Pandora's Box: Unveiling the Hidden Curriculum in a Military Teaching and Learning Environment

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Karen Zagenhagen, MPhil, BACur (Hons), BACur, BCur
South African Military Health Service Nursing College, South African National Defence Force, Pretoria, South Africa
Gisela H. Van Rensburg, DLittetPhil, MACur, BACur (Hons), BACur
Department of Health Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa


The South African Military Health Service (SAMHS) Nursing College is responsible for the education and training of student nurses in order to provide the South African National Defence Force with competent professional nurses to care for its members, their dependants as well as for operationally deployed soldiers.

These students undergo six months of basic military training and six months of officer’s training prior to commencing with their nursing training. The SAMHS Nursing College currently offers a 4–year diploma course leading to registration as a general nurse, community nurse, psychiatric nurse and midwife. The theoretical as well as most of the clinical component of the nursing training take place within a military environment.

Hafferty and O'Donnell (2015:7-9) point out that much of what students learn is not taking place in the classroom or the clinical environment, but that they are learning knowledge, values and behaviours unrelated to what is required through a multitude of other learning opportunities and educational settings which they labelled the “hidden curriculum”.

Because of the unique context, the professional socialisation of students at the SAMHS Nursing College is compounded by simultaneous military socialisation within a teaching and learning environment inundated with military culture. Given the unique teaching and learning environment in which these students find themselves, it is difficult to determine whether the military nursing education environment nourishes the desirable professional attributes or whether it inhibits the development of these attributes. Is it thus likely that factors implicit in the military organisational structure, culture and learning environment may influence the professional socialisation of these students.

The purpose of this presentation is to convey and discuss the themes which emerged from the findings related to the influence of the hidden curriculum on the professional socialisation of students in the military nursing context.


The findings that will be discussed in this presentation form part of a constructivist grounded theory study that was done to answer the research question: “What is the influence of the hidden curriculum on the professional socialisation of students in a military nursing context?” The researcher employed focus-group interviews and critical-incident narratives to address the research question. In keeping with the constructivist paradigm adopted for the study, Charmaz’s (2014:109-136) approach to data analysis was applied.


Four themes emerged from the findings namely:

Theme 1, “You’re in the army now”, was described in terms of the process of military acculturation where the student undergoes a transition from civilian life to military life and is being introduced to military culture.

Theme 2, “Off to boot camp”, reflected the processes taking place in the theoretical learning environment where students are taught the knowledge and skills necessary to execute their roles as nurses.

Theme 3, “Off to battle field” represented the clinical environment where students are placed to apply the knowledge and skills they acquired in the theoretical learning environment.

Theme 4, “Fighting a dichotomy” reflected on the professional role conflict experienced by nurse educators and students alike.


Conclusions made regarding the elements of the hidden curriculum present in a military teaching and learning environment and their influence on the professional socialisation of students revealed that the hidden curriculum were found to be present in people, processes and places to which the students are exposed to during the course of their training. Most of the elements could be related to a consequence which in turn could influence professional socialisation. This study not only revealed the complexity of the military teaching and learning environment but also exposed the many forms and facets of the hidden curriculum and its power and influences. It was found that the hidden curriculum in the military teaching and learning environment can function as a positive as well as a negative force.