Monday, 21 April 2014

The hidden curriculum

As we all know the elementary school (as well as high school) is a very old and slowly changing institution. You can often put into question whether it’s changing too slowly when considering the rapid development of our times. The school system is built upon old established attitudes (attitudes of both the schools and teachers), norms and approaches. These attitudes, norms and approaches have a lot of hidden significances as well, where for you could talk about a hidden curriculum.  It is possible to partly observe “the hidden curriculum”, but it’s hard to see all of what it will influence in general, and for some reason it is a topic that will not be subject to debate.

So what are examples could we mention of what we have learnt by the hidden curriculum?


Learning social behaviour in general and rituals is important, especially considering future jobs. That is: how to greet people (which varies in different cultures), taking other people into consideration, knowing if you should take your shoes off when entering a home (like you do in Finland) or not (like in Spain) and many other rituals.


We learn about social hierarchy. How to behave and whom to be friends with if you want to rise in the hierarchy, and what you shouldn’t do and whom you shouldn’t socialise with. The knowledge of hierarchy also influences our general social behaviour. Also learning your own social status in the hierarchy is considered important.

Nowadays though, hierarchy at schools has been thrown upside down, at least in Finland. Teachers have a hard time earning the respect of their pupils and pupils know very well their rights and are ready to file complaints against their teachers for any reason. We have come a long way from the “dictator teacher” who told pupils who didn’t behave to pull down their pants in front of class so that they could be whipped, a long way from teacher who hit pupils who didn’t know their homework with a ruler over their knuckles. Nowadays we have diagnoses such as Dyslexia, ADHD and many more that didn’t exist 50 years ago. In those days people learnt to respect authority blindly, but not anymore. If this is a good or bad thing, anyone can ask himself.  But this picture below I think says a lot about how the word “hierarchy” has changed in the hidden curriculum over the past 50 years.


We learn that girls are good at handicraft and boys are good at woodwork, so that is the reason why they have separate classes. Because girls are weaker, girls and boys also have separate gymnastic classes. Boys are good at maths and girls are good at languages. Boys are wild and girls are supposed to be quiet, kind and unnoticeable. Both the teachers’ as well as classmates’ perception of role models is brought on through the “hidden curriculum”, and also the media play an important role. It should be mentioned that at times children and young people can have more conservative opinions considering sexism than “old” teachers.

Identity in society

According to the official curriculum we should be taught individualism and the illusion of freedom and developing our personality. The official curriculum wants to make us into creative and critically thinking “super-personalities”. The hidden curriculum actually aims at the opposite.

The hidden curriculum brings you down to earth and teaches you first of all where you stand; it won’t praise you to be the most intelligent person in the world, but through comparing yourself to others you might notice that you are just an average person with average capacity. This will help you to build up your forthcoming identity in society. It also shows the reality of “basic jobs” such as cleaners and plumbers, which don’t seem to fit into the picture of the official curriculum of super-personalities, because how many people can use their creative and critical thinking when cleaning up an office?


Bullying is often connected with the hidden curriculum. You can ask if the hidden curriculum supports “watching from the side without interfering”. Bullying once again strengthens the hierarchy and how not to behave or whom not to associate with for avoiding being bullied. The hidden curriculum teaches us something similar to Darwin’s natural selection. If a person manages to stand up against their bullies this is also considered a good thing according to the hidden curriculum. Increasing social activities and social engagement for the group are though proven to increase openness and decrease bullying.

The good citizen

The most important thing that the hidden curriculum will teach us, when considering all of the mentioned factors; is how to become a good citizen. A good citizen, who goes to work, pays taxes, behaves well, knows his place in the hierarchy and society, and minds his own business. As much as the official curriculum emphases creativity, critical thinking and individual development, these are all just illusions which the hidden curriculum wants to make sure you will never try to actually fulfil. You are not supposed to be a critical thinker but a good common worker who does his or her boring job without muttering and without creating problems. There isn’t enough space for everyone to enfold their artistic ideas and talents, so people should believe they are not needed and keep working with their regular work for being able to pay off their mortgage. The hidden curriculum teaches us that we should have a good job, be married (men to a pretty woman and woman to a rich and successful man), have children, have a nice car and a big mortgage before we turn 30, and this you will need for happiness. Yes, the hidden curriculum also tells us what happiness is, how handy isn’t that now?

The teacher’s role

Now this is a very important subject! The teacher is an important key to the hidden curriculum. That is why it is extremely important as a pedagogue to question your own perceptions of and attitudes to everything, and also to live according to your own ideals. As a teacher you have to both try to start thinking outside the box, as well as helping others to do it, for getting rid of stereotypes and similar discriminating thinking. You have to try to identify the hidden curriculum and to be in an open dialogue with it, for being able to change things.

My opinion

When I was reading the chapter “Hidden curriculum” (“piilo-opetussuunnitelma”) in the book Kasvatussosiologia (Sociology of education, written by A.Antikainen, R.Rinne and L.Koski, WSOY 2006) I got more and more depressed for every line I read. All of my life I have found that this is exactly what society is teaching us, but then the ideologist in me has told me “hush now, don’t think such negative thoughts, society still supports culture and it allowed you to become a composer, no need to be so concerned and grumpy”. And now the book is rubbing it in my face “Yes, everything you ever feared is true. Society doesn’t care a damn about you nor about your ideals or dreams. What society really cares about is money, hierarchy and power. It is not a coincidence that you are taught that you need a mortgage, children, a car and a job for being happy. It is all part of the plan, teaching you how you should be so that society will work.” I sometimes feel like the world is just full of squirrel-brains; and that people just like squirrels, keep on with their rituals (hiding food for the winter, then trying to find the places where they hid it for ages) without asking them selves the question “What is the meaning with all of this?”. Well, the book just proved it to me; you are not supposed to ask this question, or any question at all as a matter of fact. You are supposed to be a squirrel-brain that keeps to it rituals so that the economy will keep on running.

I often ask my self; who came up with this weird system of our economy, where people’s imagination determines the price of our raw materials such as food and oil? Because that is exactly what the stock market is about; nothing else than imaginary numbers, everything is worth as much as you think it is worth. How can our food and oil supplies be depending on these imaginary numbers? It’s simply because people in general will not put it into question. And if they do think about it even for three seconds, they will shrug their shoulders and think “nothing I can do about it”. How come there is nothing you can do about it? If this ridiculous system was made up by people, there must be people who could change it as well! I have often wondered why people won’t try to change it, or anything that is wrong in this world. And the book Sociology of education gives me an answer to this question; because you are raised to be a squirrel-brain who won’t think nor change things.

Now this makes me wonder; where did the hidden curriculum go wrong with me, and with other artists and with all the other idealists who are trying to change the world? Which part of the hidden curriculum failed to affect us?  Well, I’m happy something went wrong with the hidden curriculum in my case, because I can assure you that being a female composer certainly goes against the grain.

Cecilia Damström

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