The hidden curriculum

10 Jan

Many years ago I had a friend and esteemed colleague who was a role model for every person she taught and came into contact with. Pam Reilly said many things that I remember, but one of the things she used to say, is becoming increasingly apparent with our increasing knowledge about how children learn. She often spoke about the hidden curriculum in the school but also in our homes and in virtually everything we experience.

As teachers and as parents we are often unaware of the hidden curriculum that motivates our choices and communication with our children and, of course, with the world in general. Alison Gopnik (in her book, The Philosophical Baby) makes the point that children very carefully observe the adults in their world. They learn not so much what adults intend them to learn, but primarily about adults. How we function and what we do in different circumstances and in different environments are carefully observed and filed in those brilliant brains. Because this information is not explicitly taught – who would want to confront your child with your inabilities and frustrations – but learned through observing and experiencing, it is paradoxically more powerful than direct teaching. The foundation of society, our norms and values, as well as the ethical fibre of the home, workplace and society are learned in this unconscious way.

The alarming fact is that we are not aware of what we are teaching in this way, while the content of this hidden curriculum influences how children learn, their motivation to learn and their beliefs about themselves. It is thus imperative to reflect upon whom we are and what we believe.

In a world where material possessions are the main source of gratification for many people, we often lose sight of the importance of developing character.  Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman did an extensive study on the development of character and virtues in children and young people in their book Character Strengths and Virtues. According to these authors, most people have the feeling that there must be a prerequisite for developing strength of character. Everyone also seems to agree that we need people with character and virtues. The question is how does it develop? Is it innate, or is it perhaps a genetic trait, or is it something you acquire through practice and perseverance? Peterson and Seligman state that there must be wilful choice and pursuit over time of morally praiseworthy activities. None of these strengths of character can really be viewed in isolation. Strength of character can also not be viewed out of context.

Parents and teachers should view the development of character strengths in children and young people as an important developmental outcome. Many of these character traits and virtues are caught, not taught. Therefore, we should be aware of how the hidden curriculum can influence the development of character traits and virtues. Teachers and parents should, when planning a curriculum, consider how the curriculum (both hidden and formal) will contribute to the development of wise, good people. One can think of broad categories of positive traits that could include kindness, respect, loyalty, honesty, responsibility and hard diligence. These positive traits could be taught in the formal curriculum, but they are also present (or absent) in the hidden curriculum. If students experience their environment as unkind, disrespectful, unfair, biased, etc, it could lead to a loss in self-esteem and to the development of negative character traits. If students see that a teacher works hard, it will inspire them to work hard. An atmosphere of fairness and respect will cultivate these positive character traits.

In addition to being aware of the hidden curriculum, all of us need to develop reflective skills to know each other and contribute to each other’s character development. If you become a more reflective and aware teacher and parent, you can help your children to develop reflective skills, and in the process you become a lifelong learner through experience.

A society functions optimally if every individual is valued for her or his specific strengths. The value a community attaches to virtues and strengths will in the end determine the fulfilment the individual gets from exercising his or her character strengths.

Picture: RunningTractor on Flickr – http://www.flickr.com/photos/55076572@N00/4546626006/

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