In the sociology of education this term refers to the cultural values transmitted through the structure and teaching methods of schools.

The most often mentioned values are obedience to authority, punctuality, and delayed gratification. I tend to find these values interrelated since most are enforced at least to some degree by authority.

Psychologist Carol Gilligan has also pointed out (whether incorrectly or not) that school is also the impetus for sexism, racism, and other social isms because it it the first exposure that children have to people different from them. This stems from the idea that early childhood peer groups are often based on heterogenous groups to make new situations with diverse participants easier to navigate.

The Three R’s are the official curricula of school, but there’s an awful lot of social training going on as well. The values the school wants to instill may be discussed overtly (as is the case with the Pillars of Character program*), but a lot is not discussed. The unspoken lessons and expectations of a school are the hidden curriculum.

Some kids just don’t pick up on social cues or nonverbal directions. If a teacher walks over to your desk, still lecturing, and stands right next to you, s/he is probably trying to modify your behavior, and you should probably stop whispering/ writing that love letter/ playing with matchbox cars, and start paying attention. Most students understand that, but some, especially children with learning disabilities, just don’t get it.

The hidden curriculum can include:

Teacher / Administration expectations

  • Basic classroom behavior: face the teacher, don’t talk when others are talking, stay seated and attentive in class.
  • Knowing the priorities of each teacher; who cares particularly about promptness, homework, neatness of handwriting? Is the classroom atmosphere relaxed, or should you be on your best behavior? What voice volumes are appropriate? Is it okay to ask to leave the classroom for water or a trip to the bathroom, or should you have gone before class? Should you write on both sides of the paper, or just the front?
  • What is the accepted behavior in school assemblies, in the library, in the halls between classes, during fire drills?

Organization skills

By middle school, teachers pretty much expect that students will be able to do these things:

  • Always have an extra, sharpened pencil.
  • Keep in your binder one of those little zippered plastic/mesh bags** that hold note cards, writing utensils, etc. so that you are prepared for class
  • Memorize your locker combination, or at least write it inside your bookbag in indelible ink, so you won’t forget it.
  • Label papers correctly (first and last name); read assignments carefully; when correcting work, make sure you copied the problem correctly; answer questions in complete sentences.

Peer relations

Middle school is a time when most adolescents feel a particularly strong urge to fit in. Students are beginning to define themselves in terms of peers, instead of their family of origin. It’s perfectly fine, even laudable, to choose to stand out and be an individual, but a child who doesn’t know how to fit in could easily become a target of teasing.

  • What do the cool kids wear? Should you really be wearing sweatpants, hiked up to your waist and tucked into your socks? Would jeans be better?
  • Are lunchboxes acceptable, or does everyone brown-bag it?
  • Apologies for disruptions should be at a comparable volume to the disruption (i.e, if you fart silently, don’t apologize at the top of your lungs).
  • What is the proper behavior in the lunch line, on the school bus, during recess?

A friend of mine teaches reading and study skills to kids with learning disabilities, but her real title is Queen of the Hidden Curriculum. She spends weeks working with kids, in small groups or one-on-one, going over these questions, working through all of the finer points of behavior and secrets to success that are usually left unspoken. With her coaching, these kids have a better chance of fitting in and being successful, socially and academically, in school.


** This thing:

|       |                            | /(zipper)
|       |        ----------------x   |/
|    O  |      |                 x  /|
|       |      |                 x / |
|       |      |                 x   |
|       |      |                 x   |
|       |      |                 x   |
|       |      |                 x   |
|    O  |      |                 x   |
|       |      |                 x   |
|       |      |                 x   |
|       |      |                 x   |
|       |      |                 x   |
|    O  |      |                 x   |
|       |      |-----------------x   | 

I'm not suggesting kids should march through school in lock step, everyone thinking and acting the same, people--just that there are parameters of acceptable behavior, and some kids don't know where the boundaries are. Instead of letting these children flounder about, why not help them see the social structure? They might still choose to wear nothing but sweats and to sneeze with the explosive decibel level of a rocket launching, but they might not. Why not give them the information and let them decide?

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