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School Curriculum

Hidden Curriculum

Hidden curriculum refers to messages communicated by the organization and operation of schooling apart from the official or public statements of school mission and subject area curriculum guidelines. In other words, the medium is a key source of messages. The messages of hidden curriculum usually deal with attitudes, values, beliefs, and behavior. There are numerous such messages conveyed indirectly. For example, that reading and mathematics are the most important elementary school subjects is clearly if implicitly communicated by scheduling more time for these subjects than for others, such as science and social studies, scheduling them in morning prime time rather than in the afternoon, and testing them more often than other subjects or skills.

The messages of hidden curriculum may complement or contradict each other as well as the official curriculum. For example, while school social studies curriculum typically emphasizes and even celebrates democratic political systems and principles, such as one person-one vote, majority rule and minority rights, separation of church and state, equality before the law, and due process, these principles are not always practiced in public school classrooms and corridors. Hidden curriculum can support or undermine official curriculum. Prominent displays of athletic trophies in the hallway near the school's main office–but not recognition for debate or music or scholarship–communicates a hierarchy of valued accomplishments that puts sports ahead of academics. It is likely that hidden curriculum has the most impact when there is an aggregate or a pattern of consistent messages. When hidden and explicit curricula conflict, it may be that hidden curriculum, like nonverbal communication, carries more weight.

Much of the organization and culture of schooling now referred to as hidden curriculum was once explicit assertive socialization according to a 1977 study by Elizabeth Vallance. The nineteenth-century McGuffey readers, for example, were intended to inculcate good behavior, such as passivity, punctuality, and respect for authority, through their stories, Protestant Christian prayers, and direct admonitions. Such teachings became implicit, if not hidden, by the early twentieth century because they were seen to be working and could be taken for granted as natural and normal. Students new to U.S. public schools, such as recent immigrants, were expected to adapt and fit in, for example, by looking at the teacher when spoken to, learning and using standard English, waiting (to speak, for the teacher's attention, for permission to use the toilet), and working hard.

Thus, a major purpose of the hidden curriculum of U.S. public schools has been cultural transmission or teaching students the routines for getting along in school and the larger society. In other words, hidden curriculum usually serves to maintain the status quo, specifically the dominant culture and prevailing socioeconomic hierarchy. It is this conservative bias, portrayed in articles by Jean Anyon and Michael Apple, that has been targeted by critics concerned about aspects of hidden curriculum, which work against diversity, equity, and social justice. Nonpublic schools, in contrast, such as Quaker or elite private schools, convey different hidden curriculum messages.

Earlier studies of hidden curriculum were conducted primarily in public elementary schools with a focus on academic classrooms. More recent work also has examined physical and business education and student cultures, with attention to messages about race/ethnicity, disability, and gender/sexual orientation as well as social class, politics, and culture. For example, Annette Hemmings investigated what she calls a "hidden corridor curriculum" that students have to negotiate in one way or another. Played out in hallways, lunchrooms, restrooms, and other nonclassroom spaces in two urban high schools she studied, it was dominated by a hostile, alienated youth culture antagonistic to typically middle-class school and social norms.

Two related aspects of hidden curriculum–or sources of hidden curriculum messages–can be distinguished: the structural or organizational and the cultural. These categories and the illustrative examples that follow can be useful guides to what to look or listen for in examining the nature and extent of hidden curriculum at a particular school.

Structural or organizational aspects of hidden curriculum include time scheduling of classes and other school activities; facilities provided; materials, such as textbooks and computer software; examinations; required courses; special programs, such as speech therapy or advanced placement; extracurricular activities and services; and grading and grouping policies.

Cultural aspects of hidden curriculum include school norms or ethos; décor and wall decorations; roles and relationships, including intergroup relations (within and between teachers and students); student cliques, rituals, and celebrations; and teacher expectations of various groups of students.

Mediation and Effects

While considerable attention has been paid to the messages of hidden curriculum, relatively little has been directed to whether they are received, how they are interpreted, and what effects they have on individuals or groups. Messages sent are not necessarily received or interpreted as intended by the sender. Particularly when a school's hidden curriculum offers varied or contradictory messages, as all but the smallest and most homogeneous tend to do, students have choices regarding which messages to act on and how to do so. Most students appear to neither totally accept nor completely reject the various messages of schooling. Numerous students become adept at "playing school," that is, keeping up appearances and seeming to go along in order to gain advantage, such as good grades, without internalizing the school's values or views of the world.

While the incorporation or Americanization of generations of immigrants and their children attests to the effectiveness of hidden curriculum, evidence of specific effects on individuals or groups of students remains sketchy. Illustrative evidence comes from the political socialization and citizenship education literature. For example, according to a 1980 article by Lee Ehman, a classroom setting in which controversial issues are freely discussed and students believe that they can influence classroom events shows a consistently strong relationship with political and participatory attitudes, including higher political efficacy and trust and lower political cynicism and alienation.

In sum, the primary value of the concept of hidden curriculum is that it calls attention to aspects of schooling that are only occasionally acknowledged and remain largely unexamined. Messages communicated by schools' organization and culture can support or undermine their stated purposes and official curricula.


ANYON, JEAN. 1979. "Ideology and United States History Textbooks." Harvard Educational Review 49:361–386.

APPLE, MICHAEL W. 1971. "The Hidden Curriculum and the Nature of Conflict." Interchange 2 (4):27–40.

CORNBLETH, CATHERINE. 1984. "Beyond Hidden Curriculum." Journal of Curriculum Studies 16 (1):29–36.

EHMAN, LEE H. 1980. "The American School in the Political Socialization Process." Review of Educational Research 50 (1):99–119.

HEMMINGS, ANNETTE. 1999–2000. "The 'Hidden Corridor' Curriculum." The High School Journal 83 (2):1–10.

JACKSON, PHILIP W. 1968. Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

VALLANCE, ELIZABETH. 1977. "Hiding the Hidden Curriculum: An Interpretation of the Language of Justification in Nineteenth-Century Educational Reform." In Curriculum and Evaluation, eds. Arno A. Bellack and Herbert M. Kliebard. Berkeley, CA: McCutchan.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: Education Reform - OVERVIEW to Correspondence courseSchool Curriculum - Core Knowledge Curriculum, Hidden Curriculum - OVERVIEW