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Hidden curriculum: Why it could address the criticism aimed at CBC

By Antoney Luvinzu | December 3rd 2021
Pupils from Maweni primary school in Mombasa practising at Nyali Golf and County Club in Mombasa. Fourteen pupils at Maweni Primary School have decided to take the bull by the horns to prove golf is no longer a man's rich sport. March 13, 2021. [Ernest Ndunda, Standard]

If nothing else, the rollout of the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) has succeeded in making us as a country have a real conversation on education. For once, we have addressed educational matters with pretty much the same verve we approach our partisan politics. The discourse has also exposed whiners and thinkers amongst us. Realists and idealists, pessimists and optimists. But that is the richness of life.

You probably have heard a lot of jargon thrown around by talking heads and panelists; some so abstract you could not wrap your head around them. One such term I am sure is 'hidden curriculum’.

In modern education parlance, hidden curriculum has become a buzzword of sorts. But what, exactly, does it mean, and where does it fit in teaching and learning?

Let’s start from the top. Simply, hidden curriculum is an amorphous collection of implicit academic, social, and cultural messages, unwritten rules and unspoken expectations, and unofficial norms, behaviours and values of the dominant-culture context upon which all teaching and learning is premised.

These assumptions and expectations that are not formally or officially communicated, established, or conveyed stipulate the 'right' way to think, speak, look, and behave in school. The hidden curriculum is, therefore, different from the formal curriculum, which consists of the courses, lessons, contact hours and learning activities students participate in, as well as the knowledge and skill sets educators intentionally/consciously teach students.

The hidden curriculum invisibly governs academic achievement and is vital for every student to be equipped with.

The concept is based on the recognition that students absorb lessons in school that may or may not be part of the formal course of study—for example, how they should interact with peers, teachers, and other adults; how they should perceive different races, groups, or classes of people; or what ideas and behaviours are considered acceptable or unacceptable.

A classroom environment can project values and messages intentionally or unintentionally to students. For example, if biased or prejudicial behaviours and statements are tolerated in the classroom, students may embrace and model those values. Other behaviours that can negatively impact students can include situations deriving from student rituals/traditions and bad student leadership.

Through classroom rules and positive modeling, educators can work to prevent these types of behaviours in the classroom. Teachers can create a classroom environment where positive values such as work ethic, leadership, personal responsibility, empathy, team work, and other values are rewarded and honoured.

So what role does the hidden curriculum play in teaching and learning?

Fitting in with other students

Let’s face it. No matter how many times your mother (or any other adult for that matter) said to you, “If everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you do it too?” you still wanted to fit in.  For most of us, that meant noticing what others were wearing and/or saying and imitating it to some degree. Even for those who rebelled, they had to recognise what they were rebelling against. The hidden curriculum tells individuals what clothes, behaviours, et cetera will help them fit into a crowd, a situation, or a group. Being comfortable in your environment greatly reduces anxiety in a situation, allowing a student to focus more clearly on the task at hand–their education. So 'fitting in' has advantages beyond just socialisation and includes an impact on attention and motivation at school.

Aids learners in interpreting information, reading the subtext

As a teacher, for instance, how many times have you told a student to stop talking and then had another student start talking? If that second student heard you, chances are he missed the underlying message (i.e., the hidden curriculum message) that your statement meant no one should be talking (not just the one you talked to). Understanding your directions when they are not given explicitly is one area that students struggle with when they don’t know the hidden, underlying message.

In addition to understanding an instructor’s words in directions, their tone of voice and facial expressions convey information about feelings and instructions that students who can’t interpret them may not be able to interpret. You know that look you give a kid when he is pushing the limits? The one that says, “Drop the subject?" You know that student who doesn’t get it? That’s because they cannot decode the non-verbal at play. Instructors use lots of other cues to convey their intention in the classroom and, sometimes, those intentions are letting students avoid getting in trouble. But if they don’t know how to decode those messages, they can’t avoid it.

Promotes team work

The classroom is a social place. I don’t know if we always realise just how much socialisation is integrated into our curriculum. Students ought to know the hidden curriculum of how to work effectively with groups. Understanding what role to play with a group means interacting with the rest of the group and determining what role everyone should play.

An effective hidden curriculum dictates teachers’ and administrators’ behaviours, conversations and interaction with learners, the quality of school environment, research and approaches to teaching, values and philosophies, students’ attitudes and behaviours, et cetera.  

The hidden curriculum has many factors that make up a school's socio-cultural frame. Factors such as behaviours of teachers and administrators, attitudes, approaches, beliefs, values, quality of the school’s atmosphere, values, interaction pattern providing students with non-written rules in school-environment, routines, discipline, and obedience to authority constitute this social frame.

There is a hidden curriculum in all schools or education institutions no matter the level of organisational function and quality of education provided. The classroom climate, school-environment interaction, and administrative and organisational arrangements make up implicit programme scope outside the official programme.

School rules, reward and punishment methods, extracurricular activities, and clubs are included in a school’s organisational arrangements. Schools providing students with the desired social norms and values are included in school-environment interaction. The actions taken in the classroom, the teachers' expectations of students, determined class rules/essential agreements, teaching styles, and teachers and students’ opinions and ideas about each other are the factors informing the general class/school atmosphere.

Hidden curriculum consists of real-life experiences. Because all students ought to internalise a curriculum, a hidden curriculum, which consists of specific social norms and practices, would hopefully shape these students into effective and productive citizens, first at school and then in the larger society. With the help of meetings, clothing arrangements, monitoring students and all other cultural norms, hidden curriculum includes everything for training students indirectly.

Components of hidden curriculum are attribution of values, beliefs and attitudes that individuals have of the school, norms and rules that are important parts of school functioning, ceremony and ritual, and interpersonal communication. Positive school experiences draw attention for educationalists and researchers. An education programme ought to demonstrate all aspects of people’s thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions.

A 2009-2010 research done by Prof Zühal Çubukçu, an associate professor at the Department of Educational Sciences, Curriculum and Instruction at the Eskisehir Osmangazi University in Turkey, aimed to study the effects of hidden curriculum on character education process of primary school students.

Her extensive study investigated the function of hidden curriculum at the process of having values within the context of character education in elementary school curriculum thoroughly. Supportive activities for hidden curriculum in the implementation process of the elementary programmes and views of students participating in these events were examined.

In her findings, supportive hidden curriculum activities as social and cultural activities, leisure time and sportive activities, celebration of specific days and weeks, and social clubs are seen as tools in terms of value creation for students to recognise, internalise and implement values. Such events and activities in schools, therefore, shouldn’t be forgotten as an important tool for character education studies.

Within the context of hidden curriculum, elements like social class of the students and their academic achievement levels, social and academic life in schools, interactions between school and the environment, management and organisational preparations of the school, position of the teacher and the students in classroom and school environment should be taken into account during the process of character education.

Studies strongly suggest that teachers have roles in effective teaching of values. It is strongly emphasised that teachers should be role models reflecting correct values both inside and outside the school environment, create a moral classroom environment, take out a variety of applications as formal in the classroom and as informal outside the classroom for students using different strategies. All stakeholders in the education sector, therefore, have an important part to play in making the hidden curriculum a success.

Once hidden curriculum is discovered, it becomes negotiable, allowing for change and improvement to the overall curriculum, teaching methods, and student learning. Hidden curricula teach students beyond the subject content of their courses. An educator can design hidden curriculum to teach positive characteristics such as dignity, humility, hard work, responsibility, and appreciation. Hidden curriculum has the potential to positively impact students and even change lives.

Next week, we look at how schools can blend their bespoke hidden curricula in the wake of CBC rollout.

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