Hidden Curriculum in Education: Definition & Examples

The hidden curriculum, first described by Philip Jackson (1968), is a set of unspoken or implicit rules and values that students learn while attending school. It is often contrasted with the more formalized, official curriculum that is spelled out in a school”s mission statement or lesson plans.

Philip W. Jackson coined the term ‘hidden curriculum’ in 1968 in his book Life in Classrooms, in discussing the students’ need to master their schools’ expectations. He contended for an understanding of education as a process of secondary socialization.

Hidden Curriculum Examples


A school that has a strict dress code may be sending the message that appearance and conformity are more important than individuality and self-expression.

Gender Inequality (Feminist View)

Education for children is thought to be an agent of socialization to learn appropriate behavior for their gender and contributes to the patriarchal system and structure (Sultana, 2010).

Young girls may be socialized into thinking that there are subjects that are more suited to boys such as mathematics and science.

Feminists view the hidden curriculum as a producer and perpetuator of a gender socialization that disfavors women.

Teachers may respond in different ways to boys and girls (Sadker & Sadker, 1994). Commencing in kindergarten, teachers may employ gender dichotomies to address pupils, separate them for group activities, and distribute them between adversarial teams for competitions.

Moreover, since in elementary level classrooms, boys tend to be more disruptive than girls, they may also receive more attention (both negative and positive).

Studies further suggest that boys attain high status based on athletic ability, toughness, coolness and cross gender relationships, while girls acquire popularity via social skills, physical appearance and their parents’ socioeconomic background.

These values may be further propagated via greater financial support for male sports. Scholars have implied that teachers’ opinions concerning gender differences in science, verbal and math aptitude may shape their pedagogical approach, and thereby, pupils’ interest and performance in various subjects.

The relatively higher representation of males over females in textbooks may influence girls’ and boys’ own opinions concerning their aptitudes and their ambitions as well.

For instance, even though, in Wales and England, female teachers outnumber male teachers, senior management of schools and colleges contain more men than women. This lack of salient senior role models may exert a baneful influence upon female students.

Moreover, feminist activists Tony Lawson and Tim Heaton (1996) claimed that textbooks subtly promote gender stereotypes (especially via the portrayal of men and women in different roles) and traditional gender divisions in sports and physical education.

They also argue that many educators still entertain entrenched sexist views concerning certain classroom tasks.

Radical feminists further complain that the whole educational system is patriarchal, and that it continues to oppress and marginalize women. They protest that the system espouses the dependency of women upon men, and causes many girls to feel uncomfortable in the presence of boys while studying certain subjects.

They, moreover, contend that the system still engenders gender inequalities despite the introduction of the national curriculum.

Learn Norms and Values (Functionalist Approach)

The functionalist orientation toward the hidden curriculum is primarily concerned with concealed curricula’s reproduction of unified societies.

Closely associated with consensus theory, this approach focuses on the utilization of education to maintain order in society by appropriately socializing students.

Moreover, Emile Durkheim’s propositions in Education and Sociology (1922), as well as Moral Education (1925), likely foreshadowed the functionalist approach to the yet-undeveloped notion of the hidden curriculum.

Durkheim contended that the functioning of society required a high level of homogeneity, and this could be provided by education via highly regulated institutions.

The functionalists hold that the hidden curriculum imparts to children the following:

  1. The value of achievement: the hidden curriculum inculcates a strong work ethic, an attitude of inquiry, personal responsibility, individual initiative, a competitive spirit, and creativity.

    This is amply evidenced by rewards reserved for students who procure high scores on examinations, praise bestowed on those who raise intelligent questions in class, and the recognition of original ideas in crafting and executing various projects.

  1. School as a microcosm: the school milieu constitutes a scaled-down encapsulation of the society at large in many respects, and thereby provides a training ground for entrance thereto.

    The norms and values pervading the modern industrial society, consequently, permeate the socialization process which the hidden curriculum propagates. The expectation that pupils arrive by a certain time at school instructs them in punctuality which would be essential to preserving their jobs as adults.

    Assenting to the school’s cultural norms and learning alongside pupils from different backgrounds, help pupils respect their fellow citizens’ opinions, and coexist with those different from oneself in the future.

Social Class Inequality (Marxist View)

According to Marxists the hidden curriculum reinforces social inequality and maintains ruling class ideology. Education encourages students to blindly accept capitalist values, through the hidden curriculum.

For example, schools that track students into different ability levels or classes based on test scores may be reinforcing the idea that some students are better than others and that some students are not worth as much attention or investment.

This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where students who are labeled as “less capable” may begin to believe it and underperform as a result (Jackson, 1968).

Schools in North America have bred a sense of competition among students by the way grades are given and how teachers evaluate them.

Students learn to rank themselves amongst their peers with grades (Bowles & Gintis, 1976). When children participate in a race or math contest, they learn that society has winners and losers.

Bourdieu’s (1977) ideas about cultural capital are part of a wider Marxist argument that the function of education is to reproduce ruling-class culture and class inequality via the ideology transmitted by a hidden curriculum.

Noble and Davies’ (2009) research suggests that this reproduction continues beyond secondary education. It can be seen in the reluctance of working-class students to apply for a university place because of a belief that they lack the cultural capital required to fit into university life.

Jackson (1964) described the hidden curriculum as the ‘unpublicised features of school life’ in which students learn to accept the unequal distribution of power within schools and society

Jackson (1968) described classrooms as places presenting persistent evaluations, crowds and massive differences in power between the managed and the manager.

Herein, as the student crowds’ resources are limited, denial, delay, distraction and interruption enter the student experience. Meanwhile, the teacher becomes a gatekeeper, supply sergeant, participation signaler and privilege granter.

In 1970, the psychiatrist and then-Dean of MIT’s Institute Relations, Benson R. Snyder published a book called The Hidden Curriculum.

Snyder argued that unstated social and academic norms are primarily responsible for much of students’ anxiety and campus conflict.

He strove to ascertain why highly gifted students give up on education, and pointed out that these concealed norms impair the students’ capacity to think creatively and develop independently.

Correspondence Principle (Marxist View)

The Marxist approach to the hidden curriculum, initially constituted a substantial challenge to the functionalist view. Marxist theorists contended that schooling primarily caters to the oppressive and powerful social groups and institutions.

Employing the term ‘long shadow of work,’ Herbert Gintis and Samuel Bowles (1976) in particular, argued, in their seminal book entitled Schooling in Capitalist America, that students develop a consciousness, internalize norms, and acquire skills that suit their future employment.

They are purportedly educated in a fashion that prepares them for different levels of autonomy, control and ownership in the capitalist system.

The relationship between social milieu of production and the social milieu of school life was described as the correspondence principle.

Gintis and Bowles argued that the correspondence principle accounts for the correspondence between the schools’ internal organization to the capitalist workforce’s internal organization via norms, values and structures.

For instance, the authors claim that the structure of authority in schools resembles the hierarchy of dominance in the labor market. The head teacher acts as a managing director, while students garbed in uniforms and subjected to discipline take after the lower-level employees laboring under tyrannical supervision.

Moreover, education informs how to govern workplace interactions and affords practical preparation for entrance into the labor market.

The theories predicated upon the correspondence principle are called reproduction theories since they account for the supposed reproduction of social inequalities by education.

Some parallels between the values taught at school and those used to exploit workers in the workplace include:

  • The passive subservience of pupils to teachers, which corresponds to the passive subservience of workers to managers;

  • An acceptance of hierarchy – the authority of teachers and administrators over students corresponding to the authority of managers over employees;

  • Motivation by external rewards (such as grades over learning), which corresponds to workers being motivated by wages rather than the job of a job.

Critical Evaluation

Hugh Lauder and Philip Brown (1991) have noted that Gintis and Bowles had oversimplified education’s correspondence to the labor market, and have suggested that bureaucratic control at work has diminished in favor of increased teamwork.

Meanwhile, David Reynolds (1984) has contended that Gintis and Bowles had discounted the impact of the formal curriculum.

Furthermore, Reynolds has noted that much of the British curriculum actually fails to impart the skills employers need, instead of failing to develop an ideal employee for the capitalist system.

The fact that norms are implicitly communicated does not mean that they necessarily elicit passive assent. Existence of anti-school subcultures, truancy, and exclusion suggest both the hidden curriculum and correspondence principal have failed.

For instance, Paul Willis, in Learning to Labor (1981), demonstrates how the demands of the hidden curriculum may encounter resistance, and create a counterculture in school.

Willis, employing an ethnographic methodology, studied 12 boys from a working-class background, who were attending Hammertown Boys, a modern school in the British Midlands.

The boys were in their penultimate year of schooling, and Willis followed them for approximately 6 months, examining their interactions with their school and with each other, and interviewing them occasionally. He evaluated them afterward as well, periodically till 1976.

Recognizing the reality of these working-class lads’ own interpretation of schooling, Willis observed a nonconformist counter-school culture among them.

This counter-school culture purportedly thrust working-class students, eventually, as adults, into low-wage and subordinate labor positions.

This “self-damnation” stemmed from these youths’ awareness of, and rebellion against their school’s dominant disciplinary mechanisms.

What is the formal curriculum?

A conventional curriculum, also known as formal or academic curriculum, involves instruction and the transmission of knowledge in schools to accomplish the principal objectives of preparing students to pass examinations, and imparting to them specific skills.

These objectives, as well as their concomitant routines, structures and rules, are often communicated explicitly to parents and students by teachers and school administrators.

The hidden curriculum refers to the informal learning processes that occur in schools. These processes often have the ‘side-effect’ of transmitting subtle messages to pupils and students about key values, attitudes and norms of behavior.

Although the hidden curriculum is taught in a formal institution, it is a form of informal socialization.
The hidden curriculum includes things like the way teachers dress and behave, the way they interact with students, the way discipline is handled, and the overall climate of the school.

While the hidden curriculum is often unintentional, it can still have a powerful impact on students. It can shape their values, beliefs, and attitudes, and it can influence the way they behave both inside and outside of school.

These factors can send strong messages to students about what is important and what is not, what kind of behavior is acceptable and what is not, and what kind of people are valued and who is not (Jackson, 1968).

For example, a school that has a lot of rules and regulations may be sending the message that order and compliance are more important than creativity and innovation.

And a school that has a lot of violence and bullying may be sending the message that aggression and force are more effective than cooperation and kindness.


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