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Playing by the Rules of the Hidden Curriculum

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By Heather Fitzgerald

Posted on August 08, 2023 | Updated September 29, 2023, 9:00am

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Like many parents, I have learned a lot of things through my kids and their interests: I now have knowledge I never thought I’d have about Pokémon, flower fairies, Russian history, and public transportation infrastructure, to name just a few examples. But one nut I have not cracked is video games.

Early on, I was open to exploring video games with my kids, but I quickly discovered that there are hidden rules to video games that I just don’t get. I remember one particularly vivid example with my son when he was about 6. I thought I’d surprise him by downloading Angry Birds as a distraction for a long flight. Angry Birds was then (and maybe still is now?) an extremely popular game that involves slingshotting round little birds into rickety-looking structures that contain eggs and, weirdly, green pigs. There is probably a premise to it, but the game doesn’t explain that. In fact, the game doesn’t explain anything, which was my problem.

That day, moments after the plane took off, we opened the app on his iPad and, just like that, we were in the game. There were no instructions, no helpful “how to get started” and no sense of what you were supposed to be trying to do. We could see a structure and a slingshot loaded with a bird, and we tried all kinds of ways to fling the birds around. Sometimes the structures fell down, sometimes they didn’t. We didn’t know if we were supposed to knock them down or if we were trying to only knock down parts of them. Were the pigs friends, enemies, or just weird distractions? Unable to Google for answers on the plane, we both got frustrated, and my “happy distraction” ended with me confiscating the iPad after my son threw it in rage.

Lately I’ve been remembering this experience while reading about the concept of “hidden curriculum” in universities. [this is where you can link to the full blog post]

According to Rachel Gable, author of The Hidden Curriculum: First Generation Students at Legacy Universities (Princeton, UP, 2021),

The ‘hidden curriculum’ is often described by education scholars as the set of tacit rules in a formal educational context that insiders consider to be natural and universal. Those with prior knowledge of those tacit rules are prepared to succeed because they have learned the rules before, and those with no or little prior knowledge don’t even realize when they are breaking the rules let alone how to use these rules to their advantage. (Inside Higher Ed, 2021)

For some of our students, arriving at university must feel a lot like trying to play Angry Birds for the first time – like they’ve been dropped into a game without a full set of instructions. Orientation gives them a sense of what the campus experience will be like in general, but most people they meet will assume that students already know what office hours are and how to use them. Or how to:

  • find the most important information in course outlines and save those outlines for future reference,
  • access and use Moodle, myEC, and their ECU email,
  • manage time amid a less structured class schedule and with multiple competing deadlines,
  • work with peers for group projects or class activities,
  • stay focused and engaged for long classes,
  • or any of the other things you need to be able to do to succeed at university.

Even more confusing, some students — those with prior knowledge or the inside scoop — do seem to know how to do all these things, which probably compounds the sense of not belonging for those who don’t.

Most frustrating of all, the hidden curriculum is not stable. It can change just when students start to figure out the rules of the game. Think about the different skills required, for example, when university classes go from large first-year lectures, where information is largely curated for and handed to students, to the active learning spaces of senior seminars where students make decisions, ask questions, deliver information through presentations, and even sometimes help shape the curriculum by selecting readings or topics. Those first-year classes may not have prepared students for the hidden work of those different types of classroom spaces.

Because it is hidden -- i.e., not visible or stated – the hidden curriculum creates barriers for any student who does not have:

  • a parent or family member who attended a university in North America
  • access to a community that understands how university works in North America
  • high school teachers and curriculum that explained and prepared students for the university experience in North America
  • the confidence to ask for support without fear of stigmatization, failure or other repercussions

In other words, the hidden curriculum is another way that university systems can continue cycles of privilege for the already privileged, while creating invisible barriers for students who don’t arrive with the same knowledge of our systems.

This topic came up a few years ago when we talked about group agreements as an anti-racist practice. But it turns out that smart people have compiled a whole bunch of other ideas for helping students understand and overcome the barriers posed by the hidden curriculum.

The Understanding the Hidden Curriculum project was created by a research team led by Dr. Nicole Campbell (who ECU faculty may remember as a keynote speaker in 2021 who spoke on the topic of Supporting Learners’ Mental Wellbeing and Creating a Sustainable Practice for Educators). They identify and provide activities to teach many areas that standard curriculum doesn’t cover, such as

  • executive function skills including time management, organizing and decision-making,
  • communication skills such as active listening and dealing with difficult conversations, and,
  • intra- and inter-personal skills such as dealing with impostor syndrome and failure, developing empathy, and self-awareness and advocacy

I have had fun exploring this site and may even bring some of the activities into my training course for new peer tutors. I’d be curious to hear what others think of it. Or if you have any strategies and/or activities to address the hidden curriculum with your students?