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.

In a previous blog I wrote about the difficulties of using ‘cultural capital’ as a means of selecting curriculum content. Essentially, I hoped to demonstrate that such an approach may, unconsciously or otherwise, venerate particular knowledge and practices solely on the basis of where they come from, and this can be problematic. In attempting to teach ‘cultural capital’ it may be that such highly valued knowledge is held to be so only because it represents the knowledge and practices of particular social classes, rather than because of the knowledge itself. Such a stance privileges the social origins of knowledge, in particular a social class, rather than its own characteristics.

As an alternative I offered Michael Young’s theory of ‘powerful knowledge’ as a means of exploring how the proprieties of knowledge itself might be help us to redraw the relationship between power and knowledge, so that what we teach does not simply reflect the ‘knowledge of the powerful’ but we select knowledge that is itself ‘powerful’ because it allows us to think in new ways and to generalize beyond the immediate context. Such knowledge is likely to be conceptual, meaning we can apply it to new and imagined contexts. For example, it allows us to pose and address meaningful ‘what if’ questions.

Young’s work is helpful because it gives us a means of analysing the characteristics of knowledge and its relation with other knowledge (its epistemic relations). However, does this mean we should ignore the social origins of knowledge? No. Inherent in Young’s work is a recognition that knowledge comes from a particular time/place/person etc. What he helps us to do is to look beyond that origin, not pretend it does not exist.

So, knowledge is both social and real. It reflects aspects of the world that exists in our minds, as well as that which exists independently of us. So perhaps the question is not whether it is one or the other; a better question might be ‘what is the relative importance of these dimensions’?

For me, the problem with cultural capital as a curriculum driver is not that it relates to the social origins of knowledge per se but that it might lead some people to the conclusion that social class is the only aspect of knowledge that confers its legitimacy. This is problematic. Firstly, it does not necessarily require us to consider the knowledge itself. This is why I think powerful knowledge is a useful concept. Secondly, what of other aspects of the social origins of knowledge? How else might this exist? What other forms might it take?

Karl Maton’s Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) has been a game changer in developing my understanding of the underlying organizing principles of knowledge. While the theory can be complex, Maton’s advice to “only use as much theory as you need” is a welcome reminder that LCT is by design a practical theory which, even at its most simple, readily sheds light on questions about knowledge. LCT provides the means of analyzing knowledge both in relation to other knowledge (epistemic relations) and those who know (social relations). The title of his book, ‘Knowledge and Knowers’, sums it up pretty succinctly.

The more you dig into LCT the more you find. Maton’s work on ‘gazes’, which builds on Bernstein’s concept, strikes me as particularly helpful in moving on the recent debate about cultural capital into a much more helpful space.

A cultivated gaze
According to Maton, in educational discourse there is always a hierarchy somewhere. Bernstein tells us that in some fields this ‘verticality’ exists through knowledge which is structured hierarchically: one thing builds on another. Maths is a good example. However, not all fields work this way. For example, progress in the arts can work differently – one thing does not necessarily build on another in the same way. So what is the basis of hierarchization in such horizontally structured fields? How does knowledge build? How does someone get better?

Maton argues in some fields the hierarchy is determined less by the knowledge structure and more by a knower structure. Essentially this means that some fields are characterized by developing a particular sort of knower, someone with a particular ‘gaze’. “One could,” Maton argues, “just as well talk of ‘ear, ‘taste’, ‘touch’, ‘feel’ and so forth.” You can begin to see why this thinking might be important in the arts, where the development of such sensitivities might be considered essential.

So, what sort of ‘gazes’ might there be? Maton outlines 4 types:

  • Trained gaze
  • Cultivated gaze
  • Social gaze
  • Born gaze

The ‘cultivated gaze’ is particularly interesting. Maton says, “the cultivated gaze is based on the belief that knowers are not born but made through the re-formation of their dispositions.” In explaining this he draws on Robert Hughes’ notion of the ‘invisible tribunal’:

“Every writer carries in his or her mind an invisible tribunal of dead writers, whose appointment is an imaginative act and not merely a browbeaten response to some notion of authority. This tribunal sits in judgement one our own work. We intuit standards from it…If the tribunal weren’t there, every first draft would be a final manuscript.” (Robert Hughes)

Maton describes this as a ‘mental library’ built through exposure to the evolving canon in which knowers are immersed. He concludes that in fields such as the arts this notion of a ‘cultivated gaze’ is the knower-based equivalent of the specialized knowledge-based hierarchy of fields such as science. What is important is to understand is that such a gaze is ‘teachable’; it is not dependent, as some other gazes are, on membership of a particular social group or class. In this way it is potentially inclusive.

What Ofsted really meant?
It is my conjecture that this is perhaps what Ofsted really meant in its use of the term ‘cultural capital’. I suspect the inspectorate was advocating an approach to knowledge building that recognizes that particular tastes and dispositions can be cultivated in pupils by immersing them in a broad range of cultural works and experiences. Such understanding legitimizes them as knowers within the field, allowing them to participate in its dialogue and debates.

One hopes this cultivated gaze would, therefore, increase the potential to widen access for pupils to other social groups, without being ignorant to the reality that social hierarchies are established on more than education alone. It is an optimistic stance, but not naïve.

Using the term cultural capital carried with it baggage which implied the roots of progression were based in social class. Viewing progress in fields such as the arts (and humanities?) as being centered on the cultivation of a gaze moves us on from this and in doing so it provides a more inclusive way forward.

This is not some sort of relativist argument that says ‘anything goes’. Actors within the field determine what is considered the legitimate content of the canon. The existence of a cultivated gaze inherently assumes some things – the canon – are more valuable than others. But such a perspective also creates room in the curriculum for exposure to a broad range of cultural works, neither structured or limited by social class.

This points to the way ahead: as learners within the field acquire the cultivated gaze, new and different cultural works can become part of the invisible tribunal and as such integrate these within the dispositions of the ideal knower. The canon can evolve. It is not static.

For my money the notion of a cultivated gaze is more helpful to curriculum planners than cultural capital.

Knowledge matters. But which knowledge and whose knowledge? These are questions we should be grappling with but too often important discussions can become dichotomised and unhelpfully fractious.

This was illustrated by the recent discussions about Ofsted’s use of ‘cultural capital’ in its new framework. Thoughtful people on both sides of the argument were shut down abruptly – too frequently with the blunt assertion they lacked ambition for their disadvantaged pupils. This echoed another recent debate about whether children should study Stormzy or Mozart.

Cultural capital was part of Pierre Bourdieu’s explanation of how the social order is maintained. If all that sounds a little Marxist, well, that’s probably because there are Marxist influences at play in Bourdieu’s work. Cultural capital, in Bourdieu’s work, is not so much a means of liberating the working class but more a means of repressing them; we all have cultural capital but elite culture is given higher status because it serves as way of distinguishing between those who are at the top and those who are not.

I wonder if Bourdieu might have argued that an inspectorate advocating that disadvantaged children be given a diet of elite culture is just another method of advancing such things as being the means of access to high social status, thus entrenching the social hierarchy rather than challenging it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think this is Ofsted’s ‘intent’, to coin a phrase. Having seen the creation of the new framework up close, I know the inspectorate is genuinely motivated by a desire to create equity in our schools and wider society, and I don’t think Ofsted advocates only the transmission of elite culture. Ofsted has borrowed its definition of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ from the national curriculum:

‘It is 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.’

It seems to me that Ofsted, and the Department for Education, are using the term ‘cultural capital’ in a way not intended by Bourdieu. We can take a view on how far that is a problem – it’s probably something that I should have given more thought during the consultation on the new framework. But what proved most interesting was the debate it provoked last week. What ‘cultural capital’ do we want our pupils to learn? For example, do we think it’s important that working class pupils can explain the rules of polo? Or do we mean something else? Are we talking about the arts? And what are the possibilities for doing so in an education system where many schools have been forced to cut provision in these areas?

Before I am labelled an ‘enemy of promise’, allow me to point out I have not said that certain groups of pupils shouldn’t be introduced to the ‘best that has been thought and said’. What I am doing, I hope, is challenging cultural capital as the means through which we might identify what the ‘best’ looks like.

The social origins of knowledge are one way to determine what we value but, on its own, where does this take us? It could mean we only value something because of who said it, we don’t value it because of where it came from, or we risk not valuing anything at all because we believe it’s all just a matter of perspective – in such a world there is no better knowledge. We reduce it only to where it came from, not what it is. This would be slightly paradoxical in the context of knowledge-rich curriculum design, as we would in fact be foregrounding something other than the knowledge: the knower.

An alternative is to put knowledge itself under the microscope and look more closely. Some are already doing this and I see many teachers engaging with Michael Young’s notion of ‘powerful knowledge’. Young argues that some knowledge opens doors to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world. Such knowledge tends to be specialized (not everyday knowledge) and conceptual. It allows us to generalize, to make links with other concepts and to think beyond particular contexts. Ark’s John Blake has written some excellent pieces on powerful knowledge in the curriculum, so I won’t rehearse the detail here.

Young’s argument is that all children are entitled to ‘powerful knowledge’ as a means of intellectual development. It transcends the people, places and time of its origin. It matters because of what it is, not because of where it came from, although we recognise it has a particular origin.

This is quite different to cultural capital. But how well is this understood? In Young’s work ‘power’ is a property of the knowledge itself – it gives power to think in new ways. In cultural capital ‘power’ is a property of the knower – the knowledge of the powerful. And that’s without throwing ED Hirsch’s notion of cultural literacy into the mix!

Does all this matter? I think it does. In the rush towards curriculum change we ought to think carefully about the basis on which we include and exclude content. We can’t teach it all, so choices have to be made. On what footing do we make those choices? Sensible discussion of this issue, including a critical appraisal of the value of cultural capital as a curriculum driver, need not necessarily be seen as a weakness of curriculum thinking.

As an example, we could return to the Mozart vs Stormzy debate from a few weeks ago. There are compelling reasons why schools might choose to teach Mozart, and not only because some might associate it with the culture of a particular class. What of the music itself and what it reveals about composition, what does it tell us about the eighteenth century? Equally, on what basis might a school include current music, such as Stormzy, in its curriculum? Might analysis of such music also provide meaningful insight into the structure of music and its relationship with society? Does it necessarily lack ambition for our pupils if we decide to carefully integrate contexts pupils are familiar with? Perhaps so if we never stray from the familiar, or if such study is not used to probe and explore the fundamental concepts of the subject, but the Mozart vs Stormzy dichotomy is a false one. It is possible to see how both could have a place in a high-quality music curriculum.

There may also be cultural practices and experiences we want to share with pupils because such knowledge, whether we like it or not, might be considered part of the ‘rules of admission’ to a particular part of society. But this is not straight forward. In consecrating the cultural practices of another group on this basis we might also want to consider our pupils’ own context, how we mediate between the two and what might be lost if this is done badly.

So how do we resolve these issues? Firstly, we should be explicit about the basis of the arguments we make about which knowledge we teach. Although our curriculum might be influenced by notions of cultural capital and powerful knowledge, they are not necessarily the same thing.

Secondly, try to understand the basis of others’ arguments too. You may find more common ground than you expect, or at least better reveal the principles which underlie any disagreement. This should enable richer and more fruitful debate and that’s got to be good for how we think and talk about the curriculum.