Character education: why hide the ‘hidden curriculum’?

I have been inspired by my colleague’s blog post this week. Dickie Wada-Thomas thoughtfully reflected on the Manchester terror attack and the vital importance of the PYP Attitudes. You can read his post here. While you’re there, follow his new blog for regular updates.

On that awful day, my social media feeds were full of Manchester’s horrific breaking news. The disgraceful act of terror on children and young people sickened the whole world. The following days, however, these posts were replaced by countless stories of bravery, kindness and compassion. In response to the evil act, the people of Manchester showed the world what wonderful people they are. Manchester is a diverse, strong community that shares one clear message: “We will not be divided”. In short, they individually and collectively demonstrated admirable character.

“This city is a community. I don’t care who you believe in or where you’re from. This city is for everybody.”

Ian (surname unknown), Interview with BBC Newsnight

Dickie used this incident to revisit the vital importance of all Five Essential Elements of the PYP (knowledge, concepts, skills, attitudes and action). In PYP philosophy, developing these elements will develop the Learner Profile (see image below) and, ultimately, students who are internationally-minded. I have said many times that this is why I love the PYP. Academic education is important but not sufficient. Our aim, in a nutshell, is to ensure that our students are good people and responsible world citizens. Whatever your curriculum, let’s call this character education. How do you teach it? Are your students making character progress?

The attributes of the IB Learner Profile

If my students leave my class at the end of the year and they are not better people than when they arrived, I have failed them regardless of academic progress. We are fortunate to have the PYP Elements to guide us and focus our attention. Similarly, my previous school in the UK had Christian Values (it’s a church school). What do other schools have? In some places, character education is known as the ‘hidden curriculum’. If we agree that character education is important, why hide it?

I get where the name came from. It is hidden because the teaching is implicit. In most cases, there is no formal curriculum, standards or objectives to be met. Furthermore, a lot of character learning happens unintentionally on a daily basis. Students learn behaviours from each other, their teachers and other role models without explicit teaching (I proved this in my guest post for The Learning Scientists). However, I don’t believe that it should be left to chance. What if students are learning undesirable behaviours/attitudes from peers and other influencers? We need to dedicate classroom teaching time to character education. Oftentimes, it can connect authentically to our units (in the PYP, we make sure it does). Other times, we need to dedicate some standalone teaching time to it. This might be through PSHE lessons or circle time.

Though I understand the name, it concerns me. Anything that is hidden automatically seems like an optional add-on, less important than the academic learning that is prescribed and tested. If teachers are unaccountable for character learning, how do we know that it takes place? In such a busy job, often with high stakes, teachers understandably focus on what they will be judged on. To my knowledge, the high stakes around the world always relate to academic results.

“[test results] are only one piece of a school’s success – not the only true measure of ‘good education’.”

Adam Welcome and Todd Nesloney, Kids Deserve It!

Subjects like PSHE and Religious Education are famously ignored because of the pressure of maths and literacy results. What if schools were somehow accountable for character education? Imagine if this became education’s priority. What impact would that have on society and the world?

Imagine a test that can measue (2).png

Character can’t be measured, scored or graded. So, how do we ensure progress? Please leave your thoughts below in the comments section. Let’s keep the discussion going.

One last question: what’s more important, character or ability? I had this discussion recently with Vicky Queenan, my friend and former colleague, when she visited me in Hong Kong. It’s an interesting question and I’ll leave it with you to ponder. Again, leave your thoughts below.

Connecting back to the event in Manchester, this is the latest example of the need for tolerance and open-mindedness. Diversity should be respected and celebrated. Cowardly terrorists are in no way representations of Islam or any other religion. The people of Manchester understand that. We need our students to be respectful of world religions, caring towards others (regardless of background) and resilient in response to fear.

Thanks again to Dickie for inspiring this post. Also, check out my previous post if you haven’t already. I collaborated with Kriti Nigam to celebrate and share the power of a professional learning network.


  1. A timely reminder that teaching is about more than just knowledge and skill acquisition.
    I second the last commenter’s notion though. Is teaching character in the way you suggest neo-imperial? There are no set of universal values, but I agree that host nations have an imperative at least to communicate their values (if not enforcing them).
    Furthermore, how effective is character education? It’s very difficult to define character let alone measure it. And if we can’t define or measure it, how can we teach it? I agree that we must be models of our own society’s values, and talk about what’s going on in the world through the lens of our own culture and experiences, but whether teaching character is right or even possible is a matter to consider.
    You’re right to bring up a thought-provoking issue, and I very much enjoyed reading your article.

    1. Hi Dan,

      I agree that it is difficult to define and impossible to measure. Even if we do play a part in character education (I’m sure we do), there are so many other factors such as parents, peers, media, etc.

      Thank you for the feedback and thought-provoking comments.



  2. An excellent article Adam and great comments from Dickie & Kyle. As a parent to two very different children, one G & T and the other S.E.N I now feel more value to the ‘hidden curriculum’ than ever before. A child with fabulous academic acheievements cannot get on in life alone without the ‘hidden curriculum’ skill set you discuss however I believe and know first hand to a point (as he is only 7) that a child can make further progress on just the ‘hidden curriculum’ alone. Obviously the ideal ‘win, win’ situation is both in equal measures and as educators both areas should be given the same importance and therefore taught as equals.

    1. Hi Vicky,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting to consider your two children. I think most parents would consider their children very different, so you’re not alone. Your eldest is an excellent example of the ideal. I know how academically able he is but I also know that he is a nice boy! He obviously had the right messages reinforced at home and in school. I wonder which makes you more proud, his academic ability or the fact that he’s a good kid? Both equally? Let me know.

      It’s interesting that your youngest has made you appreciate the value of the ‘hidden curriculum’. Has this changed your teaching at all? I agree with your final point.

      Thanks again!


  3. Adam,
    I sit here and respond to your post while reading the latest developments of the London terrorist attacks.
    We’ve got to make this hidden curriculum / character education far more visible and in my opinion bring it to the forefront of the curriculum.
    It needs to be discussed and taught more overtly and explicitly. We need our students to care, empathise, tolerate, respect, appreciate and show integrity while being enthusiastic, curious, independent, confident, creative and committed individuals who can cooperate together to make this world a better place.
    Ability vs. Character – for me, the latter wins every time. As a father, when people comment about my own children, it is how they describe their character that counts for me over any ability.
    Another great post.
    All the best,

    1. Hi Dickie,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with every part of it. I’m obviously not a parent, but that is how I would expect the vast majority of parents to respond.

      As for London, more terrible news. I published this before I knew. I have no words right now.



  4. Global-mindedness is a tricky concept. It is easy to assume that your worldview, the western worldview, is the correct one that we should be teaching an international body of students.

    Consider, however, some secular worldviews and a traditional christian worldview in the context of world religions. What is a good person? Is a good person one who rejects all religion as superstition and mass hysteria and should go out of their way to teach people to use only decisions based on evidence and science? Is a good person one that observers and respects all religions as equally valid? Or is a good person one that sees peoples of other (from their view, false) religions and goes out of their way to bring those lost souls into the fold?

    You may notice that each of these worldviews stands opposed to the others.

    Now, let’s say you have a diverse student body and it is your belief that each religion is equally valid and has something to teach the world. You teach your worldview to your students and, congratulations, they are now better people than they were when they came into your classroom… or are they? Your Christian student goes home and, to his parents dismay, he is no longer interested in evangelism, a cherished indicator of being a good christian (and by extension, a good person), because there’s no need to convert those since they are all good people and all have something to share.

    Consider teaching kids that when they see something bad, they should say something. This seems fairly straight-forward, right? But consider the implications. Let’s say you give an example of a classmate being abused by a parent. What should they do? If they see it, they should tell a teacher/parent/trusted adult, right? But wait, little Jimmy says “We shouldn’t get involved in the affairs of other families, should we?” — Many cultures have this view. OK, ok, let’s make it easier. If a family member abuses you directly, what should you do? Tell a teacher/parent (but obviously not the one causing the abuse)/trusted adult. Wang raises his hand “In my culture, I could never say such things about my parents,” because in Confucian societies, a son should never ‘betray’ his parents in such a way. Are you going to correct them of their “false” cultural beliefs and impose your own?

    Here’s an super easy one: Blowing oneself up and killing other innocent (or should I say, guilty of blasphemy?) people of other religions. Bad, right? Not if you’re of a religious sect that suggests doing so is the greatest gift you can give your God. What’s the solution? We should impose on them our view that doing things like that is not ok. Believe me, I agree with that notion but I also accept it for what it is, imposing a new worldview to replace an old one. MINE over YOURS.

    At some point, you’ll have to admit that teaching ‘character’ is inherently biased. It could be your bias, it could be bias of the school (if its American, European, etc) or it could be the bias of the country in which it is located.

    What is a teacher to do with such a confusing mess of cultural crossroads? Many would default to focusing on the academics.

    1. Hi Kyle,

      Thank you for your thoughtful, detailed comment. You have certainly stretched my thinking and that’s why I enjoy reading comments so much.

      Firstly, I believe that everyone is entitled to whatever beliefs they hold (as long as they don’t harm other people). I’m an atheist, but I respect all other religious views equally. The truth is, nobody can answer the big questions. We, therefore, can’t assume that others are right or wrong. We can only show respect and open-mindedness. As long as religious views don’t conflict with the law (killing other people, for example), then they are valid in my opinion.

      You have shared some interesting, thought-provoking dilemmas. I don’t know how you would deal with cultural bias and it probably would play a part in your extreme examples. However, my post is about attitudes and gestures that are globally valued. To my knowledge, they are valued in all religions. I’m talking about kindness, love, compassion, care, empathy, etc. If these things are globally valued, then cultural bias won’t play a part in most situations. I do appreciate the extremes, though. I’m sorry that I can’t give you definite answers!

      Despite any difficulties, I don’t believe that we should just default to academics. Our students deserve more than for us to simply turn a blind eye.

      Thanks again for making me think. I appreciate your thoughts.



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