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Never discount the hidden curriculum

The concept of the "hidden curriculum" is familiar in relation to school education. It refers to a range of things (attitudes, opinions, values) that pupils learn, not from the formal curriculum, but simply from the experience of being in school. These derive from the implicit messages conveyed through the structure and organisation of the institution, the relationships between teachers and pupils, the disciplinary regime, the assessment system, and the various subcultures that exist.

The hidden curriculum is often seen as largely negative, which runs counter to the stated intentions of the school. Thus, for example, pupils may interpret the climate as authoritarian and oppressive even though the staff regard it as supportive and encouraging. For disenchanted pupils in particular, what they learn from the hidden curriculum may be more significant than what they learn from the formal curriculum.

When it comes to post-compulsory education, we would expect some of these negative features, if not to disappear, at least to be felt in less acute form. After all, most students in further and higher education are there voluntarily and see some benefit, in personal and vocational terms, in taking advantage of the learning opportunities on offer.

However, while the hidden curriculum may take a different form in post-school education, it does continue to exert an influence. An American study has suggested that colleges and universities, despite their stated intention to promote greater social inclusion, help to maintain class, race and gender hierarchies, thereby reproducing conservative ideologies.

At a less theoretical level, it is possible to construct a rather mischievous list of the kinds of things that students might learn via the hidden curriculum in further and higher education. They come to realise the importance of arbitrary hoop-jumping (especially in relation to assessment). Some of them acquire skills in the deployment of charm offensives (when submitting work late) and come to appreciate the value of well-directed sycophancy - academics are not immune to flattery. Judicious plagiarism is another technique that assumes importance, even though it is subject to official disapproval.

In certain disciplines, networking may be at least as important as working in the ordinary sense. Students also learn that credentialism rules, in the sense that education professionals act as academic and occupational gatekeepers, controlling entry to future careers. As part of this, students come to appreciate that "valued" knowledge is prepackaged in modular form with specified learning outcomes and that the scope for independent critical thinking is limited, despite statements to the contrary in course documents.

It is to be hoped, however, that there are more positive aspects to the hidden curriculum in post-school education. There are benefits to be gained from reading beyond the approved lists and thinking beyond the received wisdom. Some students manage to engage in real intellectual dialogue with fellow students - in universities, increasingly, staff have little scope for this as it eats into research time so "self-help" may be the best option.

Able students may begin to see the power of "narrative privilege" whereby people in positions of power can control the way in which public policy develops and exclude voices that are discordant with the politically approved discourse. They may also begin to perceive the ambivalent character of "professionalism" in its various forms. In all of this, the hidden curriculum can make a valuable contribution to understanding and intellectual development.

It is perhaps a chastening thought for teachers and lecturers to think that what we do not consciously plan for may have a more profound influence on our students than all our well-intentioned efforts.

There is a learning opportunity there for all of us.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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