a middle ground to be found between these two interpretations of the hidden curriculum, in that it is the role and responsibility of the educator to render explicit what is assumed implicitly. Teaching is all about making concrete what is abstract and dredging up the invisible foundations that underly knowledge. If we are going to instill values from a selective standpoint in our classrooms and schools, then we should give voice to those values and make them readily apparent, thus allowing parents and families a choice as to whether they feel that is the right kind of environment and school for their child. If we are going to address social skill or behavioral deficits with our students, then we should be clear about what social norms are and how healthy relationships are fostered and sustained. John Merrow, in “The Influence of Teachers: Reflections On Teaching and Leadership,” promotes this idea in his chapter on making schools safe.

Merrow writes:

If bullying is really a form of abuse, and if values matter, why not build schools around the concept of choice and variety? … Publish the choices and the code of ethics/behavior, and let families make informed choices.

I believe that we fail our children when we don’t acknowledge the hidden values and rules of our society’s social behaviors. We also fail our children when we pretend that there isn’t much more to succeeding in our society than academic success and intelligence, and ignore the critical need for the development of character. In a recent article in American Educator, “The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education,” economist James Heckman makes the case for character development in education:

While important, cognitive abilities alone are not as powerful as a package of cognitive skills and social skills. … Cognition and personality drive education and life success, with character (personality) development being an important and neglected factor.

When we ignore the critical importance of character development in education, we also conveniently ignore the fact that children are not a tabula rasa when they enter our schools. Children have social and emotional needs that are nothing new to attuned parents, teachers, and developmental psychologists, just to name a few. There’s a quotation from a book on Life Space Crisis Intervention (which is based on a therapeutic approach that every educator in a high needs school should be trained in) that has stuck with me since I began teaching, in which the authors state that schools “are the psychological emergency rooms of society.” Children are entering our schools with needs so deep, urgent, and vast that when they are plunged into the frenzied pace and shallow coverage of our public school curriculum, they let their teachers know in no uncertain terms that this content is not meeting their needs.

Yet somehow we pretend these needs are secondary when we consider our academic standards and curriculum, as if social and emotional needs will somehow be met by happenstance or by individual school policies. If we truly want to level the playing field and enable students from disadvantaged communities to become empowered citizens, then we will acknowledge and formalize cognitive and social capabilities as a fundamental component of our curriculum and pedagogy. And we will systematically address deep-seated emotional and social needs through interventions designed to target exactly what a student needs, whether that is a lot of love and attention from an adult they trust or time spent practicing and role-playing how to hold a formal conversation.

Let me hasten to state, lest there is misunderstanding of my purpose in writing about the hidden curriculum from the standpoint of equity, that a curriculum that addresses social and emotional needs and development of character is not something solely applicable to disadvantaged students. In my past jobs in retail and hospitality, I served a lot of wealthy people and their kids, and I can tell you that those children (and their parents) are suffering just as much from a lack of social skills and emotional literacy. Children anywhere and everywhere have social and emotional needs well beyond the academic function (get-students-into-college) that public schools are purported to serve.

Business leaders are telling leaders in education that they are looking for graduates with social skills and interpersonal capabilities. Research tells us that self-control is far more important in predicting future success than IQ. Educators keep telling the world that they have kids that don’t know how to sit still for more than one minute, don’t know how to organize their supplies, and don’t know how to interact with their peers in a positive way. Is anybody listening? Schools need to do much more than teach academic content. They need to teach and nurture — as many educators have been saying over and over again — the whole child. And so long as we do not acknowledge this need in our formal curriculum, it will continue to be “hidden,” and thus, continue to be ignored.

In my next post on curriculum, I will explore the concept of a unified core curriculum and how it ties into our discussion of equity and the systematic and explicit teaching of knowledge.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.