This is an opinion article by Winnie Needham, assistant professor of educational studies and division head of social sciences. The Pilot welcomes letters to the editor and opinion articles from the whole community. Please submit to pilot@principia.edu.

Did you know that there’s a hidden curriculum within every educational institution? The formal curriculum is obvious. It is taught intentionally in classrooms, on the athletic field, and through community activities. But then there are the lessons we learn unintentionally – values and perspectives we learn from the social, cultural, and academic messages of daily interactions. The hidden curriculum is just as, if not more, powerful as the formal curriculum in shaping our beliefs and values and informing our actions.

What happens when the formal curriculum conflicts with the hidden curriculum? In my experience, I didn’t notice the difference until after I graduated from Principia College.

One week after graduation, I moved to Los Angeles where I started my first teaching job. In many ways, I was well-prepared for life after college. For example, as part of the formal curriculum, I learned about the Christ-idea in education. Mark Kimball Morgan writes in “Education at the Principia:” “In everything we do we must seek to reflect the Christ-idea” (p.126).

She was referring to the importance of thinking for ourselves rather than mindlessly following the popular choice. This gave me the moral courage to disrupt educational practices that were traditional but not effective. My double-major in education and English had prepared me to be a changemaker, an innovator, and a leader. My professors had warned me that if I was going to rock the boat, I had better be able to back up my choices with solid theory and research, and I did. It wasn’t easy, though. 

After 18 years of schooling that helped me perfect compliance and rule-following, I wrestled with doubt. The hidden curriculum of my schooling taught me it was easier to do as I was told. I ran into very little discomfort whenever I obeyed, and I developed an aversion to conflict. Because of the mismatch between what I had been intentionally taught about the Christ-idea in education versus the hidden curriculum of compliance, I needed a tie-breaker.

I was grateful for my professors who modeled and taught us how to empower the learner, and I held to that motive whenever I faced opposition.  Reflecting the Christ-idea in education by disrupting limiting practices has been the most fulfilling and challenging accomplishment of my career.

Another dilemma I faced related to how I viewed my students. I was taught to start from the premise that each child has the potential to learn. This was a key point in the teacher preparation program at Principia, part of the formal curriculum. On the other hand, I was unaware of how implicit bias affects our best intentions. Just as fish do not notice the water in which they swim, I did not notice the unchallenged biases I grew up with. 

Some of my biggest mistakes and regrets come from my unexamined biases. The hidden curriculum taught me that as long as I had good intentions, I could ensure that my actions (and impact) would always be good.  Unfortunately, my best intentions were hampered by my unexamined biases, and my students of color were harmed by my actions. I told myself that anyone who took issue with me just didn’t know me and my good intentions well enough. I deeply regret this entrenchment.

The hidden curriculum was not overcome because I didn’t realize it existed in my thinking. I’m not saying that a hidden curriculum is always negative and problematic. But, because it is neither acknowledged nor examined, the hidden curriculum usually is not the best of what the institution has to offer.

Principia is teaming with amazing thinkers. The formal curriculum here is rich, relevant, and deep. I see some of our brave students and their faculty advisors working to call out the unacknowledged and unexamined hidden curriculum that desperately needs our attention. We can join the movement as well.  The hidden curriculum becomes more visible when we listen, especially to those we disagree with.

Jesus was all about revealing the hidden curriculum of his day. Look at the many ways he asked people to examine their practices in order to better understand God. I hope we continue to examine our hidden curriculum.

Featured photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash.