The hidden curriculum

The hidden curriculum

The concept of the 'hidden' curriculum is very ambiguous. There is no unquestionably correct definition so it De Bono describes such words as 'porridge' words - an imprecise notion that can be stirred around to generate further ideas. However, most sociologists use the term to refer to the various characteristics of schooling that are unquestioned or 'taken for granted'.

The hidden curriculum

'What is important about what pupils learn in school is not primarily the 'overt' curriculum of subjects like French and Biology, but values and beliefs such as conformity, knowing one's place, waiting one's turn, competitiveness, individual worth and deference to authority'. The hidden curriculum teaches pupils 'the way life is' and that education is something that is done to them rather than something that they do. The prevailing values of society are 'picked-up' by pupils.' (Whitty and Young, 1976).

The hidden curriculum is seen as a necessary part of schooling, but it is more of an approach than a 'thing'.

The approach encourages the asking of questions such as:

  • What is it necessary for?
  • Why does it work in particular ways?
  • How did it develop?
  • Whose interests are served by it?

Thus the concept is used as a way of seeking out the unacknowledged intentions and results of schooling and for questioning whether the aims of schools are really what they seem.

There are two levels of analysis:

  • Macro-sociological.
  • Micro-sociological.

Macro analysis studies the relationship between schooling and society as a whole. It is part of the 'social systems' approach of functionalism and Marxism.

At the Mirco level, analysis tends to be either - the hidden curriculum as necessary and beneficial. For example, Durkheim regarded the hidden curriculum as the moral component of the curriculum which involved students learning respect for authority, etc. Or the hidden curriculum is seen as malevolent and damaging. For Marxists, the hidden curriculum is concerned with the production, maintenance and legitimation of social inequality.

Micro approaches are based on the social constructionist perspective. The 'official' curriculum is ignored and the school is viewed as an organisation within which 'actors' (teachers and pupils), with varying amounts of power, interact and negotiate.

There are two main threads to this type of research:

The hidden curriculum

  1. An emphasis on organisational aspects of schooling. For example, space, time-tabling and filing.
  2. The 'construction of reality' - how teachers and students arrive at and negotiate 'the definition of the situation'.

For Marxists, the hidden curriculum refers to the authority structure of schooling - the hierarchical nature of both the structure and process of schooling conveys ideas of subordination and hierarchy that are essential for future workers, managers and bureaucrats. Therefore, it is the form of schooling not its content that is all important.

Marxists suggest that subordination and control were the original and explicitly stated functions of schooling but they have become hidden in recent years behind an official educational ideology of equal opportunity and meritocracy.

Consequently, analysis of hidden curriculum takes as its starting point the political nature of schooling and asks in whose interest it works.

Example: Bowles & Gintis (1976), Schooling in Capitalist America

Main points:

  • Schools act to furnish the economy with a labour force provided with the appropriate skills, personalities and attitudes.
  • Schools are involved in the production of a submissive, obedient and disciplined workforce.
  • This is a 'hidden' function of schooling because it is contrary to the prevailing ideology of schooling, which views the school as a device to promote social reform and social mobility.
  • The hidden curriculum operates through a 'correspondence' between the structure of schooling and the economic system. The nature of work and social relations fostered in the education system mirror those in capitalist society. For example, students obey orders, students have no control over the curriculum, students gain little intrinsic satisfaction from work. This 'mirrors' or 'corresponds' with students' future positions in the workforce. The worker has no control over work and experiences little intrinsic satisfaction.

Outcome: The reproduction of social relations of production.

There is no unified theoretical structure, just a series of studies linked by the idea that nothing in schools is quite what it seems.

The studies can be grouped into two main areas:

  1. The study of the school as an organisation - this explores the way organisational and bureaucratic aspects of schooling promote their own hidden curriculum.
  2. The study of classroom interaction - the idea that the 'reality' of the classroom is a negotiated reality. For students and teachers, the hidden curriculum consists of learning how to survive in the classroom.

The hidden curriculum

The general theoretical framework is provided by Goffman (Total Institutions). Although he concentrates on 'total institutions' - boarding schools, hospitals, asylums, the characteristics he describes provide a method of evaluating organisational styles in other institutions.

In total institutions:

  • Inmates lead enclosed formally administered lives.
  • There is a prescribed 'career' pattern and a privilege system designed to reward those who conform.
  • Inmates are united in opposition to staff. The staff form a separate and superior category.
  • Inmates are 'raw' material of routine work of the staff and arrangements are made to administer them efficiently.
  • Therefore, it is possible to see aspects of total institutions in most schools - from the organisation of the timetable to the symbolic barriers of playground and classrooms.

A similar approach was used by James (1968). He argued that the cumulative effect of various organisational features of schooling is to promote a hidden curriculum of competition. School organisation emphasises - competition not sharing, superiority not equality, incoherent learning, learning as unpleasant not joyful, that learning equals group listening and that knowledge is fragmented.

The allocation of time and space is an important aspect of decision-making. Meighan (1986) pictures the school as 'haunted' by the ghosts of past decisions and decision makers. For example, Space includes the spaces available for teaching; it suggests the possibilities and opportunities for teaching, it places constraints on what can be done. Space usage implies ideas that are often taken for granted.

The hidden curriculum

The message of the furniture in a school is 'sit and listen' - pupil behaviour is influenced by the architecture of the classroom. There is a similarity between the school and the factory-both have to be functional. Do different architectural arrangements foster different types of teaching and learning?

Time-tabling has implications for students and teachers. Time-tabling carries hidden messages about the importance/worthof different subjects and groups of students.

Again the main theoretical influence is Goffman, 'The Presentation of the Self in Everyday life'. Important concepts include; front, defining the situation, the negotiation of Reality.


Jackson (1968) 'Life in Classrooms':

Jackson used the term hidden curriculum to describe the unofficial 3Rs - rules, routines and regulations. These 3Rs had to be learned by students to survive comfortably in classrooms. Students develop classroom coping strategies to accommodate delay, denial and interruption. The survival strategies are learned at the expense of the official curriculum - learning is inhibited.

Holt (1969) 'How Children Fail':

'Right Answerism' is the survival strategy.It involves pleasing the teacher by giving or appearing to give the right answer. This encourages tactics that detract from the educational experience of school. Non-examined areas are neglected and 'memorisation' rather than 'understanding' is fostered.

Postman & Weingartner (1969)

The hidden curriculum consists of discovering that:

  1. Knowledge is beyond the power of students and is in any case, none of their business.
  2. Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement - the collection of 'facts' is the goal of education.
  3. The voice of authority is to be trusted more than independent judgement.
  4. One's own ideas and those of classmates are inconsequential.
  5. Feelings are irrelevant in education.
  6. There is always a single unambiguous answer to any question.
  7. Passive acceptance is a more desirable response to ideas than active criticism.

Woods (1983) 'Sociology and The School.

Woods outlines various strategies adopted by teachers and pupils in the classroom.

Woods is particularly interesting for his work on control in the classroom - strategies for survival - the hidden curriculum of teachers. He suggests that traditional normative means of control are often inadequate therefore teachers need other techniques to survive in the classroom.

Socialisation: Socialise children into tolerable forms of behaviour. 'Pupils are given drill in how to move about the school, sit in desks, raise hands... the puritan ethic of hard work, sober living and good manners is continuously urged upon them.'

Domination: Coercive control, punishment (even illegal in some cases) is used. 'There is a great deal of punching, knuckling, tweaking, clouting, slapping, slippering, hair-pulling, twisting, rulering and kicking.'

There are also humiliating verbal assaults - anger is part of a teachers 'front'. This seemed especially typical of P.E. staff who later become responsible for discipline. They use 'mortification' techniques.

The hidden curriculum

Negotiation The principle of exchange - in return for good behaviour work demands are lessened. Rules and compromises over rules are worked out between teacher and pupils. Teachers may abandon work ideals and settle for what they can get.

Fraternisation: 'If you can't beat them join them'. Minimise potential conflict and develop a sense of obligation/identification. Fraternisation has a number of forms-young teachers have natural advantages, other examples, humour, sport, television are used to maintain student interest. Teaching becomes entertainment.

Absence or Removal: Go sick - timetable manipulation; delaying tactics in lessons; unloading problem pupils on to others; use coursework - pupil-initiated work.

Ritual and Routine: These enable teachers to establish a 'regime', for example, registration, form periods, assemblies, timetables. Routine has a survival value. Textbook teaching, dictating notes are both coping mechanisms that can secure student support since it involves them in little effort.