Is it time to make the ‘hidden curriculum’ more visible and valued?
It has been recognised for some time now that there are two curriculums at play in any school or learning setting. Firstly, there is the formal curriculum and structures that shape the learning activities and experiences of the learners, which are common to schools and establishments across any system, as well systems themselves. These may include curricular areas, teaching strategies employed, school structures and the formal rules created by schools. The second however, is not so visible but is at play constantly across schools and systems. This is what has been described as the ‘hidden curriculum’. This is the practices, experiences, attitudes, behaviours and biases that permeate any school, or system, and which send out messages to learners and families about what a school, or a system, really thinks is important as it brings true values, principles and ethics out into the open.
Having been a primary school leader for almost twenty years, I came to recognise the power and the importance of this hidden curriculum to everything we do in our schools. In my experience, school leaders, teachers, support staff, and others, spend a lot of their conscious time and energies dealing with aspects of this hidden curriculum as they understand its power and importance in eventually helping learners engage and succeed with more formal curriculum structures and learning. What concerned myself and others was that the time we spent prioritising, and taking action, within this hidden curriculum was rarely recognised or valued by others from outside who sought to assess or measure the effectiveness of our efforts.
It is a lot easier to see and try to measure progress in aspects of the overt formal curriculum than it is for the hidden one. We can put in place structures, systems and assessments which purport to measure and show progress with the formal curriculum a lot easier, even though those in the profession might challenge the validity of many of these claims, than it is to measure or recognise the work and progress schools and their staff are making within hidden, but vital, aspects of their activities. This, of course, is if you even recognise or value the importance of such activity.
There has been a quote going around for some time now that says something like ‘we have to deal with the Maslov stuff before we can deal with the Bloom stuff.’ I think this attributable to Katheryn Craig, but similar feelings have been expressed by others. This statement points to our need to address basic human needs in our learners, as identified by Abraham Maslov in one hierarchy, before we can address the learning and intellectual development identified in another by Benjamin Bloom. No matter what you think about either of these models of human development and behaviours, I do believe this linking of them both points towards a fundamental point of prioritisation for schools and their learners. When they have learners, who have not had, or are not having, those basic human needs addressed, or when they have been disrupted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), attention has to be focused on these areas before we can hope to make any inroads and progress with the more formal curricular aspects of our work.
I see such a recognition as a staging point between the formal and informal, or hidden, curriculums, because when we are faced with learners who have not had their basic needs met, we have to be quite overt in helping and supporting them, before addressing their learning and intellectual needs. This then becomes part of the visible curriculum and activity of any school and many educators, though the time spent on addressing such issues is still not recognised, or valued, by many, especially those outside of the system. We are very much still focused on supporting the development of the whole child, and not just aspects, especially those most easy to test or measure. We deal with the complexity of this challenge daily and understand the challenge to show this to those not directly involved, or who lack understanding.
The hidden curriculum is much more than this though. It is contained within the culture that pervades each classroom, school and system, and it is sending out messages to learners continually. A lot of it is premeditated and thought about by educators, as a deliberate attempt to bring expressed values and ethics to life. But, there is also the unconscious thinking and biases that we might not recognise ourselves, but which our learners, and their families certainly do. The only way to deal with and think about these is to be aware that they exist, recognise their power, and to determine to reflect on and change when these when they are brought to light. If they are unconscious, you will not be aware of them until someone points them out or tells you they have experienced them. We all have them.
Taking a considered and informed decision as an individual educator, or as a school or system, to promote certain values and ethics, then to make them real, means you have to give these attention in all your actions, measuring all you do against these, as well as prioritising them ahead of other agendas. When you do this, it may deflect you from the more formal curriculum and practices that are so highly valued and easily measured. In my view, time spent in such areas and activity, is time well spent, especially in the early years of education, but whenever necessary, if we are to equip our young learners to succeed in their holistic development, and their ability to contribute as successful learners, responsible citizens, with sound physical, mental and social well-being.
If we are to be driven by our values in education, and I believe we should, then these are what drive our actions as well as our thinking. Your values are what you do, not what you say you do. You may express the desire to be fair and honest in your school values, but if some members of your school community fail to feel that is how you have been with them, then you have an issue to be addressed. It may be an individual issue or it may be a systemic one,
All of this takes time and is reflected in daily actions of individuals within and across schools. Relationships are key in school performance and time has to be spent maintaining and developing these at all levels for a school to achieve all that it can, for all its learners. In my experience, most schools recognise this and their days are filled with interactions and activities essential to the protection and development of a school’s culture and ethos, upon which everything else stands or falls.
My main point in this post is that we know all this is going on every day, and this can be more demanding for some schools in areas of challenge or high deprivation, so how come all this deep and important work is hardly recognised or valued in many schools, until it is also reflected in percentages and grades? Important though attainment and exam results are, they are not the only determiners of a successful and achieving education, or life. My fear, and I have seen it expressed by others recently also, is that we are losing sight of the vital work happening in schools and systems every day, when we lose sight of the individuals in it and begin to view them as data-points. Data is made up of figures, percentages, percentiles, test scores and can be very useful to schools when used to inform actions, but our work and education is bigger than just this. Society, politicians and system leaders have to value the work going on that is not easily measured or quantified, but is vital in building positive relationships and equipping young learners to contribute meaningfully to society and their lives. I like the quote from the Character Education Frameworks of the Jubilee Centre at Birmingham University, and Character Scotland that states, ‘we should help prepare students for the tests of life, rather than a life of tests.’
If we narrow our focus to only attainment agendas, then we lose many learners along the way, failing them, our schools and our systems. We should celebrate the fact that in schools every day people are going out of their way to work with and understand individual learners and their families, so as to better be able to support and help them, not just in their learning, but in becoming well-rounded, healthy human-beings able to succeed in lots of different ways. They are considering deeply what they do, how they think and the ways they impact on all those learner and families, determined to help and support to help them develop their own values and thinking.
There are still some who look to direct and impose their view of what a successful life looks like onto learners, then who make judgements about families and life-styles, not recognising the barriers and difficulties they create by doing so, never mind the fallibilities in their personal models. But, I like to think such establishments, and individuals, are in the minority, as most take a more empathetic and understanding stance which recognises their own imperfections rather than looking to find them in the learners and families they are supposed to serve.
All that I describe above, is happening in every school, across every day and every year. It strikes me that it seems that it is only the people who are directly involved in this process, who truly recognise it’s happening and the impact it has. It is time others, including politicians, media and commentators, took notice and valued all that happens in our schools to help support young people find their way and place in society, so they are able to help re-shape that for the benefit off all in the future. This is not just about attainment and data, it is about people and life their fullest sense, and we ignore it at our peril.