2.7.2 The 'hidden curriculum' and how it affects learners

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

- To understand the concept of a hidden curriculum and how it relates to teaching children.

- To identify some of the unstated norms and expectations in your subject area.

- To think about strategies to help pupils deal with these norms and expectations.

What is a hidden curriculum?

There are two main ways in which authors discuss the hidden curriculum. One is in terms of the unstated expectations and norms that pupils must learn in order to perform well in assessments, and the other is the hidden goals of education. There is a close relationship between the two, since it is through assessments that a curriculum gains its power and influence.

The hidden curriculum is not set by any one teacher, but is rather a general process by which children learn to conform and adapt to the expectations of society. This definition of a hidden curriculum relates closely to the first author who used the phrase, Jackson (1968). However, the concept has been added to over the years to include other ways in which children come to accept the rules of society. For example, something as innocent as the way a classroom is designed can be seen to reinforce the authority of a teacher stood at the front. Similarly, rows of seats emphasise the value of listening respectfully and being invited to speak, while groups of tables emphasise the value of group discussion. More importantly, the government has control over the award of examinations, giving it the power to define what is considered valid knowledge and the kind of work that will be rewarded by society through improved employment options. A slightly different meaning of hidden curriculum is given by Snyder (1971), who made the phrase popular. Rather than being a hidden agenda, Snyder used the hidden curriculum to mean the curriculum that pupils actually experience. For example, even if schools publicly state that pastoral care is their top priority, their allocation of resources indicates a type of hidden curriculum in which pupils actually experience pastoral care as less important than stated. Following Snyder's definition, a hidden curriculum is therefore what actually happens in our classrooms rather than what policy-makers say they want to happen.

If we accept the idea that each individual creates their own meaning, or even their own reality, then everyone has a unique experience of a curriculum based on their background and prior experiences. This can therefore also be thought of as another type of hidden curriculum, but this time it is hidden from the teachers and policy makers rather than being hidden from the learners. As a teacher, this type of hidden curriculum means that you can never fully understand how the curriculum is experienced by your learners because they are seeing it through their own unique lens. This is a rather complex idea, but is helpful for understanding some of the problems with assessment design (Sambell and McDowell, 1998). For example, we often assess understanding by asking pupils to write. However, this can be a very different experience and we risk either falsely rewarding good writers or penalising poor writers with good understanding.

Related concepts

A hidden curriculum is often easier to notice when resources are scarce. Rather than looking at policies or what is written in documentation, we can look at the allocation of resources to see what is really valued. One of the scarcest resources for both teachers and pupils is time. Looking at how time is prioritised has therefore been of great interest to researchers looking at what type of learning is valued since this will help to reveal the hidden curriculum.

A key concept in higher education is surface and deep approaches to learning. Marton and Säljö (1976) introduced the idea that students at university could adopt either a deep approach to learning, in which they learnt concepts in detail and thoroughly understood material, or took a surface approach, in which they memorised facts. Curriculum and policy documents would express a desire for deep approaches to learning, but Marton and Säljö's (1976) research suggested that the way students were assessed (particularly in exams) actually encouraged them to take surface approaches. Richardson et al (2012) included this concept in their analysis of which types of pupils get better grades at university, and found that a strategic approach was actually more successful than a deep approach, while a surface approach was the least successful. This is a strong indication that the way students are assessed at university reflects a hidden curriculum, since the students who behave like they are meant to (taking a deep approach) are actually less successful than students who learn to 'play the game' of assessment. 

One way of attempting to avoid the negative impact of a hidden curriculum is to reduce the power held by policy-makers or teachers by reducing the amount of summative assessment. If pupils are not forced to do as much work in a set way, they have more freedom to make their own value judgements. By reducing the power we hold over our pupils and students and giving them more choice, we reduce the implied or hidden message that they must defer to authority.

How might a hidden curriculum affect learners? Will this always be negative?

The concept of a hidden curriculum is highly problematic in higher education because a university tutor is often both teacher and assessor. It is therefore difficult to decide how much help students should be given, and how much they are expected to struggle on their own. Thinking about the difference between hidden curriculums in schools and universities helps to explain why the hidden curriculum does not necessarily always have a negative impact on learners. Becker et al. (1968) argue that trying to be completely explicit about our expectations as assessors would restrict higher-level scholarship because students would simply have to follow specific instructions and memorise information from their teachers. It is therefore desirable that some expectations are hidden or deliberately vague because students can only meet those expectations indirectly.

At school level, the curriculum is set through policy and it interpreted for pupils by their teachers, typically through using past exam papers or guidance from examination boards. Since the teacher does not have any insider knowledge of the assessment in the same way that a university tutor does (since school exams are set by examination boards), there is less conflict in the role: the teacher and pupils are 'on the same side' as they try to figure out how to get the best marks on assessments. Some teachers might still want to include their own values, such as rewarding hard work when grading coursework or other in-class assessments, but mostly the teacher is attempting to clarify the expectations and norms of the examination board's hidden curriculum. This means that while university tutors are more likely to use Snyder's (1971) definition of a hidden curriculum, school teachers are more likely to relate to Jackson's (1968) definition.

There are also positives to having a hidden curriculum at school level. If pupils knew all of the expectations that they were required to meet, they could feel overwhelmed or place too much importance on particular criteria. A teacher therefore acts as a buffer or interpreter, deciding what their pupils are ready to know. A teacher might also decide to be highly strategic, hiding some expectations from their pupils and showing them short-cuts in order to get the best marks possible. This might be especially obvious under time pressure or near exams. For example, a teacher might personally value attention to detail and emphasise the need to learn the correct spelling of key terminology. However, many exam papers do not allocate marks to spelling provided that the examiner is able to understand what word was intended. There are even cases, for example in GCSE English, where one of the papers has marks for spelling and the other does not. A strategic teacher could therefore maximise marks for their pupils by revealing this aspect of the hidden curriculum while preparing for particular papers, but it would be counter-productive to that teacher's own personal expectations to reveal the low value given to spelling too early in the school year.

Finally, how you feel about the positives or negatives of a hidden curriculum will largely depend on your political views. The idea of a hidden curriculum has its roots in Marxist philosophies, in which a hidden curriculum is almost entirely negative because it is an underhand way to force children into learning to be compliant and passive employees in the future. If you agree with this view, then you might want to expose some of the hidden curriculum to your pupils to help them avoid becoming wage slaves - teaching them how to 'play the game' in assessments might therefore be seen as a liberating act. Conversely, you might feel that since society pays for education it has a moral right to set the agenda for how the next generation will act in terms of citizenship and their place in society.

What strategies can we use to minimise negative hidden curriculums in teaching practice?

One of the defining features of a hidden curriculum is not just that there is some kind of a secret agenda, but that many of the intentions, values or expectations in a hidden curriculum cannot be made explicit - there is something intangible about them that cannot be put into words. Obviously, this will not always be the case, and one simple strategy is for teachers to critically evaluate and reflect on their practice so that they can be more honest with pupils by making as much as they can explicit. However, trying to be explicit about many values or expectations could risk over-simplifying or creating confusion.

Addressing the hidden curriculum outside of assessment can be more problematic because the hidden curriculum could permeate so many aspects of what we do with our pupils. Moreover, many aspects of the hidden curriculum are useful for the smooth running of schools. The Marxist critique of hidden curriculums creating compliant 'wage slaves' is clearly undesirable, but a completely laissez-faire approach would be chaos in our classrooms. We might even question how appropriate it is for a teacher to expose aspects of the hidden curriculum as it could be interpreted as subversive behaviour. Perhaps the best defence against the negative aspects of a hidden curriculum is a strong foundation of critical thinking and self-reflection skills, enabling pupils to think for themselves how they are being persuaded to behave in certain ways. Equally, you might feel that your place as a teacher is not to encourage pupils to question authority but rather to reinforce the values which you agreed to when you qualified.


The wide-reaching role schools play in society means that almost everything teachers and pupils do is imbued with hidden meanings and intentions. The concept of a hidden curriculum helps us to see what ideas we are putting across to our learners, and reflect on whether these are appropriate. Schools prepare children to enter the workforce and society in general, so a school is often seen as a safe space to think about the expectations and explore the boundaries.

The idea of a hidden curriculum also exposes some of the flaws in our assessment system and how challenging it can be to help pupils understand what is expected of them. Reflecting on the hidden curriculum should help you to think about whether you are helping pupils to develop new skills and abilities or whether you are helping them to pass an assessment of those skills and abilities. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, and this too is a type of hidden curriculum as we try to better understand how each individual pupil experiences the school curriculum in its broadest sense.


Becker, H., Geer, B., and Hughes, E. (1968). Making the Grade. London: Transaction.

Jackson, P. (1968). Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Marton, F. & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences on Learning: I - Outcome and Process. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 46, 4-11.

Richardson, M., Abraham, C., and Bond, R. (2012). Psychological correlates of university students' academic performance: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Psychological Bulletin 138(2), 353-387.

Sambell, K. and McDowell, L. (1998). The construction of the hidden curriculum: messages and meanings in the assessment of student learning, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 23(4), 391-402.

Snyder, B. (1971). The Hidden Curriculum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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