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Hidden Curriculum

Hidden Curriculum

18 April, 2016

  • Unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school.
  • Comprises of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.
  • Based on the recognition that students absorb lessons in school that may or may not be part of the formal course of study
  • Example: How students should communicate with peers, teachers, and other adults; how they should perceive different races, groups, or classes of people; or what ideas and behaviors are considered acceptable or unacceptable.
  • Usually unrecognized or unexamined by students, educators, and the wider community.
  • Often the accepted status quo so it may be assumed that these “hidden” practices and messages don’t need to change—even if they are contributing to undesirable behaviors and results, whether it’s bullying, conflicts, or low graduation and college-enrollment rates.

NOTE: A hidden curriculum can support the lessons of the formal curriculum, or it can contradict it, revealing hypocrisies or inconsistencies between a school’s stated mission, values, and convictions and what students actually experience and learn while they are in school. For example, a school may publicly claim in its mission or vision statement that it’s committed to ensuring that all students succeed academically, but a review of its performance data may reveal significant racial or socioeconomic discrepancies when it comes to test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of success. And because what is not taught in school can sometimes be as influential or formative as what is taught, the hidden curriculum also extends to subject areas, values, and messages that are omitted from the formal curriculum and ignored, overlooked, or disparaged by educators.


  1. Cultural expectations: The academic, social, and behavioral expectations established by schools and educators impart messages to students. For example, one teacher may give tough assignments and expect all students to do well on those assignments, while another teacher may give comparatively easy assignments and habitually award all students passing grades even when their work quality is low. In the high-expectations class, students may learn much more and experience a greater sense of accomplishment, whereas students in the low-expectations class may do just enough work to get by and be comparatively uninterested in the lessons they are being taught. Similarly, schools may unconsciously hold students from different cultural backgrounds—for example, minorities, recently arrived immigrant students, or students with disabilities—to lower academic expectations, which may have unintended or negative effects on their academic achievement, educational aspirations, or feelings of self-worth.
  2. Cultural values:The values promoted by schools, educators, and peer groups, such as cliques, may also convey hidden messages. For example, some schools may expect and reward conformity while punishing nonconformity, whereas other schools might celebrate and even encourage nonconformity. In one school, students may learn that behaviors such as following the rules, acting in expected ways, and not questioning adults are rewarded, while in other schools students learn that personal expression, taking initiative, or questioning authority are valued and rewarded behaviors. Similarly, if biased or prejudicial behaviors and statements are tolerated in a school, students may embrace the values that are accepted or modeled—either explicitly or implicitly—by adults and other students.
  3. Cultural perspectives: How schools recognize, integrate, or honor diversity and multicultural perspectives may convey both intentional and unintended messages. For example, some schools may expect recently arrived immigrant students and their families to “assimilate” into American culture—for example, by requiring the students to speak English in school at all times or by not providing translated informational materials or other specialized assistance. Other schools, however, may actively integrate or celebrate the multicultural diversity of the student body by inviting students and parents to share stories about their home country, for example, or by posting and publishing informational materials in multiple languages. In one school, non-American cultures may be entirely ignored, while in another they may be actively celebrated, with students and their families experiencing feelings of either isolation or inclusion as a result.
  4. Curricular topics: The subjects that teachers choose for courses and lessons may convey different ideological, cultural, or ethical messages. For example, the history of the United States may be taught in a wide variety of ways using different historical examples, themes, and perspectives. A teacher may choose to present the history of the world or the United States from the perspective of the European settlers and explorers, or she may choose to present it from the perspective of displaced Native Americans or colonized African and Asian peoples. In the first case, teaching American history from a strictly Eurocentric perspective would likely minimize or ignore the history and suffering of Native Americans (a common educational practice in past decades). Curricular topics may also often intersect with, or be influenced by, political, ideological, and moral differences that are broadly contentious in American society—e.g., teaching evolution in science courses, multiculturalism in social studies, or sex education in health courses.
  5. Teaching strategies: The way that schools and teachers choose to educate students can convey both intentional and unintended messages. For example, if students earn good grades or extra credit for turning in homework on time, listening attentively, participating during class, raising their hands, and generally doing things they are told to do, the students may learn that compliance is important and that certain behaviors will be academically rewarded and allowed to compensate for learning deficiencies. On the other hand, instructional approaches such as project-based learningor community-based learning, to name just two of many possible options, may communicate specific messages—for example, that skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, and attributes such as persistence, resourcefulness, and self-motivation, are valued and important (in the case of project-based learning) or that being informed about and involved in local issues are valued and important (in the case of community-based learning).
  6. School structures:The way that a school or academic program is organized and operated can convey messages to students. For example, if non-English-speaking students are largely separated from their peers for most of the school day, or students with physical or learning disabilities are enrolled in specialized programs that are relegated to windowless classrooms in the basement, these organizational decisions may have unintended effects on the students’ sense of cultural belonging, self-worth, or academic potential. In addition, the organization of a school program can also mirror or reinforce cultural biases or prejudices. For example, students of color and students from lower-income households are often disproportionately represented in lower-level courses, and special-education programs may inadvertently reinforce some of the social stigmas that children and adults with disabilities experience outside of school.
  7. Institutional rules:The formal rules in a school may communicate a wide variety of intentional and unintentional messages to students. For example, some schools ask students to wear school uniforms, some ban certain types of attire (short skirts, clothing with images and language considered to be inappropriate), and others have very liberal or permissive clothing policies. While the intent of formal school rules and policies is to tell students how they are expected to behave, the degree to which they are enforced or unenforced, or the ways in which they are enforced, may communicate messages the undermine or contradict their stated intent. In this case, stricter dress-code policies may communicate that students will be judged on appearances both inside and outside of school, while looser policies might implicate that they will be judged on other qualities.