The hidden curriculum is an important concept for those interested in the schools as socializing agents and as agents of cultural reproduction. Closely related to the idea of the hidden curriculum is the concept of the null curriculum, which focuses on what schools don’t teach.
The hidden and null curricula, as they manifest themselves in various ways in the schools, represent subtle and deeply influential forces in the shaping of attitudes and beliefs. Because they are not immediately evident, as is the case with the formal curriculum, does not mean that they can be disregarded. Both hidden and null curricula are described in this entry.
The concept of the hidden curriculum was first developed by Phillip Jackson in his 1968 book Life in Classrooms. According to Jackson, there are three factors embedded in schools: (1) crowds, (2) praise, and (3) power. The hidden curriculum as defined by Jackson must be mastered by students if they are to successfully make their way through the school system. In the context of Jackson’s work, the “unofficial or implicit expectations” are what constitute the hidden curriculum.
Examples of the hidden curriculum as identified by Jackson might include the automatic assumption in schools that males will typically take on leadership positions, the importance of certain sports (football, for example) for character development, and the idea that certain specific social manners and values are normative.
Peter McLaren (1998) expanded on the work of Jackson by identifying the hidden curriculum as “the unintended outcomes of the schooling process.” These unintended outcomes are often unrecognized by those who teach in and administer schools. David Sadker and Myra Sadker provide examples of what McLaren is talking about in their analysis about how boys are unconsciously given greater attention than girls in elementary educational settings. As a result, boys and girls are taught that males deserve more attention than females. In addition to being potentially privileged because of the greater attention they receive, boys also end up receiving more instruction.
Another interpretation of the hidden curriculum comes from Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux. Essentially, they argue that there are implicit messages found in the social structures of the schools. Thus, in the period prior to desegregation and to a certain extent in the decades that followed, the unequal funding of White over Black schools in the same communities represented a hidden curriculum—one that suggests that the needs of African American students are not as great as those of their White counterparts.
A final interpretation of the hidden curriculum comes from the work of Bensen Snyder who maintains that while teachers may dictate formal tasks, these may be reinterpreted by students to suit their own needs. As a result, formal curricular needs and objectives may be redefined by students to create an alternative curriculum. Thus a group of high school students might become very active in a drama or music program not so much because they are interested in performing, but because they are interested in being part of a social group associated with the program or activity, or they like to have access to the interesting things found in the theater department.
The null curriculum was first defined by Elliot Eisner in The Educated Imagination. According to Eisner, the null curriculum is what we teach by not teaching something. This happens, according to him, at two levels. The first involves the cognitive processes that are stressed or disregarded. An example of this would be when science teaching involves mostly learning specific facts and formulas. This would be in contrast to an approach that emphasized hands-on learning and discovery. The first approach de-emphasizes creativity and independence while the second emphasizes them. Thus, a curriculum that emphasizes rote facts and memorization implicitly teaches or suggests that creativity and independence are not as important or valued by society.
A second dimension of the null curriculum identified by Eisner is the idea that something is taught by not actually including it in the curriculum. This, the exclusion of African Americans or women in American history textbooks prior to the 1960s, is an example of a null curriculum. Likewise, the more recent exclusion of important gay and lesbian leaders or issues in history and literature textbooks represents a similar example of the null curriculum at work.
A similar example to the cases cited above would be the historical preference given to funding men’s sports in high schools over women’s sports. In such social situations, the social message (i.e., curriculum) being communicated through the null curriculum is clear—men and their activities count more than women and what they do.
Essentially, the null curriculum teaches what is valued and what is not valued by society. As a result, traditional values and power structures are reinforced, and minority opinions and values are often marginalized and given little value or credence.
- Ahwee, S., et al. (2004). The hidden and null curriculums: An experiment in collective educational biography. Educational Studies, 35(1), 25–43.
- Aronowitz, S., & Giroux, H. A, (1985). Education under siege: The conservative, liberal, and radical debate over schooling. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
- Eisner, E. W. (1985). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
- Jackson, P. W. (1968). Life in classrooms. New York: Holt, Reinhart & Winston.
- McLaren, P. (1998). Life in schools: An introduction to critical pedagogy in the foundations of education (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.
- Portelli, J. P. (1993). Exposing the hidden curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 25, 343–358.
- Snyder, B. R. (1971). The hidden curriculum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
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