Hidden Curriculum in Earth Science

This month’s blog post comes to us from teaching candidate, Renee Torrie. Renee learned about different types of hidden curriculum in their Master’s in Teaching program at the University of Washington and reflected on how previously lessons they’d written contained hidden curriculum.

Explicit curriculum is the message we intentionally want to convey to students in a lesson. Hidden curriculum is what the students are taught regardless of our intent. Renee reflects on their learning and applies it to a lesson on the Arkansas River. To quote Renee, “There is no such thing as objectivity,” not even in science.

I’m fascinated by the concept of hidden curriculum. This whole concept articulates something that I’ve long had a feeling for, but never words for: the fact that we are never hearing the whole story. The idea that every single lesson we learn or teach will have biases and hidden curriculum. There is no such thing as objectivity – the teacher or curriculum designer always leaves their bias in the curriculum they teach.

When I learned about control, implicit, and null curriculum, I felt excited and validated to take this concept forward and use it to critically think about lesson plans. I also felt frustrated as we dug into harmful social studies curriculum from various sources such as Teachers Pay Teachers. The hidden curriculum in those lessons was nasty – and I knew that before even seeing them – but confronting them gave me shivers and a renewed sense of purpose for the future. 

Types of Hidden Curriculum:

Control Curriculum – curriculum, policies, and practices intended to control the bodies and behaviors of students

Implicit Curriculum – Curriculum that implies a norm or makes uncritical assumptions

Null Curriculum – Curriculum that omits various groups and their stories

I have to be able to analyze my own hidden curriculum to gain self-awareness around the positions I bring to the classroom. I want this to become a practice that I start now and continue throughout the year and into the future. In this journal entry, I’m going to analyze the hidden curriculum of an old lesson plan I made years ago when I was an apprentice in a high school science classroom. I was just a baby teacher, beginning to learn how to teach. The lesson plan is attached to this document – it is Part 2 of a Lab about the Arkansas River; the high school I was teaching at was located at the headwaters of the Arkansas in Leadville, CO.

In this lab, Part 1 included heading to the river to measure physical properties, stand in the river, and build some relational context with the river. Part 2 which is attached here was a guided Google Maps journey down the entire river. 

Here’s what I found.

Explicit, non-hidden curriculum: 

  • Rivers are varied and their properties change as we move downstream.
  • Humans have interacted with and heavily influenced the course of the Arkansas River. 

Implicit Curriculum: Who is centered? The curriculum that is implicated in the lesson?

  • This Lab is a large, quick, sweeping overview of a complex thing 
  • It implies that geomorphology can stand alone and need not be interdisciplinary
  • It centers features such as meanders, evidence of changing river bed, and human damming or diversion 
  • Farming is centered in a number of questions such as #6 and 16 

Null: Which stories are left out of the lesson? 

  • Indigenous stories of past and present. There is so much potential here for understanding Indigenous relationships with the Arkansas River – I found out about the Upper Arkansas Indian Agency and the Lasley Vore Site after only brief research. The Arkansas River has supported life since time immemorial. 
  • Stories of the people living in relationship to the river. I could have included questioning into: How does the Arkansas support life around it? How have humans used the river in the past and present? What are the stories of the farmers along the river today? How accessible are the recreation sites along the river? 
  • There are more than human beings along the river. I wonder: How do more than humans interact with the Arkansas River? Is the river key to any migrations? What is being done to allow humans and more than humans to coexist in this river? What’s going on with the Dead Zone at the mouth of the Mississippi? 

Control Curriculum: 

  • This is a very guided Lab. # 3 even says, “Name 3 places…” What are other ways students can exhibit their engagement with understanding the dynamic ways of the river? 

In reflection now, I see that my Lab enforced the colonial mindset of seeing a complicated ecosystem as quickly understandable, and information gathering about a natural phenomenon as extractive and surface level! I specifically regret leaving out Indigenous and more than human perspectives. I certainly upheld an anthropocentric view of nature through this Lab. This was a really valuable exercise for me to go though, and I am excited to do this more in the future. This Lab had a lot of untapped potential for desettling and interdisciplinary exploration.

I’m so grateful for how much I’ve grown and learned since I wrote it.



Lab Overview: You will measure river properties at the headwaters of the Arkansas River near HMI. Back in the classroom you will use Google Maps satellite view to trace and investigate the Arkansas from its headwaters to its mouth. Turn in Part 2 when finished. 

PART 2: Arkansas River Scavenger Hunt headwaters to mouth 

QUESTION: How does the character of the Arkansas change as we travel downstream? What natural and human-made features does the Arkansas create/pass on its passage to the Gulf of Mexico? 


Scavenger Hunt! Open up Google Maps in Satellite View. Locate HMI. Find the Arkansas River, and follow it all the way to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico using this guide. This will be graded for accurate completion and effort. Please read the whole assignment before starting your hunt. 


  • Switching into Map View briefly can help you identify towns and state lines.
  • Travel relatively zoomed in, but zoom out periodically to orient yourself.
  • Keep track of general trends and features as you go (see questions 1 – 3).
  • Questions 4 – 17 will guide you down the Arkansas. 

1. General observations as you go about the Arkansas’ progression across the US? 

2. Screenshot and submit (on post on Google Classroom) an example of: a. Meander scars around the Arkansas. 

b. Sandy point bars in the Arkansas. 

c. A major tributary emptying into the Arkansas. 

d. BONUS: An oxbow lake around the Arkansas. 

e. BONUS: A location where water from the Arkansas appears to be diverted away for agriculture/manufacturing/mining/other. 

3. Name 3 places the Arkansas is dammed (provide reservoir name or city/state):

4. How does the landscape change as the river flows into Canon City, CO? 

5. You just passed Pueblo, CO! Test how far you can zoom out and still see the Arkansas course. 

6. Zoom out at Garden City, KS. What do you notice about the surrounding area? What are these circles? 

7. You’re in Hutchinson, KS. According to Google Earth, the slope of the river here is -1.2% and river width is 108 feet. We are 582 miles downstream of Leadville, the Arkansas is 1469 miles total. Make an educated guess of the discharge here based on our Leadville site lab (in ft3/s). 

8. After the Kaw Lake Reservoir in Law City, OK, zoom out and observe the next couple of meanders. What kind of river have we here? 

9. Drop in on StreetView on a bridge in Tulsa, OK. Dang, that’s a _______________ river! 

10. Zoom out just south of Little Rock, AR. Can I get a MEANDERING RIVERS! Also, we are about to hit the border between AR and MI. What is about to Go Down For Real? 

11. ROUND OF APPLAUSE WHEN YOU FLOW INTO THE MISSISSIPPI!!!! Keep following the Mississippi. 

12. What state borders does the Mississippi River constitute? 

13. In the areas just north and south of Baton Rouge, what strictly borders the river?

14. You’re near Baton Rouge, LA. Test how far you can zoom out and still see the Mississippi’s course. 

15. You’re in New Orleans! What’s in the river? 

16. What struggles might you encounter as a farmer in Boothville, LA?

17. A few observations about the Mississippi River Delta? 

STARTED FROM LEADVILLE NOW WE HERE!! #1469mileslater #wetouchedthatwater 

CONCLUSION: Thinking about both the headwaters site you visited and your Google Maps journey, hypothesize the answer to: 

How do these river properties change as a river travels downstream? 

  • Discharge 
  • Depth 
  • Width 
  • Slope 
  • Velocity 
  • Sediment load volume 
  • Bed particle size 
  • Sinuosity

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