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Posted on May 1, 2014

Your Curriculum: Explicit, Implicit, or Null?

Your Curriculum: Explicit, Implicit, or Null?

by Joanne den Boer, Director of Learning ◊

I didn’t pay any particular attention to the usual busyness at the back of the room where a group of 8-year-old children prepared to play outdoors for morning recess. But when a cluster of children consistently gathered around Ryan for over a week, I began to be suspicious. My suspicions were justified when his mother called to inquire if I knew why Ryan was coming home each day with a pocketful of coins – he was evasive with her. To our surprise, he had become a successful, self-taught entrepreneur. Children were begging him for more tadpoles and little frogs that he collected from his ditch each morning.


Such a missed opportunity! Why didn’t I turn this into an occasion to study frogs, stewardship, or ethical marketing practices? I shut down his booming business (I think!) and refocused everyone’s attention to pioneers, levers and pulleys, and whatever else was in my explicit curriculum. The implicit message was that I knew what was worth learning, that my plans were more important than their interests. If only …

Implicit curriculum can be powerful – negative, as I just described, or positive. Consider a Kindergarten teacher in September who welcomes a class of non-readers. She photographs them with an open book and labels their Reading Box with their photo. What is her implicit curriculum? That children can read, and if they cannot yet read their name in print they can certainly “read” their photo on their personal Reading Box. She conveys “I know you are a reader.” How inspiring and encouraging is that?

“All curricula promote a vision of life”1. Teachers “make the most vital curriculum decisions”.2 When we speak of curricula, often it is meant in the broadest of terms – subject areas and teaching methods. If we expand this definition to include the notion of “an ever-changing series of planned learning experiences”3 then we consider the learners as the subject, and not the content. It allows teachers and students to travel the “River of Discovery”, to be engaged in the chase of learning as they go downstream, as well as to disembark from time to time to explore diversions that will supplement and complement the learning. Revising the formal and planned curricula to meet the needs and interests of learners involves exercising professional judgment of what to choose, adapt, set aside or reject outright from parts of teacher curriculum guides, student textbooks, and other resources.4 In other words, teachers make conscious and unconscious decisions about the explicit, implicit, and null curricula, some of which become missed opportunities.

Recently, some third and fourth pre-service education students examined teaching and learning spaces to look for explicit and implicit curriculum. Since the environment can be considered the third teacher5, what is placed on bulletin boards, hung in the hallways, draped from the ceiling, placed on shelves can all contribute to the explicit curricula. Rules for behaviour, a poster lauding positive character traits, a list of assignments due written on the side whiteboard, motivational quotes – all tell students what to do or how to behave. Explicitly.

Explicit curriculum can also be found in a course overview, unit plan, high school syllabus, and in a school and student handbook. Are yours saying what you want them to say?

Schools must have a planned curriculum. It is necessary to be intentional about developing a curriculum based on a solid biblical framework. Yet many things happen in the classroom that teachers do not formally plan. “Students learn through the everyday goings-on in the school. For instance, teachers’ expectations with respect to behaviour, how teachers relate to students, and the values teachers project will influence learning. Some researchers say that the implicit or hidden curriculum affects students more than the explicit one.”6

The implicit curriculum is not always so clear. Awards or trophies for athletic achievement in the front foyer tell a different story from the fine arts awards hung in the library. Furniture and its arrangement convey a message. Leather chairs arranged in a circle around a coffee table in the library gives a different message than the “no-talking” poster at the library door. A portable fan communicates student comfort is important for focused learning. Some schools are opting for a softer or more natural colour scheme. A “time-out room” painted stark white does little to calm the student who is demonstrating challenging behaviour. A collection of flags from around the world hung in a gathering space for middle schoolers promotes acceptance among their diverse ethnic group.

Implicitly, the message is evident.

If a history lesson glorifies heroes of war rather than peacemakers, what is implicit in that curriculum? If Art classes are taught on Friday afternoons, or if time is “borrowed” from the weekly Health class to complete Math, what message is being conveyed to the students? If the Music or French teacher is seen as providing a prep block for the classroom teacher – could this have an unintended message to the staff? What might a secret garden, a butterfly garden, or a reclaimed area of the school property convey? “Teachers [and administrators] need to reflect on the effects of the implicit curriculum on their students.7

Could this be also be applied to staff? Are there staff practices that have contributed to a strong, positive school culture? What practices might have a converse effect?

The explicit and implicit curriculum can also surface in teacher-student interactions. The words and deeds of a teacher can send a mixed message, one that exposes a hidden yet real curriculum that contradicts the expressed explicit curriculum. As a first-year teacher, my “lecture” about how to care for books in the classroom library undermined my enthusiastic invitation for children to read. What message is conveyed to students about their safety when staff punctuality for supervision is not heeded? Do you have a propensity to have things right – all the time? How might this unintentional implicit curriculum impact your explicit curriculum for students to be risk takers? “If there is a conflict between what we say, and what we do, then what we do will be the lesson that our students will most notice, and believe.”8

What is left out of the curriculum – the null curriculum – also affects students. “As we plan a curriculum, we need to ask why we leave out certain topics and issues.”9 Why is a French unit on learning how to use money usually associated with shopping and not with charitable giving? Acquainting students about our Christian heritage without teaching about other religions is to minimize the importance how beliefs influence behaviour and desires and affect actions throughout history10. To teach about Bonhoeffer as a theologian but to avoid discussing his involvement in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler is making a curricular choice.

Although not entirely null, in the redesigned BC curricula, there is reduced emphasis on environmental stewardship, or sustainability, of creation. There may be reasons for having a null curriculum: time restraints, developmental appropriateness, lack of adequate resources, discomfort or insecurity with the topic, perhaps even a clash in values.

It is important, therefore, when planning curriculum, that we ask, “on what basis do we include or exclude certain curriculum content and approaches? We need to justify our choices by referring to our worldview and the values we hold to be important.”11

Your curriculum – what is it saying?


Stepping Stones, p. 7
p. 4
p. 14
p. 5
Third Teacher 
p. 70
p. 70
Nurturing Reflective Christians to Teach, p. 10
p. 70
p. 11
p. 70


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