Chaim Y. Botwinick

Making the ‘Hidden Curriculum’ Visible in our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot

Photo taken by C. Botwinick

We often refer to the Hidden Curriculum as underlying values, principles and beliefs in our schools – many of which are intrinsic to the school’s educational philosophy and culture.

The Hidden Curriculum by definition, are a set of unintended lessons “which are learned but not openly intended” to be formally taught in school such as norms, values and beliefs that are conveyed in both the classroom and in the school’s social environment. As such, they are the unspoken or implicit behaviors, ideals, principles, procedures and standards that exist in the educational setting.

More often than not, most curricula have a singular curricular focus which rely heavily upon their transmission through formal core subjects and course offerings. These are in fact intended, and are designed as such. As a result, the school’s constituents – students, teachers, parents, board and the community at large – basically know what they see, hear, and experience; and what to expect through formal lesson plans, curricular goals and academic requirements and standards.

As we delve deeper into the mystique of the “hidden curriculum” of our Jewish day schools and yeshivot, we see a rich array of amazing Jewish cultural nuances and values which inform, support and inspired the school’s raison d’etre and value proposition. These hidden curricula are not necessarily taught as intended courses, but rather via informal learning and exposure through the school’s social environment. They may include the importance of positive middot, derech eretz or exemplary behavior and character. But, most schools do not devote significant time or resources to the actual teaching of these values and standards when compared to time spent teaching core text-based Judaic and general studies subjects.

The critical importance of a student’s character development, middot and derech eretz are all an integral part of a school’s hidden curriculum. This does not suggest that the school is not teaching about the importance of middot, derech eretz or exemplary behavior. But most schools, as indicated, do not devote significant time or resources to the actual teaching of these values and standards ….when compare to core academic subjects.

Separation vs. Integration:

As we know, there are times when students learn best through informal educational exposure and experiences. And, there are times when formal course offerings (the normative form of teaching and learning ) are the most effective venues for teaching and learning in our schools.

With the advent of curricular departmentalization and compartmentalization, there is a tendency to separate informal from formal educational offerings in our schools (whether they be intentional or unintentional). This differentiation makes sense theoretically, but not practically. Although there are intended and unintentional educational experiences, in most of our day schools and yeshivot, the confluence between the two disciplines makes it very challenging to separate the two. For example how often do we experience davening and tefilla (prayer) in our day schools and yeshivot, where students are totally engrossed in the kavana (engagement/focus) of tefilla. These “kavana moments” are not taught but are rather absorbed through the social school environment, including the modeling of rabbeim, morot and teachers who accompany students to morning and afternoon tefillah.

These behaviors may in fact take place irrespective of whether a student participated in a formal course relating to Beur Tefilla.

Another example relates to middot tovot and derech eretz (good manners) ……when a student exhibits middot tovot and derech eretz (exemplary character good manners, respect and character) in school classrooms, hallways, playgrounds, lunchrooms. Are these middot part of the school’s “hidden curriculum” or are they taught through formal course offerings?

By definition, one would think that these subjects are an integral part of the school’s  curriculum. But, in reality, there are very few schools that devote core course requirements to these topics. Most may be integrated into already existing lesson plans or a text based learning session. However, the conscious and continuous intentional integration requires a gifted and talented teacher familiar with the subject and one who has expertise in “integration” of subject matter.

Finally, the ability, capacity and willingness for a student to assist a fellow classmate through a “rough personal patch,” assist a classmate having difficulty understanding in his/her homework assignment, or just exhibiting friendship and empathy to a less fortunate fellow student, are all part of the school’s “hidden curriculum”. These actions are not taught intentionally, nor are they part of a required syllabus or course of study requirement. They are again,  part of the school’s social environment which encourages and supports the value and concept of Ben Adam LeChavero….positive relationships between people (and friends).

Transforming the “Hidden” into the Intentionally Visible:

In light of these aforementioned realities, I would like to humbly and respectfully suggest a paradigm shift in the yeshiva/day school curriculum narrative as they relate to the “hidden curriculum”.

Our Jewish educational community has reached a point in its evolution which strongly suggests that we can no longer rely exclusively on a school’s social environment in order to imbue specific Jewish values, beliefs or behaviors in our students. The challenge is way too complex and important. The challenge must and should be for our Jewish day schools and yeshivot to integrate all Jewish values into the formal curricular domain. This suggests a reassessment of our school’s  curricular goals, lesson plans  and pedagogy. It also suggests a re-conceptualization of how we teach Judaic text – whether they be Chumash, TaNach,  Mishnah, Halacha or Talmud. And finally, it is imperative that we continue to determine ways to integrate Jewish values, Torah-based principles and behaviors in all text study.

Several of the values and topics for curricular integration, may include, but not be limited to the following:

  • Derech Eretz (respect)
  • Tzniut (modesty)
  • Shmirat Haloshon (being careful and diligent about our speech)
  • Lashon Harah (speaking ill of another person)
  • Ben Adam L’Chavero (positive relationships and respect between people/friends)
  • Achdut (Unity)
  • Chesed (charity and kindness)
  • Kavana (devotion and dedication)
  • Bitachon (trust)
  • Emunah (faith)

The integration of these and other Jewish obligations, concepts and values into text study and into formal classroom instruction may be a challenge onto itself. To be sure, it will require significant curriculum rightsizing, professional teacher development and supervision. But above, it will require our day school and yeshiva  Roshei Yeshiva, Heads of School, Principals and curriculum specialists to embrace this concept as well as help guide, encourage and celebrate its actual implementation

At the end of the day, we can no longer rely on the invisible nature (“hidden”)  of these curricular challenges. We must begin to confront the status quo and think strategically, creatively and boldly about how our students learn, experience and embrace Jewish values, Torah precepts and concepts.

It is our individual and collective responsibility as educators  and communal leaders to ensure that this happens in our schools. Relying on the “hidden curriculum  is way too risky for today’s youth. We must ensure visibility that is crystal clear, transparent and meaningful, lest they become truly “invisible” or “hidden” from our students.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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