The hidden curriculum refers to the unofficial rules, routines, and structures of schools through which students learn behaviors, values, beliefs, and attitudes. Elements of the hidden curriculum do not appear in schools’ written goals, formal lesson plans, or learning objectives although they may reflect culturally dominant social values and ideas about what schools should teach. Of the three major approaches to the hidden curriculum, the functionalist orientation is most concerned with how hidden curricula reproduce unified societies, the conflict perspective focuses on the reproduction of stratified societies, and symbolic interactionism more fully incorporates interactional context to our understanding of the hidden curriculum.
Because of its focus on education as a tool in maintaining orderly societies and producing appropriately socialized individuals, functionalist works are often collected under the label of consensus theory. Consensus theory depicts schools as benign institutions that rationally sort and order individuals in order to fill high and low status positions, meeting society’s need for both experts and low skilled workers. As a concept, the hidden curriculum has its roots in Emile Durkheim’s Education and Sociology (1922) and Moral Education (1925). Durkheim concluded that society could not function without a high degree of homogeneity and that education, as a highly regulated institution, could provide this level of similarity. Drawing upon Durkheim’s work, Philip Jackson in Life in Classrooms (1968) coined the term ”hidden curriculum.” Along with other consensualist theorists of that period, he noted that British and American schools teach children to sacrifice autonomy, control, and attention to those with more power, repress their own personal identity and desires, and accept the legitimacy of being treated as a category along with others.
Although the concept of the hidden curriculum originated in the functionalist works of Durkheim, conflict theorists further developed theoretical concepts of the hidden curriculum. In general, conflict theorists argue that education serves to preserve the social class structure. Early challenges to the functionalist approach came from Neo Marxist theorists who suggested that schooling serves the demands of more powerful social institutions and groups. In their influential work Schooling in Capitalist America, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (1976) contended that students are educated in ways that make them suitable for varying levels of ownership, autonomy, and control in the capitalist system. They learn skills, develop a consciousness, and internalize norms that suit their future work. This connection between the social relations of school life and the social relations of production was labeled the correspondence principle. Theories that rely on the correspondence principle are also known as reproduction theories, as they explain how education reproduces social inequalities.
Reproduction theories, however, faced criticism in the early 1980s as some conflict theorists pushed for a less deterministic view of education’s role in maintaining the class system. In Learning to Labor, Paul Willis (1981) introduced the concept of resistance to reproduction theories. He found that the working class English boys in his study resisted both the official and hidden curriculums of their secondary schools. Although resistance had the effect of channeling the boys into working class futures, the idea of resistance loosened the rigid theoretical approach to the hidden curriculum. The concept of resistance allowed conflict theorists to see the hidden curriculum as contest able and perhaps malleable.
Similar to the conflict approach, symbolic interactionists who address the hidden curriculum see education as sorting students by their ascribed characteristics into stratified social positions. However, the symbolic interactionist approach shifts the focal point to a micro level, looking at how face to face interactions in the classroom contribute to the creation and maintenance of inequalities. Symbolic interactionists are most concerned with how classroom dynamics create patterned advantages and dis advantages and how academic interactions mold students’ personalities, skills, and behaviors.
Early work in the symbolic interactionist tradition noted that certain students are labeled as ”good learners” while others are seen as ”troublemakers” and that these labels often corresponded to a student s race, class, or gen der. Regardless of their previous ability level, negatively labeled students are more likely to perform poorly while positively labeled students are more likely to perform well. The labeling process therefore creates what Merton called the self-fulfilling prophecy; students internalize the labels assigned to them and learn to behave in ways that match their labels. More recent work in the symbolic interactionist tradition has extended the focus from labeling to examine other ways in which teachers mold students bodies, behaviors, and attitudes. They also recognize the importance of peer interactions, the physical environment, and teachers inter actions with each other and the administration.
While the functionalist approach assumes a consensual relationship between schools and societies, both the conflict and symbolic inter actionist approaches see educational processes as creating and perpetuating social inequalities. These two approaches illustrate how class, race, and gender identities are produced and how these markers are used to privilege some students over others. Nevertheless, scholars dis agree over the extent to which class, race, and gender differences are intensified as a result of the hidden curriculum. This dissensus is due in part to the variability of hidden curricula over time, place, location, and interaction context and in part to the difficulty of studying and measuring a curriculum that is not explicitly stated.
Some scholars posit that the hidden curricula carry powerful class – based and race – based messages. Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Berstein, for example, suggest that schools also create social environments that better match with the class backgrounds of middle and upper class students. Through the hidden curriculum, students get the message that middle and upper class cultural values, norms, and attitudes are the standard by which all else is measured. Schools reward conformity to these cultural norms and certify certain methods of learning as the standard. These learning methods are likely to better match middle and upper class styles of interaction and penalize lower or working class students. Physical spaces can also be marked by class, making some students more at home than others. The marking of space is particularly salient at higher levels of schooling: the physical environments in institutions that produce elite members of society such as law or medical schools are often tailored to the cultural norms and tastes of the advantaged.
To the extent that the hidden, and formal, curriculum is geared to the white majority, it is possible that the hidden curriculum inadvertently encourages, in the words of John Ogbu, an ”oppositional culture. He argued that racial minorities with a history of enslavement, con quest, or colonization come to see academic achievement and participation in the dominant culture as a threat to group identity and loyalty. Oppositional culture can be considered part of the hidden curriculum as involuntary minorities learn through school that academic success is ”acting white. The theory of oppositional culture, however, has been challenged by Douglas Downey and James Ainsworth Darnell among others who find that minorities place just as much if not more value on academic success than do their white peers and that oppositional culture is a class not race based phenomenon.
Some scholars contend that the hidden curriculum – again in tandem with the formal curriculum – creates and supports gender differentiation. Some scholars have noted that starting in kindergarten, teachers use gender dichotomies that mark and make gender difference salient, using gender groupings to address students, separate them, and create adversarial groups in competitions. There is also some evidence that teachers respond differently to girls and boys. For example, some studies indicate that since boys are often more disruptive than girls in elementary classroom, they are given greater positive and negative attention while girls are left to their own devices. Teacher practices also may affect how girls and boys learn to move in their bodies, teaching girls to take up less space, react passively to threats, regulate movements and speech at higher levels, and place greater value on body adornment than boys. Other scholars have suggested that teachers’ beliefs regarding sex differences in math, science, and verbal aptitude may influence their teaching practices and in turn students’ performance and interest in different topics. In addition, the content of textbooks and lesson plans in which males are more represented than are females arguably may shape boys’ and girls’ views regarding their own abilities as well as their ambitions.
Research on gender and the hidden curriculum has indicated that peer culture is one of the most influential ways in which gendered behaviors are encouraged and perpetuated. Early on, children also segregate by gender, maintaining cross gender boundaries through romantic teasing. Studies indicate that boys achieve high status in middle and secondary schools on the basis of their athletic ability, coolness, toughness, social skills, and success in cross gender relationships while girls gain popularity because of their parents’ socioeconomic status, their own physical appearance, and social skills. These values also may be transmitted through extracurricular activities, most notably the greater financial support typically given to male sports.
Social markers such as class, race, and gen der are not only salient within the hidden curricula of education systems. They also reflect forms of hierarchy and differentiation that exist in other societal institutions. In fact, what theorists now see as the hidden curriculum of social control in the United States was once part of the explicit mission of education. This curriculum only became “hidden” as discussion of education shifted to increasingly individualistic terms. Although scholarship of the past few decades has unearthed this hidden curriculum, we still know little about how hid den curricula enter, change, and move out of schools. Moreover, other institutions (e.g., family, medicine, religion, and economy) inter sect and shape both the formal and informal curricula of schools. Studying how the hidden curriculum is embedded within these contexts could lead to more informative and potentially transforming scholarship.
- Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. (1977) Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. Sage, Beverly Hills.
- Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America. Carnegie Foundation, New York.
- Giroux, H. & Purpel, D. (Eds.) The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. McCutchan, Berkeley.
- Jackson, P. W. (1968) Life in Classrooms. Rinehart & Winston, New York.
- Sadker, M. & Sadker, S. (1994) Failing at Fairness: How American Schools Cheat Our Girls. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York.