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The Hidden Curriculum: Revealing and Resisting Institutionalized Inequality

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Formal Curriculum
How does a school decide what to teach? International schools often have the choice of splitting, at least in part, from the local or national curriculum of their host country, and may select from a variety of alternatives and supplements. Generally, schools will adopt a program from the country they represent (i.e. the Canadian school follows Canadian standards, the French school follows French), but even there they may have options as to which province or regional directives to adopt. In addition, there is the decision whether to offer International Baccalaureate or Advanced Placement courses as a supplement. Many schools will select – or be required – to include some element of the host country’s academic priorities as well. The resulting curricular package tends to be somewhat transparent and articulated for stakeholders of the school. This constitutes a school’s formal, explicit curriculum.

The Hidden Curriculum
Every school also imparts an informal, implicit, or “hidden” curriculum. A school’s hidden curriculum is made up of the values and social norms that are taught and learned through the process of schooling. The teaching of a hidden curriculum is generally not intentional, and not even done consciously. Hidden curricula are, “Tacit in so far as their presence is implied and often taken-for-granted rather than directly acknowledged and examined”[1]. Why, then, bother with it?

The hidden hidden curriculum in international schools is worth examining because it can perpetuate social structures that privilege certain groups over others, legitimizing their dominant status. A ‘textbook example’ (sorry) from history class is the disproportionate portrayal of white, heterosexual, cisgender men in positions of leadership. Another example is the lack of representation of LGBTQ+ characters in literature selected for study. These types of subtle assertions about what is worth learning institutionalize social hierarchies. Acknowledging this problem, unpacking why it may be so, and taking steps to change it can be a powerful learning experience for students. It can be argued that it is the ethical responsibility of educators to make hidden curriculum visible and explicit[2].

Capitalizing on Hidden Curriculum
Hidden curriculum, once identified, can be discussed and possibly maintained as part of a formal curriculum. For example, while teaching parenting classes in Hong Kong, my co-facilitator and I realized that our program implicitly emphasized democratic values. We discouraged parents from taking an authoritarian, dictatorial approach; instead we worked on tools to help children become active participants in their family and community structures. This underlying value, while initially unnamed, was something we agreed was desirable, and aligned with the goals of our parenting course and the mission of the school. The participants in our program came from countries with a variety of political systems, so we did preserve our democratic slant, but addressed this for the groups, making it explicit so that parents knew our angle.

Revealing and Resisting Institutionalized Inequality
Norms, customs, and beliefs in international schools are diverse. Each community member contributes their own opinions and assumptions of how the world should operate, which may not necessarily be compatible with one another. No school will be able to satisfy all stakeholders’ demands, but making clear what is being taught (or omitted) and why can at least allow for open discussion, and provides a valuable critical thinking experience if done in the classroom. Understanding our own values, as well as those of the school as a whole, prepares us not only to engage in meaningful conversation with people who may hold differing views from our own, but also to expose and resist perpetuation of systemic inequality.

What values are transmitted through the hidden curriculum at your school? How have you made hidden curriculum explicit and visible in your work as an educator? 

[1] Cornbleth, C. (1984). Beyond hidden curriculum? Journal of Curriculum Studies, 16(1), p. 29-36.

[2] Portelli, J. P. (1993). Exposing the hidden curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 25(3), p. 343-358.