Your Hidden Curriculum (part 1)

What do people learn from you about the Christian life? Sometimes it's what you never intended to teach.

Many years ago I heard a great teacher make a distinction I never forgot. Every educational institution, he said, has two kinds of subject matter. There is the formal curriculum. And there is what might be called a hidden curriculum.

The formal curriculum consists of agreed-upon topics. Algebra, geography, English lit, history, physics. Faculties and school boards and parents decide on—sometimes war over—what makes up the formal curriculum.

The hidden curriculum also involves learning, but no school board ever sets it. The hidden curriculum consists of questions like: Which students get called on and which go ignored? Who do other students want to sit next to in the cafeteria and who sits alone? How do the groups stand on the great Chain of Being from jocks and cheerleaders to chess club members to the untouchables? Whose jokes get laughed at? Whose body is shaped right? Of what does "cool" consist, and who possesses it?

  • The formal curriculum is intentional.
  • The hidden curriculum is inherent.
  • The formal curriculum is obvious.
  • The hidden curriculum is subtle.

What you learn in the formal curriculum often evaporates after your finals—sometimes even earlier. What you learn in the hidden curriculum lasts a lifetime. And if there is a contradiction between what's taught by the formal curriculum and what's taught by the hidden curriculum, people always believe the hidden curriculum. Always.

The reason this stays with me so vividly, of course, is that I work at a church. We have a formal curriculum. It gets taught in classrooms and preached on weekends. It gets sung from the stage and facilitated in small groups. The formal curriculum is what gets taught when we study Romans, or learn about contemplative prayer, or take a spiritual gifts inventory.

But we have a hidden curriculum. Who gets fawned over, and who gets ignored? How do the staff and leaders get along when they're off the platform and think nobody's looking? How does a small group respond when someone shares a problem that is untidy and unresolved? Do leaders respond with panic or irritation or confidence or gentleness when a problem strikes? When there is a conflict, do people face it head on or go into avoidance mode? Does the church staff run on fear?

A couple told me recently of visiting a church in a city they'd just moved to. It was a church that prides itself on reaching unchurched people. But it was clear that the hip and the cool and the artists were prized above all there. The formal curriculum said, "God hangs with everybody." But the hidden curriculum said, "Don't expect to get too close to the core if you tuck your shirt in."

When I teach the formal curriculum, I have the chance to think about it ahead of time. I can rehearse it. I can illustrate it with self-deprecating humor and humble-sounding personal disclosure. I can try to make it comes out just right.

But I'm teaching the hidden curriculum all the time. I cannot prepare for it. It just leaks out of me. I teach it when a staff member is under-performing and I respond by withdrawing. I teach it when a powerful leader blusters and I placate instead of confront.

We all tend to overestimate what people learn from our formal curriculum. (I have been frightened over the years by how often people will tell me they appreciated a point I made while preaching and—not only is that not the point I was trying to make—it's the exact opposite.)

And we underestimate what people learn from our church's hidden curriculum.

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