In pursuit of equity: the unintended lessons children learn in school

For an education to allow access to opportunities that lead to better life outcomes, we must critically examine the intended and unintended lessons - the hidden curriculum - of education programs for the poor

A group of students at the Avondale Infant School, Zimbabwe. Credit: GPE/ Carine Durand

A group of students at the Avondale Infant School, Zimbabwe.

Credit: GPE/ Carine Durand

When I review learning assessment data sets from education interventions, my attention lingers on the data points that hover around zero, and I imagine the lives behind them.  Who are the children we are not reaching?  Are they affected by chronic hunger, disease, or trauma?  Do they have different learning needs that are not being met by an under-resourced school system?  Do they not speak the language of instruction?  Do they belong to a displaced or marginalized community? 

These factors overlap and, for vulnerable populations, the ravages of extreme poverty can be so overwhelming that learning becomes a luxury.  Beyond meeting the needs of vulnerable populations, we can further our quest for equity by examining the very nature of the education interventions we develop for economically disadvantaged children.

Teaching skills to the poor

In the international education sector, there is a push towards designing curricula and pedagogical approaches that are “simple”, “systematic”, and offer “direct instruction” of skills. Teachers are often trained to follow a script that details every statement, question and action in a regimented routine that is repeated every lesson. 

There are pragmatic reasons for this approach, including limited time to train teachers, and poverty-related classroom challenges. While assessments show that many children do learn basic skills from this approach, what could its unintended lessons be?

The hidden curriculum of school work

“Hidden curriculum” refers to lessons that are learned by children but not openly intended, such as the transmission of norms and values conveyed in the classroom and the social environment of schools. 

A seminal study in the US of work in schools across the economic spectrum revealed class-related differences in the kind of work that was assigned to students and the expectations for how the work should be completed (Anyon, 1980). 

For children in working class schools, work was following the steps of a mechanical procedure with no analytical thought encouraged. In the middle-class school, work was “getting the answer right”, which often required some decision-making, but no creativity or analysis. In affluent schools, work encouraged individual thought, creativity, and developing analytical abilities. 

Through these hidden curricula, Anyon concluded that existing class divisions were perpetuated: the children of the poor received “preparation for future wage labor that is mechanical and routine” while the children of the wealthy were taught skills that would allow them to assume leadership positions. 

When we look at the trend in international development programs through this lens, what economic class of society are we preparing children for?  Regimented instruction approaches focused on basic skills leave no space for creative or independent thought from children.  Will children whose schooling placed no value on their independent thinking and expression be equipped to compete with the children of the privileged for opportunities that would allow them to shatter class barriers? 

Beyond basic skills

If we believe an education is a prerequisite to accessing opportunities that lead to better life outcomes, we must critically examine the intended and unintended lessons of education programs for the poor. Teaching skills, while important, does not sufficiently narrow the equity gap between the poor and the privileged if the process of learning is reduced to the rote following of procedures. 

We need to:

  1. Be bold in our aspirations. Our aspirations for poor children fall short of what we would want for our own.  Think of the young children you know: expressing ideas and opinions, asking questions, being imaginative, and having a voice that matters are integral to the development of a young human being.  While the children we serve often live in dire circumstances, they have the same education needs as our own children.  
  2. Value the quality of classroom interactions. A quality education needs to value both outcomes and process, and indicators of success should reflect this. In addition to finding out how many words a child can read correctly in a minute, we need to ask ourselves questions like: Are children invited to share ideas and express opinions?  Are there opportunities for creative expression?  Are children learning skills that could empower them to challenge class barriers?
  3. Provide children access to a range of high quality books. It is possible, and desirable, to teach basic skills while simultaneously nurturing the overall development of children. A range of high quality fiction and nonfiction books can help to do this if used effectively and made accessible to children. Books can expand children’s worldviews, spark their imaginations, increase their knowledge, and encourage reflection, even when the process of schooling falls short of achieving these things.    

Realizing the UN Sustainable Development Goal of “inclusive and equitable quality education” requires us to address the underlying causes of economic inequality. Only when education initiatives are intentionally designed to disrupt cycles of poverty instead of potentially perpetuating them can we claim to have provided an “equitable quality education” for all.


Anyon, J (1980). Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.  Journal of Education, 162 (1), 67-92

Portelli, J. P (1993). Exposing the hidden curriculum.  Journal of Curriculum Studies, 25 (4), 343-358

Teaching and Learning


Global Literacy Director, Room to Read
Christabel Pinto is the global literacy director for Room to Read. Her experience in education includes teaching children, facilitating teacher professional development, curriculum and program design,...

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