Extra Credit – Critical Issues in Education – Part III – The Hidden Curriculum

Extra Credit – Critical Issues in Education – Part III – The Hidden Curriculum

By Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

In a series of Extra Credit articles, I will explore some important contemporary issues in education. Inspiration for this series of articles comes from What are the 10 Most Critical Issues in Education Today… originally a blog post by Bernard Bull. Due to its popularity a book resulted, called What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education.

The third article in this series of articles focuses on the place and importance of the hidden curriculum. That is, the “place” where non-academic skills, like collaboration, resilience, determination, philanthropy, service, conscientiousness, integrity, personal ownership and the capacity to postpone gratification, are fostered and developed disproportionately in the school setting.

Robert Fulghum wrote his book of short essays called, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, in 1986. Although widely panned by the professional community, Fulghum’s ruminations became somewhat of a pop culture phenomenon.

Fulghum wondered what would happen if adults simply applied the essential teachings of kindergarten more consistently to their lives … would they, and society, be better off? Some of the things “learned” in kindergarten, include:

● Share everything;
● Play fair;
● Put things back where you found them;
● Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody;
● Live a balanced life;
● Be aware of wonder.

Using a different example to make a similar point, practically every week you can find an article in a business magazine or new book that lays out the qualities that top companies or CEOs are looking for in their employees (see for example, Traits That CEOs and Executives Look for When They Hire). Traits such as passion, integrity, credibility, hardworking, dependable, positive and self-motivated, top the lists.

What’s interesting is how similar the traits that the top CEOs look for are similar to Fulghum’s qualities for kindergarteners. As an aside, it is also interesting to note that the traits described by both Fulghum and the CEOs often bear little resemblance to the dominant criteria for college acceptance, SAT/ACT scores.

As Bernard Bull states, “If we want to invest in aspects of education that have a huge impact on the lives of individuals, their families, their communities, their places of work, and the entire world around them, we are wise to devote time and attention to how we can nurture these important elements that less frequently show up in a list of learning objectives for a course or goals for a formal program.”

The Hidden Curriculum

One of my favorite phrases in education was coined by Philip W. Jackson (Life In Classrooms, 1968). Jackson argued that education is socialization. Educational researchers and theorists since then have explored the dark and the light side of school socialization. The dark side explains how the process of traditional schooling rather insidiously forces members of society to conform to rather strict learning protocol. The light side explains that the hidden curriculum is the “place” where so many students learn life skills and lessons not available in the classroom.

Either way, the hidden curriculum consists of those qualities students learn through the experience of attending school rather than the stated educational objectives of such institutions.

Very much like Marshall McLuhan’s “The medium is the message,” the medium or process of schooling is just as important as the stated “messages” of schooling.

Thus, for example, the hidden curriculum can reinforce existing social inequalities by educating students according to their class and social status. Or, the hidden curriculum can be a school atmosphere infused with dignity, demonstrated through the interactions among stakeholders.

What happens within the hidden curriculum seems to align with the ideals of what we learned in kindergarten and what CEOs value in their hires. It’s not a stretch to say that a lot of the success you currently enjoy in your professional life is thanks to the benefits of the hidden curriculum. In short … there’s a lot to learn on the playground … there’s a lot to learn in the hallway … there’s a lot to learn on the field or the court.

Celebrating Strengths and Talents
The hidden curriculum is most often described as a by-product of what is explicitly taught in schools. As noted above, it might be referred to as the “medium” for the message.

At Currey Ingram, one of our core principles is to create a hyper-intentional culture of self-esteem building. Often our students enter our school with self-esteem issues, and we know an initial step in the transformation of the students’ educational life is to celebrate them for who they are.

Although we do have formal “unhidden” approaches and interventions to celebrate the strengths and talents of our students, the celebration is mostly in the sphere of the hidden curriculum.

Love and passion for the mission and the students who fit that mission is “in the air” and the students and families feel it.


As Fulghum said, “Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this ‘something’ cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted. It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours.”

I hope that the qualities and attributes learned through the hidden curriculum

hidden curriculum
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

will take greater hold in our schools. When this is so, we will know that the lessons learned in kindergarten might be just as important as one’s ACT score for college and life beyond college.

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.

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