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.
Julianabritto — November 16, 2012
What a terrible assignment, I can't believe that the teacher gave this out!
myblackfriendsays — November 16, 2012
Wow. I am surprised that passed for an assignment, but I suppose I shouldn't be. It is things like this that give me anxiety about finding a school for my 2-year old.
Yrro Simyarin — November 16, 2012
I'm not sure you can call this a "hidden" curriculum in this case. Seems pretty darn explicit to me.
LynneSkysong — November 16, 2012
I would have gotten an F on that assignment if my teacher had given it to me in grade school. (Everything would be in the "both" category.) So would my godson (he's 7), though I must say that kids learn gender roles REALLY early. I didn't realize just how early until my godson (2 at the time) kept calling me "Uncle" instead of "Aunt" because I did all the "boy stuff" with him. On the bright side, he learned to look outside of gender boxes at an earlier age to. He loves matchbox cars, but he also can't get enough of turning the house into a grocery store and playing chef.
kama — November 16, 2012
If you read the whole story, you'll see that 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.
Zora — November 16, 2012
The other part of the "hidden curriculum" is that she is supposed to "follow the rules". No extra points for creativity or critical thinking. She was supposed to fill in each square as proscribed, thus she failed.
Gman E Willikers — November 16, 2012
Class, the subject blog posting is a wonderful example of confirmation bias.
Ikeman83 — November 16, 2012
I think that this is ultimately a case of a poorly thought-out lesson.
First, it assumes that the children have the same gender-biases as the teacher/society, and punishes them if they don't.
Second, it teaches the same lesson twice. The lesson to be learned from the book is that gender-roles are largely self-imposed and meaningless (especially among children, but later in life as well for non-physical / genetic things). Having the children fill out a worksheet to examine this AFTER reading the story is absurd. Doing this activity BEFORE reading the book, in class, ungraded and without a requirement for having X items per category would have been a great idea, however.
Third, it punishes the student for learning the lesson. Think about it, the student is taught a lesson in perspective, and then punished afterwards for using that perspective in the context of a new paradigm.
Mae Spires — November 17, 2012
Hell, I would apparently fail that assignment today, and I'm an *adult*. I legitimately cannot peg everything that is supposedly a gendered activity on that list. I came up with three "boy" things and four "girl" things, and the rest really seem unisex to me.
Alex51324 — November 17, 2012
I can't quite figure out what answer the teacher was going for here. I guess "arts and crafts," "playing school" and "jump rope" go in "Girls," (although, of course, boys do those things) but for the boy category, I could see computers, bikes, Lego, and stomp rockets, in addition to the ones this student put. There are only two boxes left under "Boys," so I'd basically be flipping a coin, if I were in second grade and was trying to follow the teacher's rule for the assignment.
I mean, of course I *disagree* that bikes, computers, Lego, and stomp rockets are for boys, but I can't figure out which ones the teacher thinks are more stereotypically "for boys." I wasn't sure what "stomp rockets" are, so I googled them--apparently it's a rocket, and you put it on a launching pad that's connected to another pad that you stomp on, and that launches it somehow. That's the one of the four I wasn't sure about that sounded the most "for boys," but there is a girl on the box, so clearly the people who make it think it's for both.
@ehsdirector — November 17, 2012
OK can I just say I loved this for so many reasons.
As a father of a daughter I also would have been proud of mine to make an independent analysis... But maybe added on backside as extra credit :)
Guest — November 17, 2012
Gwen Sharp sucks dick.
Yannick — November 17, 2012
I had a similar experience as a kid, except that the hidden curriculum was cultural, not gendered. I was asked things like "should guests remove their shoes" and "what are our traditional meals" and I got "wrong" answers. It's bollocks.
ps — November 18, 2012
I had a high school english class in which we were given an assignment on pronoun usage. We were supposed to fill in the appropriate pronoun in a sentence, inferring it from context. One sentence was something like, "The teacher asked why ________ didn't do the homework." I filled in "she" and was surprised to find it counted wrong when the work was returned. The teacher (a woman) told me that if the sex was unspecified, we were to ALWAYS assume it was male. I was frustrated and intractable and never did get credit for my perfectly reasonable answer. And I lost a lot of love for that teacher.
Alara Rogers — November 19, 2012
I probably would have gotten this wrong at her age, too, unless I had been told *explicitly* (and it was written down on the paper... which it isn't) that the exercise is to associate what is perceived by our culture to be for girls or boys, vs. what is actually for girls or boys. I identified as a feminist at the age of 3, had arguments with my uncle about whether women could be police officers when I was 8, and was fascinated with human culture as a system but utterly uninterested in conforming to my own (or any, actually.)
Since the paper says nothing about it, we can't know whether the assignement was phrased as "which of these are for girls or boys" vs "which of these are assigned by our culture to be for girls or boys", but I was anal about it enough that unless the assignment was *very very explicitly* about recording what our cultural biases are, and very explicitly *not* about what is true in reality... I would have answered the same way she did. Except I would have put cooking and matchbox cars in the both column (I played with matchbox cars all the time... admittedly, by making up soap opera stories about the love affairs between the racers, like a fabulously wealthy noblewoman in fancy clothes who drove a really fancy car, and a scruffy wrong-side-of-the-tracks guy who drove a beat-up yellow stock car, and then the noblewoman's evil sister who was always trying to beat her and her boyfriend through dirty tricks, and she had a different fancy car), and I would have put stomp rockets in boys because my logic would have been that rockets are scary and include fire and only boys are stupid enough to like playing with fire. :-) (My brothers were firebugs. I was not.)
vexorian — November 19, 2012
What kind of assignment is that? Have I been warped back to the 50s again?
Keith Bowden — November 20, 2012
The clarification of the assignment makes the teacher' reaction even worse!
Game of Linkspam (20 November, 2012) | Geek Feminism Blog — November 20, 2012
[...] Gender in the Hidden Curriculum | Sociological Images: “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.” [...]
Erin Hagemeyere — November 20, 2012
As a 19-year-old female, I am unable to categorize the listed activities evenly into the three categories, even considering stereotypes. Despite the claim that teacher was attempting to explain stereotypical gender roles without necessarily forcing the students to comply with them, even by asking them to do this assignment, the teacher was telling students that there are specific activities that only boys or girls should do. Cooking, generally seen as something young girls should learn, becomes a career field that is dominated by men, and yet, there is still a stigma attached to a young boy learning to cook. Likewise, there are many complaints about the underrepresentation of females in science and engineering educational fields, and yet we are teaching youth that boys should build and girls should jump rope. How can we continue to teach the gender roles that are being taught to children and yet expect gender equality later in life? Gender socialization begins even before birth, and it becomes one of the largest influences on our lives.
katz — November 22, 2012
As a child I'm sure I would have been as contrary as possible and put all the "boy" stuff in the girl column and vice versa.
Brenda Myles — November 25, 2012
Gwen, it is nice that you are thinking about the hidden curriculum and gender. Brenda Smith Myles
Guest — November 26, 2012
...and most importantly there is no such word as Legos...
Abdinegerii — November 28, 2012
its really better to understand first what kind of objective does the teacher had while giving the assignment. but what ever the objective mite be there are a counter learning mechanizes in which people encode and learn. But one think we should understand is that there are some properties that are gender biases eg. the collour in which we prier might have potential contribution for distinguishing.
Toys for boys and girls « Memoirs of a SLACer — December 9, 2012
[...] a local store and take note of the gendered nature of the offerings. While boys and girls might not universally agree with the things that are supposed to be for them, the prevalence of these messages in stores, ads, [...]
Kazia — March 4, 2013
When I was a young girl, I was interested in everything on that list except war video games. And that's being generous and lumping dolls in with barbies.
Now I think everything there is awesome except barbies. I'm an intelligent college student. Even I have a hard time separating those things into the "correct" categories.
Elizabeth Freeman — May 8, 2013
Here is a better exercise, done at my daughter's preschool. Put a very long sheet of paper on the wall. Write "Boy" on one far end, and "Girl" on the other. Have the kids come up and put their names wherever they like. Talk with them about how their bodies may not match up with their feelings about whether they are more boyish, more girlish, or neither. Let them know any way they feel is just fine. The end.
CT14 — March 21, 2014
I call BS on the update.
If it was to call into question gender norms, then why reinforce them with a sh!t assignment?
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[…] benutzen, habe ich alle Produkte in beiden Kategorien eingetragen und natürlich wieder einmal nicht die volle Punktzahl erlangt. Quel […]
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[…] This was the result of one of her younger female students work: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/11/16/gender-in-the-hidden-curriculum/ […]
Claire Oueslati Porter — March 13, 2021
The story that the assignment is based on, depicting a girl who wants to be on a basketball team who work really hard to get better at basketball so that she is no longer bullied by the boys, seems like a neoliberal feminist attempt at encouraging gender equality.
Lara — January 4, 2022
This is an example of the "curriculum planning" and "unpaid grading work" nobody wants and nobody asked for, but with which teachers feel the need to martyr themselves.