Hidden Curriculum Research Paper

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Long after I’ve forgotten to use the power rule to derive an equation, or that the animals are classified by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family genus and species … I will remember the other lessons I’ve learned, the lessons that taught me how to live (Jenny Lobasz, senior student at Dreyfoos School of the Arts).

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The hidden curriculum generally refers to student learning that takes place in school as a result of actions by school personnel, parents, students, and other community agents. What is learned in the classroom is largely a function of the prevailing school conditions and classroom dynamics as well as such demographic factors as the social class, race, ethnicity, language, gender, and condition of disability of all school participants. Compared with the formal school curriculum, the hidden curriculum is not written, does not have explicit objectives, and varies considerably from one school setting to another. The hidden curriculum often referred to as the ‘covert’ or the ‘informal’ curriculum, is a most powerful influence in the classroom; it is estimated that up to 90 percent of what is learned is due to this influence (Massialas 1996).

1. The School And Classroom Dynamics

In many cases the formal curriculum is antithetical to the hidden curriculum. For example, the formal curriculum of the school explicitly promotes such values as academic learning, fairness, and good citizenship; the latter expressed as democratic participation in decisions affecting the individual. The hidden curriculum, on the other hand, teaches the students how to manipulate the system, i.e., how to cheat without being caught, how to ‘apple polish the teacher,’ and how to comply with the rules without questioning the legitimacy of the authorities for making them (Jackson 1983). The formal curriculum preaches democracy but the hidden curriculum imposes autocracy. The formal curriculum emphasizes scholarship and an equitable grading system but the hidden curriculum teaches students that scholastic attainment expressed through grades is a political process of give and take and of bargaining with the teacher. In this environment it is clear that if students do not master the lessons and the techniques of the hidden curriculum they are destined to fail.

Jackson (1983), being one in the first groups of researchers who studied the hidden curriculum in depth concluded that ‘Learning how to make it in school involves, in part, learning how to falsify our behavior’ (p. 50). He found out that teacher–student relations in the classroom are hierarchical—the teacher being at the top of the hierarchy and the students at the bottom. He observed that classroom activity in elementary schools usually centers on seatwork, group discussion, teacher question and answer sessions, as well as teacher demonstrations. Students may learn about the three Rs but they also learn other things, things that are not spelled out in formal instruction. For example, they learn to work in crowds and they learn to accept praise or reproof. They also learn how power is distributed in the system, that is, how certain students gain special privileges. Students also learn how to be patient and how to conform to institutional requirements and to tolerate minor frustrations.

Many studies confirm the claim that schools indirectly teach students to be obedient, passive, and compliant. In this they are supported by other social institutions that directly relate to the life of the students, e.g., the family. One author recognizes that, on the one hand, modern society seeks to develop self-reliant and critical thinking individuals. On the other, it promotes, through the schools and other socialization agencies, obedience. ‘Little notice is taken of the legions of overly obedient children in the schools; yet, for every overly disobedient child, there are probably twenty who are obeying too much. There is little motivation to encourage the wheels to develop as noisy, creative, independent thinkers who may become bold enough to disagree’ (McCarthy 1998, pp. 56–7).

A review of research on the influence of the hidden curriculum in schools in the Arab world revealed that these schools, much like their Western counterparts, impart passivity and obedience among the students (Massialas and Jarrar 1991). For example, in a study conducted in Morocco it was found that the ‘primary school imparts the values and behaviors of the society, especially the home—absolute dependence on patriarchal commands, suppression of creative thought, strict compliance with rules, both written and unwritten, acceptance of things as they are’ (Massialas and Jarrar 1991, p. 137). Similar values to those transmitted in the Moroccan schools were reported in studies in other Arab schools, e.g., in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon, in Qatar. On the basis of these studies it is apparent that the Arab classroom replicates to the extent possible the patriarchal family structure. The teacher is invariably the dominant figure, the patriarch who conveys awe, respect, and obedience.

2. Social Class And The Hidden Curriculum

Student background factors such membership in a social class invariably affect how students are treated in school and their relations with the teachers and other school personnel. A study conducted in New Jersey, USA, found that social class clearly influenced the values learned in school through the hidden curriculum (Anyon 1983). The study identified four types of schools—working class, middle class, affluent professional, and executive elite. Working class schools emphasized mechanistic, step-by-step instruction conducive to memory type of work. Class work was quite structured. There was very little in trying to provide an explanation of the world. The middle class schools emphasized the ‘right answer’; instruction was largely teacher-directed; the majority of the lessons were drawn from the textbook. In the professionalaffluent schools the emphasis was on fostering creativity and independent thought in the classroom. Students were constantly asked through projects to apply concepts in explaining their world. The executive elite school emphasized critical thinking, conceptual development, and decision making. Instruction stressed analysis of social issues and problem solving. The study concluded with the observation that the working-class schools prepared students to assume positions as laborers, whereas the professional and executive schools prepared students to be intellectuals and professionals. Thus the school, in a major way, reproduced the larger system of unequal social relations. One of the few advantages that students in the working-class schools could have was learning the ‘methods of resistance.’ ‘These methods are highly similar to the ‘‘slowdown,’’ subtle sabotage, and other modes of indirect resistance carried out by adult workers in the shop …’ (Anyon 1983, p. 163).

Several other research studies on the influence of social class in learning confirm Anyon’s conclusions above. Although some studies recognize that there are variations in community and school expectations of what students should learn, there is evidence that working-class communities placed their priority ‘on acquiring credentials and following rules, whereas the higher-SES communities … placed emphasis on students’ gaining particular kinds of knowledge and skills’ (Knapp and Woolverton 1995, p. 553). The research clearly indicates that in the working-class school students are taught through the hidden curriculum ‘that little is expected of them … they are not highly valued; they cannot be trusted to guide their own learning or conduct themselves responsibly in the class, and they must accept low-level positions in a rigidly controlled hierarchy’ (Knapp and Woolverton 1995, p. 553). The higher-status school, on the other hand, encourages students to develop a greater sense of self-worth, higher expectations for school success, and a wider range of possibilities for fitting into hierarchies of control at different levels’ (Knapp and Woolverton 1995, p. 563).

3. Cultural Minorities And The Hidden Curriculum

Students who are members of ethnic, racial, or linguistic minorities are usually adversely affected by the hidden curriculum of the schools. The grading system, the standardized tests, the reward and punishment measures, the textbooks, the school rules, all influenced by the hidden curriculum, normally have a negative effect on minorities. Available research clearly indicates that these and other educational instruments discriminate against minorities. For example, about 45 percent of Hispanics in the United States are expected to drop out from high school (Sleeter E et al. 1998). ‘In-school factors such as poor academic performance and disliking school account for 56 percent of dropouts among Black, male students’ (Massialas 1996, p. 69). School suspensions and expulsions, strong instruments of the hidden curriculum, also impact adversely racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities. There is usually a disproportionate number of students from minority groups being punished through these measures. Language minority students are also adversely affected by the hidden curriculum in the classroom. For instance, one study on the topic indicated that in a classroom which had a mixture of mainstream and limited English proficient students, ‘the teachers interacted less frequently with the ESL students than their native-English counterparts … the interactions with ESL students tended to be managerial in nature rather than instructional’ (McKeon 1994, pp. 25–6). Also reported in the literature is the negative result that ensues from the disability of teachers to understand the flow of discourse between them and students who have different patterns of linguistic interactions. ‘… when the patterns of language use or the patterns of social interactions that children bring to the school are ignored or denigrated by their teachers, the ensuing relationship may threaten the students’ academic development’ (Pease-Alvarez and Vasquez 1994, p. 93).

4. Gender And The Hidden Curriculum

The hidden curriculum has a very strong influence in school learning when mediated through gender. Gender-appropriate roles are conveyed through the formal curriculum as well as the hidden. Upon reviewing the works on the subject, Banks (1995, p. 622) stated, ‘Research indicates that sex-role attitudes and gender associations develop early, and that teaching materials, the mass media, and society at large often reinforce sex-role stereotyping ….’

5. Condition Of Disability And The Hidden Curriculum

Students with learning disabilities, e.g., students with visual or hearing impairment, emotional disturbance are also affected by the hidden curriculum. Whether placed in classes with mainstream students (inclusion classes) or in special education classes there is always a built-in bias in their relations with teachers, other students and in the school-related expectations which influence in a significant way what is to be learned, how, and for what purposes. There is an overrepresentation of cultural minorities in the special education programs that clearly point to the influence of the hidden curriculum in student selection and placement.

6. Conclusion And Outlook

Recently there have been many attempts to attend to the negative influences on learning of the hidden curriculum. Programs for teachers seek to make them aware of these often-negative influences and to take appropriate measures to alleviate them from the school settings. Instructional approaches such as ‘cooperative learning,’ ‘peer tutoring,’ and portfolio assessment are all attempts to combat the negative effects of the hidden curriculum on student learning.


  1. Anyon J 1983 Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. In: Giroux H, Purpel D (eds.) The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. McCutchan, Berkeley, CA, pp. 146–67
  2. Banks J A 1995 Multicultural education: Its effects on students’ racial and gender role attitudes. In: Banks J A, Banks C A Mc (eds.) Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. Macmillan, New York, pp. 617–27
  3. Jackson P 1983 The daily grind … In: Giroux H, Purpel D (eds.) The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. McCutchan, Berkeley, CA, pp. 28–60
  4. Knapp M S, Woolverton S 1995 Social class and schooling. In: Banks J A, Banks C A Mc (eds.) Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. Macmillan, New York, pp. 548–69
  5. Lebasz J 1999 Learning the lessons of living. Sun-Sentinel August 31; 1E, 7E
  6. Massialas B G 1996 The hidden curriculum and social studies. In: Massialas B G, Allen R F (eds.) Critical Issues in Teaching Social Studies, K-12. Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, pp. 61–79
  7. Massialas B G, Jarrar S A 1991 Arab Education in Transition. Garland, New York
  8. McCarthy S J 1998 Why Johnny can’t disobey. In: Shapiro H S, Harden S B (eds.) The Institution of Education. McCutchan, Berkeley, CA, pp. 28–60
  9. McKeon D 1994 Language, culture, and schooling. In: Genesee F (ed.) Educating Second Language Children. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 15–32
  10. Pease-Alvarez C, Vasquez O 1994 Language socialization in ethnic minority communities. In: Genesee F (ed.) Educating Second Language Children. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 82–102
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