Liberatory Learning: Dismantling the Hidden Curriculum

Nick Covington
Chris McNutt
August 11, 2020
This is a recap of our asynchronous professional development session, where we worked as a cohort to develop actions and solutions for equitable practices in our classrooms.

What does it mean to instill a liberatory pedagogy?

This is a recap of our asynchronous professional development session, where we worked as a cohort to develop actions and solutions for equitable practices in our classrooms. Instead of focusing on specific teaching strategies (e.g. learning student names, offering "high fives", using a certain text), we spoke about specific actions to dismantle and transform systems in education. This session can be used as an anchor for future development in liberatory pedagogy. Feel free to complete the activities yourself!


The focus of this session is on transforming the "hidden curriculum" - or the set of rules that one learns in school that's never explicit said, such as:

However, there are solutions and alternative ways to create a school's curriculum, one that is explicit in what it's doing, provides cooperative and self-directed experiences, and legitimizes a student's point of view.

Empathize and Define

First, we will dig into the concept of liberatory pedagogy and the hidden curriculum.

Rather than us offering a singular definition of a hidden curriculum, look at the readings below. Don’t feel pressured to read all of these. We’ve tried to narrow down these resources to something easy-to-digest. These are recommendations that inform our thought process.


Ideate and Collaborate

In response to the above readings, an educator, Sonja, said,

..I think many times I take calculated risks, trying to judge how far I can go… other times I just hope I didn’t go too far. I have started to understand that there is a certain kind of authority and power that comes from using privilege to take risks in service of real learning. I wonder if the risk for those with privilege is more imagined than real?

This brought me to Jesse Stommel's "If bell hooks Made an LMS: Grades, Radical Openness, and Domain of One's Own." To quote at length:

Teaching is always a risk. Learning is always a risk. But that risk is not distributed evenly. A gay male administrator experiences the classroom differently from a black teacher, a disabled staff member, or a female student. Even a system that invites subversiveness, like Domain of One's Own, can't single-handedly dismantle the institutionalized hierarchies of education...

For hooks, the risks we take are personal, professional, political. When she says that “radical openness is a margin,” she suggests it is a place of uncertainty, a place of friction, a place of critical thinking. This is not an Open pedagogy neatly defined and delimited....

Audrey Watters writes in “From 'Open' to Justice, “We act—at our peril—as if 'open' is politically neutral, let alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory democracy.” When we use a word like “open,” or ones like “agency” and “identity,” these should not be just empty signifiers. We should be transparent, and even partisan, in our politics. Especially as educators. But we need not proselytize...

When we acknowledge students make choices, we must also prepare for the possibility that they'll say “no”—that they'll hack our assignments—that they'll choose their own paths, rather than the ones we set out for them. Sometimes, their work, their thinking, their process won't be visible to us. As a teacher, how can I grade work I don't see, or even a domain that doesn't exist, because a student decides to remove it from the web?

From here, our session turned over to the participating educators. It's important that we don't only talk about liberatory pedagogy, but we model the behavior. Every person in our collective has an expansive knowledge, and we don't often look enough for our students (or in this case, teachers) as a wealth of resources at our disposal.

Educators reflected on the current system of education and how we can "liberate" learning. The full document can be found here. These are some highlights:

Yes, it is possible to change this. I can see a group of teachers working together to highlight liberatory pedagogy and lift it up for their colleagues. Additionally, small shifts in teacher habits can make big differences. I am working with a colleague to shift our evaluation of lessons. To borrow from Fawn Nguyen, “Critique the effectiveness of your lesson not by what answers students give but by what questions they ask.” - Liana
Ditch these top-down systems. They do nothing to build community and a sense of belonging for students and staff; if anything, the divide only gets deeper. Instead, create community norms and values together. Empower student voice. Recognize that engagement looks different for each student (and teacher!). And quit trying to make behavioral expectations into a capitalist structure. Kids don’t need toys or candy to do well! Kids will do well when they can. We need to create authentic conditions for them to do well on their own. - Lisa
With any element of the hidden curriculum, real change begins with honesty and then education and action. In our context, I believe there is some genuine honesty about the negative impact of grades, but their sheer inertia limits real change and so we have this “play acting” I referred to. It makes us feel good about our intentions. To truly liberate our assessment practices, teachers need permission and space to educate themselves on using authentic assessment practices that promote student growth and then have the permission to use those practices. But I’m not trying to place the blame entirely on leadership here; teachers have a huge role to play in calling for, and modeling, a liberatory assessment policy. - Dan

Testing and Implementing

What would a classroom look like with nothing high stakes? Is it possible to make a classroom where nothing stands out? Where standardized tests, even if given, are disregarded and/or countered by alternative assessment?

There's so many outstanding points around what is possible. It seems many of us believe that most of these structural changes are possible in our system with mitigated risk, creative noncompliance, and some tenured power.

Now that we’ve established a baseline knowledge of liberatory pedagogy and the hidden curriculum, as well as collectively ideated our own potential ways to improve our classrooms, we will look at a hypothetical, liberated classroom. This activity is meant to help play off of each other, using the previous day's activities, to hypothesize, construct, and build a "classroom of the future." (Which, in-turn, can be deconstructed for our own classroom use.)

Participants crafted a beautiful overview of a liberated classroom. Again, here are highlights from this piece:

We have learning objectives, but what you learn is largely dependent on you. We will strive to create situations that facilitate your learning and help you reflect on how you learn, and what habits will serve you going forward. You will have opportunities to practice communication and critical thinking with the aim of developing a deeper understanding of equity, diversity, social justice, ethics, agency and community. - Sonja
This is a reading and writing course. By reading the words of others and writing your own, you are joining in a never-ending dialogue. It’s ok if you haven’t read everything that was said before, or if your own contributions are completely different. What’s important is that you show up and add your voice. In this course, you will learn to follow your inner voice of curiosity, frustration, and excitement to discover new things to read. You’ll develop your voice as a writer and explore “writing as thinking.” You will work on projects that are meaningful to you. - Thomas
Everyone is a writer, and everyone can improve their writing with practice (your instructor included!). Because writing clearly and effectively is a skill that can be used throughout life, colleges often require all students to take composition classes like this one. So yes, I know you have to take this class, and maybe you're not thrilled about it. That's OK; I'm excited about getting you interested in the subject I love! Together we will discover WHY this class is required, and we will learn about lots of different types of writing, how that writing changes for different readers, and what we can do to make sure our writing is clearly understood. - Lisa

A Meta Point

A liberated classroom is centered on the words of its students. We have intentionally designed this course as an example of liberated, asynchronous classroom learning. Educators' words are centered, and we're simply providing templates and some direction, all of which is optional and can be tinkered with. Further, it doesn't require a lot of planning on the instructor's end! We're just here to provide feedback and help guide discussion. Maybe this structure could be incorporated into a future classroom?

This is just an initial rollout of asynchronous PD with Human Restoration Project! We're learning as we go, and in the future we're going to offer further coursework, synchronous office hours, and more activities that help structure progressive systems in classrooms. Be sure to follow us on social media and subscribe to our newsletter to be updated on future PD events.

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Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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