STEM Education Poetry

Hidden Curriculum

Note: a pothole in travel vehicular,
Dodged more eas’ly when on route familiar.  
When at wheel for time first–
When with content unversed–
Keep eyes open for hidden curricula!  

This non-Twitter limerick highlights the idea of the “hidden curriculum” in chemistry and other fields: comparing it to an unexpected road hazard and highlighting the idea that one’s perspective on such an obstacle shifts, given time as a driver.  The hidden curriculum is acknowledged in pedagogical research but rarely deliberately addressed in a STEM classroom, where the content-heavy “visible” curriculum takes center stage.     

Note: a pothole in travel vehicular, /
Dodged more eas’ly when on route familiar.  
This poem aligns with some of this site’s previous discussion on expert practitioners and novice learners.  It places the discussion first in a more universal setting: driving a car.  The first two lines are from the perspective of an expert navigator/driver, “travel[ing] vehicular[ly]” through a familiar routine.  Once someone has been driving on a road for a long time, it can become second-nature to dodge potholes, anticipate sudden dips, etc.  Similarly, a professor can sometimes move quickly through nuanced presentations that are tough for students to immediately understand.  

When at wheel for time first– /
When with content unversed– /
Keep eyes open for hidden curricula!  
Learning to drive (“at wheel for time first”), by contrast, requires a heightened awareness of the obstacles on the road, since the obstacles are all brand-new.  Likewise, an undergraduate STEM student is new to their disciplinary route, “with content unversed.” It can thus be a useful metacognitive step to “keep eyes open for hidden curricula,” which could otherwise constitute a sharp curve or unexpected intersection along the way, in learning content in introductory courses.   

Driving metaphors aside: what is this “hidden curriculum”?  In his book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto, history professor Kevin M. Gannon describes it succinctly as “a sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory counternarrative to our formal, explicit curriculum.”  Gannon notes that the way a course is structured can unintentionally say a great deal to a student.  

For example, I would expect that most introductory chemistry courses have some variation on “critical thinking in problem solving” as an intended learning outcome.  But what if the only contributions to a student’s final letter grade are from three multiple-choice exams?  In this case, the hidden curriculum contradicts the formal curriculum by emphasizing that “plug-and-chug” problem-solving– memorizing the steps with which to get the right answer, whether the concepts behind those steps are fully understood or not–  is more important than learning how to critically think through a complex problem, since the former is assessed directly in the grade and the latter is (seemingly) not.  

Discussions of the hidden curriculum are wide-ranging and have complex implications for a variety of fields.  My purpose in this limerick, as in my other STEM education poems, is merely to provide an acknowledgement to students of another underlying, enigmatic phenomenon that can unexpectedly arise in a chemistry course.  I’ve been working this summer on my own syllabi to examine this tension, aiming for greater congruence between my curricula, visible and hidden.