Let’s Unhide the Hidden Curriculum


According to The Glossary of Education Reform, the hidden curriculum “consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.” This year, the hidden curriculum isn’t so hidden, which is for the best, because the focus on the academic, social, and cultural challenges facing all stakeholders in education can be helpful. The absence of the hidden curriculum, or the inability to implement aspects of it, has shown how important it is, for better or worse.

What Does That Mean?

This year especially, I have been wondering about why education needs to be so mysterious. Indeed, some mystery has been taken out of learning from when I was a child and teachers didn’t tell us WHY we were learning something. It was awful, spending years wondering why I needed to know anything math-related when all I wanted to do was be a history professor. When would I use math with that?

Aside: If I had known then that I would end up working as an administrative assistant for a couple of years before transitioning into training, and would need to use Excel daily for all sorts of tasks, I might have been more inclined to try harder in math class. You see, the dream of becoming a history professor needed to go on the shelf for a while. Perhaps when I retire from teaching English I will work on that goal.


The point is, we did not get to hear the teacher expound upon the value of anything we were learning unless it was a higher-level class. For example, in “Philology and Linguistics,” Dr. Phillips would lecture about the beauty of investigating the history of the English language, and the development of language within human beings. Those classes were inspiring; each student left class in a deep intellectual fog. It was great, Dead Poets Society great.

I could use a few lectures from John Keating this year.

In other classes, we had to infer that for ourselves. We did not even know that we needed to infer, frankly. Here’s a book. Read it. Love it. Learn it. Regurgitate its contents for the test. Move on.

Today, we teachers do talk about the importance of our subject area, and we definitely teach the importance of inference and implication. I will not speak for anyone else when I say I need to go further and have been trying to go further, but I don’t think I’ve done enough. I’m not John Keating or Dr. Phillips… yet.

Why Am I Not Like Dr. Phillips?

Time. I never have enough time. “Philology and Linguistics” was an elective, so he had all the time in the world to show us how important the ideas of the course were. There was no standardized test at the end. His teacher evaluation was not contingent upon test scores. (Dr. Phillips was a teacher god, so it did not matter what he did. He was just that good.)

Today, I am beholden to those dumb tests and to standards. While standards-based grading is great in theory, in reality it doesn’t work with all the other demands on teachers.

I also find myself in grade hell. I wish I could get rid of grades altogether and let students build portfolios of their progress instead. For the record, grades are poor motivation to learn anything except how to play the game of school. During this time, cheating has become more prevalent than ever, simply because grades mean more than learning and kids don’t have time to wonder. They are too busy trying to survive a terrible time.

What Aspects of the Hidden Curriculum Need to be Unhidden?

How about all of them? Why not just tell the kids everything? I promise you, they can handle it. They probably crave that information, to be honest.

Do you think students would be more engaged with the content if I said something like this to them at the beginning of the unit?

“We are going to work on a novel for the following reasons. First, to explore its themes, syntax, diction, [insert important elements here], but also to practice critical thinking skills and time management skills. With certain activities, I am stressing the importance of being prepared for class, too, because you’ll need to be prepared for activities for the rest of your life if you want to have a prosperous future. I am going to ask you to take risks while we work on this novel, during which you might even fail. Why? Well, failures are learning opportunities. If we spend our lives afraid of making mistakes, our growth is stunted. If we take risks and make mistakes, we learn and grow. Finally, we are practicing our collaborative and cooperative skills with activities related to this novel. It’s not all about the content, it’s also about the connections you can make from the study of the content to how to manage your life.”

Academic Skills

In the hidden curriculum, the messages sent to students about academic skills and priorities are embedded in what is taught and how it is taught. Another important consideration is what isn’t taught, but that is a subject for another post.

Teachers let their students know what they value through their teaching. For example, if assignments demand a certain level of self-responsibility and independent thinking, we are sending the message that we value the release of responsibility to students and their development of critical thinking and problem solving skills. We may not actually express that (although I don’t understand why not), but it’s true, nonetheless.

This school year, those of us fortunate enough to teach in tech-ready schools have been teaching many technology skills our students need to do well in school (and life) right now. I’m not sure how many teachers are explicitly making those connections for the students, therefore these skills could be part of the hidden curriculum. So many teachers are learning them while also teaching their established curriculum in a strange context. The technology training has been so light, but, again, that’s a subject for another rant…er, post.

That said, here are several examples.

  • We stress digital citizenship as students practice discussion posts.
  • We practice different time management techniques using calendar software.
  • The LMS itself reinforces navigation and search skills that apply to most complex sites these days.
  • Collaboration software, like digital whiteboards and shared documents, help students hone those digital cooperative skills that will lead to success in later years.

When we tell the kids what’s going on, take the mystery out of it, it’s my contention we serve them better. During this crisis, they need that information to re-engage with school, to understand its purpose during a time in which more practical matters seem more important.

Socialization Skills

In the classroom-before-COVID, socialization skills were embedded in lessons, too. Teachers and students enjoyed the time together, working through problems, collaborating in small groups, doing think-pair-share activities, building word walls together, acting out scenes from Shakespeare, figuring out science labs with a partner, and yes — having that time before the second bell to talk.

Then, COVID-19 came along and many of us went home. Those of us who remained had to keep six feet apart and face in the same direction. Masks obscured facial expressions. Until we got used to the masks, it was difficult to understand people when they talked.

Some teachers experimented with breakout rooms online as a way to develop the rapport that group work used to support. For a little while, that worked in my room. However, it stopped working as more students went into isolation mode, and then we went to a fully-remote model during which breakout rooms just did not seem to work anymore. That was my experience; I’m sure other teachers have found great success. I want to figure out how to build that rapport again while students and I share a virtual classroom, not a physical one. I have ideas.

Many reports have indicated students’ overall socialization skills have degraded or not developed sufficiently this school year. Some children have even regressed in their toileting and have gone back to diapers. More children are spending too much time in bed, not showering or changing their clothes for days. Due to despair, suicide rates have increased, as have reports of domestic and drug abuse.

Some students’ eating habits and exercise habits have changed. They are eating more convenience food and leading more sedentary lifestyles. Obesity rates among young people are up as a result. It’s not their fault. There’s nowhere to go. There’s no recess. Gym class is modified for the COVID-19 era. Athletics is limited. Even being able to walk from class to class daily has ended for most.

We can, and should, address all aspects of the hidden curriculum related to these issues. We could reimagine the curriculum to explicitly address socialization and mental health issues in the time of COVID. Perhaps our content needs to change. Here are some ideas.

  • Our gym classes have been modified to include walking at least 5,000 steps a day. I love this; it’s brilliant. We need more of that.
  • A teacher I met recently, who teaches French, has emphasized getting out of the house and exercising by taking videos of herself on a rail trail and in other places. She explains what she sees and what she is thinking about, in French, at least once a week. She invites the students to explore the same space and to think about what she said during the video. They can even play the video and listen to the audio while they walk, if they have the proper technology.
  • Make virtual breakout rooms work with more explicit directions about how to be successful. Encourage them to take risks, like turning on their microphone and webcam. Many students are still hesitant about doing that. However, turning on the webcam may help get the kids out of bed and into the shower before school each day.
  • Provide students more opportunities to complete assignments using paper and pen/pencil, to get their eyes off the screen for a while. Let them be creative, use colored pencils (or pens, or watercolors), doodle, and receive the credit they deserve for thinking critically and creatively about something.
  • Let students wonder and consider by providing longer-term assignments that afford them more time and the chance to practice time management, like creating a schedule for those assignments.
  • Use software like FlipGrid so students can record themselves tackling the content. This particular idea terrifies me because I would hate it and I think many of my students would as well, but I just mentioned risk-taking, so here it is.

Other Issues


Attendance has been a concern throughout this pandemic. Often, it’s not the child’s fault. Instead, poor attendance can be blamed on various factors, including poor technological resources, the need to help support the family by helping younger siblings or by getting a job, illness within the family that requires the child’s attention, mental health crises, and the list goes on from there. Our need for physical and emotional security will always supercede other pursuits.

That said, there are students who have completely “checked out.” Every year, teachers deal with senioritis, but this year, senioritis has extended across most grade levels. Some are frustrated by remote learning, and those tales are heartbreaking. They give up. Others find learning from home too distracting. Those who have worked from home can relate. I learned recently that there are students who sign in and go back to sleep. It’s too comfortable at home, no matter what guidance we provide about how to set up for remote learning.

Participation Concerns

Following on attendance is the concern about participation in the remote classroom. Those students who sign in and go back to sleep are not participating, obviously. There are others, though, who aren’t participating even though they are present and awake. In the distant past, we chuckled about the black hole into which our classes have fallen at times, or how it’s like a seance, but it became a serious concern shortly after that. In in-person classrooms, we can reach more students through proximity. I’m still wondering how we can do that in the remote classroom in a more effective manner.

Do you have other ideas? I would love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading this post.

For more information about students’ mental health, please visit this page: https://namica.org/blog/impact-on-the-mental-health-of-students-during-covid-19/

Originally published at http://heatheredick.com on February 22, 2021.

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