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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.”

Suicide and Grit: Nurture Students’ Passion and Purpose

linda-inlay-suicide-gritTwo boys committed suicide recently in my school district.


One was an eighth grade boy and the other, another boy, a sophomore. It shook my community and it shook me. What could be so unbearable in their young lives that ending it was better than living?

The school district and county mental health department put on an event for parents a month later to share information about teen suicide from a panel of experts – representatives from county mental health, physicians, counselors, and social workers. But a friend and I wanted to hear from the students directly. What are the stresses they are experiencing and seeing in their classmates? This could inform the adults in the community in order to avoid a possible trend.


We gathered a focus group of high school students one evening to hear the stresses they are experiencing.  These were all good students with supportive families. They wrote a list of  the stresses in their lives and in their friends’ lives. The list included: grades, college, sports, peer relationship pressures to fit in, parent expectations, their own expectations, not being known in feeling stressed, lack of school support. When asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most stressed, most of the students said, “between 7-9.”  We were very concerned about this unhealthy level of continual high stress for these adolescents.


What makes this worse is that they are not talking about it. They are not sharing with their teachers because they don’t have trusting relationships with them. They are not sharing it with their parents because when they do share a concern, their parents become anxious and that adds to the stress they are already feeling. So they are silently suffering. As one of them said later, “I just want to end the pain.” For that evening of sharing, it was a relief for them to talk about how they are feeling and be heard by caring adults.


The next night I attended Angela Duckworth’s talk about her new book, Grit The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In the Q & A, I asked her thoughts on how educators may be using “Grittiness” as in, “Let’s work on your grit,” another experience of students feeling inadequate. She clarified that grit is not just perseverance, but is sourced from the energy of one’s passions and of having a purpose, larger than oneself. Her research discovered that people who know what they want and are motivated more by altruism than personal pleasure score higher on grit scales.


I then wondered whether that should be one of the outcomes that high schools have for their students: to nurture students’ passions to contribute to a greater good. At most schools, this is not the desired student outcome. Instead, students receive explicit and implicit messages from their school environments proclaiming that getting good grades to get into a top-notch college to get a good job is the most important goal of their high school career. Anything less and you’re a loser.


In response to Duckworth’s book, David Brooks in his op-ed in the New York Times criticized the focus on GPAs as contributing to compliance instead of innovation, joylessness instead of spirited engagement. He shared a basic premise of James K. A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love, that “human beings are primarily defined by what we desire, not what we know. Our wants are at the core of our identity, the wellspring whence our actions flow.” Brooks goes on to say, “I don’t know about you, but I’m really bad at being self-disciplined about things I don’t care about. For me, and I suspect for many, hard work and resilience can only happen when there is a strong desire. Grit is thus downstream from longing. People need a powerful why if they are going to be able to endure any how.”


I wonder if the two boys who ended their young lives had the opportunity to pursue their passion and a purpose worth pursuing, that got their creative juices flowing and fed their souls for a bigger dream of themselves; would they have chosen differently?


Everywhere I turn there seems to be another creative effort to “reimagine schools,” e.g., Lauren Powell Jobs’ XQ Super School, Alt Schools, and Khan Lab School to name a few. Recently, I read of a public school district in Iowa reimagining education with a “think outside the box” alternative high school program called Iowa BIG that focuses on student passion, authentic projects, and community partnerships. Trace Pickering, assistant superintendent, says “Our students earn core academic credit, in the four core areas, by engaging in projects they care about with our community. The role of the teacher changes dramatically, from delivering content to understanding where these projects will go and what the student needs to know next to get there … We don’t have a curriculum because there’s no curriculum in life. You build it as you go.”   In other words, this is truly student-centered learning, driven by the students’ passions.


While students in Iowa BIG are on par with traditional students academically, the Iowa BIG students score dramatically higher on wellbeing, sense of efficacy, and ownership of learning. Dr. Pickering also said the students “understand what their passions are, they understand how to advocate for themselves, they have a sense of efficacy over, ‘Hey, I can control my own learning and I can create a future for myself.’ For me, those measures far exceed, ‘Oh, I got 80 percent on this math test.’” Students are in control of their learning.


Project Wayfinder is a collaborative effort at the of Stanford’s Institute of Design to create a new kind of high school in response to Palo Alto’s two clusters of suicides – the first in 2009-2010 with six suicides, and, six years later, with another four. One of the quotes on the Project Wayfinder website describes the problem of schools today:


“The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”— Dr. William Damon, The Path to Purpose


With this in mind, Project Wayfinder poses the following questions to design a new kind of high school:

  • How do we teach and fundamentally integrate purpose?
  • What if every aspect of high school was designed with the intent of teaching young people how to seek and develop a sense of individual purpose, not absorb a standard body of knowledge?
  • How do we design, and let students pursue, purpose-provoking experiences?


Here are two examples of educational efforts to “reimagine education” by intentionally organizing school culture and curricula to nurture a sense of purpose and meaning in students. It is greatly needed.


Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 15 to 34 age-group and third leading cause among the 10-14 age group, an increase of 100% of the latter since 2001.


In light of these statistics, I ask that educators put passion and purpose front and center in their list of student outcomes. Reshaping school curriculum for passion and purpose, not only nurtures more grit in students, but also promotes social emotional skills like resiliency, self-efficacy, and intrinsic motivation to learn. This will still lead students to successful acquisition of skills while lessening their stress and anxiety, and, perhaps, prevent more young people from taking their lives.

Adopting a School Climate Survey


Those of us who have been talking for years about the importance of school culture or school climate and how it can improve student achievement, are heartened by the inclusion of this topic in the national conversation about school improvement. ESSA’s requirement for a non-cognitive measure in assessments has encouraged school climate to be a serious focus of consideration.


The Research Alliance for New York City Schools recently shared its findings of the “robust relationships” between school climate, teacher retention, and student achievement. And Education Week published a blog by the U.S. Department of Education who released a free, web-based survey that schools can use to track the effectiveness of school climate efforts and resources on how to best improve learning environments for students.


I’d like to offer in this posting some considerations before deciding on the school climate survey for your school or district.


Understanding what motivates students and adults


One of the challenges mentioned in the Research Alliance policy brief is how schools will use the data gleaned from a school climate survey and the “how” relates to the quality of the survey itself. If the survey is not grounded in understanding what drives intrinsic motivation of students and teachers, then the interventions to address particular concerns revealed by the survey will less likely produce long-standing results. A school climate survey and its recommendations for interventions will be more effective in shifting climate if it is based on more of an “inside out” approach. This approach should encourage genuine individual responsibility and self-discipline and create a context where basic needs, like the need for caring relationships and the need for sense of self or identity, are met for students and teachers alike to support intrinsic sources of motivation. Otherwise, like so many other educational initiatives, school climate will be another thing to check off the ESSA list, rather than being a systemic, deeply rooted effort to improve school climate.



Mindsets and Modeling of the Hidden or Implicit Curriculum of School Climates


From my forty-two years of being an educator and the last eighteen as principal of a middle school, I have learned that students know when teachers or administrators “don’t walk the talk.” As Neil Postman said in his book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity,many years agostudents have great “crap” detectors.   This means when teachers are teaching about respect or self-awareness or resiliency or growth mindset; if they are not “being” or modeling these qualities, students are able to spot the lack of authenticity.   School climate interventions are not just about techniques, but also about the modeling by the adults of the accompanying mindsets while teaching, for example, the techniques of restorative justice or PBIS. These mindsets are a significant element in the hidden or implicit curriculum of the school climate. Very little intention and attention is spent in teacher or administrator preparation programs or in professional development to become aware of unconscious mindsets that may not support the espoused mission and values of a school. The quality of mindsets may account for why the same social emotional programs work in some schools and don’t in others.



Authentic Student-Centeredness 


Some school climate surveys don’t include student surveys. I believe this is a huge omission. Especially in middle and high school, students want to be taken seriously and they want to be heard. Much of what happens to students is being “done to them” by adults who make most of the decisions. When a school climate survey takes the students’ opinions into consideration, important data is gleaned from the schools’ “clients.”


The Research Alliance recommended two school climate surveys: one had no student survey included and the other’s student survey was limited in the data that would help schools support students’ intrinsic motivation. For example, missing were questions like how much do students have trusting relationships with their teachers, or how well do faculty listen to students, or how empowered do students feel because their schools encourage their voice. These kinds of questions reflect an adult mindset that looks at students not as “objects” to whom the newest educational initiative is imposed, but as important partners co-creating a climate that nurtures their needs to build a stronger internal capacity to succeed.


I caution schools to evaluate carefully the available school climate surveys for the aforementioned considerations. In my search for a climate assessment to use with my nonprofit, I have found one I would recommend:


The School Climate Assessment System and Surveys from the Alliance for the Study of School Climate at California State University of Los Angeles is rated the best of the school climate surveys by an independent study and has a sound theoretical framework that supports long term change. Their system and survey are built on a systems approach that require the following for a healthy school climate:

1/ a collective vision and shared values held and nurtured by a committed administrator who “walks the talk.”

2/ an understanding of and commitment to shifting staff mindsets with the implementation of strategies that build trust, empowerment, and engagement.


While considering school climate is a big step in the right direction of school improvement, it behooves administrators to look carefully at the quality of the school climate survey in order to effectively shift the climate and culture in their schools so it truly lives in the administrators, faculty, and students.

Educating Self-Actualized Students

Chance at his 8th grade PromotionOne of my favorite books on education is Krishnamurti’s Education and the Meaning of Life. As I reflect on what is the purpose of education beyond preparing students with skills for employment, I recall Krishnamurti’s quote: “The purpose of education is not to produce more scholars, technicians and job hunters, but integrated men and women who are free of fear. Education should awaken the capacity to be self-aware…and intelligent. Intelligence is the capacity to perceive the essential, the what is; and to awaken this capacity in oneself and in others.”

When I attended the River School’s promotion ceremony of its 8th graders last night, I experienced this kind of integrated self-actualization in the students, a process and journey that started in 6th grade and through mistakes, reflection, risk-taking, and adults’ care and support, resulted in self-wisdom three years later.

One of the student speakers shared the challenges of his 6th grade year when his mother passed away from a brain tumor. I recall how lost he was for most of that year, how he went home several times because he didn’t feel well and couldn’t get through the day. His grief and “drifting at sea-ness” was palpable as our staff supported him through that first year. He talked about slowing emerging from the fog in his seventh grade year. He blossomed in his eighth grade year, coming into his own power and into his own voice to be able to speak confidently and authentically at his promotion about his three years at River. We were all enthralled by the “realness” of his presence before five hundred friends and family gathered for the promotion ceremony. To see such wisdom in someone so young was moving and a gift. By his “beingness,” he made such a positive impact on his classmates. It was obvious by their response throughout his speech, he is held in high esteem by his classmates.

Educating self-actualized students can happen when the mission includes this vision and when the environment – the hidden or implicit curriculum – of a school nurtures the social and emotional needs of students. Especially in middle school, their need to feel belonging and acceptance is critical to the developmental process in order to actualize their unique identity. John Goodlad said in his book, In Praise of Education, that “A self cannot be fully realized apart from culture.” When the culture supports the growing self-awareness of the students, they come into their own authenticity. Their confidence is grounded less on what others think of them but on what they have come to know and accept about themselves.

Every year I would ask a group of eighth graders to speak to the seventh and sixth graders about what they learned that would help their younger peers. The wisdom they shared included such insights as:

  • “Don’t try to be someone else. When you’re trying to be someone else, everyone knows. And It doesn’t feel good to be fake.”
  • “Don’t worry about what other people think. When you do, you lose yourself because you’re more focused on them than on what you think.”
  • “Life is tough sometimes but with true friends, you can get through the tough times so chose your friends wisely.”
  • “Don’t procrastinate. I learned the hard way that that doesn’t work well and stresses you out.”
  • “You’ve got to believe in yourself, even when it’s hard. And don’t give up just because it’s hard.”

Each year I am amazed by their wisdom. I don’t really think I learned some of these lessons until I was in college. And then to be able to articulate these self-actualized thoughts to their peers and to an audience of five hundred is breathtaking.

This kind of “implicit” curriculum is focused on building capacity of students from the inside out, from an intentional focus on developing character and integrity, from self-awareness and self-reflection, from daring to speak their truth, and from the adults who listen deeply because they care. If all schools nurtured such students, the world would be a different place.