Get in line! Photo via Michael Newman via Flickr.
“What are we supposed to do?” Photo via Michael Newman via Flickr.

Schools are places of learning, but it is not all about fractions and grammar.  Students also learn unspoken expectations for behaviors, values, and norms. Researchers call this the “hidden curriculum.” For example, students learn behavioral expectations like walking in a straight line, following directions from teachers, and raising their hands before speaking. Teachers play a major role in conveying these expectations to students. However, sometimes teachers’ expectations are unclear.

Sociologist Jessica Calarco shows that when this happens, how students respond is influenced by their social class. In situations where teachers do not clearly indicate whether students should ask for help, middle class students tend to actively seek assistance from teachers. On the other hand, working class students tend to avoid asking for help. Calarco explains that middle class students see these situations as “opportunities for reward,” while working class students see them as “opportunities for reprimand.”

Since working class students in the study were more reluctant to seek help, they often struggled with assignments and teachers sometimes misinterpreted their behavior as unmotivated. Middle class students sought help even when teachers resisted students by dismissing questions or responding gruffly. Since teachers often gave middle class students help when they persisted, the students were more likely to complete assignments correctly and were perceived as hard working by the teachers.

These misinterpretations of working class students increase inequalities between the classes that already exist. Instead of focusing on curriculum changes, perhaps educators should ensure that the “hidden curriculum” does not undermine students’ learning.

You can read the full article here:

Jessica Calarco, “The Inconsistent Curriculum: Cultural Tool Kits and Student Interpretations of Ambiguous Expectations,” Social Psychology Quarterly, 2014


Allison Nobles is a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Minnesota who studies gender, sexuality, and violence.