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The Hidden Curriculum

Anika Reza

Carleton University

LALS 5202

November 16th, 2009

In Martin Cortazzi and Lixian Jin’s article Cultures of Learning: Language classrooms in
China they discuss how a culture of learning is the hidden curriculum. They define ‘culture of
learning’ as the behaviour in language classes that are “set within taken-for-granted frameworks
of expectations, attitudes, values and beliefs about what constitutes good learning, about how to
teach or learn, whether and how to ask questions, [and] what textbooks are for” (1996). dd
Because students and teachers are in most part unaware of how such a culture of learning may
be influencing what they value in education and the process of learning and teaching itself, it rri
is called the hidden curriculum. The culture of learning is influenced by the cultural lu
backgrounds of individuals since that is what primarily dictates our attitudes and m
expectations. A classroom that has teachers and students of a variety of different backgrounds
will find that there are many different culture of learning at play. Therefore there may be gaps in
attitudes and expectations between teachers, students and even among different groups of
students that go unnoticed and can create difficulty.

The authors examine the Chinese culture of learning through observations, interviews and
data collection and contrast it with Western culture of Learning as represented by Western
teachers who teach in China. Culture of learning seems to be instilled very early on with Chinese
children being introduced to a particularly longstanding culture of learning in kindergarten and
primary schools where they learn to read and write. Chinese children learn to use memory,
imitations and repetitive practices to learn and this language learning method stays with them for
a very long time and influences how they acquire other languages (Cortazzi & Jin, 1996 ).
Memory and repetition works well in learning Chinese characters since they are rarely
decipherable by the sums of its parts but this method may not always work well when learning
other languages. Cortazzi and Jin discuss the dissonance that is often created when these students
go to study abroad and find that the gap in perception of the nature of academic work is so great.
Chinese culture of learning and Western culture of learning are often directly opposite of one
another. While Chinese perception of education promotes a more teacher centered, student
passive model with listening and memorizing as key the Western model tends to promote a
student centered, experiential model with emphasis on student knowledge production. The
hidden curriculum can lead to classroom language learning dissonance and so to avoid it the
authors’ suggest teachers become more aware of culturally shaped learning attitudes and
expectations for better cultural synergy and teaching; a key component being teaching the culture
as well as language in the classroom.

The word curriculum itself is defined in a variety of ways by a variety of scholars but if
we agree to think of “curriculum as a kind of rhetorical accomplishment which is realized in the
social practices and discursive accounts of key stakeholders” (Fox, 2001) then the concept of a
hidden curriculum makes more sense. A curriculum is more than a list of books and lesson plans,
it reveals our social values and ideologies and hidden curriculums are values and ideologies
pertaining to learning that we may not be explicitly aware of. Longstreet and Shane offer a
commonly accepted definition for this term: dd
. . . the "hidden curriculum," which refers to the kinds of learnings
children derive from the very nature and organizational design of the rri
public school, as well as from the behaviors and attitudes of teachers lu
and administrators.... " (as cited in Srivastava, 2005, p. 31) m
Examples of the hidden curriculum might include emphasis on group learning versus individual
learning, not interrupting the teacher, the intense competition for grades and the emphasis place
on asking relevant questions. Thus it is easy to see how the culture of learning is a hidden
curriculum since how we learn goes on to influence what we learn and value. I believe that the
culture of learning, a hidden curriculum, was one of the principle factors as to why the Centre for
Applied Language Studies (CALS) program eventually failed. Though there were many
mitigating factors, as discussed in class, it was the insistence that there was no curriculum that
made the teachers oblivious to the hidden curriculum and therefore blind to the gap between
teacher and student expectation of learning. By teachers I mean the ones in power.

As mentioned in past stakeholder transcripts and by Barbara Greenwood in class, most of

the students taking the CALS classes were of Chinese and Japanese backgrounds. There were
influxes of other cultures occasionally but the consistent group seemed to be from China and
then Japan therefore Cortazzi and Jin’s account of the culture of learning shared by Chinese
students can be used to gauge their possible reaction to the methodology used by the teachers.

From the grey book and the personal accounts of Barbara Greenwood and Wendy Fraser
we know that not only was there an insistence that there was no curriculum but that there were to
be no grammar taught and no textbook used and because all the materials were supposed to be
teacher produced the learning from class to class, even at the same grade level, were not uniform.
What we know of the Chinese culture of learning from Cortazzi and Jin’s article we know that
Chinese students are generally used to a program which is “highly structured…[with] an
emphasis on the learning and use of grammar and vocabulary in a heavily teacher-centered
approach” (182) to then be thrust into a program which is essentially the exact opposite must
have been quite disorienting. The result of the gap that was created between expectation and
delivery seen in students requesting grammar to be taught and to have more structure in their
classes and when these requests were not met they chose to go to another University that had
programs with a more familiar delivery.

Despite the obvious culture of learning gap the program did succeed for many years and
students of different backgrounds were able to adapt and I would propose that this is because the
program had a cultural learning component to it. In the early days when classes were taught dd
in the morning and afternoons were free students often went on voluntary trips across the city
with other students and teachers to learn about the Canadian culture. As students became rri
more aware of the Canadian culture they would also become more aware of the Canadian lu
culture of learning thus being able to better grasp the different methods of teaching. With the m
increased number of classes it was necessary to have them in the morning and afternoon thus
extra curricular cultural programs were mostly cut and so to was the students’ cultural reference.
Students certainly had the autonomy to go out on their own and perhaps that is why some did
succeed but many may have felt shy and weary of seeing the city on their own. Regardless the
teachers were unfortunately unaware of the hidden curriculum, which was an extra barrier to
their teaching style, thus they dismissed student complaints as the few that just didn’t understand
the method. If the teachers had been more sensitive towards the culture of learning and
recognized that each student of different background brings with them a different set of value
and attitude towards learning they may have been able to retain more students thus the program
would have remained a successful one. By being ignorant of the different cultures of learning
and the hidden curriculum teachers were not sensitive towards student needs thus they lost their
students and thus eventually the program.

Cortazzi, M., & Jin, L. (1996). Cultures of Learning: Language classrooms in China. H.
Coleman (Eds.), Society and the Language Classroom (169-206). Cambridge
University Press.
Fox, J. (2004). Curriculum Design: Does it make a difference?. Contact, 30(2), 1-3.
Srivastava, D.S. (2005). Concept and Nature of Curriculum. S. Kumari & D.S. Srivastava (Eds.),
Curriculum And Instruction (31). Delhi: Gyan Publishing House.