The Hidden Curriculum
Before we talk about curriculum content in the Formal Curriculum, it is important to recognise the existence of the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum refers to values and ideas that are not taught but are imbedded in the system. Some features of the hidden curriculum in state schools are noxious:
State School Hidden Curriculum
- The idea that children cannot achieve anything without exterior discipline.
- Codes of conduct that make children into rebels and conformists.
- The authoritarian structure of power in schools, reflecting the authoritarian structure of power in society.
- The use of medicine to treat behaviour problems. (Not taking responsibility for context and environment that can trigger behaviours under the assumption that standard school architecture, rules and structures are a sensible habitat for children.)
- The distortion/manipulation of rights (as in equal access to the curriculum) into obligations, so that having the right to study French, for example, turns into an obligation to study French even when you do not want to.
- The bureaucratization of knowledge with exterior “experts” dividing up small packets of educational experience.
- Schools helplessly following election-driven rules and curriculum initiatives that can be either ridiculous or sensible depending on the whims of political parties fighting for power and the whims of any current Minister of Education. Teachers and schools having to pretend that the ridiculous is sensible.
Democratic free schools also have a hidden curriculum and some of its features can also be problematic:
- An essentialist view of human nature that can reduce adult responsibility to intervene when children show educational or other ‘deficits’; the suggestion that some people are just born smarter than others, for example.
- Too much adult time and material resources dedicated to children that are in classrooms or that choose the exam routes of academic subjects. Or the reverse.
- The fact that children who can read have more opportunities to exercise their free choice than children who cannot.
- The belief that it is okay to remove children from a society of their peers and give them a special education apart, with little concern for socio-political ideas of equality, class-consciousness and oppression.
- A closer student-teacher relationship that makes it much easier for the teacher to be an influence on certain children, even if not intended.
- The notion that children can generate their own meanings and learning which, however possible in certain areas of life, can be a serious handicap to personal progress at certain stages of formal subject learning.
- Any kind of hero-founder myth that creates belief without thinking or analysis and any kind of fantasy that free schools are, or create, utopias.
Of course, the hidden curriculum of Democratic Free Schools has many good features. For example, in a free school, the nature of the environment itself:
- Encourages children to be self-sufficient, understanding through their own experience the limits of their abilities.
- Promotes an atmosphere of open tolerance where problems are resolved in a democratic meeting. There is no recourse to authority figures.
- Offers the option of a Reduced Formal Curriculum, with the implicit message that there is a structure of knowledge that can be accessed by children.
- Allows unchecked practice in ‘doing concentration’. This is the natural concentration that takes place when children are engaged in something they have freely chosen to do. There is less emotional friction between the doer and the doing. It is almost meditative. This daily practice helps children to learn and work more efficiently, and often transfers helpfully to senior level academic work. Leonard calls it the Meditation Learning Loop. Watch a child intent on accomplishing a free choice task and you will see what we mean.
- Gives children the power to say “no”.
- Says that adults are not there to entertain children, or are totally responsible for a child’s successes or difficulties. This helps the child own responsibility for herself, and for the general school community.
It is a good idea for schools to look at the assumptions of their hidden curriculums regularly.They can even invite outside voices to comment on their structures and processes. Free schools must be constantly aware of the hidden messages their school contexts give:
Freedom of Choice of Action in Democratic Community is no automatic protection against a hidden curriculum developing unseen negatives.
And there are generic as well as school-specific Hidden Curriculums !