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7.2: Is there a "hidden curriculum"? Where is it hiding?

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    by Aubrey W. Bibbs, Jr.

    Learning Objectives

    1. Reader should be able to recognize various types of hidden curriculum/character education.

    2. Reader will be able to identify reasons for implementing a hidden curriculum/character education into an existing curriculum.

    3. Readers are expected to distinguish the differences between the goals associated with hidden curriculum/character education from those of a traditional/formal curriculum


    The Random House College Dictionary (1988) defines curriculum as: “the aggregate of courses of study given in a school, college, etc” (p. 328). The term “hidden curriculum” comes from the concept that such an aggregate of courses is comprised of a curriculum which is both formal and informal, also known as written or directed curriculum and unwritten or undirected curriculum respectively. Formal curriculum is traditionally an explicit lesson plan, either produced by the individual teacher or created by the school/school district intended to address intellect and/or vocation, and teach lessons in areas of study such as: mathematics, science, reading, writing and art. Informal curriculum, commonly referred to as hidden curriculum, due to its implicit nature, addresses behavioral and character aspects of life which include, but are not limited to: social responsibility, personal relationships, competition, respect for authority and time management. These aspects are taught by such methods, techniques and procedures as class bells, restroom passes, dress codes, classroom etiquette, class rank charts, etc.

    The general consensus is that hidden curriculum has the potential to teach, stimulate and foster good or bad lessons, behavioral pattern and character traits respectively. Some educators feel that hidden curriculum is creating more negative repercussions for students and society, than it is positive results. John Taylor Gatto (1992) expressed his concern during a speech by stating, “…these are the things you pay me to teach. 1. CONFUSION…2. CLASS POSITION…3. INDIFFERENCE…4. EMOTIONAL DEPENDENCY…5. INTELLECTUAL DEPENDENCY…6. PROVISIONAL SELF-ESTEEM…7. ONE CAN’T HIDE…” (p. 2-12). His main argument was that hidden curriculum was “dumbing us down” (Gatto). This was a popular sentiment echoed throughout school systems and communities in the U.S. over the past thirty to forty years.

    Teaching Character

    Recently, in the past ten to fifteen years, there has been a collective effort by parents, educators and politicians alike for schools to look into placing more focus on areas of hidden curriculum such as, character education; also referred to as value education or moral education intended to help students “to acquire certain character strengths: sound judgment, a sense of responsibility, personal courage, and self-mastery” (Ryan & Bohlin, 1999, p. 207), and realize both the individual benefit and the benefit to the greater good of society when they “internalize these lifelong habits” (p. 207). This movement was brought on by obvious indications that our nation's youth was lacking sufficient moral fiber as demonstrated through “frightening statistics about youth homicides and suicides and by soaring numbers of teen pregnancies“ (p. xiii), staggering high school drop out rates and gang affiliation. As a result of the movement to create formal programs which propagate positive outcomes by focusing on the potential that hidden curriculum has to influence character development, the term “hidden curriculum” has become synonymous with character education. Another point presented by advocates for character education is that a value/moral driven curriculum was deemed a necessity by our nation’s founding fathers, such a Thomas Jefferson, who believed that formally teaching virtue early on was integral to the ultimate success of our nation and its established structure (Lickona, 1991).


    “To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society” (Lickona, 1991, p. 3).


    One would be hard pressed to find a teaching philosophy, idea or technique that was introduced without some form of criticism, skepticism or opposition. So, despite concerns from educators in regards to the countless challenges that students face beyond the scope of academics, an air of skepticism still lingers among many. Taking into consideration the enormous pressures placed on educators to create and implement lesson plans in accordance with No Child Left Behind legislation, consequently forcing many teachers to make drastic adjustments to their preexisting curricula and teaching styles; many educators find it unfeasible to introduce and implement a character driven curriculum while simultaneously maintaining a traditional academic driven curriculum (Allred, 2008, November). Another source of pessimism stem from claims that character education “amounts to imposing particular values or personality traits on young people or crude manipulations of children by dominant powers in their lives” (Ryan & Bohlin, 1999, p. 140). Simply put, some educators feel that character education is nothing short of “brainwashing” (Ryan & Bohlin, p. 140) children. Aside from fear of a decline in academic standing, failing to meet academic benchmarks or indoctrination, educators are open to and optimistic about employing a curriculum that encompasses both academic advancement and character development.

    Character Education Programs

    There are dozens of character education programs in practice today, making it unfeasible to discuss each one individually. Instead, an overview of some of the key overlapping points from the numerous character education programs currently in use is a more practical approach. Most programs adopt a curriculum centered on a structure that promotes a synergy among the individual student, community and society. Essentially, these programs expect to teach students to make positive decisions not just for self benefit, but for the well being of others. Due to the nature of such programs and their goals, they are often divided into components or levels. Some programs consist of more components than others (components within components), but essentially share three similar components: the school, the family and the community. Additionally, these programs rely heavily on a philosophy that encourages students to use a three division cycle of self-reflection in order to develop good character habits. This cycle is comprised of a continuum of moral knowing/thoughts/thought, moral feeling/feelings/emotion, moral actions/actions/response. Supplemental lessons/techniques common to character education programs include: leading by example, moral literature, storytelling, and cooperative learning to name a few.

    Positive Action, a character education program which has been widely used in the state of California for over five years is an example of a program that has successfully incorporated a synergistic structure in its lesson format combined with a self-reflecting philosophy in efforts to build good character traits and behavior while maintaining, and in many cases improving academic standards. In fact, “it was recognized as the only program in the nation to simultaneously improve academics and behavior in character education” (Allred, 2008, November, p. 27) by the U.S. Department of Education What Works Clearinghouse.


    “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of a master…Nothing is of more importance for the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue" (Ryan & Bohlin, 1999, p. 220).


    Hidden curriculum, more specifically, character education has been revered by many as an essential educational element since the birth of our nation and the development of our nation's educational system. Despite mild criticism, character education has an abundance of benefits on an individual, communal and societal level having both immediate and long term pay outs. Additionally, taking inventory of the moral issues associated with our nation’s teenage demographic couple with evidence that character education has the ability to simultaneously instill strong morals and values, creating good character and improve academic performance is proof positive that there is an ever present need for a curriculum that incorporates character education into traditional academic driven education.


    Allred, C.G. (2008, November). Improving academics, behavior and character. Leadership, 38(2), 26-29. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from Education Research Complete database.

    Gatto, J.T. (1992). Dumbing us down. Philadelphia: New Society.

    Hagee, A. (2003). Educating the heart. Tucson, AZ: Zephyr Press.

    Licona, T. (1991). Educationg for character: How our schools can teach respect and responsibility. New York: Bantam Books.

    Ryan, K., Bohlin, K.E. (1999). Building character in schools: Practical ways to bring moral instruction to life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Ryan, K., Bohlin, K.E. (1999). Preface. Building character in schools: Practical ways to bring moral instruction to life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Ryan, K., Bohlin, K.E. (1999). Appendix. Building character in schools: Practical ways to bring moral instruction to life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Stein, J., Hauck, L.C., SU, P.Y. (Eds.). (1988). Curriculum. The Random House college dictionary(Revised ed.). New York: Random House.