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A hidden curriculum is a side effect of an education, "[lessons] which are learned but not openly intended" such as the transmission of norms, values, and beliefs conveyed in the classroom and the social environment.
Any learning experience may teach unintended lessons. Hidden curriculum often refers to knowledge gained in primary and secondary school settings, usually with a negative connotation where the school strives for equal intellectual development (as a positive aim). In this sense, a hidden curriculum reinforces existing social inequalities by educating students according to their class and social status. The unequal distribution of cultural capital in a society mirrors a corresponding distribution of knowledge among its students.
Early workers in the field of education were influenced by the notion that the preservation of the social privileges, interests, and knowledge of one group within the population was worth the exploitation of less powerful groups. Over time this theory has become less blatant, yet its underlying tones remain a contributing factor to the issue of the hidden curriculum.
Several educational theories have been developed to help give meaning and structure to the hidden curriculum and to illustrate the role that schools play in socialization. Three of these theories, as cited by Henry Giroux and Anthony Penna, are a structural-functional view of schooling, a phenomenological view related to the "new" sociology of education, and a radical critical view corresponding to the neo-Marxist analysis of the theory and practice of education. The structural-functional view focuses on how norms and values are conveyed within schools and how their necessities for the functioning of society become indisputably accepted. The phenomenological view suggests that meaning is created through situational encounters and interactions, and it implies that knowledge is somewhat objective. The radical critical view recognizes the relationship between economic and cultural reproduction and stresses the relationships among the theory, ideology, and social practice of learning. Although the first two theories have contributed to the analysis of the hidden curriculum, the radical critical view of schooling provides the most insight. Most importantly it acknowledges the perpetuated economic and social aspects of education that are clearly illustrated by the hidden curriculum.
Various aspects of learning contribute to the success of the hidden curriculum, including practices, procedures, rules, relationships, and structures. Many school-specific sources, some of which may be included in these aspects of learning, give rise to important elements of the hidden curriculum. These sources may include, but are not limited to, the social structures of the classroom, the teacher's exercise of authority, rules governing the relationship between teachers and students, standard learning activities, the teacher's use of language, textbooks, audio-visual aids, furnishings, architecture, disciplinary measures, timetables, tracking systems, and curricular priorities. Variations among these sources promote the disparities found when comparing the hidden curricula corresponding to various class and social statuses. "Every school is both an expression of a political situation and a teacher of politics."
While the actual material that students absorb through the hidden curriculum is of utmost importance, the personnel who convey it elicit special investigation. This particularly applies to the social and moral lessons conveyed by the hidden curriculum, for the moral characteristics and ideologies of teachers and other authority figures are translated into their lessons, albeit not necessarily with intention. Yet these unintended learning experiences can result from interactions with not only instructors, but also with peers. Like interactions with authority figures, interactions amongst peers can promote moral and social ideals but also foster the exchange of information and are thus important sources of knowledge contributing to the success of the hidden curriculum.
Although the hidden curriculum conveys a great deal of knowledge to its students, the inequality promoted through its disparities among classes and social statuses often invokes a negative connotation. For example, Pierre Bourdieu asserts that education-related capital must be accessible to promote academic achievement. The effectiveness of schools becomes limited when these forms of capital are unequally distributed. Since the hidden curriculum is considered to be a form of education-related capital, it promotes this ineffectiveness of schools as a result of its unequal distribution. As a means of social control, the hidden curriculum promotes the acceptance of a social destiny without promoting rational and reflective consideration. According to Elizabeth Vallance, the functions of hidden curriculum include "the inculcation of values, political socialization, training in obedience and docility, the perpetuation of traditional class structure-functions that may be characterized generally as social control." Hidden curriculum can also be associated with the reinforcement of social inequality, as evidenced by the development of different relationships to capital based on the types of work and work-related activities assigned to students varying by social class.
Although the hidden curriculum has negative connotations, it is not inherently negative, and the tacit factors that are involved can potentially exert a positive developmental force on students. Some educational approaches, such as democratic education, actively seek to minimize, make explicit, and/ or reorient the hidden curriculum in such a way that it has a positive developmental impact on students. Similarly, in the fields of environmental education and education for sustainable development, there has been some advocacy for making school environments more natural and sustainable, such that the tacit developmental forces that these physical factors exert on students can become positive factors in their development as environmental citizens. 
Higher education and tracking
While studies on the hidden curriculum mostly focus on fundamental primary and secondary education, higher education also feels the effects of this latent knowledge. For example, gender biases become present in specific fields of study; the quality of and experiences associated with prior education become more significant; and class, gender, and race become more evident at higher levels of education.
One additional aspect of hidden curriculum that plays a major part in the development of students and their fates is tracking. This method of imposing educational and career paths upon students at young ages relies on various factors such as class and status to reinforce socioeconomic differences. Children tend to be placed on tracks guiding them towards socioeconomic occupations similar to that of their parents, without real considerations for their strengths and weaknesses. As students advance through the educational system, they follow along their tracks by completing the predetermined courses. For example, this is one of the main factors limiting social mobility in America today.
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 A. Beard, and later, Myles Horton as he created what became the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.
The phrase "hidden curriculum" was reportedly coined by Philip W. 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. Other theorists who have identified the insidious nature of hidden curricula and hidden agendas include Neil Postman, Paul Goodman, Joel Spring, John Taylor Gatto, and others.
More recent definitions were given by Roland 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.
Developmental psychologist Robert Kegan addressed the hidden curriculum of everyday life in his 1994 book In Over Our Heads, which focused on the relation between cognitive development and the "cognitive demands" of cultural expectations.
- Martin, Jane. "What Should We Do with a Hidden Curriculum When We Find One?" The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. Ed. Giroux, Henry and David Purpel. Berkeley, California: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1983. 122–139.
- Giroux, Henry and Anthony Penna. "Social Education in the Classroom: The Dynamics of the Hidden Curriculum." The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. Ed. Giroux, Henry and David Purpel. Berkeley, California: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1983. 100–121.
- Cornbleth, Catherine. "Beyond Hidden Curriculum?" Journal of Curriculum Studies. 16.1(1984): 29–36.
- Apple, Michael and Nancy King. "What Do Schools Teach?" The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. Ed. Giroux, Henry and David Purpel. Berkeley, California: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1983. 82–99.
- Great Atlantic and Pacific School Conspiracy (Group) (1972). Doing your own school: a practical guide to starting and operating a community school. Beacon Press. p. 95. ISBN 978-0-8070-3172-8. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
- Kohlberg, Lawrence. "The Moral Atmosphere of the School." The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. Ed. Giroux, Henry and David Purpel. Berkeley, California: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1983. 61–81.
- Gordon, Edmumd W., Beatrice L. Bridglall, and Aundra Saa Meroe. Preface. Supplemental Education: The Hidden Curriculum of High Academic Achievement. By Gordon, Edmumd W., Beatrice L. Bridglall, and Aundra Saa Meroe. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005. ix–x.
- Greene, Maxine. Introduction. The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. By Giroux, Henry and David Purpel. Berkeley, California: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1983. 1–5.
- Vallance, Elizabeth. "Hiding the Hidden Curriculum: An Interpretation of the Language of Justification in Nineteenth-Century Educational Reform." The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. Ed. Giroux, Henry and David Purpel. Berkeley, California: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1983. 9–27.
- Anyon, Jean. "Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work." The Hidden Curriculum and Moral Education. Ed. Giroux, Henry and David Purpel. Berkeley, California: McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1983. 143–167.
- Orr, D. (2004). Earth in mind: On education, environment, and the human prospect. Covelo, CA: Island Press.
- Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Devon, UK: Green Books.
- Margolis, Eric, Michael Soldatenko, Sandra Acker, and Marina Gair. "Peekaboo: Hiding and Outing the Curriculum." The Hidden Curriculum in Higher Education. Ed. Margolis, Eric. New York: Routledge, 2001.
- Rosenbaum, James E. The Hidden Curriculum of High School Tracking. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976.