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A Complete Guide to Cultural Capital in Education

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As teachers, ensure we are teaching it to our students? With OFSTED paying attention to it, should we be teaching it as a stand alone lesson?

What is Cultural Capital in Education? Introduced by French thinker Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s, cultural capital refers to the social and cultural knowledge that can help a student make progress. In education, cultural capital should be woven through the whole curriculum, giving context and reference points to topics that allow students to build schema.

Introduction to Cultural Capital.

Written by Henry Sauntson. Edited by Paul Stevens-Fulbrook

Cultural Capital has become a phrase on the lips of many an educational professional across a range of phases, sectors and experience levels, but what does it actually mean?

The first thing we must acknowledge is that, despite it now appearing in the newest iteration of the OfSted Inspection Framework, it is nothing new.

A lot of things in education rarely are, but there is now a greater depth of understanding not only of the theory but also the implications for practice. 

What do OFSTED Mean by Cultural Capital?

The OfSted Framework (2019) reads thusly:

“As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Our understanding of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ is derived from the following wording in the national curriculum”. 

Cultural Capital itself is defined in the Framework as:

“the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

In a speech in 2019 Amanda Spielman stated: “By [cultural capital], we simply mean the essential knowledge, those standard reference points, that we want all children to have

… So for example, it’s about being able to learn about and name things that are, for many, outside their daily experience”.

This definition conjures up many questions, many implications and also, therefore, many pitfalls.

There is always a danger of hearing a new ‘concept’, gathering a slight awareness of it and then rolling it out as an ‘innovation’ or strategy without properly considering what it means, therefore undermining it completely and making it harder to implement with fidelity or integrity.

Spielman again:

“… cultural capital isn’t a separate ‘thing’ that inspectors will look at during inspection. It’s more a golden thread, woven through everything you do to teach children well. Will we be judging you on it separately? No. Will you need to do a cultural capital course? Of course not.

This gives us our first implication – how to embed and weave it within existing practice, or at least raise its profile (as it is probably already there!).

As a caveat, this MUST NOT be done by having Cultural Capital lessons or any somesuch; as with many effective strategies in the education of young people, skills and approaches need to be taught in domain-specific areas, not as explicit concepts without any form of real-world anchor.

In its widest scope we can argue that Cultural Capital is that knowledge and those skills we need to enable us to be able to understand the world just that little bit better.

For example; to get the references, to make the puns, to understand the allusion or analogy, to visualise the process – whether this is through the facts we have, the words we know, the things we have seen or the way we can connect the inside of the classroom to the outside world.

It is also difficult to escape that fact that it is a social indicator and a measure of social status and class, despite our best efforts to eradicate this thinking. In the simple words of Dr Seuss; “the more you know, the more places you’ll go“.

Where Does Cultural Capital Come From?

A famous reference is that of Michael Gove* (in his role as Education Secretary) in 2013 quoting Gramsci:

The accumulation of cultural capital – the acquisition of knowledge – is the key to social mobility”.

*(Please note: having the words Michael Gove and Education Secretary in the same sentence does make me want to chop my own fingers off for including it. Paul Stevens-Fulbrook)

This places very high stakes on something that is ultimately quite abstract, hard to truly define and determined almost exclusively by context and perception.

However, the more we learn about something the greater equipped we are to interpret it. Gramsci himself was writing a Marxist analysis of how the bourgeoisie establish and maintain control, so the connection is far from explicit!

The word ‘capital’ does indicate something to be acquired, stored and invested for greater profit.

However, although Gramsci was writing in the early part of the 20th Century it wasn’t until French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste that the term was properly introduced into the lexicon.

According to Pinkett and Roberts in their excellent book ‘Boys Don’t Try’, Bourdieu argued that we “accumulate cultural capital through accessing certain knowledge, behaviours, and skills that is highly valued in society“.

This knowledge, Bourdieu contended, shapes how others view our “cultural competence” and determines our social status.

Pinkett and Roberts go on to give examples comparing how having read and understood highly-regarded texts or listened avidly to ‘high-brow’ music is likely to make a more positive impression on an interview panel than perhaps being able to quote the works of Dan Brown or sing Abba’s back-catalogue.

They go on to state that “pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds generally receive less exposure to ideas that are likely to enable them to accrue cultural capital”.

The implication is clear – we as teachers have a duty to plug those gaps; “the school has responsibility to ensure pupils have the opportunity to build up cultural capital to avoid losing out to more advantaged peers”.

Ultimately, Bourdieu (and Marx before him, to an extent) believed that Cultural Capital plays an important but subtle role in development of society – the more ‘capital’ you acquire, the more ‘power’ you have. 

In a modern sense we can argue that the concept of Cultural Capital is embodied in someone who knows a lot about a wide range of topics (culture) and is happy to critically evaluate and discuss them.

They use their knowledge and experience to deploy appropriate cultural skills at appropriate cultural times, depending on the audience and the need.

In essence, students need cultural facts to solve cultural problems, in the same way that they need Maths facts to solve Maths problems, Historical facts to engage in Historical debate etc. (adapted from The Nature of Expertise, Glaser & Chi (1988).

In 1996 Jaques Delors published ‘Learning; the treasure within’ the report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century.

A fascinating read in its own right, in it Delors states that it is the “responsibility of the teacher to impart to the pupil the knowledge that humankind has acquired about itself and about nature and everything of importance that it has created and invented.”

So, no pressure there then!

How do you Teach Cultural Capital?

Delors’ argument is that family educates, school shapes and society adjusts.

This throws great weight behind the power of the family dynamic (and also, implicitly, the unspoken ‘class system’) to enhance the cultural awareness and ‘life-nouse’ of the student.

There is a large body of evidence that indicates cultural capital passed on through families helps children do better in school.

We have an education system (especially highlighted by COVID-19) that more often than not values highly the knowledge and ways of thinking developed by acquiring cultural capital in either formal or abstract ways.

The growing gap that a long period of home-schooling will have widened could be defined by the cultural input lacking in the home lives of so many.

Cultural Capital is perhaps also shadowed by the idea that those from the best families go to the best schools, get the best education and therefore get the best jobs, but these opportunities come from culture and connection, not education.

Everyone sits the same GCSE papers but not everyone has the same circle of influences. In acknowledging Cultural Capital and its enhancement we must also acknowledge that a gap exists – a form of the Matthew Effect, if you will. “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer

Let’s go back to that speech by Amanda Spielman and consider some key points.

Can we define ‘essential’ and ‘standard’? No, of course not – at least, not without context.

Therefore, Cultural Capital becomes a part of curriculum design, not simply an additional aspect of teaching; there is a duty to identify early on the ‘essential’ knowledge for each topic / unit / module and also the ‘standard’ reference points that form the basis of the developing schema.

In this model of understanding perhaps there is a more-than-slight link to a developing understanding of how students learn and acquire knowledge, developing a schema and making connections.

We can also see from the OfSted framework that the phrase Cultural Capital is coupled with the word ‘knowledge’ and that both are succeeded in the phrasing by the rather generic and aspirational ‘succeed in life’.

Can we define ‘success’ in ‘life’? No, of course not – everyone is different and everyone’s perceptions of what ‘success’ looks like is skewed by their own memories, experiences and communities, not least their own personalities.

That means that in developing the Cultural Capital of our students we MUST take an equitable approach – one size does not fit all, and everyone needs a different size of box to see over the same fence; we must be focussed on outcomes, not equality of input.

For me, true equality in schools is a fruitless pursuit, as it can never be truly realised (and nor should it be – focus on giving everyone access to the same outcomes, not on giving everyone the same input and support regardless of their individuality). 

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Cultural Capital Implications on Curriculum Planning.

As we know that Cultural Capital is judged as part of Curriculum Intent within new OfSted framework; we need to plan our curriculum carefully to develop the cultural capital of the students and in doing so allow them to access the material at more than simply surface level – it is almost a duty!

By not providing or teaching the ‘essential’ knowledge and the ‘standard reference points’ we are in fact deliberately hiding material from students and closing them out of the learning process.

Just because it has a fancy name doesn’t mean it is anything new; students need facts in order to solve problems (make scientific link) and curriculum needs structure.

If anything, it could be argued that the Cultural Capital becomes the spine from which the ribs of the curriculum spread – it holds it together.

However, it cannot simply be seen as an adjunct, a ‘bolt on’ to tick a box – the necessary ‘knowledge’ for students is driven hugely by the context of their learning and subject matter in each domain.

We cannot teach ‘Cultural Capital’ lessons but instead ensure that we have factored in appropriate ways of determining the existing knowledge base of students. Then, through our instruction and their opportunities for practice, coupled with relevant and effective feedback – embed the Cultural Capital within the framework of the learning.

In 1989 Brown et al argued that much learning is cultural and that it is in fact ‘a process of enculturation’.

In their excellent guide ‘How Children Learn’ (Vosniadou) the IBE (as part of their Educational Practices series) summarise it well:

Many school activities are not meaningful since students understand neither why they are doing them nor what their purpose and usefulness is.

Sometimes school activities are not meaningful because they are not culturally appropriate. Many schools are communities where children from diverse cultures learn together. There are systematic cultural differences in practices, in habits, in social roles, etc., that influence learning.

Sometimes meaningful activities for students coming from one cultural group are not meaningful to students who are coming from another cultural group.”

As teachers, we have a lot of cultural inequality to deal with!

For example, I am an English teacher. When teaching the AQA GCSE Poetry Anthology to my group of culturally diverse Year 10s, I noticed that I was spending much of my time filling in gaps in knowledge before even scratching the surface of the meaning of the poems themselves.

How can a 14 year old student from a disadvantaged background analyse a poem by Seamus Heaney that makes subtle references to Irish political upheaval if they don’t even know where Ireland is or how it is divided?

The key rule, as ever – never assume!

Novices build their schema from scratch, so too much too soon overloads the working memory (Cognitive Load Theory) and hinders the learning.

Identify the existing knowledge base, add to it and then develop. I made a check sheet of vocabulary and concepts from the 15 poems that I thought might be alien to my students and it ran to 2 pages!

I decided to spend at least two lessons per poem – one to ‘pre-teach’ the vocabulary and the references, one to analyse the poem and its meanings. I could not do the latter effectively if I had not done the former!

Without the required cultural capital, not all of the students had a chance at the same outcome.

We must take heed of this and plan our knowledge provision suitably, ensuring it is relevant for the context in which the learning is taking place – simply loading ‘culture’ on ‘culture’ with no thought to context or application will very simply overload students and impact negatively on their learning experiences.

Life is a rich tapestry; we have to help them see how it is woven!

Much of the acquisition of cultural capital is also social – “learning is more than knowing what to do; it also involves knowing how to do it” (Zimmerman, 1983) and this must be considered.

How can we as teachers and leaders use extra-curricular opportunities and pastoral work to enhance the student knowledge base?

Zimmerman’s piece concludes that students learn from observing others so we have to make sure that we are careful in what they observe!

Clear modelling, guided practice and concrete examples are the bedrock of appropriate cultural capital instruction – novice learners need to see the building blocks, the stages, the constituent parts of each skill or concept; this comes from well-planned lessons and an appropriately structured curriculum. 

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What are the Wider Implications of Cultural Capital in Education?

In her 2001 paper Sullivan concludes that “cultural capital is transmitted within the home and does have a significant effect on performance in the GCSE examinations“.

She too quotes Bourdieu:

By doing away with giving explicitly to everyone what it implicitly demands of everyone, the educational system demands of everyone alike that they have what it does not give. This consists mainly of linguistic and cultural competence and that relationship of familiarity with culture which can only be produced by family upbringing when it transmits the dominant culture.

From this, and from the ideas expressed above, I think we are safe to conclude that much of the acquisition of cultural capital is done outside a classroom, and this must be factored in.

The classroom can be used to check, update and develop the existing cultural capital but it must also monitor the acquisition of concepts and ideas from external social sources.

It is well-researched and shown that students bring their own perceptions and emotional responses to learning environments built on their prior experiences and this can in turn affect both their cognitive ability to process ideas and their ability to pay attention.

We must ensure that we plan relevant, stimulating and rich content that acknowledges the different domains of learning and knowledge acquisition.

Providing Cultural Capital is more than just the role of the teacher; the Pastoral team, the Support Staff, the family and the community all help build.

Bourdieu tells us that education is a ‘social gift treated as a natural one’; we must not allow inequalities between students inculcated in their home environments to translate to the classroom and perpetuate the myth of equality.

Take the equitable line and support each student as an individual.

Cultural Capital is part of a wider vista that must also incorporate social and economic capital too; it cannot be separate from it in our thinking as we plan to develop it.

Ed Hirsch puts it well in ‘Cultural Literacy does not mean Core Curriculum’:

we deprive our students of crucially important information if our curriculum fails to provide also the extensive information that literate people in our culture share“.

Hirsch refers to being culturally literate as having the “basic information needed to thrive“.

It is our duty to provide this!

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Cultural Capital FAQs

What is meant by cultural capital?

The phrase was first made notable by French writer and thinker Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s, to refer to the accumulated social and cultural knowledge that can help a person make progress in the world! There are also strong sociological connections to class and family, not just in education.

What do OfSted mean by cultural capital?

The phrase now appears within the curriculum intent section of the new (2019) OfSted inspection handbook – they refer to it as the “essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens”.

What are some examples of cultural capital?

Cultural capital has to be considered in domain-specific terms, so think of it as the basic facts behind every concept – we need the facts to be able to critically evaluate and solve any problems. For example, if I teach a poem I need students to know something about the poet, the time the poem is set and any underlying motifs, themes or allusions. Cultural Capital and context have many crossovers.

References:

Brown, J.S.; Collins, A.; Duguid, P. 1989. Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational researcher (Washington, DC), vol. 18, no. 1.

Zimmerman, B J; 1983; Social Learning Theory

Sullivan, A. 2001. ‘Cultural Capital and Educational Attainment’ Sociology. 35(4) 893-912.

Cultural Literacy” Doesn’t Mean “Core Curriculum” E. D. Hirsch, Jr. Source: The English Journal, Vol. 74, No. 6 (Oct., 1985), pp. 47-49

Henry Sauntson
Henry Sauntson
Henry Sauntson is an experienced teacher, Senior Leader and SLE working in Peterborough. As well as teaching he oversees trainee development, both at his school and for the local SCITT. He enjoys hosting and presenting evidence-informed professional learning opportunities for colleagues and believes strongly in collaboration and a collegiate approach to improving teacher effectiveness. He also acts as a facilitator for the delivery of NPQs and contributes pieces to Impact (Chartered College) and TES, among others.

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