Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Hidden Curriculum

I read a fascinating article by John Ortberg recently in Leadership magazine. He talks about two different types of curriculum: the formal and the hidden, found in every institution, organization or group, whether it be an educational institution such as a high school or university, a church or a class or even a family.

The problem arises when the two sets of teachings do not agree – which, unfortunately, is often the case.

John Ortberg says we are able to think about the formal curriculum well beforehand; we have

time to carefully plan what to say and how to say it (body language, etc.,). The hidden curriculum, however, is largely unplanned. Usually, we don’t decide in advance what to say, or how to react and/or respond. As Ortberg says of himself, “It just leaks out of me.” This hidden curriculum is being taught every moment. It is taught not only by words and actions, but by body language, facial expression, our eyes, even our silence.

Ortberg says that if a contradiction exists between the formal curriculum and hidden curriculum, people will always believe the hidden teachings - with no exceptions. How interesting.

You can see how this principle is constantly in play in any group - profoundly so. For example, in churches: leaders can be warm and welcoming up front on Sunday mornings (“we want to get to know you!”). Yet as they rush to lunch - along with the other members –they brush past visitors without a word of greeting. A church family can declare that anyone – everyone – is welcome in their fellowship, but those struggling to recover from drug addiction or poverty or child abuse never, ever get invited to anyone’s home for a meal.

We as individuals may be inhabited by more than one curriculum also. One minister’s formal teaching was precisely straight and narrow; he influenced many for Christianity, and preached unswervingly against sin. However, he also taught by his words and actions that, within his family, darkness and evil could dictate his behavior (at the same time he aired his formal curriculum). Which course of study most influenced his family? Which one enshrouded their lives not only at that time, but for years afterward? Yes – the hidden curriculum.

A Christian woman proclaimed her compassion and tolerance, then spoke slanderously of another sister’s messy house – proof, of course, that she could be relegated to the status of a second-rate Christian, and an object of ridicule.

But I must confess – several years ago I was with a new church whose aim was to accept and work with people wherever we found them. Someone had persuaded an unmarried couple who were living together to come check us out. They did not return, however, when some of my judgmental thoughts slipped out my mouth as I was “welcoming” them to our service.

A new Christian was elated to become part of a group whose formal curriculum highlighted the word of God as the supreme guide, and whose goal seemed to be to follow the Lord as closely as humanly possible. Imagine his crushing disappointment when, in his first business meeting, two deacons disagreed on how to clean the building, then became so enraged they had to be physically restrained from punching each other’s lights out.

But, oh, how sweet and pleasant it is when no hidden curriculum exists! When a church’s statements of belief, vision castings, teachings, and resolutions – the formal curriculum – is a match for the way the church family lives! When we experience no discomfort even if our attitudes toward and treatment of others were publicly announced! When we could sing “Love One Another” with gusto, and feel no sniggle of bitterness against anyone!

When our curriculums become one, Jesus will be able to say of each of us, as of Nathanael, this is one “In whom there is no guile, nor deceit nor falsehood nor duplicity!” John 1:47

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