The Potential Negative Effects of a Hidden Curriculum


Foundations of Curriculum and Instruction

“Mom! I’m home.”
“Hi Dear! How was school today? What did you learn?”
“Well… I learned about the Vikings… and I learned how to add fractions… and I learned that it is disrespectful to talk to Johnny while the teacher is giving us a lesson.”

Admittedly, the above dialog is not entirely likely, but it illustrates what a child might say if he or she were aware of what is referred to as the hidden curriculum in education. Few of us will argue that all that we learned at school was contained in the subject matter we were taught. If we were to carefully look back upon our scholastic experience, we would realize that the experience was one that was full of socialization. We learned what an appropriate response to an insult would be; we learned that we should address adults with respect; we learned that it is proper to queue for things instead of shoving our way to the front of the line. Indeed you could say that we were not just taught our right from left, but also our right from wrong. That is exactly where the hidden curriculum becomes tricky. Should moral education be a part of a school’s curriculum, or is this something that should be left to the socialization a child gets at home?

Many people feel that things like morals, manners, and discipline should be left to parenting; schools should be focused on educational content. Yet classroom observations often indicate that perhaps parents are not adequately socializing their children and are instead transferring a lot of the blame or responsibility to the schools. Within that context, should schools offer this form of education—sometimes referred to as character education—as part of either their standard curriculum or their hidden curriculum?

Before answering that question directly, it is helpful to first look at what the hidden curriculum is. The hidden curriculum can be summarized as the things that students learn simply from attending school that are not explicitly included in the instructional plans of the teachers or the official curriculum of the school. Often it is a school-wide curriculum, not one that is implemented at the level of the teacher. Additionally, the curriculum can be hidden intentionally or unintentionally. A school can decide, for example, to enact a school uniform policy. The stated purpose may be to decrease gang-affiliated attire or to build school unity, while the unstated purpose is simply that the school administrators feel that the attire typically worn by the students is socially inappropriate. Obviously, trying to “sell” the uniform policy in the latter way would prove tremendously unsuccessful, so its intent remains purposefully hidden. Schools can also have an unintentional—and even undesirable—hidden curriculum such as perpetuating gender stereotypes by differentiated treatment of male and female students.

Therein lays one of the greatest dangers of the hidden curriculum. As Paulo FrierePaulo Friere was a middle-class Brazilian Marxist who was greatly interested in empowering the poor through education. He was extremely invested in improving literacy among the poor, since literacy was a requirement to vote. Among his more radical educational ideas was virtually eliminating the division between the student and the teacher. He believed that this would lead to a more balanced mode of reciprocity between the teachers and students where teachers learned from students and students who are also able to teach others ( explained in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, education can be misused to perpetuate the cycle of oppression rather than helping liberate individuals. If teaching becomes rote and teachers begin to view students as simply empty vessels needing to be filled with knowledge, the act of learning is ultimately a subservient one. More significantly, if students can be taught to be subservient—if they are taught how to adapt to an oppressive system rather than be empowered to change an oppressive system—they are less likely to question the system that oppresses them, again retaining the power in the hands of the oppressors (1970). The hidden curriculum here is—as it is in many cases—one where students are being taught their “proper” place or function in society.

Friere is not alone in his views of a hidden curriculum being critically harmful. In her article How the hidden curriculum in public schools undermines peace building, Elizabeth Castellana (2004) writes that schools often restrict freedom with the promise that they are “preparing [students] for freedom later and elsewhere” (¶ 6). And what is the value of freedom in education and life? According to J. Krishnamurti, freedom is actually a prerequisite for order. Krishnamurti writes:

When you are told what to do, what to think, to obey, to follow … your mind becomes dull, it loses its initiative, its quickness. This external, outward imposition of discipline makes the mind stupid, it makes you conform, it makes you imitate. But if you discipline yourself by watching, listening, being considerate, being very thoughtful, out of that watchfulness, that listening, that consideration for others, comes order. Where there is order, there is always freedom. (1993 p. 29)

Both views are noteworthy because they reinforce the notion of subservience mentioned in Friere’s writings. Castellana further contends that this sort of learning undermines peace because by enforcing submission, students cannot learn how to encounter and overcome conflict without violence. This is a process that involves being able to share and analyze opposing ideas, yet in many classrooms, silence is a virtue—it is part of the hidden curriculum that a well-behaved student is one who sits quietly in class and “absorbs” all that the teacher has to impart. Furthermore, breaking this code can easily be written off as “defiance” by the teacher and can result in actions like the teacher raising his voice at the class or subjecting the “defiant” student to some form of punishment (2004).

With that in mind, are the people promoting a hidden curriculum mal-intentioned? While it is a possibility, in most cases, they probably are not. In a recent study, “Tuck in that shirt!” Race, class, gender and discipline in an urban school, Edward W. Morris (2005) found a pervasive belief from school officials that their practices were in the students’ best interest. From his extensive two-year first-hand study, Morris observed that:

Many adults thought that teaching students “the rules” of dress and manners, including adherence to the dress code, was an important way to prepare students for future success. School officials viewed their discipline of student’s bodies, especially in appropriately masculine and feminine ways, as transmitting cultural capital—modeling the type of dress and conduct that could be linked to upward mobility. (p. 33)

Thus, through their persistent reminders to “act like a young lady” and to “dress like a gentleman” they were perpetuating gender roles while also alienating students by restricting their freedoms. The administrators were projecting their values onto the students with the presupposition that they were genuinely doing something good.

Therein lays another danger of the hidden curriculum. In our teaching of character education or similar hidden curriculum, are we truly promoting character education or are we actually striving for conformity of values? In our pluralistic-yet-individualistic society, how do we decide which values we should teach, and once those values are decided upon, should we try to stifle other values if we feel that they are incompatible with ours? Society is in a constant state of change, and along with societal change comes value changes too. If schools are going to have a hidden curriculum, it ought to be one which is progressive, and not one which looks to the past with longing. After all, the often idealized age, before character education was held to be in decline, was pre-1960s (Noll, 2001). Where were we then? Where were race relations and gender equity?

While I believe that teachers should mostly stay away from moral education and focus on standard curriculum items, there are some values which should be promoted in school. These are somewhat universal values, such as honesty, caring, respect, and concern. However, we need not hide these features of our curriculum, but rather, be proud that we can help students develop them. How do we help develop them? We could teach classes, but that would probably be somewhat boring. We could model the behaviors and values which we hope to see, but a crucial word here is “hope.” Or, perhaps Everett Dean Martin has the best suggestion when he says that “there is only one sound method of moral education. It is teaching people to think” (Martin quoted in Castellana, 2004). As Rodney P. Riegle points out, in our current information age, if schools did see the need to implement a hidden curriculum, they should now be focusing on values like self-reliance, initiative, creativity, logic, and communication rather than archaic views on the proper role of young boys and girls (n.d.).


  • Castellana, E. (2004, May). Prophylactic peace education: How the hidden curriculum in public schools prevents rather than promote building capacities for peace. Retrieved July 5, 2006.
  • Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed [Chapter 2, electronic version] Retrieved July 1, 2006.
  • Krishnamurti, J. (1993). Krishnamurti on education. Krishnamurti Foundation. Chennai, India.
  • Morris, E. W. (2006). “Tuck that shirt in!” Race, class, gender, and discipline in an urban school. Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 48, Issue 1, pp. 25–48, ISSN 0731-1214, electronic ISSN 1533-8673.
  • Noll, J.W. (2001). Taking sides: Clashing views on controversial educational issues (11 Ed.) (University of Phoenix Custom Edition). Guilford, CT: Primis/McGraw-Hill
  • Riegle, R. P. (n.d.). Everything you learned in school. Retrieved July 3, 2006.
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