Today’s guest post comes from Allison Gale, Departmental Teaching Fellow for Earth and Planetary Sciences.
I had never heard of the phrase ‘hidden curriculum’ until I was lucky enough to participate in a course offered by the Bok Center last spring, called “Designing the Course of the Future.” When I first heard it, it struck me as just another bit of teaching jargon that sounds nice but is hard to apply in the classroom. Far from mere jargon, the concept of hidden curriculum has transformed my approach to teaching.
The hidden curriculum, most generally, refers to those expectations that course instructors have for their students (such as “making sense of what they are learning”) that do not appear in the topic list or course syllabus. In Teaching Physics, Edward F. Redish points out that, particularly for students of science, there is confusion when it comes to what it means to learn. For most students, “learning” science involves copying down every formula or definition written down by the professor, memorizing them, passing the exam by successfully spitting the formulas or definitions back out, and then forgetting the information once the exam is over, to free up brain space for memorizing the next set of formulas or definitions. Of course, no science professor would advocate this method of learning science. Indeed, most professors would likely say that learning science requires a deep understanding of the material so that it can be retrieved in different contexts. Yet it seems our teaching and assessment in science courses align much more closely with the “memorize and regurgitate” model. Far too often the student who memorizes the most gets the best grade.
So what can we do? First off, Redish encourages us to teach our students how to learn, to get them “thinking about thinking.” If we want them to have a “deep understanding”, we need to demonstrate what a deep understanding looks like. This shocked me at first. “I can’t spoon-feed the students,” I thought. “I provide them the basic concepts, they are supposed to link them together.” But then I realized that expecting students to link concepts together without teaching them how is analogous to a language class that teaches only vocabulary words and then expects students to form beautiful sentences. If I want them to link concepts, I need to show them how! In my old “hidden curriculum” (perhaps hidden even to me?), I would carefully explain concepts and wait for the students to weave them together and fill in the blanks. But why is it necessary to keep this process so hidden? Why couldn’t I teach them how to weave the concepts together? It is this fundamental idea of modeling the learning process (“unhiding the hidden curriculum”) that has transformed my approach to teaching a Gen Ed science course. I now deliberately strive to provide the students with a mental structure that facilitates learning, not to sit back and see which “good” students can “figure it out.”