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A hidden curriculum is a side effect of an education, "[lessons] which are learned but not openly intended" such as the transmission of norms, values, and beliefs conveyed in the classroom and the social environment.
Any learning experience may teach unintended lessons. Hidden curriculum often refers to knowledge gained in primary and secondary school settings, usually with a negative connotation where the school strives for equal intellectual development (as a positive aim). In this sense, a hidden curriculum reinforces existing social inequalities by educating students according to their class and social status. The unequal distribution of cultural capital in a society mirrors a corresponding distribution of knowledge among its students.
Early workers in the field of education were influenced by the notion that the preservation of the social privileges, interests, and knowledge of one group within the population was worth the exploitation of less powerful groups. Over time this theory has become less blatant, yet its underlying tones remain a contributing factor to the issue of the hidden curriculum.
Several educational theories have been developed to help give meaning and structure to the hidden curriculum and to illustrate the role that schools play in socialization. Three of these theories, as cited by Henry Giroux and Anthony Penna, are a structural-functional view of schooling, a phenomenological view related to the "new" sociology of education, and a radical critical view corresponding to the neo-Marxist analysis of the theory and practice of education. The structural-functional view focuses on how norms and values are conveyed within schools and how their necessities for the functioning of society become indisputably accepted. The phenomenological view suggests that meaning is created through situational encounters and interactions, and it implies that knowledge is somewhat objective. The radical critical view recognizes the relationship between economic and cultural reproduction and stresses the relationships among the theory, ideology, and social practice of learning. Although the first two theories have contributed to the analysis of the hidden curriculum, the radical critical view of schooling provides the most insight. Most importantly it acknowledges the perpetuated economic and social aspects of education that are clearly illustrated by the hidden curriculum.
Various aspects of learning contribute to the success of the hidden curriculum, including practices, procedures, rules, relationships, and structures. Many school-specific sources, some of which may be included in these aspects of learning, give rise to important elements of the hidden curriculum. These sources may include, but are not limited to, the social structures of the classroom, the teacher's exercise of authority, rules governing the relationship between teachers and students, standard learning activities, the teacher's use of language, textbooks, audio-visual aids, furnishings, architecture, disciplinary measures, timetables, tracking systems, and curricular priorities. Variations among these sources promote the disparities found when comparing the hidden curricula corresponding to various class and social statuses. "Every school is both an expression of a political situation and a teacher of politics."
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