Education’s Hidden Messages

Hidden messages are being delivered by our educational system to our students each and every day. The basic structure of our schools provides students with powerful lessons that don’t appear in the curriculum. These hidden lessons are unconsciously reinforced by the very nature of the system. Exactly what are they?


They are leaning that discovering and creating knowledge is beyond the ability of students and is really none of their business. We have shut students out of virtually every real decision that has an effect on their schools and their learning.

They are learning that the voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent judgment. The hierarchical nature of school puts knowledge in the teacher’s domain.

They are learning that life’s answers lie outside themselves, in others. This lesson results, not only in students who believe others have their answers; but also that others are responsible for their problems. Students who have been taught this lesson take little accountability.

They are learning that feelings are irrelevant in education. This is about the cognitive domain. There is no time to explore that “other” stuff.

They are learning there is always a single unambiguous right answer to a question. If it can’t be measured, it’s not taught.

They are learning that a subject is something you take and when you have taken it you have had it, and when you have had it you need not take it again. We have structured their environment so that their curiosity is drained as they progress from course to course. As a parent how many times have I heard , “I don’t need to know that.”

They are learning that recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement and the collection of unrelated facts is the goal of education. We continue to segregate subjects and state and national exams continue to emphasize multiple-choice, fill in the blank and other easy to score question formats.

They are learning that risk taking is dangerous. Every time we play it safe as educators, we re-enforce this lesson.

They are learning that it’s easier to “play school” than to engage one’s curiosity and thirst to learn. We pretend that this all has relevance to their lives and they pretend to care.

They are learning that one’s own ideas and the ideas of his classmates are inconsequential. Once again, right answers exist in others. Their job is to listen attentively and remember those answers.

They are learning that we should all learn at the same pace and if we don’t keep up, there must be something wrong with us. This is built in to the way we group and test our children.

They are learning that individual achievement is more important than group cooperation. We provide no incentive to cooperate and in many cases discourage it.

They are learning that teaching is talking, learning is listening, and knowledge is in textbooks. I don’t think I need to explain this one.

Students are learning that passive acceptance of the status quo is more desirable than active criticism. We model this every day that we participate in a school model that we feel is not fulfilling the needs of our children.


These are our children. No matter what our rhetoric, no matter how lofty our ideals, the educational system and structure communicates its own powerful messages.

Our challenge is not only to tinker with the curriculum or the tools; but to redesign the system so that it empowers students to think for themselves, to find answers (and questions) wherever they lie, and to nourish the flame of curiosity so it burns throughout their lives.

To be fair, many, many educators have set out to change these “hidden messages” in the privacy of their classrooms, in some cases entire schools have done so; but the structure of school as we know it relentlessly delivers conflicting messages that often drown out our words.

We can do better.

11 thoughts on “Education’s Hidden Messages

  1. Good scary stuff!

    This list reminds me of John Taylor Gatto’s “The Seven-Lesson School Teacher.” It was recently named a “Great Document in Education” by Gary Stager at The Pulse. It was… “based on the acceptance speech he made when honored as 1991 New York State Teacher of the Year.” There are links to the book and a couple of different versions of the essay.

    The seven lessons are: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and that you can’t hide.

  2. Pete, this is a powerful post. Sociologist Phillip Jackson coined the phrase, “the hidden curriculum,” to describe the socialization process of schooling.

    Of course he was building up on the ideas of John Dewey and others. Some other famous folks, including Paolo Freire, Neil Postman, bell hooks, Jonathan Kozol, and, as Sylvia notes in her comment, John Taylor Gatto, also have done great work in this area.

    There is a famous school law quote that says it all from a legal perspective:

    That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes. – West Virginia v. Barnette (1943)

    This is exactly what you are talking about from a pedagogical, not legal, perspective. This is good stuff. Thanks.

  3. I loved your post. With your permission I would like to share it with my students in a curriculum development course I am currently teaching. There is no doubt that we can do better.

  4. Pete,

    Read this post at Leader Talk, and put it away for a few days. This is the type of issue that demands more than a cursory glance. Upon looking into more deeply, there is no escaping the reality that whole systems need to change. What we communicate just by performing our jobs as described to us by the state and national tests is much more powerful when viewed in light of the results.

    Yes, we do produce wonderful, intelligent leaders of tomorrow and have for some time, but I truly believe the world we prepare our children for today demands a shift in message. I am excited to be a part of the change–I hope.

    Great post, and I will share it with my staff.

  5. Patrick;
    I agree that a healthy way to look at this is to take the “emotional charge” out of it. At one time, we needed the system to do things this way. LIke many things in our lives, what served us at one point, may no longer be appropriate. It’s time to change the “hidden messages”.

    I believe we have to give education back to our children. We have taken it away. They are so disempowered. The vague outlines are visible in the work of Sylvia Martinez and Dennis Harper who empower kids through GenYes.

    This is not hopeless. In the next month I will post an interesting story & hopefully interview with a school that was built and is run by students.


  6. Your words really make one reflect on where we have come from, where we are today and the possibilities of where we may be in the future. The future holds a myriad of options as we teach, model and interact as we educate. I’m finding that “the more we learn, the more we can share, and the more we share, the more we can learn.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insight.

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