It has long been recognized that the day to day operations of a school: its routines, the rules that prevail, how children interact with each other and with adults, provide lessons readily absorbed by students and their teachers. This is the hidden curriculum, "the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students (and teachers) while they are in school."
The lessons learned from the hidden curriculum are the mindsets that school children and even teachers develop, such as, "I am smart", or "I am no good at math."
The hidden curriculum can reinforce the explicit curriculum or reveal gaps between the stated values of the school and how things are actually done.
Unfortunately, when gaps are revealed, we are often unwilling to talk about them. Thus, "we often leave out an important part of the problem: actions taken by schools that actively hurt students and make it harder for them to succeed." (Smith & Harper, 2015, p. 2)
An illustration of the pernicious effect of hidden curriculum is provided by the story of Jason Okonofua who when he was a 10th grader in a Memphis, Tennessee, school won an opportunity to attend a well-regarded prep school in Rhode Island.
It didn't surprise Jason that in his new classroom students sometimes pushed back at the teacher's classroom rules; in Memphis, Jason's teachers had their rules and enforced them strictly. What surprised Jason was how the teachers in his new school handled such matters. His new teachers seemed to care about what he and his classmates thought. Students who had a complaint were encouraged to explain themselves. In contrast, in Memphis a fairly minor issue could quickly escalate into "back talk" or "sass", and a confrontation that led to the student being sent out of class, or worse.
The contrast between how his current and former teachers handled discipline was totally different.
Now a postdoctoral researcher in social psychology at Stanford, Okonofua's work is done against the background of the sharp rise in the numbers of students who are suspended or expelled from schools. The rate has tripled since the 1970s, and the academic cost is high with an estimate that during the 2011-2012 school year suspended children lost some 18 million days of instruction. (Smith & Harper, 2015, p. 3)
Further, the rate of suspension falls more heavily on black students as measured by the percentage of students suspended compared to the percentage of black students in the state's school enrollment. While black students make up 35% of the South Carolina school population, they account for 60% of the students suspended.
Unfortunately, the finding of the over-representation of minority students in school punishment statistic is not a new finding. "Investigations of a variety of school punishments over the past 25 years have consistently found evidence of socioeconomic and racial disproportionality in the administration of school discipline." (Smith & Harper, 2015, p. 2)
In part, zero tolerance policies instituted in the 1990s have contributed to the problem by creating rigid practices which give teachers and students little latitude to work out alternatives to predetermined outcomes. It also makes clear that while suspensions are thought of as the result of violation of serious issues such as weapons or drugs, they are also used to sanction students for more trivial violations such as dress code violations and talking back to teachers. (Smith & Harper, 2015, p.2)
In contrast, Jason sees the problem in terms of the mindsets of both teachers and students.
Teachers, of course, are concerned that their classrooms are orderly so that all students can learn. The teacher mindset is often about dealing with those kids who appear to be always in trouble.
The predictor of classroom misbehavior is an earlier misbehavior, and Jason notes that the most reliable predictor that a student will be suspended is whether that student has been suspended before. An initial suspension, he theorizes, "leads to a breakdown in trust and respect for their teacher, triggering a vicious cycle of more misbehavior and more suspensions." (Underwood, 2016)
As Carol Dweck, Jason's Stanford colleague, has shown, mindset is a powerful driver of behavior. Her work has also demonstrated that mindset can be changed.
Students whose mindset is that they are not smart can acquire a growth mindset; that they can become smarter through effort.
Can the mindset of teachers be changed? How?
In a series of interventions with teachers in Los Angeles schools, Jason and a colleague demonstrated that if teachers can interact with research-based classroom management materials and can reflect on them in written responses, they not only change their mindsets but are less likely to have disciplinary confrontations that result in student suspensions.
The experiment was conducted with middle school math teachers because, as Jason observes, it is in math class that "a lot of relationships break down." A racially diverse group of 31 Los Angeles math teachers was randomly assigned to one of two groups.
One group of teachers did an activity in which they read about the importance of empathy based on research that demonstrated that student success is supported by caring adult relationships. The activity included opportunities for the teachers to write about their own experiences. "For example, one teacher wrote: "I feel I need to earn my students' respect and trust. I know many of them have had poor experiences with past teachers so I need to prove to my students that I am there for them and will not let them fail." (Underwood, 2016)
The other group did a similar exercise except that the subject matter was about the importance of technology to student development.
Jason and his colleague followed the disciplinary outcomes for 1682 students of the teachers from the two groups.
Over the course of a school year, the suspension rate of students from the control group (the teachers who had read and written about technology) was 9.8% (or 82 out of 821 students) while the rate was only 4.6% (38 out of 821 students) for the students who were in classrooms with the teachers in the empathy group.
There are many studies in the research literature that students who have better relations with their teachers are likely to be more successful in school, but experiments such as the one by Jason and his colleague provide concrete ideas about how to go about altering mindsets. (Underwood, 2016)
Ladson-Billings, G. (2016). And Then There Is This Thing Called the Curriculum: Organization, Imagination, and Mind. Education Researcher, 45(2), 101-104. doi:10.3102/0013189X16639042
Smith, E. J., & Harper, S. R. (2015). Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Explusion on Black Students in Southern States. Philadelphia, PA: Graduate School of Education University of Pennsylvania. Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.
Underwood, E. (2016). To reduce student suspensions, teachers should try to be more empathetic. Science: Latest News.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.