In education there is a term called the hidden curriculum, which refers to unintended outcomes or lessons taught in the classroom. These mostly encompass the soft stuff like values, beliefs, behaviours and norms that are transmitted through the social environment or the behaviour of the educator.

As a teacher a number of years ago, I was very familiar with the intended curriculum – those activities purposefully designed to bring about certain learning. There was an active process of designing lessons to do this. I was also conscious of how I used space and acted to bring about lessons. Despite all of this, I was still struck when students would tell me what they learned from me or a lesson, and I would be surprised to hear stuff that I was not actually conscious of doing or remembered occurring. These were at times positive lessons, and other times negative experiences. It was striking how so many of the most deeply memorable learning experiences where not from the ‘intentional curriculum’, but from the ‘hidden curriculum’ of the teacher.

Now, this all sounds like a fairly harmless thing if one has a bit of awareness and some emotional intelligence to deal with this stuff. The concept of a hidden curriculum can have a darker side though. An example of a more negative expression is when a school promotes inclusiveness while structuring its classrooms by ranking students according to ability or performance. Research has shown that relationships that are structured and modeled within the classroom can transfer to outside of the classroom. These norms have been seen to influence social groupings and power relationships in the playground. These behaviours develop into habits and shared norms about what is acceptable and appropriate in social, learning and work situations.

This can be seen not just in school settings but also in the private, public and social sectors. I have seen numerous organisations promote one set of values while structuring themselves in ways that promote the living of other sets of values. Perhaps one of the most evident times that such values are communicated is when a leader or leadership teams make and communicate decisions, especially when those decisions have an ethical dimension. While the decision making process may seem to occur behind closed doors, they are certainly very keenly watched by stakeholders as to what that decision might say about the values, culture and direction of the organisation.

It doesn’t just happen within staff cultures either. In service oriented businesses or organisations, there are a number of different interactions that involve funders, clients and volunteers. A philanthropic organisation may be generous in the granting of funds, while holding an authoritative relationship with the grantee which gives them little room to raise difficulties or alter expectations. A short-term funding relationship with short turnaround times can make planning difficult for the grantee, thus leading to that organisation passing on that level of commitment to their staff, volunteers or clients in terms of program planning, contracts and responsiveness.

Non-profit organisations may place over-attention on their charity status and build a belief system around having a lack of resources. This poverty-mentality can then transfer to staff and volunteers in terms of expectations on their time and generosity. One may feel like saying: “I work for a charity, but I’m not a charity“. To be clear, I’m not making generalisations or want to suggest that these examples are common. Not all philanthropic organisations operate like that at all; nor do all non-profit organisations possess a poverty mentality. In addition, people working for social service organisations report gaining so much more from their work than money could represent.

I struggle a little with the term hidden curriculum, as if it has sinister intentions or a hidden agenda. The use of the word hidden describes only what we are blind to. My point here is about becoming conscious of our hidden curricula, and creating alignment between mission and the cultures that deliver on it.

The thing is that seeing our own hidden curriculum can be very tricky. When strong cultures develop, there is a ‘protectionism’ that can occur in holding on to what works, leading cultures to become blind and stop questioning what might be going on. Have you ever entered an organisation and perceived something to be a little strange, only to find twelve months later you are part of that cultural norm? A great way to surface the hidden curriculum of an organisation is to ask new staff what they perceive as the values or norms of the organisation. This can be good to ask of clients and beneficiaries as well.

Taking time to pause and reflect on what works in a culture and system is important and powerful. It is a process of becoming more conscious of the change one is creating.

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