Many years ago I heard a great teacher make a distinction I never forgot. Every educational institution, he said, has two kinds of subject matter. There is the formal curriculum. And there is what might be called a hidden curriculum.

The formal curriculum consists of agreed-upon topics. Algebra, geography, English lit, history, physics. Faculties and school boards and parents decide on—sometimes war over—what makes up the formal curriculum.

The hidden curriculum also involves learning, but no school board ever sets it. The hidden curriculum consists of questions like: Which students get called on and which go ignored? Who do other students want to sit next to in the cafeteria and who sits alone? How do the groups stand on the great Chain of Being from jocks and cheerleaders to chess club members to the untouchables? Whose jokes get laughed at? Whose body is shaped right? Of what does "cool" consist, and who possesses it?

  • The formal curriculum is intentional.
  • The hidden curriculum is inherent.
  • The formal curriculum is obvious.
  • The hidden curriculum is subtle.

What you learn in the formal curriculum often evaporates after your finals. Sometimes even earlier.

What you learn in the hidden curriculum lasts a lifetime.

If there is a contradiction between what's taught by the formal curriculum and what's taught by the hidden curriculum, people always believe the hidden curriculum. Always.

The reason this stays with me so vividly, of course, is that I work at a church.

We have a formal curriculum. It gets taught in classrooms and preached on weekends. It gets sung from the stage and facilitated in small groups. The formal curriculum is what gets taught when we study Romans, ...

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Winter 2009: Rediscovered Roots  | Posted
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