What Is the Hidden Curriculum in Education?

By Dr. Ashley Betkowski, School Supervisor, Canyon Center for Character Education, College of Education

Female teacher working with young adult students in classroom

Educators and leaders have many roles in the classroom and school community. Teaching the curriculum and furnishing academic results is currently a focus in society and the primary role of educators. One role that is not highlighted enough, but is often the reason for teachers getting into education in the first place, is the “hidden curriculum."

The concept of the hidden curriculum was first introduced by researcher Phillip Jackson in 1968.1 The hidden curriculum is what educators teach students without even realizing it, through their interactions, modeling, and school or classroom culture; it consist of unspoken values, beliefs, norms and culture. The hidden curriculum is arguably the most important in the field; because it usually leaves the lasting impact educators hope for when joining the profession. Therefore, something to consider is, how can the hidden curriculum be made into something more intentional, given its great significant for developing youth?

Naturally, educators praise students for good behavior or remind them when they need to consider their actions. Simple responses such as, “thank you for waiting your turn” or “please show respect and listen to the speaker” demonstrate how educators unintentionally teach values or virtues. When resolving conflict, educators guide students in discussion to listen, empathize, and use discernment and kindness. Conflict resolution also aids students in understanding humanity.

Students typically try to please their teachers, which creates relationships and trust with authority and citizenship in figures with a higher power role. By enforcing procedures and routines in the classroom, teacher help students learn how to be socially appropriate, collaborate and communicate with others, and act as contributing citizens of a community. The cultivation of prosocial behaviors occurs without thought. What is also unintentionally occurring is the development of character in children.

Hidden Curriculum: Character Education and Values

Character includes the positive personal strengths and assets that make up an individual and shape their moral decision making. Character is how people are described — who they are — and character is formed through the hidden curriculum. Students are learning what respect, kindness, honesty and other virtues are through the behaviors modeling by the educators around them, as well as other students, their families and the community. How youths will be as adults is largely influenced by their character formation, which occurs both intentionally (taught to them) and unintentionally (caught by the modeling of others).

Thus, there is a societal need for educators to recognize their role in shaping youth by means other than academics. Students are learning from educators in every communication, interaction, discussion and experience. If educators hold so much significance in the character development of their students through this hidden curriculum, then educators should also take into consideration, how can the hidden curriculum be made into something more intentional, given its great significance for developing youth?

Intentional Hidden Curriculum

While the hidden curriculum includes modeling values, virtues, good decision making, and being a good person, this can be an intentional action. Educators may just see themselves as a moral exemplar, but what if the students do not understand the intentionality behind the actions?

  • Educators can be intentional about how they model specific behaviors. There may be moments of opportunity to model a specific behavior or character virtue in order for students to witness a moral action or doing the “good” thing in a situation.
  • Educators can intentionally demonstrate positive assets they wish to cultivate in their students.
  • In the same respect, educators can intentionally alter their behavior so as not to model negative emotions or action regardless of their personal situations or beliefs.

These small intentional actions in choosing how to model norms, values, decision making and character could drastically impact the formation of character in the student body.

Intentional Character Education and Values

Similarly, the intentional choice of which values or virtues to highlight with students may shape the direction of character formation in students. This intentional choice encompasses the focus of the school or classroom culture.

  • In developing relationships and a community of culture ask yourself, “Who do you want the students to be? How do you want them to understand virtues or values?”
  • Within the classroom, through enforcing appropriate procedures and praising their students, the educator can be intentional about recognizing positive virtues, such as respect and empathy.
  • Additionally, through discussions in lessons or literature, the teacher can intentionally emphasize values and how the individuals or characters demonstrate those. Students should partake in such discussions and share ideas to enhance their understanding of virtues, or even challenge the ideas of others.

With the intentionality, the lessons are not changing; students are still learning; there is no assimilation occurring; rather, the educator is taking time to intentionally address the hidden curriculum — the shaping of students’ character.

Implicit Teaching With Intentionality

As educators engage in communications with students — discussions, problem-solving, conflict resolution, informal conversation, providing support and guidance, or any other interaction — the intentionality of an educator who recognizes how they are modeling, praising, supporting or teaching a value is important in how the students’ characters are formed. So rather than leaving that to chance, why not consider how the hidden curriculum can be more intentional? How can the hidden curriculum be more focused on what the students need? Why not be more meaningful and considerate of the way we all shape our future society?

At GCU, we teach future educators the importance of the hidden curriculum in the classroom. Learn more about the many degree programs available through the College of Education


1 Retrieved from: Jackson, P. W. (1990). Life in classrooms. Teachers College Press.

Approved by the school supervisor for the Canyon Center for Character Education with the College of Education on Dec. 27, 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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