The Hidden Curriculum
In my last post I wrote about values, and I was referring to something that I never explicitly stated, yet it was there nonetheless. I was and am talking about the hidden curriculum. This is what our lessons are about, beyond what our lessons are about. The simplest way I can explain this is with an example:
Let’s say that you are a history teacher in the US, and every great historical figure you present is a white male (I’ve literally had classes like this, it’s not as unusual as you might think). Or, even if you mentioned some non-white male greats, lets just say that every picture you showed your students happened to be of a white male. What you are explicitly teaching is history, perhaps even a very accurate and excellent version of it, however there is a hidden curriculum. Even if you never state it or actively address it, you’ve implied a major premise to your students without you (and often them) even realizing it. The contributions to history that are the most valued were made by white men. The people worth remembering are white men. History is about white men.
This happens in every subject in varying ways. For example, in my own subject, English as a second language, we often have presentations with mock dialogues and little pictures of people to illustrate who is speaking in which role. In my observances of other teachers, and looking through many Korean English textbooks, I found that the people depicted were overwhelmingly white. In a lesson about food, I completely shocked class after class because I used a picture of an African American family at a dinner table. My students could not get past the fact that the family was black because every other teacher had just showed foreigners as white (or east Asian, like them), every time. My students’ entire perspective on other countries was based on this monochromatic idea they had been fed without realizing it. Black people existed in the world, but they were so rare they weren’t worth mentioning. They were “other.”
Other patterns, such as a teacher often calling on boys with their hands raised but rarely on girls, have similar effects. Students learn that contributions of one gender are valued more than another.
In my previous post, I explained that teaching values is a part of teaching (I argued for not just teaching our own values, but trying to reflect values that would demonstrably benefit students and society). Even if you were to try to remove any hint of a teacher’s ideology from her teaching, there would still be a hidden curriculum. There is always something that is implied by what we do and do not include, what we say and what we leave unsaid. These things shape the ways our students view and interact with the world and they can do so in the most insidious ways. This is the stuff biases are made of. Not even brought up for question, lessons in the hidden curriculum are normative and are usually made unintentionally.
Just like in recognizing your own cognitive biases, it requires a high degree of constant effort to see the hidden curriculum you are teaching. It is very difficult to question what one automatically thinks of as “normal” or “right.”
I presented at a teacher’s conference a couple of years ago and was amazed at how many people talked to me afterwards regarding what I’d said about the hidden curriculum, even though it was a minor part of my presentation. They started to notice how often their example texts referred to “he” instead of “she” and how they hadn’t even realized that most of their visuals involved men. They realized that the whiteness of the majority of foreigners they showed could skew their students perspective on the rest of the world. But things like race and gender are the easiest to recognize. The real challenge comes in figuring out what is too subtle to notice (hence being called “hidden”).
I should clarify that the hidden curriculum isn’t all bad, there are things we depend on students learning without being explicitly taught and “good” values can be hidden just as well as “bad” ones. However, regardless of our efforts, we are teaching things that we don’t even realize we are teaching, and those things reflect values that students will absorb.
So what to do about it? The first thing to do is start looking. Having practiced examining your own cognitive biases helps, as does asking someone who has a very different cultural perspective. Non-Americans tend to be better at noticing the over-representation of Americans, for example.
At some point however, a decision will have to be made. No matter what you do, you will reflect some kind of values, whether they involve maintaining traditional views or normalizing new ideas, there is going to be something there. (An all-white-male history lesson and fully diverse one both imply a kind of value, just different ones.)
This brings me back to my last post, and what I was implying about teaching values in the classroom. I wasn’t talking about explicitly telling students what values they should adopt, but what a teacher should do in light of the hidden curriculum. Should we let our own biases and beliefs (political, religious, and otherwise) shape our hidden curricula? Speaking as someone who suffered from the ideologies of such teachers for years, I would give a resounding “no” to that question.
So whose values should we teach?*
*My implication in my last post was that we should look to society. Not as it is, but the direction it is heading. This was in the hope of 1. preparing students to help our society function at a basic level which is one of the purposes of education in a democratic society and 2. helping to give our students a better chance at succeeding in the society in which they will become adults. This approach is not to push our own beliefs on students or use them to further our own political ideas, but help them deal with the realities of the world they live in. In the long arc of history there is “progress” so I advocated a position that was to be “progressive” regardless of one’s own political position. While great criticisms to this came up in the comments, I still struggle to find a better answer to the question above. I can’t get behind teaching unchangeable values in a changing world or having teachers push their personal ideologies onto their students.
Note: My own teaching doesn’t purely reflect my personal values. Though I’ve brought up progressive values here, which makes me sound like I am advocating a political position, there are a lot of progressive beliefs that I do not have and do not value. However, I would still teach these things because it is the best I can do to prepare my students for the future. Even though there are things that have terrible negative consequences on a societal level, I have to bite my tongue and teach them (implicitly) anyway because it is my responsibility to do so. My job is not to shove my own beliefs onto my students, it is to educate them in the specific subject in which I am teaching, English, and when I recognize the hidden curriculum in my own classroom, I try my best to shape it to benefit them, not myself. You can see my post On Activism to read about where I would direct my efforts for doing activism for the things I believe in.