Developing Cultural Capital

A blog from Ms Baxter about the importance of developing cultural capital through the curriculum and some of the work taking place in MFL.

‘The guest said the building was like the Mary Celeste when she arrived’

‘The school was accused of having an Orwellian approach to CCTV’

Do you understand these references? If you do, that’s down to your cultural capital.

The thinking behind ‘cultural capital’ is to ensure that pupils from all backgrounds have the cultural knowledge to succeed in life. In his book ‘Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know’, E. D. Hirsch Jr refers to this as ‘5000 essential names, dates, phrases and concepts’. It’s what this knowledge leads to though that really counts, otherwise you’re just the person everyone wants on their pub quiz team. It subtly indicates your suitability in a job interview, for example, and demonstrates that you comfortably fit in with the more powerful and elite levels of society.

We may scoff at the Love Island contestant who thinks Essex is a continent, but this lack of what is considered everyday knowledge to someone from a more privileged background actively holds back pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our job as teachers is to bridge that gap by equipping pupils with an appreciation of culture that enables them to enter the world as educated citizens. To me, this also means teaching pupils to question what they read or hear, to make connections and to see the wider context. We should foster a thirst for knowledge and a desire to know more.

Too many times as modern foreign languages teachers we have heard from pupils ‘why do I need to learn this, it’s pointless, I’m never going to need it’, so we set ourselves the challenge of sharing with Key Stage Three pupils exactly what makes us passionate about our subject. Over the next few weeks each teacher will be creating lessons about an aspect of French speaking culture that fascinates them, not so that pupils can recite the names of French comic strip characters or the length of each stage of the Tour de France, but to spark curiosity and interest, to invoke a reaction in the pupils that makes them want to find out more and see the relevance of learning a language.

Last week Dr Chrimes introduced the pupils to the bande dessinée, comic strips such as Tintin or Astérix. In Britain these are regarded as children’s books, whereas in French and Belgian culture they are considered an art form and often used as subversive forms of political satire. We received an outstanding range of work from pupils across years 7 to 9. Some were very thoughtful reflections on life under lockdown, others contained wry observations on political events of the last few weeks or even the lack of flour in supermarkets! These pupils had been inspired by the task and put their own personal spin on the great French tradition of using bandes dessinées to pass satirical comment on events of the day. Cultural capital shouldn’t just be about facts – it should be what inspires a life-long attitude to knowledge and learning for all our pupils.


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