Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The hidden curriculum, then and now

In 1971, Benson Snyder published a book called The Hidden Curriculum. In it, Snyder examined the disparity between the ostensible goals of education and the covert rules and agendas that students discern (or not) as they make their way through the system.
Students receive one set of official, formal messages—the rules, the prescriptions, the goals. In effect, these are what one must do to pass, to succeed, to move ahead from university to the larger society. At the same time the students are monitoring another, more informal, covert set of cues that tell them what really matters—what in fact leads to rewards and success. It is a dissonance which affects those of us who have lived with it for some time.
For example, Synder wrote, we give lip service to the idea that we want students to think creatively and take risks, but the way we use exams and grades often actually encourages rote memorization and risk-avoidance. “Education, instead of developing and expressing thought, has come all too often to conceal and prevent thought.” “Disillusionment, alienation, or gamesmanship has become the context in which increasing numbers of students view their education.”

Snyder’s book was thoughtful, original, and very readable. It was the work of a thinker, driven by a spirit of inquiry and reflection.

Fast-forward to 2004. Another book titled The Hidden Curriculum appears. This one is subtitled “Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations.” The book, by Brenda Smith Myles, Melissa Trautman, and Rhonda Schelvan, is marketed as part of a curricular program called Social Thinking, which is designed to train kids to discern and conform to the social expectations of the people around them. Though it was initially developed for children with autism, the program’s creators have argued for its use with neurotypical children as well. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that my kids’ elementary school was using the Social Thinking program in general education classrooms until some parents (including me) complained.

Like the 1971 book, the 2004 book sets out to discern the “unstated rules” of school and other social settings. But this book’s goal is not to examine those rules critically. Instead, its purpose is to make those rules explicit so that we can better instruct children to conform to them:
Some of us require more instruction in the hidden curriculum than others. Some seem to learn the hidden curriculum or aspects of it almost automatically. Others learn the hidden curriculum only by direct instruction. And that is where this book comes in.
The book then endeavors to break down social “expectations” in an absurd level of detail. Here are just a few of the book’s “Bathroom Rules”:
Make sure that you flush the toilet after you use it.

Pull up your pants before coming out of the stall.

Do not talk about what you did in the bathroom.

For boys: When using the urinal, instead of pulling your pants down, just unzip them, pull out your penis, urinate and put your penis back in your pants and zip them up.
Much of the book’s advice is hard to argue with, though some of it is oddly specific (“Do not explain to a person with a new puppy that the breed she bought has a terribly aggressive disposition”). Some of it, though, reveals a more particular view of how to live:
Find out what music is cool. Opera or classical music is usually not cool when you are a teenager. Some kids do like opera or classical music, but they don’t talk about it.

Wait, wait, wait.

Breaking the law is never a good idea, no matter what your reason is.

Refrain from making negative comments. Try to be as polite as possible.
The book is a detailed instruction manual for social conformity. It may be that a small percentage of kids can actually benefit from some direct instruction about social conventions. (If you think that this kind of instruction is reserved only for kids with genuine social impairments, though, you should check out our elementary school’s Expectations Stations tour). But what’s striking is the book’s uncritical acceptance of any and all social conventions, and the utter absence of any acknowledgement that “expectations” should be scrutinized and sometimes even defied.

Could two books be further apart in spirit than The Hidden Curriculum of 1971 and The Hidden Curriculum of 2004? And is there any doubt that the spirit of education today—despite all the talk about the importance of critical thinking—is far more consistent with the latter than with the former?


northTOmom said...

I had no idea there was another book called The Hidden Curriculum, and now I almost wish I didn't. What an (unintentionally) ironic, depressing hommage to the original. Great post.

Chris said...

NorthTOmom -- Thanks. Despite the title, I found no mention of Snyder's book in this one.

pooter said...

How times have changed.