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What Is The Hidden Curriculum?

By Kent Darr

What is the Hidden Curriculum and Who Does it Affect?

Hidden curriculums seem nefarious don’t they? If movies or pop culture have taught us anything, it’s the lesson that if you’re hiding something, then you must have villainous - or at least selfish - motivations. And to be sure, there are examples of curriculums that deliberately obscure the expectations, motivations, or problems that would otherwise undermine the narrative that they are trying to tell. More often though, hidden curriculums grow so large because the lessons that they teach become background noise in the busyness of university life. Teaching methods, communication styles, networking skills, and even assessment strategies can all become assumed pieces of the academic experience which can easily derail the success of those who aren’t aware of them. 

Not surprisingly, hidden curriculums can negatively impact students on campus who hail from non-majority cultures. An obvious example of this is the international student. When leaving their country of origin to attend a university, they are forced to navigate the norms and rules of a completely different culture while excelling academically. Similarly students from the U.S. who nonetheless come from non-majority cultures may be expected to adopt communication styles and expectations that aren’t natural to them. Likewise, first generation college students may find that they lack the networking skills which allow their peers from academically experienced families to more fully leverage their university experience into life and career success.  

How can I address Hidden Curriculum in my Classroom?

Given the pervasiveness of the problem, I’ll bet your thinking right now, “Well what could I possibly do to address something that’s apparently everywhere?!” But actually, there are a number of practical, low-effort practices that you can put into motion to help you address the hidden curriculum right where you are. Below are three examples that you can integrate into your courses right away:

Surface your pedagogical methods

The first practice that you can adopt is the “surfacing” of your pedagogical practices. By routinely describing to your students the whys and the hows behind your teaching methods, you will help them to connect the learning journey with the final result - a thread that is often left hanging in higher education classrooms. As a bonus, the act of self-reflection that surfacing demands may help you to see shortcomings in your own practices, and boost your efforts to ensure that your teaching methods are authentic to the skills that they are attempting to impart to the students.   

Use Checklists

How many times in your teaching career have you heard the phrase, “I didn’t know that we were supposed to do that!”? Although there’s no doubt that the phrase has been used in bad faith, there is also the distinct possibility that the student legitimately wasn’t aware of the expectation. So, embedding checklists that explicitly outline the required activities for the week is a universally accessible method for preemptively addressing a hidden curriculum while simultaneously providing no cover for students who are acting irresponsibly. An additional benefit of checklists is their natural ability to tap into the brain’s reward structure and increase motivation. Thus, checklists may not only help you to surface a hidden curriculum; they may help you to reinforce an overall desire to learn. 

Design Flexible Assessments that accept Multiple Means of Expression

Another form of hidden curriculum can occur when we assume that the most common means for evaluation (I’m looking at you tests and papers!) are the only means for evaluation, creating an environment that advantages those who excel at those common means of assessment. To address this specific form of hidden curriculum, you can create assessments that allow for multiple forms of expression to fulfill your learning objectives. While papers are the preeminent form of academic communication, you might also accept videos, podcasts, or projects that target the same learning objectives. This form of Universal Design for Learning can help your assessments to feel more authentic for the individual learner while also granting them the chance to use their greatest strengths. 

In the event that an assessment must be completed as a singular form of expression (paper, presentation, video, etc.) you can mitigate the hidden curriculum by surfacing the reasons behind this form of expression. Reasons such as professional convention, authenticity to learning objectives, or even learning theories can easily address these issues, and give you coherent reasoning for restricting the usage of form. In any case, communicating intentionality behind your assessment design will only benefit your students in the long run by giving them a reasoning behind the work that they are completing. 

Conclusion

As we’ve already noted, hidden curriculums are powerfully effective precisely because they fall outside of the traditional ideas of academic content. Luckily though, you don’t have to be particularly heroic to begin weakening their impact on underrepresented students. Obviously, these practices are just a starting point, but by surfacing your teaching methods, providing checklists of all requirements, and designing flexible assessments, you’ll begin to reveal the cultural practices and beliefs that often go unseen, granting all of your students equitable access to academic success. You have the power!

Resources

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