Getting Lacrosse about Cultural Capital

Following on from my previous blog about why it might be problematic to think we can teach and inspect cultural capital as a curriculum outcome, this short blog gives an example to illustrate the issue.

Health warning: this is based on a single anecdote that has not been verified and must, therefore, be treated with much caution. It is not a call for every school to teach lacrosse. It is not the opposite either. Nonetheless, the exemplification within it bears consideration.

To recap my previous blog, I said that:
• Ofsted had somewhat distorted Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital.
• Ofsted did this with the best of intent; their argument being that teaching particular knowledge – ‘cultural capital’ as they termed it – will broaden opportunity for all pupils to access particular discourses they otherwise wouldn’t be able to. This may be beneficial in terms of social justice.
• However, attempting to teach cultural capital privileges the origins of knowledge without necessarily considering the the properties and value of the knowledge itself.
• In terms of Legitimation Code Theory, such a position represents a knower-code rather than a knowledge-code, which is arguably paradoxical given the argument in much of our current knowledge-rich discourse is that it is the knowledge (rather than the knower) that matters.
• An alternative is to consider the knowledge itself more directly, not only where it comes from.
• Michael Young’s ‘Powerful Knowledge’ is being used by what seems to be a growing number of schools in order to analyse forms of knowledge that we should, perhaps, privilege in the curriculum. This is different to notions of teaching cultural capital.

A crass example
As I go about my work I find myself talking to a range of teachers and leaders, often at different stages in their understanding of knowledge as an object of study. Many seem to be developing a growing understanding of it in terms of cognitive science, which is a real boon. However in terms of epistemology, curriculum debates in schools may have been less well explored. I think this may have some undesirable unintended consequences.

I was recently talking to a group of teachers about this whole area, referring to cultural capital, powerful knowledge and LCT and raised my concerns about the potential crass byproducts of schools trying to teach cultural capital (see above). I gave the hypothetical example that a school might try to teach cultural capital by teaching its pupils the rules of polo. The hypothetical argument being that polo might be associated with the upper echelons of society and, therefore, the school might perceive it was teaching cultural capital by giving pupils knowledge of this upper class sport. I made the case that understanding the rules of polo does not necessarily allow pupils to think in deeper conceptual ways and the school might be better off thinking more deeply about the ‘power’ of the knowledge itself, rather than than only where it comes from. (Please note, this is not a dig at polo).

It was a ridiculous caricature designed to illustrate a theoretical problem. Wasn’t it..?

A lesson on lacrosse

Imagine my surprise when one of the group I was talking to told me they had recently been inspected and the inspectors had supposedly been particularly enthusiastic about the fact the school was teaching a comprehensive intake of pupils how to play lacrosse. And the basis of the inspector’s enthusiasm? Yep – you guessed it: cultural capital! In teaching this sport associated with the well-to-do the school was apparently deemed to be developing the cultural capital of its pupils.

I’ll repeat the health warning: This is one example and has not been verified. However, one could well understand how an inspector, or anyone else in the system, might fall foul of this error. Most teachers, leaders and inspectors I speak to are driven by the idea that what they do might make a difference to children’s lives and might broaden the opportunities they have available to them, particularly the most disadvantaged.

This is why DfE and Ofsted’s reference to the “best that’s been thought and said” has been an important rallying call: there is such a thing as better knowledge. It’s just that I’m not necessarily convinced that this is lacrosse. That’s not to say that lacrosse shouldn’t be a staple of the PE curriculum, but doing so on the basis of cultural capital seems a little tenuous to me. That an inspector apparently interpreted the teaching of lacrosse as developing cultural capital suggests, to me at least, how such a standpoint enshrines particular knowledge on the basis of its origin rather than on its own merits.

This is not a dig at Ofsted (or lacrosse). As I outlined at the start, Ofsted’s use of the term ‘cultural capital’ is done with the best of intentions. But we have to be really careful about how this gets interpreted and implemented on the ground.

If the justification for praising the teaching of lacrosse was because it introduced pupils to a new sport and broadened their understanding and experience of sport, or developed specific skills, fair enough. The same could be said about a whole host of other sports too – and it is great that pupils are being exposed to a range of experiences and opportunities. But perceiving the teaching of lacrosse as developing ‘cultural capital’ troubles me. What does it say about the teaching of sports and pursuits not associated with a particular section of society? What does it say about the basis on which we include and exclude material from the curriculum?

Even more interesting was that the school’s reason for teaching lacrosse was actually rather pragmatic – they’d had a good deal on some lacrosse equipment. They didn’t do it on the basis of developing cultural capital, but apparently inspectors were quick to perceive it in those terms.

I just think we need to tread carefully in this whole space of cultural capital. It would be ironic if, in this midst of this knowledge-rich discourse, we were blind to the characteristics of knowledge itself because we were so dazzled by where it came from. To do so would risk an inadvertent return to teaching, and inspecting, the knowledge of the powerful rather than seeing that knowledge itself can have power.

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