The hidden curriculum refers to the unspoken and unofficial norms, behaviors, and values that kids learn at school in addition to the official curriculum of math, reading, science, and so on. These can include expectations about how to act in public (standing in line), how to interact with non-parental authority figures, patriotism (saying the Pledge of Allegiance each morning), and messages about social hierarchies (who it’s ok to ridicule, what it means to get different grades), and so on.

Gender is an important element of the hidden curriculum. Schools reinforce larger cultural messages about gender, including the idea that gender is an essential characteristic for organizing social life.

Marissa P. sent in a great example of this. Steve Bowler tweeted a photo of an assignment that his 8-year-old daughter’s teacher said she did incorrectly. The homework assignment had a list of toys or activities, and the kids were supposed to categorize them based on whether they were for boys, girls, or both, with equal numbers in each box. The assignment takes for granted the gendering of toys, and that there is a “correct” answer to the question of which gender they are appropriate for.

Bowler’s daughter did the assignment differently. After placing 3 items in the “boys” category and 2 in the “girls” group, she made additional boxes to add more things in the “both” column:

But at the bottom, the teacher notes that the assignment wasn’t done correctly. The point of the assignment is to categorize; the implicit message — that boys and girls are different types of people who like different types of things — isn’t questioned. A child sees this list of items and doesn’t gender them in the way the lesson took for granted; the reaction wasn’t to acknowledge her innovation and perhaps question the gendering, it was simply to say she did it wrong.

It’s one small example of the way that the hidden curriculum reinforces gendered messages, teaching kids expectations for gender and that gender itself is a coherent, meaningful characteristic.

Bowler, for the record, said he was proud his daughter failed the assignment and just wished she’d done even worse on it.

UPDATE: Reader Kama notes that the assignment accompanied a reading about a girl who wasn’t allowed to play basketball. The overall message of that story challenged the idea that girls can’t play basketball, requiring kids to categorize the toys and activities by gender as part of the lesson:

…this was assigned following reading a book about a girl who wanted to play basketball but was told it’s a boy’s sport.  She kept at it, got better, and earned the respect of the boys who were telling her off earlier.  According to the guy who posted the picture, the teacher was trying to discuss gender bias.  Did the teacher go about it the right way?  No, not really – especially when your end goal is showing that these biases are wrong.  That being said, this particular assignment doesn’t really fit with the idea of a hidden gender curriculum.  The teacher wasn’t trying to say that these are boy and girl toys, the teacher was trying (and failing) to point out that we are biased in our thinking about what’s for boys and what’s for girls.

Sorry for the misunderstanding on my part.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.