Informal Curriculum

Francesca A Lopez & Thomas L Good. 21st Century Education: A Reference Handbook. Editor: Thomas L Good. Sage Publications. 2008.

In this chapter, we discuss the informal school curriculum that permeates the formal academic curriculum taught in schools. This chapter could have appeared in the curriculum section in Volume 1 that includes academic learning topics like mathematics as unintended learning is pervasive in the transaction of the formal curriculum. We place it here because it addresses some societal factors (media, policy makers, and so forth) that also influence what students learn in schools. However, for the most part, our focus is on what students learn in schools other than subject matter content (Jackson, 1968). Many believe that these informal, largely unintended influences are at least as important as academic content (see two special issues of the Elementary School Journal [Good, 1999, 2000]; McCaslin & Good, 1996).

Some have referred to the informal curriculum (IC) as the “hidden curriculum” (Giroux & Purple, 1983) because what is learned is often inferred and felt rather than taught. Hence, messages about one’s personal value, teacher fairness, and access to resources are constructed by students, but the conclusions they reach (about themselves, others, and what it means to learn) are as firm as if they had been explicitly taught. The IC is an important topic to explore in its own right as improving students’ lives as social beings is important per se. However, it is also likely that studying the IC and modifying aspects of it may lead to enhanced student learning (Good, 2006; McCaslin, 1996; McCaslin & Good, 1996).

This chapter begins with a discussion of what the IC is, and then explores some of the external influences that impact it. Next, we present findings from a few significant studies that have provided useful insights about unintended classroom learning. Finally, we discuss some of the variations that influence the manner in which the IC is received and influenced by different types of students.

The IC: Societal Influences

The formal curriculum is determined by state, federal, and professional standards that attempt to impart some level of subject matter uniformity among schools. In contrast, the IC embodies the differences resulting from often-unconscious beliefs of those who deliver the formal curriculum, as well as the schoolwide resources and strategies determined to be most effective in ensuring student success. Although the IC is hard to define because the experience it constructs is dependent on student composition and school context, the consequences it creates are important as it makes progress and access to resources easier for some students than others. The IC transcends academic achievement, however, and includes the intransigent contributions of societal influences such as socio-economic status, culture, and gender. These variables are frequently explored in educational equity, and exploring their role in the IC is fundamental to understanding classroom dynamics. Much of the IC learning occurs in classrooms, but what takes place in classrooms also reflects societal beliefs and school polices.

As illustrated in Figure 69.1, societal expectations, as conveyed through the media and various social institutions, influence educational policy makers’ beliefs about youth— including the educational resources they deserve. Federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and resources determine who teachers should be and how they are trained. Teachers then are sorted into schools with less and more resources. More resource schools are blessed with better physical environments, more computers and books, higher-quality teachers, low student-to-teacher ratios, a better curriculum, and so forth. Students are also sorted into schools. It is common that students who come from low-income homes are assigned to schools with less physical, material, and personal resources. In contrast, students from high-income homes are assigned to schools with more resources. These factors influence what students learn in both the formal and IC. In time, students’ performance in schools (along with numerous other youth indicators such as drug abuse, community service, sexuality, and so forth) reinforce and maintain (or change) societal beliefs about youth. Of course, student outcomes influence societal beliefs indirectly because they are filtered by personal and political consideration (e.g., high grades can be seen as grade inflation or good student work).

Misconceptions about Youth

Many citizens hold misconceptions about youth such that they ascribe more negative behaviors (rampant sexuality, violent acts, and substance abuse) than is the case, and underestimate the proactive qualities of youth (willingness to help, ambition to do well, and so forth). Few Americans, for example, know that more American teenagers work and attend high school than in any other nation in the world—yet American youth are frequently called “lazy.” This societal devaluation that is often erroneously based on media portrayals of youth has been documented extensively elsewhere (Nichols & Good, 2004).

Unfortunately, teacher education does not eliminate all misconceptions about youth, and indeed, has been criticized because it pays too little attention to understanding students as social beings (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, 2007). Given the impact that misconceptions may have on teachers’ attitudes, many new teachers enter the classroom with apprehensions about teaching youth that result in more controlling, rather than facilitating, attitudes toward students. Additionally, teachers are also influenced by the beliefs that their colleagues and principal hold (Rosen-holtz, 1989), and some teachers may pick up the societal belief that intelligence and the ability to learn are fixed and not malleable (Weinstein, 2002). These socially influenced teacher beliefs, if not corrected by teacher education, may in turn foster student beliefs of fixed intelligence that ultimately undermine student effort and attainment.

Educational Policies

Educational laws directly affect what happens in school. However, these laws created at the macrolevel do not come out of thin air. Federal law No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was created because of societal beliefs about youth and their educational needs. Perceptions of deficiencies in math and reading led to greater monitoring and accountability of student performance in these areas. Thus, it is not surprising that recent research yields considerable evidence to show that elementary teachers allocate more time to reading and math instruction than they were before NCLB. However, unintended outcomes have also have resulted from NCLB. For example, some teachers and students may come to “learn” that learning art, history, and social studies is of little value. Further, the extreme accountability of not meeting academic standards and having one’s school labeled by the government as “failing” may have a profound, unintended impact on students’ perceptions of personal value.

Others have argued that NCLB forces teachers to pick up the instructional pace and to overly attend to what is tested (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). Thus, NCLB may have the unintended consequence of eroding teachers’ opportunities for extended time with individual students—time that may have allowed teachers to correct some of their misunderstandings of students’ abilities, motivation, interests, and dispositions (McCaslin, 2006). Moreover, as we will argue later, this hurried focus on achievement may make it harder for students to ask questions.

State Policies

Individual interpretations of NCLB by states may dictate the language in which students are taught and how they are grouped for learning. To explore the differences among students who are classified as English language learners (ELLs), the first author of this paper is engaged in a study to examine the differences in academic proficiency as determined by state-mandated assessments. Specifically, one group of students reside in Texas wherein bilingual education is provided to students classified as ELLs, and a second group of students reside in Arizona, where structured English immersion is mandated. We suspect that the informal learning in the given situation may transcend academics (“Why can’t I use language from my home in my school?”).

Although NCLB does not explicitly state the age in which students should enter kindergarten, many states have changed the required age of entry for kindergarten in an effort to give students the “gift of time,” or the advantages that come with developmental maturity. Conversely, some argue that delaying kindergarten entry may have deleterious, unintended consequences. Graue and DiPerna (2000) found that students who were delayed entry were most often boys, and were more likely to receive special education in comparison to their peers who entered kindergarten on time. Stipek (2006) also warns of the dangers related to the trend of changing the cutoff date for kindergarten entry, and the program effects that include narrowing of the curriculum and ignoring creative thinking and reasoning skills. She addresses the effects of legislation on early childhood education, discussing both the evidence that early academic experiences are related to later academic performance, as well as the potential harm of the early focus on academics that can affect motivation and non-academic development. Further, the federal standards that address the early learning standards of preschool students are closely aligned with K-12 standards, making preschool more schoollike than homelike. Issues applicable to the narrowing standards in K-12 are of increased concern in preschool, where social and affective dimensions may be surrendered. This is especially troubling given that research has supported social skills as a predictor of learning (Stipek, 2006).

Schoolwide Policies and Resources

Schoolwide policies affect the IC. In some schools, students adhere to a lenient dress code. In others, students wear uniforms (which may reduce individual comparisons based on wealth or taste). In some schools, diverse students populate student government and clubs. In others, only the same subset of students plays the key roles (Good & Weinstein, 1986). In some schools, prevention of disciplinary issues are part of the schoolwide curriculum, but in others suspension is often more likely than guidance.

Schools receive radically different levels of funding and those with more funds, when used wisely, can increase student learning (Ferguson, 1991). For example, media and print libraries are more meager in schools that educate students from low-income schools than those that serve children from high-income homes (Duke, 2000). However, there is notable variation within income levels. For instance, libraries in some low-income schools are stocked with books relevant to the students who read them; yet in some high-income schools, libraries present books that seemingly are written for other student populations. Thus the whole story is not just money (although it helps). Kientzler (2004) noted that in a private, affluent high school, the library had no books on what concerns many youth (nutrition, exercise, health, sexuality, and so forth). Thus, what teachers can do is limited or enriched by the broader school climate.

The density of the formal curriculum, the time constraints of the school day, and individual student needs make the carryover of classwork to home one of the most pervasive—and potentially disparate—elements of the IC. Homework is an integral part of the traditional school experience; however, it varies in quantity, available support, and purpose—and can oftentimes be based on misconceptions. Corno (1996) noted some misconceptions lacking empirical support, including the belief that “more is better,” and that homework fosters responsibility. In reality, homework demands resources (time and money) that are often contingent on student demographics. Intuitively, homework serves the purpose of strengthening student skills that are taught in the formal curriculum. Homework should be practice that students can do with little or no support, and ought to strengthen the foundation that is fostered during classroom instruction. Unfortunately, time and monetary resources are not equitably distributed, and these create disparate home environments for students. Inappropriate homework assignments (lengthy, not valuable) may lead to an aversion toward learning. Clearly, not all work is—or should be—entertaining. However, given the length of a school day (particularly for young students), and the extension of the school day that results from homework, it is not surprising to find that some students may dislike (or resent) school. Additionally, the work that is required of students—especially those who struggle with language or learning barriers—may reinforce their feelings of incompetence, rather than give them opportunities to strengthen skills. In limited and appropriate doses, homework may be useful, but teachers need to see that its use does not widen the difference in student achievement.


In some communities, parents maintain communication with their child’s teachers, visit the school, and actively participate in school-related activities. In these communities, it is parents who impose expectations on schools (e.g., parents may insist that their young children have time for recess). However, other schools have the obstacle of addressing the well-documented pervasiveness of low achievement in low-income communities. In these communities, students’ academic deficiencies “compel” schools to impose expectations on parents. Many schools that are located in low-income communities have explicit mandates that outline interventions for parental participation. The underlying assumption is that limited resources impede the kind of parental support that has been documented to promote academic achievement. Schools that actively include parents are in many ways attempting to give low-income students a means of overcoming some of the barriers to academic success. Strategies to increase parental participation vary from the subtle schoolwide activities such as an open house, to the intrusive home visits that result from truancy or missed appointments. Upon close inspection of a school’s strategy to include parents, teachers may become increasingly aware of the school’s priorities, as well as the role they are expected to play. Whereas these schools have transformed into microcosms of communities that deliver some of the services otherwise absent in low-income neighborhoods, in other schools parents learn that they are not valued.

Research on the Informal Curriculum

Most of us are exceptionally familiar with classrooms through our experiences, as we have spent much time sitting in desks amid peers, working on assignments, and patiently (or not) waiting for our turn. Whether we have ever given much thought to the seemingly trivial school environment, it has nonetheless shaped our perceptions and trajectories. Instruction (Cuban, 1984) and the social context (Jackson, 1968) of American classrooms has remained predominantly the same throughout history; however, the differences in the physical environments of schools located in more and less affluent areas have diverged since Jackson wrote about the classroom 40 years ago. Disparate physical environments, resources, and external pressures in schools create distinct learning experiences for students. Still, all students are in classrooms for vast periods of time “whether they want to be or not” (Jackson, 1968, p. 6), setting the stage for the inescapable experience of learning to live in a classroom. Consequently, students must learn to work with and in the presence of others, be evaluated in light of and by others, and deal with the established hierarchy of power that is inherent in classrooms.

Student Stratification

Issues of good timing are critical in crowded classrooms. To illustrate, Good, Slavings, Harel, and Emerson (1987) found that students generally came to school demonstrating curiosity and frequently asking questions, but over time, some students “learned” not to ask questions. This unintended outcome unfolded because classrooms are complex. Teachers were not trying to curb curiosity; however, they also did not want to be interrupted in mid-sentence. Some students understand when it is (and perhaps more importantly, when it is not) appropriate to ask questions. Thus, they can balance their needs with those of the teacher. Students who have not learned these skills at home and who do not pick up on classroom norms likely learn that their questions are not as welcome as those of other students. Unfortunately, these students fail to ascertain that the lack of support for their question asking is partly because of when they ask questions.

Spencer-Hall (1981) noted that some students who were nominated for “citizens of the year” misbehaved as frequently as did students who were viewed by teachers as classroom management problems. What distinguished “citizens” from “problem students” was not their frequency of misbehavior, but the timing of their misbehavior. Clearly, the timing of certain interactions between teachers and students result in classroom stratification of students’ privileges. However, social cues and teacher-initiated rewards are not the only ways that students are stratified in classrooms.

Eder (1981) studied teacher interactions in a first-grade classroom in a small community that provided schools with a somewhat homogenous group of learners. Even though variations in learners’ reading ability were relatively minor, the teacher still placed readers in three different reading groups for instruction. The criteria used for placing students into groups were the kindergarten teacher’s descriptions of students’ maturity level. Hence, the third reading group was composed of students with the least self-control and the shortest attention spans. Eder found that in the third group instructional time was increasingly spent on managerial and procedural issues, whereas in the first group time was spent in developing reading skills. Unsurprising, the top group made more progress in reading than the third group; however, what is tragic is that group placement, in time, created a caste system of more- and less-valued learners. Students in the top group felt free to interrupt the teacher when with the low group (questions of clarification and so forth); however, members of the low group did not interrupt when the teacher was with the high group.

Recent research suggests that reading groups may still stratify students. Chorzempa and Graham (2006) explored teachers’ use of within-class ability grouping in first-through third-grade classes. They found that teachers using ability grouping used different kinds of reading materials for different group levels: basal readers were typically used with lower-level readers, and higher-level readers had more choice in their reading selection, read more challenging material, had more time to read silently, and had more opportunities to answer higher-order questions than their lower-level reading peers. The stratification is salient—lower-ability students appear to have little opportunity to experience reading the same way higher-level groups do.

Once caste systems are created, they are likely to maintain themselves. Mulryan (1995) found that when students worked in small groups, the same students gave help and the same group of students received help. She noted that although students may have been learning some content in the moment, they were also learning about status issues. Moreover, the way students described one another in research interviews (e.g., low-achieving students were not always grateful for the “help” they received), it was apparent that teachers and students were likely unaware of the unintended lessons learned in small groups.

Teacher and Student Perceptions

Teacher and student beliefs contribute to classroom dynamics, which enhance or impede academic success. The social influences of perceptions on student self-beliefs have been explored extensively (see Good & Brophy, 2008). Some have focused on perceptions in relation to significant others such as parents and teachers, while others have examined the normative comparisons students make with peers. The study of the influence of perceptions on student self-competence beliefs is an overt acknowledgment that as social beings, we depend on others to inform and validate who we are.

One influential outcome stemming from the study of student-teacher dynamics is the self-fulfilling prophecy effect, a phenomenon in which teacher beliefs are found to influence student outcomes (see Good & Brophy, 2008). Although teacher expectations can influence student achievement, teacher expectations alone do not dictate whether a student will be successful. These researchers contend that teacher beliefs, behavior, and consistency are all elements that must be present in order for self-fulfilling prophecies to occur. Often, one or more elements are missing (thus expectations that are not self-fulfilling). Further, student success may often depend more on sincerity and the quality of the teacher’s instructional interventions than on the mere presence of behaviors attempting to compensate for low expectations. For example, high expectations that are supported with appropriate instructional and emotional support may help traditionally low-expectation students to successfully rise up to the occasion. In contrast, optimistic beliefs that students can succeed—without the necessary guidance that will address deficiencies—are more likely to result in frustration and feelings of helplessness. Teachers must attend to students as social beings as well as academic learners (McCaslin, 2006).

Unfortunately, it is not enough to make an effort to treat students equitably. Researchers have often found discrepancies between teacher-reported emotional support and what students perceive. Teachers may believe that they have made a concerted effort to reduce praise for high-performing students, and increase their positive feedback to low-performing students—but often, students report the opposite. Although teachers may try to assist low-expectation students by providing more instructional support, the genuine affection teachers hold for higher-expectation students is in stark contrast to the insincere emotional warmth afforded to low-expectation students (Babad, 1993). Students often see through these attempts. Moreover, even the well-intended effort of increased assistance to low-expectation students may impede their self-concept, and their likelihood of success. Although it may seem paradoxical that assisting students with the necessary foundation for success may promote differences within a classroom, it is important to keep in mind that genuine emotional warmth may be a critical element in the success of low-expectation students.

Hamre and Pianta (2005) explored whether instructional support and emotional support help to close the gap between students at risk for school failure and their low-risk peers. They found that children considered at risk in kindergarten had lower achievement scores and higher levels of teacher-rated conflict in classrooms with lower instructional and emotional support. In classrooms with moderate-to-high instructional support, however, at-risk students performed at the same level as their nonrisk counterparts. Their findings illustrate how high achievement can be contingent on teacher beliefs of student abilities, and highlight the more pressing concern that low achievers may be more vulnerable to teacher expectations—particularly when emotional warmth is absent from the teacher-student dynamic.

Variations in the IC Experience

Social class, gender, and cultural differences contribute to the categorization of students by teachers, peers, and students themselves. At times, internalized social biases that contribute to categorizations are explicit (“them” and “us”), but other times, they are unconscious. Both explicit and implicit internalized biases can have the effect of demeaning another person; however, what sets overt acts of discrimination apart from microaggressions, or acts that are unconscious, is that the latter often stem from deeply rooted social biases that are unrecognizable to those committing the act (Sue et al., 2007). In the classroom setting, it can be as subtle as ignoring a student to pay attention to another, or as socially constructed as adherence to a belief of fixed intelligence.

Regardless of the group with which students identify (and are identified), what is often more important than a student’s ethnicity and gender is their relationship with the in-group, or the group with which students collectively identify (Crosnoe, 2007). One of the influences in the development of feelings of belonging is the social feedback received by students. Crosnoe found that females—but not males—who were obese during middle school and high school entered college in lower numbers than their nonobese peers, and asserted that the stigma associated with being obese affected female students’ educational pathways. The negative social feedback experienced by some students—not limited to physical appearance (weight, attractiveness), ethnicity, and gender—may have long-lasting effects (“I do not belong”) that impact students’ academic trajectories and subsequent endeavors.

Social Class Differences

More than 5 decades ago, Becker (1952) explored how teachers reacted toward students across social classes by asking teachers questions regarding problems of being a teacher. Teachers viewed students from low-income homes as problems and in some cases, unteachable. Despite the amount of time that has elapsed since the study, the stratification of differing social classes across and within schools has not changed much. Attempts to impart equity into schools have ranged from desegregation mandates (some of which have been recently rejected by a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, reawakening the controversy regarding race-based student enrollment) to the indoctrination of finance reform laws that reallocate funds from wealthy to low-income districts. Such efforts have only addressed de jure (“by law”) segregation, doing little to alleviate the disparities in funding and access to quality schools which continue to be tied to the socioeconomic level of neighborhoods they serve.

Brantlinger (1993) analyzed interviews with affluent and low-income adolescents and found that interdistrict and intradistrict inequities were not only reflected in divergent student-teacher ratios, and facility and material resources, but also in the stratification of student groups. Group status among adolescents was related to income, and group distinctions were often permanent, stemming from students’ neighborhood affiliations. Additionally, the stigma of specific school attendance as early as elementary school was related to student perceptions regarding school quality, and influenced their subsequent interactions and experiences. The group stratifications that often have impermeable (though often implicit) boundaries, however, were not limited to cliques and neighborhood affiliation. Ability tracking was also related to social class, as high-income students were generally excluded from lower placements and special education.

Oakes (2005) also found that both student views of self and future plans were closely related to track level (i.e., high-track students had higher educational aspirations, and more positive self-concepts). Applying the findings to social and educational inequality, Oakes asserted that tracking taught students about the hierarchical nature of society, and enabled their acceptance of their respective position (as demonstrated by the lack of differences between high-track and low-track student-reported level of satisfaction with school). Brantlinger reported that low-income adolescents internalized blame, and high-income adolescents generally felt entitled to their status. To some, there is nothing inherently “wrong” about some students achieving more than others. On the surface, it goes against logic to expect that everyone can be piled up in the same place at the very “top.” However, when the underlying relationships that transcend education are examined, it is alarming to find just how early a person’s fate is decided, and often how little power anyone has to change it.

Others have argued that school systems perpetuate the social sorting of students in the distinct educational experiences offered. Parsons (1959) viewed individual classrooms as social systems, and argued that achievement in elementary school differentiated students—a sorting that led up to the separation of those who attended college and those who did not. Anyon (1980), however, explored the educational focus in different types of schools, and found that the educational experiences in different schools are as distinct as the kind of work the students pursue as adults (and the work their parents pursue). In working-class schools, teachers were highly controlling, and the academic focus was on following procedures and rote behavior (which mimics the abilities necessary to sustain unskilled or semiskilled work). In middle-class schools, teachers based their decisions on external regulations, and the educational focus was on accumulating right answers, which led to good grades (and eventually college and a career). In professional affluent schools, however, independence and creativity were valued, and classroom management typically entailed negotiation. In the executive elite school, personal responsibility was the main form of classroom management, and students were given opportunities to strengthen their intellectual skills. Thus, while Parsons asserts that classrooms socialize students, Anyon argues that different kinds of schools (or rather, the socioeconomic standing of those who attend them) contribute to students’ development of their personal relationships with authority, as well as their social status and role in work.

Cultural Considerations

Many low-income students experience the IC in the context of stratification within schools. However, there are also those who are both poor and live in rural settings. For them, the homogeneity among classmates, but stark contrast with national culture, creates a strikingly different context in which the IC is learned. Many see schools as a “cultural bridge,” or an attempt to connect the modern world with one that has for some time been plagued with lack of industry and employment due to geographic isolation. De Young (1995) illustrated how the school system can both implicitly and explicitly act as an agent of the national culture for those living in rural Appalachia. Some believe that the school system provides students with the experiences necessary to overcome obstacles, while others see the values inherent in modern schooling as contradictory to their own. One of the values historically held in the region that conflicts with the modern school system is that of mobility, as many in Appalachia are bound by strong family ties—only strengthened by the area’s geographic isolation. Another conflict stems from the separation of church and state that is seen by many in the region as a reason behind the degradation of the culture.

Another illustration of how the IC may be experienced by different student populations involves migrant students. Migrant students are considered to be among the most disadvantaged due to poverty, lack of health care, social isolation, and language and cultural barriers (Perry, 1997). The absenteeism resulting from work-related mobility further contributes to lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates. Many academic difficulties encountered by migrant students are compounded by the organization and expectations of schools, as the sequential nature of the curriculum does not readily align with the work demands of migrant students and their families. This influences the way in which migrant students mediate the IC, which is likely experienced in numerous—and disparate—locations. Gibson and Bejinez (2002) described how school faculty and staff, as part of the federal Migrant Education Program, created an environment that was conducive to a sense of belonging and academic success among otherwise marginalized student groups. The authors suggested that the strategies used to build a sense of community among migrant students could be extended to other marginalized groups. Although the authors found that migrant students were able to succeed when they had access to individuals with whom they may build and sustain relationships, the variability of programs across schools and the instability of attendance may impede the generalizability of such findings. Still, these findings are encouraging and again show the importance of seeing students as social beings as well as academic learners (McCaslin, 2006).


We tend to view the world through the biased lens of our own perceptions—and gender is no exception. Our collection of beliefs, values, and general schema is the ruler with which we measure others. Considering one of teachers’ principal tasks is to assess students’ place among peers, and because gender differentiates student achievement, it is imperative to consider the underlying beliefs teachers have regarding gender.

We have long known that female students have liked teachers and school work more than males. Debates as to why this is the case are far ranging and include arguments that schools are “feminine” environments that favor passive listening over active construction—and some have advocated single-gender schools for boys on these grounds (focused physical activity, more competitive environments featuring debate, argument, and so forth). In contrast, some have argued for single-education environments for females that allow for collaborative— not competitive—exchanges, especially in math and science classrooms. We cite these examples as illustrations of societal influences on education in which most Americans support mixed-gendered educational programs, but with some citizens arguing strongly for single-gender education.

Many educators have argued that although school tasks may be more “feminine,” teachers (primarily female) for the most part have more salient and more valuable interactions with their male students. However, Dee (2006) found that students tend to favor instruction by a teacher of the same sex, which can further impact academic achievement. In his evaluation of the gender divide, girls and boys were each less likely to report looking forward to a subject when the teacher was the opposite sex. Although the reasons may stem from neurological, cognitive, and behavioral similarities, it is unlikely that classrooms will be grouped according to gender any time soon, at least as long as teaching continues to be a female-dominant profession. Given increasing teacher shortages and attrition, it is unlikely that classrooms will be diverse in reference to teacher’s gender—especially in the lower grades.

However, an understanding of gender differences can potentially create more balanced classrooms for both boys and girls. For example, Dee reported that boys are more likely to be considered disruptive when the teacher is female. Because we tend to think of others’ behavior in light of what we deem appropriate, and in the case of a classroom setting where students are expected to follow certain rules to maintain order, there may simply be a clash in the way boys and girls are socialized. That is, it may be second nature to many boys to speak up when they want to be heard, whereas girls may be more aware of social cues regarding what is and what is not deemed appropriate behavior. Moreover, if boys are socially rewarded for their behavior (i.e., for being assertive), then it should be no surprise that they tend to speak up—which may be viewed as a class disruption to those whose schema does not endorse such “disruptions.” Boys are also more likely than girls to be retained, to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and learning disabilities, and are the majority in special education programs. The disproportionate number of boys that are categorized into at-risk status is not necessarily a gender-specific predisposition, but may be indicative of the female-oriented classroom expectations. However, by adapting their expectations, teachers can address both boys’ and girls’ needs without sacrificing classroom management and student performance.

If one considers the limited time students spend in physical activity, it may not be surprising that many students (and not only boys) have a difficult time focusing for extended periods of time. Whether increased activity is an innate gender-specific quality, teachers can often find novel ways of circumventing their students’ energy without deviating from classroom goals. In schools where students are not provided with regularly scheduled transitions that include physical activity, whether they are physical education classes, recess, or other breaks, teachers may need to find a way of integrating “breaks” into their day. “Creative breaks” allow students to channel their energy, which may encourage sustained attention and alleviate potential disruptions. Additionally, students who have struggled with sustained attention may also benefit from a heightened sense of competence, given that they are no longer the target of discipline, but an active participant in his or her learning.

Boys outperform girls in math and science. Given that boys have been found to have higher competence perceptions in math than girls (Eccles, Wigfield, Harold, & Blumenfeld, 1993), and that competence perceptions influence academic achievement, it may not be surprising that boys outperform girls in subject matter that is considered a precursor to traditionally male-dominated careers. However, teachers who are aware of the stereotype biases that influence their teaching may help mediate said influences—and give their female students the opportunity to increase their academic competence in traditionally male-dominated subjects.

Differences within gender are typically as wide as they are across gender (Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974). Given that potential is evenly distributed among females and males, it seems that most differences in general achievement (graduating from college) or specific attainments (becoming a teacher, mathematician, or engineer) between genders is due more to societal beliefs about gender than to gender per se. Beliefs about what women and men should be often lead to differential instruction, resources (e.g., money to attend college), and emotional and physical support. When given the opportunity to attend college (as data clearly illustrate over the past 30 years), women do at least as well as men. It seems reasonable to argue that female rocket scientists and mathematicians would be as prevalent and capable as males in these occupations if they received more support for those aspirations. Teachers can influence the gender-role beliefs of their students by working on changing predispositions that students may bring to the classroom. For example, teachers can encourage girls to be more active (to do the experiment or dissect the frog rather than be the note takers). Teachers can also encourage girls to realize the benefits of sports and physical activity. By the same token, teachers can encourage boys to develop better writing skills by serving as note takers and group reporters, and consider when and how they participate in discussions. However, teachers and schools can only do so much to challenge biases that are influenced by societal beliefs. The media, family, and peers all play a role in the development, support, and encouragement of roles—and ultimately, students will determine the roles with which they will (and will not) identify. Although it is important that teachers create an environment that encourages equity, they must also determine when challenging social biases may encroach on others’ cultural values, or does not support a student’s own aspirations.


Students learn many things about themselves and their value in relation to peers as they learn the formal curriculum. Here, we have stressed the negative aspects of the IC because these outcomes must be dealt with so that more positive attitudes toward self and others, as well as what it means to learn and be a learner, may be possible. Clearly, students can learn positive things about themselves and their schools (e.g., “I have value” or “This is a fair place”). Although some teachers may compromise their students’ potential because of their biases, most teachers are committed professionals who work hard to help students grow and learn. The IC unfolds in unintended ways because as Jackson (1968) noted, classrooms are busy, crowded places where teachers must make many decisions quickly and often with limited information.

Teachers may hold low or inappropriate expectations for students or specific types of students. But some of these inappropriate expectations have been learned in their teacher education program, and influenced by the media and discussions in the teacher lounge before, during, and after school. We have also seen that students themselves may inadvertently contribute to negative aspects of the IC. Our major goal is to help teachers, and those who supervise or study them, to realize the complexity of classroom communication, to be conscious of the need for analytical strategies to see what transpires in classrooms (Good & Brophy, 2008), and to determine how participants see and value what has occurred.