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Research School Network: Socio-cultural capital – what is it, and why should we think about it? Obianuju Iyaji, Science teacher, Notre Dame High School

Socio-cultural capital – what is it, and why should we think about it?

Obianuju Iyaji, Science teacher, Notre Dame High School

Socio-cultural capital refers to our background knowledge and how this influences our perceptions and understanding of the world around us.

Our social capital is entrenched in everything we do, from how we learn, to the decisions we make, even our ability to adapt in challenging situations. Basically, it allows us to access various circles of social life.

To put it in context, here is an example of the impacts of social capital; a person tells a joke, and everybody laughs, but someone in the group simply can’t get it. Here is another, imagine you receive a text message written in emojis, and you cannot access the meaning of the text because you struggle with the meanings of all the symbols. Social capital is critical to learning, and a lack of it can pose a barrier to relevant knowledge.

As a teacher, my experience has been that many students become limited by social and cultural barriers to knowledge. For some students, it is a problem of speech codes. For others, it could just be that the lesson context, videos, resources or even technology used in the classroom are not things that they are particularly familiar with or have access to from the onset.

As teachers and educators, our attempts to close the academic gap will be ineffective if the social capital of learners remains undermined.

Bridging the gap in social capital

Following the Covid ‑19 lockdown, the wake of digital learning in education drew attention to the immense inequality in the educational system. Still, it also helped me understand just how important it is to build the socio-cultural capital of disadvantaged pupils as we seek to bridge the attainment gap.

However, although the current policies in education show efforts to institute more equality in the educational system, the question remains: how can teachers, as educators, help bridge the socio-cultural gap that hinders the academic attainment of many children from disadvantaged backgrounds?

In this blog, I want to explore the concept of socio-cultural capital as a teacher who appreciates the significance of transferable cultural and social capital in everyday teaching and learning. I
know, for example, that most scientific vocabulary and many critical terms in literacy and academic writing draw from European root words. This means that those students with European heritage and, in some cases, middle-class social capital have more immediate access to knowledge that will help them. While this is not a bad thing, it also means that students with estranged cultural heritage are at a disadvantage.

Assuming that this becomes the daily experience when scaled up, the learner is left with less agency with which to navigate their academic success.

Knowledge is not neutral

In my experience, parental literacy, native funds of knowledge and social speech codes play a critical role in how children access knowledge. I don’t think teachers always consider how students from backgrounds that are culturally alienated from the endorsed knowledge of the educational system are disadvantaged from the outset. This means that parental input and social
networks within native communities remain ineffective since the levels of literacy and ways of knowing stay impotent in boosting the academic prowess of their children.

Perhaps theorists like Bernstein[1] and Gillborn[2] hold the answers, as they explain how the educational system draws on language and speech codes peculiar to specific ethnic settings and alienated from others.

Knowledge is not neutral, as Ogbu (1990, Ogbu1992) elucidates; students whose cultural capital, funds of learning and social intelligence lay outside that endorsed by the education system become inherently disadvantaged.

What can we do to support our pupils?

So how can schools employ social capital as an intervention strategy to bridge the academic gap for disadvantaged students such as those with English as an additional language, disempowered ethnic minority groups and learners from low-income backgrounds?

Lau (2016) explains that social intelligence is a crucial influence on how young adults learn in modern times. If we can support our students to build this, then we will help them to access our curriculum and thrive.

Examples of approaches schools can try:

· Strategic seating plans:

This allows inherently disadvantaged students to work closely with those who already have academically aligned social capital, such as work ethics, speech codes, and oracy, to excel scholastically.

· School clubs:

Socially disadvantaged learners are often overrepresented in lower ability groups. School clubs (like sports teams, STEM clubs, drama clubs, debating and journalism groups) allow for a more inclusive atmosphere within which students coded, decoded, and engaged embed academically viable social skills.

· Interactive Virtual learning environments:

When virtual spaces allow for interactive engagement, disadvantaged learners can openly seek support with learning gaps. They can choose to participate using their identity or do so safely, using an avatar.

Here at Notre Dame High School, we have been developing our understanding and application of Disciplinary Literacy. This includes an ongoing commitment to using oracy, thus helping to boost academically viable speech codes and vocabulary.

Is that it?

Agreeably, the acquisition of social capital might, in some cases, involve the overlap of social circles, which can spiral into concerns regarding intimidation, bullying, reduced self-confidence and other issues on the behaviour radar. However, other forms of capital address these issues (articles to follow shortly).

Reflecting on our influence as teachers, one question must be kept in mind at all times: What can be done to embrace diverse funds of knowledge in the classroom for the greater academic achievements of every child, irrespective of their background?

References :

Arnot, M. and Reay, D. (2004). The framing of performance pedagogies: Pupil perspectives on the control of school knowledge and its acquisition, as cited in Soler, J., Walsh, C. and Craft, A. (2013). Transforming practice: Critical issues in equity, diversity and education. Institute of Education, pp.19 – 31.

Lau, J., 2016. Social Intelligence and The Next Generation. [online]

Gillborn, D., 2010. The White Working Class, Racism and Respectability: Victims, Degenerates and Interest-Convergence. British Journal of Educational Studies, [online] 58(1), pp.3 – 25.

Gillborn, D., 2018. The Betrayal of White pupils’ (and other lies we’re told about race and education) Grand Challenges lecture. [online] YouTube.

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D. and Gonzalez, N., 1992. Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory into Practice, [online] 31(2), pp.132 – 141.

Ogbu, J., 1990. Minority Education in Comparative Perspective. The Journal of Negro Education, [online] 59(1), p.45.

Ogbu, J.,1992. Understanding Cultural Diversity and Learning. Educational Researcher, [online] 21(8), pp.5 – 14

Reay, D., 2006. The Zombie Stalking English Schools: Social Class And Educational Inequality. British Journal of Educational Studies, [online] 54(3), pp.288 – 307

Thompson, C., 2008. Bernstein’s speech codes. [online]

[1] Critical theorists like Bernstein, Gillborn, Arnot and Reay explain that ethnic minorities and working-class students are often marginalised by the educational system because the values in the educational setting draw on middle-class heritage through language, speech codes, and other forms of knowledge and skills.

Gillborn extended this idea, embracing the concept of race and how racial inequality in the educational system also impacts the academic achievements of marginalised racial and ethnic groups.

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