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.

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. February 28, 2016 at 8:36 pm —


    “I can’t get behind teaching unchangeable values in a changing world ”


    — Nothing guarantees that a changing world will change absolutely every value, without exception. The fact of change would not justify, for example, reluctance to teach that rape is wrong.

    • February 28, 2016 at 8:43 pm —

      At what point did I ever say that it would?

      • February 28, 2016 at 11:26 pm —

        You didn’t, but you said you were unwilling or unable to teach “unchangeable values.” Unless the  value-difference between consensual and non-consensual sex is subject to change, teaching this distinction (and why it makes a difference) would loptically enter  the category of things you’d be unwilling or unable to “get behind.”

        • February 28, 2016 at 11:43 pm —

          I must point out, once again, that you’re ignoring the entire context of that sentence. As in my last post, I am making an argument for being progressive. That seems to be what you are also arguing (though it is very difficult to tell from what you actually write) and if that is the case, I can’t understand why you would keep arguing against it.

          I must also point out that seeing “rape as wrong” is a relatively new idea in itself. Historically, many cultures have not viewed rape remotely as negatively as we do today (such as how it is treated in the old testament). That value has changed. We as a society have (rightly, I would say) moved past the idea that rape is an okay thing. In practice, we still have a lot of work to do to get beyond the culture of rape we still have, but the ideas and values we talk about have shifted. And, again, I am still arguing that the “rape is wrong” kind of idea is the right one to teach.

  2. February 28, 2016 at 8:48 pm —


    “there are a lot of progressive beliefs that I do not have and do not value. However, I would still teach these things  … ”

    Which beliefs are they?


    Pick one of those beliefs (that you teach although you regard it as false/valueless). Now: imagine that one of your students — who does not know that you secretly disagree with that belief you’re teaching — says to you, about that belief: “This belief of yours is one that I do not have and do not value. However, I pretend to believe it because the pretense is profitable for me, and it will be even more profitable in the future.” From this moment on, knowing what you now know about that student, how do you regard him or her?

    • February 28, 2016 at 8:50 pm —

      I would refer you to the comments on my previous post. I answered this question there already.

  3. February 28, 2016 at 11:22 pm —

    I wonder if, when your answer played out in real life you’d find it as palatable as (from all appearances) you suppose.


    Some of your students, I presume, will become doctors, engineers, scientists, teachers, or elected officials of various kinds. In all those fields, I do not know who would be worse to have in one’s life: the pradiation we who had failed to internalize the “right” wrong-but-authoritatively-encouraged premises and assertions about reality — or the practitioner who had internalized them.

    A homeschooler of my acquaintance, who firmly believes that all the Moon landings and other space missions were, and are, Hollywood-style fakes, teaches her children to believe this too — and also teaches them that, like her, they should lie about this belief (and claim to believe that space travel has occurred and does continue to occur) whenever they are not at home or otherwise in a “safe space” for expressing this belief, “so that you are not unfairly stigmatized as being out or step with our entire society and culture ” She believes, further, that “fortunately, our society and culture are gradually moving to a wider and more open recognition that all this [NASA and so on] is simply a huge hoax,” so she is becoming less and less intent on teaching her younger children to lie about the family belief for the sake of social/civic acceptability. If she is correct in believing that society is moving towards a “wider and more open” trust in spaceflight-is-a-hoax claims, is she (by your standards) morally justified in teaching her children to believe these claims and to do so more openly than before? Would any other choice on her part actually be — in your judgment — not as morally justified or acceptable, given her beliefs?

    • February 29, 2016 at 12:26 am —

      In my judgement, your acquaintance is not morally justified or acceptable given her beliefs, considering that she is factually, demonstrably wrong. In reference to your homeschooler acquaintance, I suggest you reread my reply to the other comment you wrote where you also confused testable facts with value judgements. Whether or not the moon landing was real is a matter of fact. I am talking about things like whether or not diversity is “good,” which is primarily a value judgement. You keep bringing up “premises and assertions about reality” but I’m still talking about values, not facts. And as I’ve said before, when facts come into play in a value discussion, we should always go with the facts.

      I mentioned this on my last post’s comments, but you have still not provided a better alternative, nor even answered my initial question: Whose values should we teach? (If not the ones that are best grounded in reality, then which ones would you suggest?)

      Imagine this situation: a teacher thinks that boys are better than girls. Though we have recognized in society that this is not true and are trying to move beyond that traditional way of thinking, that teacher decides to stick to his guns and not even question his values in light of other viewpoints. He ignores his girls in class and give them poorer grades. His students then grow up and go out into society, having somewhat internalized his values. Those values are detrimental to them in multiple ways, partially because society is moving past that way of thinking and partially because his initial premise was factually wrong. This kind of teaching is what I am arguing against, not just sticking to your own values, especially when there is evidence involved.

      Kate, I am having a very difficult time understanding what exactly you are arguing for. I keep trying to steelman your arguments but I’m really struggling with finding what you are actually arguing. It seems very much like you are just setting up strawmen to argue as unproductively as possible. (I don’t want to think that is the case, but that is what it really looks like.) Maybe if you answered the core question I’d be able to understand what you’re actually arguing for. I would really like to understand, because I’m starting to feel that I am wasting my time and we’re just going in circles.

      Also, what do you mean by “pradiation”?

  4. March 20, 2016 at 2:36 pm —

    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. 


    No shit. In a recent revision lesson on the present progressive I used a couple of pictures where the kids should say what’s happening.

    One image was a black kid writing. Guess which word I got to hear. From a kid who can’t reasonably tell you his name and age in English, yet he knew that word…

    What I like about the books my school uses is that the authors decided to present diverse people: There’s an Indian family, a family where the dad is in a wheelchair, a single dad… What’s a bit sad is that they then do so little with this. You wouldn’t know the dad’s a wheelchair user if it weren’t for the pictures. You wouldn’t know the family is Indian if it weren’t for the  names and the pictures. But I guess “it could be worse”.

    One thing that still makes me cringe is the strong focus on kids living in a family. That particular class has three kids who do not live with a family. That’s hard enough. Having it rubbed in your face all the time must be worse.

    • March 25, 2016 at 9:24 pm —

      The family idea is also really big here. Korean society places a huge emphasis on nuclear families with a mother and father. Single parents, adopted kids, and same sex couples have a huge stigma attached to them. It is distressing to see children told (over and over) that they must fit a single, specific mold that was shaped by their society without their input.

  5. March 20, 2016 at 2:55 pm —

    My “pradiation we” turns out to have been a series of horrendous typos (or autocorrects) fir “person who” — meanwhile, what did you mean by “steelman”?

    Regardless, I don’t understand all of your arguments or assertions: e.g., your assertion that “fact” isn’t continuous with “value.”

    I am arguing that a teacher should not present as true an assertion that s/he believes to be false.


    • March 25, 2016 at 9:36 pm —


      My “assertions” about the meanings of “facts” and “values” are based on the actual definitions of the words. They are not synonymous. See fact and value.

      I am arguing that a teacher should put her own beliefs into question, instead of just assuming that she is right because she thinks she is. perhaps I am mistaken, but I thought that was what skepticism was.

      I also suggested a possible solution for what to do when one finds a complete lack of evidence one way or another about owns own value-based (non-factual) beliefs.

      You seem to be arguing about something unrelated to what I actually said, but frankly I don’t have time to keep repeating myself here so I’m just going to drop it.

  6. March 20, 2016 at 3:04 pm —

    In the instance you give (a teacher who wrongly is certain that boys are superior to girls), or in my example of a “moon flight = hoax”  believer the teacher ought to confront and examine the contradiction between his/her assertion and the evidence. Such a teacher (or “teacher”) can be, and should be, presented with the evidence that his/her assertion was wrong — to ask him/her to change his/her assertion without such evidence is at least as wrong as the false asweet ion itself. Under no circumstances may one rational being direct another to “Assert this, and teach others to believe it, NOT because you recognize it as true, but for some other reason.” A teacher who is willing to misrepresent his/her OWN beliefs, however false IN FACT those beliefs may be, is at least as unfit for a teaching position (or any other position demanding integrity) as a teacher who is simply and glaringly (even destructively) wrong.

    • March 25, 2016 at 9:25 pm —

      Well it sure is good that I never actually suggested anyone do that then.

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