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The Hidden Curriculum You Might Not Know About

calendarFebruary 24 2020

by Barry Whelan

The Hidden Curriculum

In every classroom and every school, there is a formal curriculum the teacher teaches. Everyone knows what it is, and it is there for all to see and assess but what are schools covertly teaching unbeknownst to themselves? The answer can be known as the hidden curriculum.

A headshot of Barry Whelan. Barry is outdoors, there are trees behind him.
Barry Whelan

The hidden curriculum is considered the beliefs and attitudes that are taught to children indirectly. Children learn through watching and interacting with their environment and through being present in the classroom and school and watching the teachers’ actions, words and body language, they can learn this hidden curriculum.

A simple example of this hidden curriculum is the relationship between teacher and students. The student learns what the dynamic of this relationship is through watching how the teacher interacts with pupils, what is appropriate to say and when and what is inappropriate. The teacher may not sit down and explicitly teach the children this dynamic, but it is indirectly taught as part of the hidden curriculum. Where the hidden curriculum becomes particularly important is where we start to tie it in with the concept of inclusion. Here are some questions to consider:

Understanding your hidden curriculum

  1. Does the school use the correct language and tone when speaking about minority groups?
  2. Does their body language demonstrate openness and effort to including children with various needs? 
  3. Does the teacher display pictures on the wall of white “normal” children only or is there a mix of children with physical disabilities, different ethnicities, same-sex parents etc?
  4. How are pupils grouped in the class? Are they streamed according to their literacy ability?
  5. Does the teacher use a different tone of voice when speaking to a child who has a disability?
  6. Does the teacher go the extra mile to include children with differing needs into lessons?
  7. Does the school passively include children where they are present in the room without true participation or is there an active effort to adapt their teaching to suit the needs of everyone in the school?

The answer to each of these questions contributes to the hidden curriculum the school is teaching whether they like it or not. What is missing can be as important as what is there! For those interested in creating an inclusive school ethos, there are six different elements to contemplate which can contribute to a hidden curriculum any teacher could be proud of. These are:

Classroom Environment

Ensure the classroom is suited and adapted to the needs of all children in the class. Children with physical disabilities should be positioned with clear access, for example, or if a child is blind, covering the room with as much brail as writing to create equally print-rich environments. Display pictures of all ethnicities, minorities and abilities around the room to provide balance and normalise them to the students.

Curriculum

Differentiate the curriculum to ensure success for all students in the classroom. This can be as simple as adjusting expectations for the children at both ends of the ability spectrum in the room. When teaching physical education to a class who have students with physical disabilities, there can be more preplanning involved but with the internet, there is a wealth of ideas to aid you if you want to be inclusive.

Teaching and Learning Strategies

Ensure that a wide variety of teaching methods are used to achieve successful learning objectives. Including choice in how children can respond to stimulus. Perhaps the children can orally give their response to a story on occasion or pictorially? Freeze frames and other drama-based strategies can be great ways to stoke the imaginations and creativity of children and those who have weak literacy skills can thrive.

Student Well-Being

Demonstrating care and empathy is a great way to promote well-being. A nice way to do this is by displaying red, yellow, red and blue chart paper on the wall (as per the zones of regulation) and get the children to stick a post-it or clothes peg on the zone they’re in. Red can depict anger or upset. Yellow for excited, silly, frustrated or other slightly heightened states. Green is happy, calm or okay. Blue is sick, tired or sad. It can help you adjust your interactions with the children while also showing the students that there can be lots going on in other’s lives that they may not know about. 

Assessment

If you are differentiating your teaching, it can make sense to differentiate your testing. This can be done by giving extra time, resources, fewer questions, more questions or orally answering the questions. Thinking outside the box is key.

Classroom Behaviour

As the popular quote goes, fairness is not everybody getting the same but everybody getting what they need. Different children can require different behaviours being tolerated. Children understand this quicker than adults at times and allowing extra wiggle room around rules for the children that need it is a necessity at times to be truly inclusive.

The concept of the hidden curriculum is something that caused me to reflect a lot on my own practice in the classroom. What was I teaching indirectly and was this the message I wanted to convey? In lots of ways, I was happy with the answers but there were one or two gaps that I decided to improve on. Take a few minutes to answer honestly how inclusive you are in your practice, attitudes, behaviour and language around inclusion and your hidden curriculum will start to reveal itself. A truly worthwhile activity.

About Barry Whelan

Barry Whelan is a primary school teacher with years of experience in the area of special education. Academically, he specialised in the area of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) in both his Bachelor and Master of Education degrees alongside years of experience teaching in areas of Ireland where SEBD is prevalent.

A headshot of Barry Whelan. Barry is outdoors, there are trees behind him.

Barry has presented his thoughts on inclusion and behaviour in Ireland, Denmark and Malta as well as designing a twenty-hour, five-module online course entitled “101 Behaviour Transformers”. Check out his website: www.behaviour101.com for more from Barry or tweet him @TheBehaviour101.

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