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The hidden curriculum: why it matters

Professor Liz Mossop BVM&S PhD FRCVS

Fellowship Day 2019

Report of presentation

Inviting her audience to go back in time and imagine they were veterinary students again, Professor Liz Mossop asked “What did you learn without actually realising it? What did you learn without sitting in a classroom? What did you pick up from your peers, from others around you, from the institution you were existing in?”

Thinking about her own education, Professor Mossop, who is Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Lincoln, said she had learned nearly all of her professional skills – the ability to deal with challenging clients, to talk to clients about money and to work as part of a practice team – outside of a classroom. Times had changed, and the veterinary schools now taught many of these skills within the formal curriculum, but this type of learning was still happening “behind our formal education”.

A curriculum was a multilayered concept, she said. There was the formal curriculum, which was classroom-based, with active teaching. There was also the informal curriculum – the ‘on the hoof’ opportunities for learning that arose from questions after lectures and clinics. Overarching and running through both of these was the hidden curriculum: “This is what we don’t realise…we are actually learning, unless we stop and really reflect on the environment in which we are existing.”

Professor Mossop quoted the following definition of the hidden curriculum proposed by Fred Hafferty, professor of medical education and an expert in this area: “A set of influences that function at the level of organisational structure and culture – understandings, customs, rituals and take-it-for-granted aspects of what goes on in the live space that we call education.”

If people were learning simply by being in an environment, then the role models around them had an important influence on their development. “The way we act as leaders, the way we act as Fellows within our profession, is influencing those around us. That’s always really important to remember – it doesn’t mean we have to be angelic all the time, it just means we have to think about it.”

So why did this matter? Professor Mossop explained that this influence played a key role in forming a professional identity. Individuals entered an environment with an existing personal identity and set of values. They went through a process known as ‘socialisation’, during which they subconsciously evaluated behaviours they saw happening around them to determine whether they wanted to adopt them. At the end they emerged with a professional and a personal identity.

“In many ways, this is all about who are you? Why are you here…and who is shaping how you’re behaving?” she said.

This was relevant in many situations, not just workplaces and education. For instance, Professor Mossop said she was a great fan of social media; she thought it was a hugely powerful tool and she used it in her teaching. She felt it was important to be a role model for the positive aspects of social media, rather than focusing on the negatives, and to demonstrate to students how it could be used professionally and in the right way.

The concept of the hidden curriculum could also be applied to some of the current hot topics in the veterinary profession, such as mental health and wellbeing. Professor Mossop asked her audience to reflect on how they demonstrated to others their ability to look after their own mental health; how the organisations they worked for did, or did not, support mental health; and what this might mean for those who were more vulnerable to mental ill health.

Another issue was that of equality, diversity and inclusivity (EDI). What was the profession doing to ensure it was an inclusive profession? “We need to live and breathe these things as well as write policy. We need to demonstrate, as the leaders in our profession, what we mean by EDI, why it’s important to us, why we should be passionate about it.”

A third topic was the ‘blame culture’ and how this could be converted into the idea of a ‘just culture’ within practice, one in which mistakes were looked at “in the proper way, and we don’t just point fingers and lay blame”.

Concluding, she said: “The whole point of the hidden curriculum is that we cannot sterilise it – and actually, that would be the last thing we would want to do…We know that the hidden curriculum is never going to be perfect, and therefore what we need to do is make sure there is an awareness of it in those around us and in yourself, and to develop an ability to be reflective practitioners and to think about what we’re launching ourselves into, to think about how we are behaving, how that is influencing others around us, and then take that forward in our daily lives, and encourage our students to do the same.”

After her presentation Professor Mossop was asked whether any tools existed to measure the ‘health’ of the hidden curriculum and, if so, should these be incorporated into the RCVS accreditation process for veterinary degrees? She replied that there was no validated, reliable tool available and measuring the hidden curriculum was very difficult. Perhaps the best approach would be to talk to students – a great deal of information could be picked up from such conversations.