Unlocking Cultural Capital

The role intercultural discovery in the primary languages classroom

First coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the late 1970s and early 1980s, ‘cultural capital’ became a bit of an an educational buzz word – at least for those of us working in England – when it first appeared in Ofsted’s 2019 Inspection Framework. Here, it was outlined in rather broad brush strokes 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.

Ofsted Inspection Framework 2019

When Bourdieu first began using the term ‘cultural capital’ – in other words, familiarity with the dominant cultural codes in a society – it was intended as a way to explain educational inequality between children from different backgrounds. He argued that children from higher socioeconomic status backgrounds were at an advantage at school because they had greater access at home to cultural knowledge and experiences than those from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds. These might, for example, include access to art galleries or museums; particular works of literature; or experiences such as theatre visits or holidays abroad. In more recent times, policy-makers, such as former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, have presented cultural capital as the “key to social mobility.”

Bordieu argued that access to certain experiences and knowledge gave some children an educational advantage.

However, what Gove, and others like him, have failed to understand is that everybody, regardless of social or economic background, has cultural capital. Unrecognised, perhaps. Undervalued, yes. Legitimate, certainly. The key, as described brilliantly by Debra Myhill and Annabel Watson in ‘Understanding Literacy and Disadvantage‘, is not what cultural capital an individual possesses but where this cultural capital positions them in relation to educational establishments and society in general. In fact, when presenting his original theory, Bourdieu argued that education systems actually entrenched this inequality because teachers, mistakenly, perceived familiarity with the dominant cultural codes of a particular society as academic brilliance and rewarded it as such. He went on to theorise that this could not be changed within the current structure of society.

On 28th June 2019, Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman’s spoke to educators and attempted to better outline what inspectors defined cultural capital to be, expressing that:

By this, we simply mean the essential knowledge, those standard reference points, that we want all children to have.

Amanda Spielman at the National Day Nurseries Association. June 28th 2019.

Far from ‘simple’, as educators we must always be aware that ‘standard reference points’ will necessarily differ between individuals – both teachers and pupils – and consider the impact that this may have on children’s ability to access, or see themselves represented within, the curriculum. We need also to interrogate the idea of ‘essential knowledge’. What might that be and who defines the activities and content that children need to build their cultural capital? How can we be certain that, as teachers, we are not, however unwittingly, feeding into the narrative that some activities are considered more valuable than others? As Juliet Mickelburgh asks, “Is there a danger that working-class culture could be seen as inferior to middle-class culture?” As educators, how do we avoid elitism when talking about cultural capital? And is there an unwritten subtext that cultural capital actually means – by and large – white, European ‘high’ culture?

How do we define cultural capital? Are we simply referring to European ‘high’ culture? How do we ensure it is more than this?

Whilst there are no simple answers to any of these questions, what we can be sure of is that pupils arrive in schools with knowledge and experiences that should not be dismissed simply because they do not fall into an extremely narrow view of what cultural capital actually is. In multicultural, multilingual schools like my own, pupils arrive with us bringing with them a wealth of cultural capital, which needs to be valued, made visible and celebrated. To do this we have to be asking ourselves questions. How do we ensure that global majority pupils see themselves reflected in our curriculum offer? On the flip-side of this, how do we prepare pupils living in less diverse environments to live and thrive in culturally and ethnically diverse modern Britain? We may also need to consider the extent to which local or regional identities, for example in ex-mining or formally industrial communities, are reflected in the school’s curriculum offer.

The wonderful thing about teaching languages, is that we, as practitioners, are ideally placed to build children’s cultural capital and their knowledge and understanding of the wider world. The best that has been thought and said by many people from multiple cultures all around the globe. However, in doing this we must be more aware than ever of our own reference points, our own biases and our own world views. We need only give pupils (or colleagues) an opportunity to look at the world map that pupils in China – not for nothing known as 中国: Middle Kingdom – would study in their geography lessons, to recognise that the way we see the world can be very different depending on where we live and the experiences we have. Our teaching of culture cannot be Eurocentric and must reflect the global nature of the languages that we teach, exploring the reasons behind this in an age-appropriate manner.

Whilst the National Curriculum Programme of Study for languages mentions culture very little – in my opinion, a bit of a missed opportunity – I would consider it essential to the study of any language. Over the past four years or so, I have spent time developing my school’s curriculum offer for languages, seeking to build pupils’ understanding, not just of the French language, but also of the multitude of cultures that make up what we might term ‘the French-speaking world’. I have always felt very strongly that a multi-layered approach, in which culture plays a central role, was needed when planning the curriculum if pupils were to gain a deeper, and perhaps less stereotypical, understanding of the Francophone world. With this in mind, and given the limited curriculum time available to languages in primary schools, units which we would expect to cover in the primary languages classroom – clothes; the weather; giving opinions – are built on the foundation blocks of phonics, vocabulary and grammar but also weave in a cultural element which would have been lacking if we came at the learning from a more “traditional” angle.

Long-term plans for Years 3 to 6 showing units of work (circled) where children explore the culture of the Francophone world, whilst also learning the required phonics, vocabulary and grammar

In Year 3, for example, pupils learn all about the tradition of le goûter in France, which is the after-school snack that is probably comparable to the afternoon tea in terms of its iconic status in French society. Pupils are introduced to the concept of le goûter before using phonics as the starting point for building accurate pronunciation and spelling of the new vocabulary. Bringing in essential grammar, we talk about the use of definite article and the masculine and feminine forms, followed by lots of games and activities to practice these new nouns. Then, it’s time to introduce simple vocabulary for expressing likes and dislikes verbally, before we have a go at tasting the snacks themselves and giving our opinions. After lots of oral repetition, the pupils produce a mini book detailing, in sentences, which snacks they liked or disliked. I love teaching this unit because, as well as building their knowledge of phonics, broadening their vocabulary and demonstrating positive and negative sentence constructions, pupils talk about and taste authentic French foods.

Tasting food is a simple way of bringing culture to life.

In Year 4, I need my children to spend some time revisiting colours and adjective noun order, as well as learning some simple prepositions for the first time. That could be done in any number of ways but I’ve chosen to do it through a study of the collage work of Henri Matisse, adapted from a unit of work created by Rachel Hawkes. Pupils create their own animal, inspired by Matisse’s escargot, using shapes of varying colours and sizes. The ulimate aim of the unit is for them to be able to describe the shapes and colours that they have used and how these are arranged on the page. To do this, they need to be able to sequence the noun and the adjective correctly, use a variety of prepositions and employ a range of conjunctions to extend their sentences. Throughout the unit, pupils discuss the inspiration and history behind Matisse’s gouaches découpées and this in turn builds their knowledge of culture. It also marries nicely with a later Year 4 art unit, which children work on with the class teacher. When thinking about how to weave culture into language lessons it can be very worthwhile looking at the long-term plans for other subject areas to see what pupils are already learning in art, history, geography, music, and even English, to uncover any links that can be exploited to deepen pupils’ understanding.  

By Year 5, my pupils have covered a fair amount of phonics, vocabulary and simple grammar. However, there is still a need to revisit lots of previous learning to ensure better recall over time. In their unit On s’envole pour la Francophonie, pupils use an information text, written in French, to find out facts about a range of countries in which French is the official language. For this, they need to revisit a range of vocabulary, including numbers, weather and colours (for the various flags). Following their research, and an opportunity to recap the phonics and vocabulary associated with items of clothing, children choose one of the countries to travel to and create a written text to describe what they would pack in their suitcase and why. In this unit, which also has great links to geography, pupils’ understanding of the cultures of the French-speaking world combine with their knowledge of the language to produce meaningful results. Later on in the term, the same children also have an opportunity to take part in a ‘virtual’ French trip where they use their knowledge of French for the practical purpose of visiting a French market – set up on the school playground – and buying items.

Year 6’s cultural units bring opportunities to explore Senegal, through its fashion and music. A half term of learning about Dakar Fashion week is the perfect moment to revisit colours, clothing items and adjectival agreement in the singular, as well as introducing the trickier concept of adjectival agreement in the plural. Later on in the term, pupils learn about the traditional instruments of Senegal, listen to the sound they produce and use a range of phrases to express and justify the their opinions in increasingly complex ways using a variety of adjectives.

Sometimes, all that is needed to embed cultural capital into a unit or scheme of work is to look at what is already there and think about how a change of angle could incorporate a cultural element that has the potential to really enrich the learning for pupils. For me this has been, and continues to be, an ongoing process. Whilst it can be challenging, given the time constraints, our critical role as language teachers is to turn our pupils’ eyes out to the wider world, broaden their experience and demonstrate to them the richness and diversity of the world within and beyond Europe.

For more thoughts on similar themes, take a look at my earlier blog posts: ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’; ‘Francophone Art Week’; ‘Bringing the World Into Your Classroom’; and ‘The International School Award’.

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