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The concept hidden curriculum expresses the idea that schools do more than simply transmit knowledge, as laid down in the official curricula. Behind it lies criticism of the social implications, political underpinnings, and cultural outcomes of modern educative activities. While early examinations were concerned with identifying the anti-democratic nature of schooling, later studies have taken various tones, including those concerned with socialism, capitalism, and anarchism in education.

John Dewey explored the hidden curriculum of education in his early 20th century works, particularly his classic, Democracy and Education. Dewey saw patterns evolving and trends developing in public schools which lent themselves to his pro-democratic perspectives. His work was quickly rebutted by educational theorist George Counts, whose 1929 book, Dare the School Build a New Social Order challenged the presumptive nature of Dewey's works. Where Dewey (and other child development theorists including Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Maria Montessori) hypothesized a singular path through which all young people travelled in order to become adults, Counts recognized the reactive, adaptive, and multifaceted nature of learning. This nature caused many educators to slant their perspectives, practices, and assessments of student performance in particular directions which affected their students drastically. Counts' examinations were expanded on by Charles Beard, and later, Myles Horton as he created what became the Highlander Center in Tennessee.

The phrase "hidden curriculum" was reportedly coined by the sociologist Phillip Jackson (Life In Classrooms, 1968). He argued that we need to understand "education" as a socialization process. Shortly after Jackson's coinage, MIT's Benson Snyder published The Hidden Curriculum, which addresses the question of why students—even or especially the most gifted—turn away from education. Snyder advocates the thesis that much of campus conflict and students' personal anxiety is caused by a mass of unstated academic and social norms, which thwart the students' ability to develop independently or think creatively.

The hidden curriculum has been further explored by a number of educators. Starting with Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1972, through the late 1990s, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire explored various effects of presumptive teaching on students, schools, and society as a whole. Freire's explorations were in sync with those of John Holt and Ivan Illich, each of whom were quickly identified as radical educators.

More recent definitions were given by Meighan ("A Sociology of Education", 1981):

The hidden curriculum is taught by the school, not by any teacher...something is coming across to the pupils which may never be spoken in the English lesson or prayed about in assembly. They are picking-up an approach to living and an attitude to learning.

and Michael Haralambos ("Sociology: Themes and Perspectives", 1991):

The hidden curriculum consists of those things pupils learn through the experience of attending school rather than the stated educational objectives of such institutions.

Recently a variety of scholar/author/researchers, including Neil Postman, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, and Jonathan Kozol have examined the effects of hidden curriculum. One increasingly popular proponent, John Taylor Gatto, radically criticizes compulsory education in his book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992).

As more is popularly learned about the sociological effects of educational institutional and curricular design and how it can design and perpetuate particular forms of power, knowledge, and ignorance, it is important to historically analyze the origins and choices of basic models and assumptions upon which they are formed, seeking out motivations of the founders. For instance, it is very interesting that members of Skull and Bones in the United States have played a preponderant part as the historical designers who chose to engineer a German-Prussian pedagogy and school organization. They wanted a U.S. school experience from the start based on purposive mass behavior modification, social engineering, and centralized curricula system (based on curricula 'castes' decided by previous socioeconomic status instead of ability) instead of assumptions of individualized discernment, learning and congnitive equality.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

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