Hidden Curriculum: What Are You Really Teaching?

According to the Ministry of Education for the Province of Alberta, Canada, curriculum is the what that students need to learn. Curriculum, education.alberta.ca explains, also concerns when students will learn it (in the sense of sequence of learning), the big ideas entailed, the guiding questions students explore along the way, and the expected student learning outcomes. Curriculum, by its nature, tends to be explicit and clearly communicated before and during instruction through tools such as presentations, lectures, discussions, assessment, and rubrics.

But, there is a not-so-explicit, or hidden, curriculum. Kenneth T. Henson, in the book Curriculum Planning: Integrating Multiculturalism, Constructivism, and Education Reform, explains that hidden curriculum is taught by the school experience. This hidden curriculum, he explains, is subtle, yet is a “powerful force in any school.” But, what exactly is hidden curriculum? To me, hidden curriculum is what is unsaid, but practiced in a classroom. It involves unspoken rules, or practices promoted and regulated by the school, individual teachers, or administrators. An example of hidden curriculum would be a high school teacher who has a policy of making students raise their hand and ask to use the bathroom. The teacher would overtly teach students about the teenage years and the importance of personal growth and taking responsibility for one’s actions, and then making students ask for permission to go to the bathroom. The overt message is undermined by the hidden message.

One example of hidden curriculum in my own classroom is the development of student language skills. I am a seventh grade social studies teacher and my class content centers around life, society, individuals, and events from approximately 500 CE to around 1800 CE in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. However, in an implicit way, I am also trying to help my students build their language skills. Yes, language skills are a part of the social studies program in the Common Core. However, this focus on language takes on a larger role in my school because of the demographic reality of the student population. I work at a private international school in the Dominican Republic. The vast majority of students in the population speaks Spanish as a first language. Although significant progress is made throughout a student’s journey through elementary school, students in the middle school cope with some challenges in terms of communicating in English, especially in their writing. The school’s lack of a language policy, coupled with the complication of some teachers operating solely in Spanish, makes English language acquisition problematic. As a result, students who are not native English speakers are performing many grade levels below expectations. To address this concern, I have broadened and deepened the role of language in my curriculum. Students write more in my class and spend more time debating issues – they do more talking in my class than I do.

Another item of hidden curriculum in my class is the inclusion of critical thinking skills within my content. As well as providing students with an understanding of the time period content, I include additional skills. I met with my high school counterparts in an attempt to better align our curriculum and ensure that students moving from middle to high school not only had the content goals mastered, but also the acquisition of necessary social studies-related skills. For example, to develop the skill of discrimination, I am frequently challenging students to choose between ideas to determine which one they think is “best”. This is clearly based on student assumption, and not necessarily on the explicit curriculum. However, by challenging students to discriminate between a number of options, students are forced to analyze and evaluate ideas and then create an opinion supported by evidence.

Although devised as a positive, the focus on critical thinking has a hidden negative aspect. For instance, to better prepare students for success in high school, high school level assessment tools are employed in middle school. Chief among these tools is the Document-Based Question, or the DBQ. A number of our high school Advanced Placement history colleagues told us that they felt that middle school students were coming into high school unprepared for AP class DBQs.  DBQs are used in high school and beyond is because they are developmentally appropriate for older students. They are not appropriate for 10 and 11-year old kids. If we had that meeting again today, I would tell my high school colleagues that it is their job to prepare students for their assessments. After all, middle school teachers don’t go down to first grade classes and ask teachers to assign first graders a five-paragraph essay. Sadly, the middle school team did not resist DBQs and adopted them as an assessment tool as is. The results have been disastrous. Middle school students have developed a feeling of inadequacy and feel they are not going to be ready for the challenges ahead in high school. Some teachers relish this inadequacy and use it as a method of classroom discipline/control. Teachers will say things like “You failed your DBQ. If I was you, I would stop socializing with my friends and maybe start focusing on my work and study habits!” However, no amount of preparation can help a student succeed at a task that is developmentally inappropriate. This can only serve to undermine student self esteem and cause them to look forward to the future with trepidation, rather than with wonder and anticipation.

Sonia Nieto, in the introduction to her book Why We Teach Now, describes the struggles teachers face in terms of “bureaucracy over creativity and rigidity over spontaneity”. Sometimes teachers can get caught up in the big picture of education, focusing on the long-term goals of preparing students for challenges to come instead of the smaller, day-to-day issues. Rather than breaking things into smaller, more manageable chunks, teachers might – in a rush for rigor and the overwhelming sense of urgency – throw students into challenges that they are simply not ready for….yet. Yet is the key here. As Carol Dweck pointed out at a TED video The Power of Believing You Can Improve, students need to believe that they are on a journey. Failure is not the end, it is simply a step towards success. To this end, I would address the issue of DBQs in the middle school utilizing the ideas of Nieto and Dweck in the sense that I would make DBQs fun again and help students find success in DBQs in a developmentally appropriate manner. I will be assuming the position of middle school social studies department chair next academic year. One of my goals will be to work with my teammates to change the way we use DBQs. I would like to break DBQs down into their component parts and instruct students on how to employ the parts individually, one at a time. This would begin in sixth grade. By eighth grade, students would be expected to put all the parts together and then complete their first full DBQ. In this way, students will be prepared for high school assessment, but in a way that is appropriate and scaffolded. Students would find success and a sense of accomplishment along the way.

The hidden curriculum of language instruction I improve is an example of positive hidden curriculum. As positive as I believe it is, it could, nevertheless, be improved. Language skills at my school are a concern because of the Spanish heritage of the majority of my students. If I wish to make a change and improve their English language skills, I will need the help of my colleagues and the parents of my students. From my colleagues, I will need language learning support. Language development cannot simply take place in one class out of the eight in our schedule. All teachers will have to come aboard and build language goals into all of our classes. It would be helpful for us to plan together, sharing strategies and best practices and providing each other with encouragement. And, support is required at home also. One of the issues for our Spanish-dominant students is that they operate in English only during our classes. In all other areas of their lives (recess, travelling between classes, life at home) they operate only in Spanish. How can their English improve under these circumstances? With the help of parents, students might be encouraged to read English books at home and discuss learning (homework and upcoming assignments) with their parents or siblings in English.

As teachers, we need to be careful of the influence we have on our students. We must examine what we do (and say) in our classrooms to ensure that everything we engage in is supporting our learning objectives for the students. Are all of our strategies, expectations, behaviors, and words aligned appropriately? Are our students victims of a “do as I say, not as I do” environment? By analyzing our explicit and our implicit curriculum, we can ensure that we are supporting, rather than unintentionally undermining, our objectives.

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