Hidden Curriculum in Schools: Definition, Examples & Advantages (2019)

What is the Hidden Curriculum?

hidden curriculum: definition, examples, advantages and disadvantages

Here’s a simple definition to start:

The hidden curriculum is all those things that we teach in schools that aren’t written down in syllabus documents.

The visible curriculum is what we’re told to teach: mathematics, science, languages, and so forth. But there is a lot more that goes on at school besides.

In fact, school is a place where we’re subtly taught how to behave, walk, speak, wear our clothing, interact, and so on.

I’m sure you’ve experienced it.

A teacher at the front of the classroom yells out to you: “Don’t speak out of turn, Jessica!”

Teaching you when to speak is not a part of the curriculum. The teacher isn’t paid to ensure you are aware of when and how to speak to people.

But they reinforce this rule anyway.

And generally, most parents and politicians generally agree that teachers do and should reinforce these small, subtle rules

Examples include:

  • Morals: Schools ensure that the moral fabric of a society is passed down from one generation to the next. We’re taught not to steal, how to be polite, to respect our elders, and so on and so forth.
  • Norms: Things that have become ‘normal’ in our society are re-taught to us in school. Putting your hand up to signify you want to speak isn’t something that’s natural – we weren’t born knowing it. We’ve just decided that it’s a norm, and now we pass that rule on from one generation to the next. The same goes with tucking your shirt in to ‘look neat’. We just pass this on from one generation to the next, because we were taught this by our teachers back in the day.
  • Power Hierarchies: Many theorists believe that a main role of school is to reinforce power hierarchies. In other words, the local government school is designed to remind the working class that they’re born to work. The posh school down the street is there to teach young people from the wealthier classes how to be bosses.
  • Gender roles: One part of the power hierarchy that might be reinforced in schools is gender roles. Research shows that boys get a lot more attention from their teachers than girls. Some teachers might also treat girls and boys differently. This ‘hidden’ pattern of behavioirs might reinforce gender disparities between girls and boys.

Scholarly Definition of the Hidden Curriculum

Regular readers would know that I believe we always need to use scholarly definitions for terms.

If you’re writing an essay on this topic, it’s extra important that you define it using scholarly sources.

So, here’s a few scholarly definitions of the ‘hidden curriculum’:

  • Boostrom (2010, p. 440) argues that the hidden curriculum “refers to student learning that is not described by curriculum planners or teachers as an explicit aim of instruction even though it results from deliberate practices and organizational structures.”
  • Kentli (2009, p. 88) surveys different approaches to the hidden curriculum, and argues that each definition shares the common belief that the hidden curriculum is “the elements of socialization that take place in school (including) norms, values and belief systems.”
  • Alsubaie (2015, p. 125) argues that the hidden curriculum “refers to the unspoken or implicit values, behaviors,
    procedures, and norms that exist in the educational setting”

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Where does the Term Come From?

The short answer is: Phillip Jackson first coined the term in his book Life in Classrooms (1968).

But let me give you a little more background on a few influential theorists who have contributed to the development of the term.

a) Emile Durkheim: Socialization and Moral Education

Before the term was invented, there were scholars already writing about how schools have some hidden purposes. Durkheim never used the exact phrase, but he wrote a lot about the same idea.

In particular, Durkheim wrote that schools do more than teach the curriculum. Rather, schools socialize us by showing us how to behave in society.

We often associate Durkheim with the idea of ‘socialization’. To Durkheim, school did more than teach information. It taught us morality. It taught us how to behave as members of a society and taught us our place in society.

b) Phillip Jackson: Life in Classrooms

Perhaps the first mention of the exact phrase is from Phillip Jackson.

The term ‘hidden curriculum’ is generally understood as originating with Phillip Jackson in his book Life in Classrooms (1968).

Jackson observed classrooms and argued that there were some things that were being taught that weren’t in the books. He observed these behaviors constantly being reinforced within the classroom:

  • Manners such as being courteous;
  • Making an effort;
  • Keeping busy;
  • Waiting quietly for your turn;
  • Turning up on time

c) Giroux and Apple: Critical Theorists

The term is now generally associated with critical theory and neo-Marxist ideas.

Critical theory and neo-Marxism do not think the hidden curriculum is a good thing.

These people are concerned that the hidden curriculum enables powerful people to hold on to and reinforce their power over others.

Two of the most widely cited contemporary theorists of the hidden curriculum are:

  • Henry Giroux, and
  • Michael Apple

Both are critical theorists who believe that schooling is a way of enforcing the power of the ruling class over the working class.

>>> Citations for the above authors are provided at the end of this post.

Further Reading

I strongly recommend this journal article which gives a really nice and easy to read breakdown of all the different theorists who have used the term over the years.

Here’s the APA citation for the article:

Kentli, F. (2009). Comparison of Hidden Curriculum Theories. European Journal of Educational Studies, 1(2): 83 – 88.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Hidden Curriculum

While reading this post, you might have already been thinking about whether the hidden curriculum is a good thing or a bad thing.

In my seminars, students are usually divided on this point. And I like to see some differences of opinions.

But if you’re preparing a seminar or essay on the topic, you should probably present both sides of the argument.

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So here are both the pros and cons of the hidden curriculum:

a)    The Pros of the Hidden Curriculum

  1. School’s job is to prepare us for life in a society. Societies need norms that bind us. If we don’t have a shared culture or shared understandings of good and bad, right and wrong, our society might crumble. It’s good that schools are a place where we learn to get along.
  2. Children need to be taught to obey adults. Whether it’s at school, home or elsewhere, adults have a responsibility to correct children when they misbehave. As a teacher, you have a special obligation to ‘raise people well’, not just teach them things.
  3. Schools would fail to function without rules. The hidden curriculum is necessary to maintain order and fairness. Rules are necessary for creating calm, predictable environments in which learning will occur.

b) The Cons of the Hidden Curriculum

  1. Reproduction of social class inequalities. It is possible that the hidden curriculum subtly teaches working class people that they need to remember their place in life: to work hard and earn a meager living without complaining. By contrast, the hidden content taught in posh schools may subtly teach the upper classes that their job is to become keepers of the moral codes and future bosses of the poor.
  2. Gender roles are reinforced. Some people think schools subtly teach girls to wait their turn, act like ladies and be polite, while it teaches boys to speak up and act like authority figures. This might subtly reinforce gender norms from one generation to the next.
  3. People of color and minority cultures are expected to assimilate. If school is designed to reinforce social rules, are people from minority cultures supposed to drop their cultural values and norms when at school? Is school forcing cultural conformity to the dominant culture?

Examples in Schools

Here are a few examples of studies that have shown how the concept works in schools:

  • Morris (2005) Tuck in That Shirt!: This journal article argues that there is a hidden curriculum in schools that forces young people of color to dress like white people. Fashions popular in the black community are discouraged because they are considered inferior fashions to the fashion of the dominant culture. Morris (2005, p. 28) argues: “The hidden curriculum tacitly teaches students unspoken lessons about their race, class, and gender.”
  • Walton (2005) Implications for LGBTQI Youth: Walton argues that the hidden curriculum is in effect when sexuality education fails to adequately discuss LGBTQI sexuality. By discussing heterosexuality as the presumed norm for all young people, LGBTQI children are taught that they are different and, potentially, need to hide their identities or be ashamed of them.
  • Cubukcu (2012) Effects on Character Education: Cubukcu argues that the explicit teaching of morals and values in lesson formats is not effective enough. Instead, we have to learn values by living them. This is, in effect, the ‘learning by doing’ argument. To live our values in schools, we need to celebrate national days that commemorate important events, expect positive social relationships as a norm, and participation in extracurricular activities that teach team work and character building. This argument is a more positive vision of the hidden curriculum that sees it as necessary for developing understandings of “good and evil behavior, decisions, group relations, human relations, organizational behavior, upper-lower relationships and so many other issues” (Cubukcu, 2012, p. 1532).
  • Thornberg (2009) The Moral Construction of the Good Pupil: Thornberg argues that the hidden curriculum in school rules teaches us to be docile and unquestioning of the social order. Students internalize the rules of the school because they learn that if they follow the rules they will be rewarded for being ‘good pupils’. Because there is no explicit discussion and critique of school rules in lessons, students aren’t taught to question the norms and learn to be blindly obedient. Thornberg therefore thinks the hidden curriculum is a bad thing. He argues: “The function of the hidden curriculum is social control” (2009, p. 246).

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Sources and Further Reading

Regular readers of this website would know that I believe you should always cite quality academic articles when writing about topics at university.

Below are some useful sources that you can cite if you are writing an essay on this topic.

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My Recommendations for Further Reading

I strongly recommend the Kentli and Alsubaie articles which are the easiest to understand introductions to the topic that I have come across. Both are freely available online if you click the following links:

And here are all the articles I recommend you cite in your essay:

Alsubaie, M. A. (2015). Hidden Curriculum as One of Current Issue of Curriculum. Journal of Education and Practice, 6(33): 125 – 128. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1083566.pdf

Apple, M. W. (2004). Ideology and Curriculum. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Boostrom, R. (2010). Hidden Curriculum. In: Kridel, C. (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Curriculum Studies. (pp. 440 – 441). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Cubukcu, Z. (2012). The Effect of Hidden Curriculum on Character Education Process of Primary School Students. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 12(2): 1526-1534. Retrieved from: http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ987859.pdf

Durkheim, E. (1961). Moral Education. New York: Free Press.

Giroux, H. A. (2001). Theory and Resistance in Education. London: Bergin & Garvey.

Jackson, P. (1968). Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston Publishers.

Kentli, F. (2009). Comparison of Hidden Curriculum Theories. European Journal of Educational Studies, 1(2): 83 – 88.

Margolis, E. (2001). The Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education. New York: Routledge.

Morris, E. (2005). “Tuck in that shirt!” Race, class, gender, and discipline in an urban school. Sociological Perspectives, 48(1): 25-48. Doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/sop.2005.48.1.25   

Thornberg, R. (2009). The moral construction of the good pupil embedded in school rules. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 4(3): 245-261. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1746197909340874

Walton, G. (2005). The hidden curriculum in schools: Implications for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth. Alternate Routes: A Journal of Critical Social Research21(1): 18-39. Retrieved from: http://www.alternateroutes.ca/index.php/ar/article/view/20362

The above citations are in APA format. If you need some guidance on converting the citations to another format, read my advice here.

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