The Hidden Curriculum of Schools - Linda Inlay
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The Hidden Curriculum of Schools

The hidden curriculum of schools is not noticed by its educators, just as a fish is unaware of the water that surrounds it.  This hidden curriculum  teaches students every moment of a school day, taught by the school’s culture.

D. Laing said:

“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.

And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice,

there is little we can do to change;

until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

Educators fail to notice what messages are being sent by the school’s culture and in failing to notice cannot see unintended messages that students receive.

  • A teacher shouts to her students, “DON’T SHOUT.”
  • Educators, while encouraging their students to have a growth mindset of embracing mistakes as opportunities to learn, don’t model the essential aspects of having a growth mindset; e.g., if they are afraid to model making mistakes or taking risks.
  • The school has a rule about not using, “You’re so gay” as a put-down while students notice that teachers don’t hold students accountable for this demeaning epithet when they hear it in the halls during recess.
  • A teacher makes Johnny apologize for his part in a conflict when Johnny doesn’t feel apologetic and, thus, Johnny is made to lie.

When a school staff embraces the practice of noticing, of becoming aware of the disconnect between their words and their actions, of becoming aware of the disconnect with the intended outcomes and the unintended messages to students, they have the power to transform their school culture and climate to support its mission and vision.

In order to have a school embrace noticing, there needs to be structured time to stop the busy-ness of data collection, teaching strategies, and assessments to pause and notice the messages that students receive, not what the school intends.

For instance, if a school’s Honor Roll Assembly is intended to celebrate successes, it also has an unintended message to those who didn’t make the Honor Roll that they are less than; they are failures. However, if also included in the Assembly is an open mic for students to share their personal successes, however small they may be, they learn that small steps toward improvement are valued, too. Students at my school routinely would share, “Last semester, I received an F for science and this trimester, I am up to a D” and everyone cheered to acknowledge the progress made. The assembly becomes then a celebration of any students who have made progress. When a student shares, “I tried for two years to make the Honor Roll and this year I finally did,” he is also sending a message about perseverance that all students can attain.

PLC, department, and whole faculty meetings can begin by carving out some time in their meetings to take a look at a particular practice and ask: “What is our intended purpose for this practice?” and then reflect from a student’s point of view, “If I were student, what are the messages I might be getting?” Since there are a variety of students, it would be useful to reflect on the messages from different students’ point of view – the disengaged one, the second language learner, the overachiever, the introvert, the special needs learner.

A hard-working successful student recently said to me, “School feels more like a factory than an educational place for well being and learning. We’re not treated like people; we’re more like machines producing grades.” She attends a highly rated school where caring teachers work hard for their students to do well. However, what messages are being sent by the school’s culture that result in her and her friends feeling this way? How intentional is the school in inviting students’ to share how they feeling? Are there assessments that seek to get student input for all aspects of the school?   These questions can support a staff in routinely noticing what they perhaps haven’t noticed before.


“There is little we can do to change;

until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

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